Art Rules (or, “Freedom! Terrible Freedom!”)

You could say I’m a formalist, both in my work and in how I relate to others’ work.  Formalism has often been a term of abuse, implying a concern only for formula without regard to “content,” as if they could somehow be separated.  But I think my previous posts have made clear my interest in the different ways ideas can be organized and expressed, and the layers of meaning that can be suggested by a smart deployment of familiar elements.  Concern for formal elements doesn’t preclude evaluation of ideas and execution as good or bad, nor need it imply a completely intellectual approach by which quality is an objective truth that can be proven one way or the other.

It does allow for some wiggle room, however.  A symphony, a film, or a comic book can be evaluated on its own terms, asking “What is this work setting out to achieve?” and “Does it succeed?”  Does it work within the established boundaries of the medium and genre or seek to challenge them?  Most people nowadays have varied interests, and are accustomed to engaging works of art or entertainment pitched at different levels, adjusting their expectations based on cues within the work itself (or implied by its marketing or venue, which can lead to disappointment or the occasional pleasant surprise if the work doesn’t match expectations).  In this pluralistic environment, we are all formalists, to a degree.

What does this mean to the process of creation?  Is it just a matter of hitting the right story beats or composing four-bar phrases, of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way?  Obviously not, although those are the starting points of craftsmanship as traditionally understood.  When people dismiss stale or soulless formula, it’s often this kind of basic “how-to-do-it” stuff that they’re referring to: “By the numbers.” “Hackwork.”  Sometimes the contempt is richly deserved, and we’ve all encountered enough impersonal, indifferent work to understand that calling something “merely” professional isn’t meant to be a compliment.  It’s one thing to cling to formula, to imitate, when just starting out; it’s quite another when you feel the artist isn’t trying or thinks you’ll be satisfied with the bare minimum.

The reverse, though, can be a search for “originality” with no foundation of technique or (sometimes) knowledge of what has already been done.  And that contempt for “rules” can lead would-be artists to actively avoid formal training: “You don’t learn what you can do in school, you learn what you can’t do.”  “I don’t want to be made to fit into a box.” “I want to be able to color outside the lines.” Et cetera.  Never mind that any artist worthy of the name should hope to graduate to drawing their own lines to color in (metaphorically or otherwise).

So, yes, I’m on the side of discipline, whether it’s channeled by an established institution or developed individually on one’s own. (The point that is often overlooked in this school vs. autodidact debate is that, when you come down to it, all artistic discipline is self-discipline; no one is going to do it for you, no matter where you are.)

As for rules?  Like any other artistic resource, they can be a help or a hindrance, and this is where the formal approach comes in.  Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music contains a famous passage which nails down the problem with unlimited freedom:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. . . .  I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

For a long time I considered that my mantra, placing sometimes-arbitrary restrictions on my compositions in the name of “structure,” but frequently alternating this approach with an anything-goes, all-inclusive aesthetic.  Thus did I refute Stravinsky!  My guide at this opposite pole was Frank Zappa, who defined his approach as “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere—for No Reason at All,” and who did as much as he could to upend and undermine what he called the “hateful practices” of music.*  Sometimes I found a happy medium between these two extremes, but I caused myself a great deal of trouble by misunderstanding musical rules and how to apply them.

There are negative rules and affirmative rules: rules that say you can’t do something and others that say you must do something.  Unfortunately, the early years of musical training are often filled with the negative kind: don’t have parallel fifths, don’t use retrograde chord progressions, don’t double the leading tone. There are good reasons for all those rules, but it can be awfully restrictive if you see yourself as a loner working outside the system: save those exercises for the sheeple in Theory I—I’m going to do things my own way.  It gets worse when you get into historical counterpoint (in the styles of Palestrina and J. S. Bach), and even Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system had quite a few “don’ts,” as he originally intended it to avoid tonal implications.  It’s not hard to see why school sometimes seems to be all about NO.

