Comics, Cubism, and the 4th Dimension.
February 19, 2005 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel's Link to the Fourth Dimension is an academic text discussing the works of Alan Moore in terms of cubism, futurism, and the fourth dimension. Much mention is made of Guernica and the work of Will Eisner.
posted by grapefruitmoon (23 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
" Rather than dwelling upon film techniques that comics can duplicate, shouldn't we perhaps consider comic techniques that films can't duplicate?"

- Alan Moore, 1985

A brilliant observation and one that crystalizes all of our concerns about the upcoming movie adaptations of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. After re-reading V again this week, I fail to see how all of that tremendous power could possibly be confined to two-hours of film without losing the qualities that make V so special. Case in point, the assassination of Leader Susan and Finch's final confrontation with V take place simultaneously, switching from the panel of one event to the other and back again. How do you do that in film without alienating the perceptive sensibilities of an audience unwilling to adapt?
posted by grabbingsand at 10:05 AM on February 19, 2005

Spoiler warning: discusses endings of several Alan Moore books.

I love Alan Moore (coincidence: just bought Tom Strong 3 & 4 today) but I think this essay is overselling one particular gimmick.

Also in some ways Moore is particularly committed to linearity: he's mentioned before that he thinks one of the ways most traditional comics are limited is that unlike the great stories, they don't tend to progress to an ending: just keep going indefinitely.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:06 AM on February 19, 2005

I'm not really sure I agree with his premise here, re: cubism. My impression of cubism has always been that (among other things I guess) all of a certain length of space, time and emotion would be captured in a single moment. In terms of technique, that means one painted canvas, one statue, etc. which is not itself any specific instant, but all of those instances equally, together.

Moore and (Campbell | Gibbons) are doing something similar, but not the same, when they capture different times in the same panels, or successive panels. The difference is that when, for instance, Gull was moving back and forth through time in the last chapter of From Hell, we were seeing a series of discrete, identifiable moments, one after another, not all those moments at once, with no separation or privileging of one moment over another.

In fact, I think just by putting them on separate panels, the whole possibility of cubism is lost, since you're forcing a perspective on the reader.

Moore is definitely a master at playing around with time-space, but I don't think he was even trying for cubism, but rather some other methods. For instance, I think his signature "move", in terms of just sheer impressive technical prowess, is how he can make lay the text of one line of narrative on top of the pictures from another line of narrative, and have each of them commenting on the other, without actually ever crossing the line that separates them. The whole chapter of Watchmen that involves boy reading the comic about the castaway and the pirates. That sequence was inarguably the work of a genius.

Which is why I don't think you have to compare Moore, or any other good comic book writer or artist, to other, more canonical artists or artforms in order to give them credibility. The medium of comics, graphic novels, sequential art, whatever, is currently marginalized, but that just means that most people are ignorant or narrow-minded. Let the material stand on the strengths of its artists, and the techniques and creative possibilities which make it a distinct art form, and it will eventually become impossible to ignore.
posted by Hildago at 10:07 AM on February 19, 2005

People who are into comics have this zany preoccupation with ART. Is it art? Isn't it art? How is it art? They stop calling them comics and start calling them graphic novels and so on (which Alan Moore himself has pointed out is a term invented by greedy marketers. He himself refers to the stuff as comics. I blame Scott McCloud's rantings (notice how he talks for two books about art but can't make a decent comic book himself) and other post-pubescent amateur academics like him. I can't put this as well as Douglas Adams, so I'll quote him instead, at length:

“Having been an English literary graduate, I’ve been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity.” You can easily do something which is not considered art, “because nobody will take it seriously, and therefore you can sneak under the fence with lots of good stuff.” “Before 1962, everybody thought pop music was sort of... Nobody would have ever remotely called it art, and then somebody comes along and is just so incredibly creative with it, just because they love it to bits and think it’s the greatest fun you can possibly have. And within a few years, you’ve got Sgt. Pepper’s and so on, and everybody’s calling it art. I think media are at their most interesting before anybody’s thought of calling them art, when people still think they’re just a load of junk."
posted by Panfilo at 10:46 AM on February 19, 2005

The license agreement clearly states that the images are for academic use only. Unless you're a professor or still in college you are all in violation of the clickthrough agreement and our attorneys will be contacting you shortly.
posted by nyxxxx at 10:57 AM on February 19, 2005

Let the material stand on the strengths of its artists, and the techniques and creative possibilities which make it a distinct art form, and it will eventually become impossible to ignore.