It can also be easy to carry that mindset into composition: sometimes the “don’ts” are merely pedagogical tools, obstacles put in the student’s way to make them avoid the obvious, or to prevent bad habits, and as such they are useful.  Many composers (and other artists) never get past those rules they’ve internalized, turning a brace that was meant to make them stronger into a crutch they depend on.  I’ve spoken to many mature composers who said they still heard their teacher’s voice in their heads when working, but whether they heed or ignore it is part of the decision-making process.  I remember vividly the first time I included a bass drum roll in a composition, something that my first composition professor had discouraged me from doing.  I had a good reason for using it, but it still gave me an illicit thrill—and I had been out of school for eight years!  Composition education, at least in schools, is still very much a one-on-one teacher-student relationship; I don’t know if my remarks apply fully to other disciplines, but I’d be surprised if writers and studio artists didn’t have similar stories to tell.

I might have made smoother progress if I had kept in mind a passage from a few pages earlier in Stravinsky’s book (emphasis added):

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out.

An important principal of form that isn’t always obvious is that very often the “rules” of a given work of art are discovered in the process of the “working out” Stravinsky describes.  Rules set out beforehand are apt to be negative: formal boundaries of the sort described in the first passage from the Poetics, and they may or may not fit the material chosen to elaborate.  Rules discovered in the process of creation are more apt to be both affirmative and organically related to the material, leading to the kind of creative freedom that is the goal of all this discipline.  Sometimes the discovery of internal rules is part of a painstaking process at the writing desk or in the studio, and sometimes it takes place on the fly, as in an improvised jazz solo, but either way it comes across to the audience as freshness and spontaneity, in which developments can seem both surprising and inevitable.

As an example, comics writer Alan Moore is known for the tight formal approach and attention to detail he brings to his work; his discovery of the guiding principles he would apply to Watchmen (in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons) is worth quoting at length (from an interview with Tasha Robinson):

I was writing the opening pages [of Watchmen No. 3] and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there’s a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship’s black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we’ve been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. . . . But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.

Thus, Moore and Gibbons developed a visual language in which images are paired, never standing for only one thing, but in relationship with other ideas.  The use of mirrors, symmetry, and double meaning became the underlying formal principle.  In another interview, Moore discusses his series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought characters from nineteenth-century fiction together in a single narrative continuity:

Round about the second issue, I suddenly thought ‘Hey, what if I did this so that any character that’s mentioned by name had got to be a real character from fiction?’ . . . Well, a genuine character from fiction, someone that has existed in other people’s work. And I think that it was when, possibly in the first issue, where I suddenly got to a bit where I realized that I’d got Emile Zola’s Nana being killed on the Rue Morgue by Mister Hyde, I thought, well, ‘This is great! This is going somewhere!’

The relevant point here is that in both cases the rules Moore set for himself, discovered in the process of creation, are affirmative, opening up possibilities rather than closing them off.  They set up challenges, but ones that require invention and creative thinking to overcome.  In the language of improv theater, such rules are the equivalent of “Yes, and . . . “ rather than the “NO” that often comes to mind when the topic of rules comes up.

To bring it back to the audience, does it help to be aware of such processes when reading, watching, or listening? I think it does, but I’ve already revealed myself as someone who geeks out over these things.  Not everyone wants to dig so deeply into their entertainment, and that’s fine. Despite appearances, I’m actually a strong believer in the “gut reaction:” it’s okay to like or dislike something without preparing a thesis about it or reading volumes of background to appreciate it.  Sometimes things just strike us a certain way, and the surface is as legitimate a layer to interact with as any other.  In some cases all that formal scaffolding is for the benefit of the artist, and a façade is erected to hide it from the public.  There’s something to be said for both the “holistic” and “granular” approaches to art—but I think I’ll leave it for another post.

* It is now widely known that Stravinsky wrote very little, if any, of the Poetics published under his name.  Indeed, as Richard Taruskin notes, Stravinsky had a life-long relationship with ghost-writers, and in any case Stravinsky’s public comments were often deliberately misleading, as if to throw armchair analysts off the scent.  Similarly, Zappa (for whom Stravinsky was an important influence) frequently downplayed the rigorous structure of his own compositions, preferring to be seen as an audacious prankster and provocateur. My struggle to reconcile these contradictory teachings was, in part, the price of reading too much at a young age and taking it all at face value.

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Points of Connection, Part Two: A is A . . . or is it?

What can one say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?  Since its initial publication in 1986-87, more ink has been spilled about the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons than probably any other modern comic book narrative. It’s been named as one of the greatest (defined as most artistically accomplished, most influential, or most successful—take your pick) comic book projects in history, and even one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels, period.  Since the release of Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation and DC’s decision to publish the Before Watchmen prequel books in 2012, there has been even more commentary and debate. I don’t intend to add more to the pile of Watchmen verbiage outside of the narrow scope I established in my last Medleyana post: the use of doppelganger characters.* Alan Moore’s influence on the mainstream has lessened as his projects have become increasingly idiosyncratic in recent years, but it is impossible to discuss the reworking of characters and the exploration of archetypes without bringing him up.

Watchmen is probably the best-known use of pastiche on a grand scale in comics. Originally, Moore meant to write his story about characters from the Charlton publishing company, which had been acquired by DC; after DC decided those characters could be profitably relaunched within DC’s established continuity, they were off the table, and Moore chose to create new characters along similar lines: the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, and so forth.

Here’s where it gets interesting: as established previously, an intertextual double (a misprision, in poetic terms) follows the same broad outlines as the original, but is a character in itself, independent of its source.  Points of connection between the two are also points of departure: in other words, the double is only beholden to the original up to the threshold of reader recognition (for purposes of commentary) or satisfying the needs of a given character type (for narrative purposes); after that, they are effectively a blank slate, just like any other original character.  The difference between an effective analogue and a ripoff, then, has nothing to do with “originality” (a much overestimated quality, and especially meaningless in such a codified genre as the superhero), and everything to do with the creator’s success in infusing him or her with convincing motives and actions.  If a character would live, it must have the spark of life: nothing else matters.  (I’ve alluded to the writer’s role in crafting a convincing character, and that is just as true for “original” characters as doppelgangers, of course.)  For Moore, whose entire purpose was to establish a psychological realism to a degree that had only been spottily attempted in the superhero narrative previously, the inner life was a given, but for the achievement to have impact, the characters would also have to resonate as plausible superheroes.**  The Charlton stable were important models, but Moore and Gibbons also drew on the broader common property of superhero archetypes and the visual tropes of costume, accessories, and even the illustration styles of pulp novels, comic books, and advertising art in order to create a convincing, lifelike world, divergent from ours but believable nonetheless.

To cite an example from Watchmen, I had little familiarity with Steve Ditko’s severely moralistic vigilante the Question, or his follow-up character, the even more stringent Mr. A (whose uncompromising slogan, “A is A!” was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), when I first read the graphic novel.  Still, Rorschach is a clear enough character type: a vigilante with a moral code so strict that no one can live up to it, with equal contempt for criminals, their victims, and even other heroes if they aren’t willing to go as far as him.  The details that Moore invents for Walter Kovacs, Rorschach’s alter ego, speak to Watchmen’s interest in both the social problems and individual psychoses involved with superheroics: childhood sexual trauma, a connection to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, and of course the horrific crimes that sped along Kovacs’ psychotic break.  One doesn’t need to know Ditko’s original characters to appreciate the drama, but it adds some intertextual depth (if anything, reading some of Mr. A’s cases show how little Moore had to exaggerate Rorschach’s ruthlessness and black-and-white morality).