Hildago, you make a good point but in my experience of cubism, the soul of the image is not just a visual totality or unity. I agree that in Moore's comics, the separate panels are not a visual multi-layerd point. However, the comparison that is suggested leads to a metaphor. The object is not to mirror the form of cubism, otherwise Moore would not be a writer but a painter. Cubism fails with any other medium. Rather, the affected architecture of cubism is a foundation for the language as well as the pictured events.

In fact, I think ust by putting them on separate panels, the whole possibility of cubism is lost, since you're forcing a perspective on the reader

When a cubist image is considered and broken down, each different perspective of an object becomes a single frame. From a collection of these frames, pieces are taken together that create only a question of what really exists (what the subject is). Cubism is not distinct, however, the genre demands that a distinction try to be made. This distinction can be made without picking one perspective over another.

The comparison to comics is not found in visual exactness. Is that how one is challenged to think about cubist manipulation? The parts of something make up the universal whole and Moore certainly gives us the parts where in our minds create the unified puzzle that is one moment. In this case the metaphor seems to be inverted.

The discrete images of comics may be a suggestion of something metaphysical instead of molecular unity.
posted by koeselitz at 11:09 AM on February 19, 2005

Panfilo, that comment was a work of art.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 11:12 AM on February 19, 2005

Beg your pardon Hildago I wanted to type just not ust in your second quote, my apologies.
posted by koeselitz at 11:13 AM on February 19, 2005

nyxxx : I thought that discussion in a community forum didn't go far enough from the definition of "academic use" to really consitute a breach of contract. I'm not selling the text or the images or using them for profit in anyway, rather I am trying to generate discussion. Seems to me to fit the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. :)

If I was wrong to link to that article (which I found linked in another non-academic forum), my apologies and feel free to contact "the authorities" about taking down the post.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:15 PM on February 19, 2005

I blame Scott McCloud's rantings (notice how he talks for two books about art but can't make a decent comic book himself)

Zot! was genius IMHO, but I haven't read anything else he's done, which would be anything he's written since Understanding Comics (though I also enjoyed that).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:32 PM on February 19, 2005

Your point is taken, koeselitz, and well stated. I still don't claim to know much about cubism, so I'm open to hearing your explanation.

I'm persuaded that the fact that Moore 'n friends work in panel form as opposed to making works composed of a single image doesn't mean they can't do something which is essentially cubist.

But I think that there is still a difference in motives. Moore is using these techniques in service of a narrative -- to control how the reader engages with the story, in what order it unfolds for him. It reveals certain facts out of sequence, but also conceals certain facts that would otherwise be given. It can be used to give red herrings to the reader, too -- juxtaposing certain unrelated sequences in order to give the reader a false impression, which will later be revealed in the course of time.

It would seem to me, just from what little I know about it, that cubism isn't a storytelling technique, or really a means of manipulating the viewer, but rather of capturing and revealing more facets of the subject than were possible with other techniques. What I mean is, wasn't it a response to the perceived inadequacy of controlling the viewer's perspective by choosing one and only one moment, subject, and perspective?
posted by Hildago at 12:38 PM on February 19, 2005

Re: Scott McCloud, there are many theorists who can write beautifully about something even if they cannot do it themselves. That said, I am not an enormous fan of McCloud, but I do enjoy his work. I wouldn't rank him among Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or even my contemporary favourites like Brian K. Vaughn, but he is a decent writer.

I agree that the discussion of what is "art" is a fairly useless one. I am of the mind that evaluating something as art is just a way of giving it more cultural capital. I could care less if comics are considered art, but I sure do wish people would realize that the medium has far more potential (some of which has been realized by people like Moore) than it is given credit for. I dislike the idea that any particular medium can be just cast away as being non-valuable. The dichotomies of "paintings in art galleries are good, paintings on plates are bad" or "movies made in Europe are good; movies made in Hollywood are bad" are troubling for me.

I think the world (of academics, anyway) would be a better place if people would stop and look at things for what they are rather than trying to decide whether or not they SHOULD look at things.

Then again, I'm doing planning on doing a Ph.D. in television studies, so maybe I am biased.
posted by synecdoche at 1:15 PM on February 19, 2005

I should clarify: I am a big fan of McCloud's books ABOUT comics, but less of a fan of his actual comics. Caveat: I have not read Zot! yet.
posted by synecdoche at 1:16 PM on February 19, 2005

It is sad that this essay focused so much on the Watchmen. Their point about cubism could have been better proved by taking examples from Moore's Promethea where often the form leaves the paneled, linear standard of comic book story telling. Instead it often goes in the direction single large picture with non-linear story telling used to explain a larger concept of magic (Promethea for large stretches is just a beautifully conceived and drawn religious pamphlet for magic as the religion of choice). Take for example the two page mobius strip with two characters walking along it talking. There is no obvious beginning or ending to their dialogue, but Moore still manages to maintain a semi-coherent (and granted redundant story) planned as a loop. Here the picture and the dialogue of the characters is used to explain a large concept about time that would have otherwise taken a whole issue to properly explain.

Not to say that the examples they chose from the Watchmen, as well as the Pirate comic section mentioned above, don't do the same thing in a different sense. I just think Promethea would have explained their point a bit better.
posted by aburd at 1:38 PM on February 19, 2005

It would seem to me, just from what little I know about it, that cubism isn't a storytelling technique, or really a means of manipulating the viewer, but rather of capturing and revealing more facets of the subject than were possible with other techniques. What I mean is, wasn't it a response to the perceived inadequacy of controlling the viewer's perspective by choosing one and only one moment, subject, and perspective?

I am persuaded by this as concerns the versatility and the interpretation of a story. Cubism appears to induce a ending, an all encompassing conclusion that attempts to reconcile all the possible angles of a subject and a moment (confined by a sculpture or painting). Moore is not related to cubism in this way because he uses his perspectives as open doors that refer to different moments and the ideas of different characters in time. However, I did find the article interesting because stories, in whatever form, delegate a moral, a lesson, or in terms of Watchmen an apocalyptic ending.

How strips or novels reconcile their open-ended scenes are vague and nebulous, answers that are contained within the reader. However, I believe this dichotomy is a function of cubism. That is, being an expression of something compete as well as undefined.

Furthermore, I find it a noble attempt that thoughtful people are tempted to follow how certain movements are akin to eachother and like with science unite them under the same umbrella. Philosophy, science and even art naturally demand this investigation. I think it is a fault that people are convinced by the mystery of the word art that all expression must speak for itself. Otherwise, talent and the greatness historical masters breaks down. Maybe what I'm trying to argue is that I am opposed to modernist art that does not reflect an acknowledgement of what inspired modernist development. In other words, I think art has a large potential for losing the concept of technique and quality.
posted by koeselitz at 1:58 PM on February 19, 2005

No time to link at the moment but I think the article would have made a better point if they had used the futurists specifically the Italian Futurists. Cubism is certainly a stretch. Contained action and sequential action is difficult to put into the same dimensional plane. We may agree that futurism is a better scapegoat.
posted by koeselitz at 2:06 PM on February 19, 2005

"koeselitz": who the hell are you?

(None of the comments above are actually mine. Somebody seems to have used the public terminal after me to post on my still-logged-on account; this is very weird. Weird nobody, whoever you are, you seem to make good comments; get your own account, please? It's really cheap! I'm not really that mad, just a little creeped out. How would you feel if I wrote letters in your name?)

And, for the record, I think Alan Moore is slightly fascinating, in a sort of baroque way, but ultimately pretentious, like Scott McCloud.
posted by koeselitz at 2:38 PM on February 19, 2005

hee hee hee, whoops,

cat nicely out of bag and squished.

And, for the record, one should always remember to logout esp. at certain ladies salons!
posted by koeselitz at 3:17 PM on February 19, 2005

posted by koeselitz at 3:24 PM on February 19, 2005

Public announcement:

I hope my impersonation has not disrupted these discussions. I can assure you the real Koeselitz will not be horribly offended. I am sorry and will take my leave.

From: Koeselitz' imposter yet better 1/2.
posted by koeselitz at 4:10 PM on February 19, 2005

Ha. That's hilarious. False Koeselitz, you should get an account here.
posted by Hildago at 5:40 PM on February 19, 2005

Demonstration of the 4th dimension is a key trait in all comics, because of the medium, and not just specifically Moore’s work. Actually in may be argued that more mainstream DC and Marvel comics, with their long running story lines, retold pasts, and alternate universes, do more to explore the concept of time then Moore.

Personally I think Moore is overrated. His characters are original and compelling and his plotline interesting, but he dose not take full advantage of comics as a visual language. Moore's books lack the aesthetic appeal of comics by artist like Frank Miller and Taiyo Matsuinoto. True masters of comics tell their stories through the visual art of their books, using text as just one of their many tools. Moore's comics unfortunately can be very wordy, sometimes having no use for their lackluster visuals. When I read a Moore comic I feel like he would rather write a novel but that he thinks comics are the only market that will accept his farfetched, albeit interesting, ideas.

Basically I think Moore is too smart for some parts of comics (plotlines) and not smart enough for others (illustration).
posted by CaptMcalister at 3:16 AM on February 20, 2005

Panfilo, Understanding Comics IS a great comic, not just a book ABOUT comics.
posted by Scoo at 7:51 PM on February 20, 2005

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