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

Origin of Rorschach's mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Origin of Rorschach’s mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Likewise, I was familiar with the Blue Beetle from his introduction into DC continuity rather than his original Charlton adventures, but I didn’t immediately connect him to Nite Owl when reading Watchmen: he too is a familiar type, a “gadget hero” like Batman (or, to a lesser degree, Iron Man).  Within the narrative, Dan Dreiberg is actually the second Nite Owl, borrowing his name and persona from a Golden Age model, Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl, representing both the ideals and the institutional memory of the original costumed heroes).  This pattern was true of the Blue Beetle, but also of characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkman who had very different Golden and Silver Age incarnations.

Watchmen also benefits from an important opportunity afforded by pastiche: the ability to replace the ad hoc jumble of origins and histories typical of established continuity with a streamlined history that both gives all the characters a common point of reference and allows for meaningful points of connection between them that goes beyond the simple “team-up.”  Although, as Geoff Klock points out, Moore has in many cases deliberately introduced the kind of contradictory history that plagues long-running comic book series into his original stories, in Watchmen he plays it straight, with his “real-life” costumed heroes taking inspiration from fictional comic book characters, and eventually supplanting them.  As for points of contact, in addition to the obvious shared history between them, there are subtle connections: the shape-shifting cloth which Rorschach wears as a mask, and from which he takes his name, is referred to as a spin-off of technologies introduced by Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman character in the novel; other technologies and businesses mentioned are part of the empire of Adrian Veidt, the “self-made” superhero Ozymandias (and a major driver of the plot).

Film adaptations of superheroes often make connections where none exist in the comics in order to tighten up the plot, as for example the Joker/Jack Napier being identified as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman, or Ra’s al Ghul serving as both Wayne’s mentor and eventual antagonist in Batman Begins. Such circularity is more dramatically satisfying, and easier to establish, in a two-hour film or self-contained novel, although asserting such symmetries can be one function of rebooting or “retconning” an established series.  As an example from another narrative, when J. Michael Straczynski rebooted the Squadron Supreme for his 2003 series Supreme Power, he started from the ground up, effectively creating a “trope of a trope:” in Straczynski’s version, the escape pod that brought “Mark Milton” (Hyperion) to earth as an infant was part of an alien battle, the shrapnel from which also gave powers to the Blur (a trope of the Flash, replacing the original Squadron Supreme’s Whizzer, because really: the Whizzer?) and provided the “Power Prism” to Doctor Spectrum (a trope of Green Lantern, here reconceived as a special ops pilot nicknamed “Doctor” because of the surgical precision with which he executes his missions); some of the villains Hyperion faced were created through government experimentation with his own DNA.***  The reboot/misprision allowed Straczynski to focus on the elements that most concerned him: instead of the Squadron imposing its rule in the name of the greater good, as in Mark Gruenwald’s narrative, the Squadron are tools of a shadowy, not always benevolent government that doesn’t reveal its purposes to its super-military (as exemplified by Mark Milton’s upbringing by government operatives instead of Ma and Pa Kent), the expression of a twenty-first century anxiety that remains as relevant as ever.

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

Next time, I’ll examine a few examples from movies and television.

* But for the record, I liked Moore’s original “space squid” ending, and I think it could have worked on film if it had been reconceived in cinematic terms by a director more concerned with duplicating the feel than the look of the book.  How terrifying—and believable—could Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi have made that ending?

** Interestingly, Moore and Gibbons have stated that Mad‘s parody “Superduperman” was an influence on their approach, revealing depravity and greed beneath the slick costumes.  It’s not uncommon for transgressions that are comical to one generation to be taken seriously and developed in earnest by the next.

*** Marvel attempted something similar with its “New Universe” line in 1986, sort of the flip side of DC’s unification of its universe, and showing that it isn’t easy to build a compelling narrative world from scratch.

Points of Connection, Part One: the Many Children of Krypton

Hyperion.  Supreme.  The Sentry.  What do these characters have in common?  All are doppelgängers, or doubles, of Superman, and not just in the sense that all costumed heroes descend from the Big S, or in the debt they all owe to Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, nor even in their monomythic relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Rather, they are thinly veiled copies, different enough in detail to escape litigation (or avoid confusing readers) but readily recognized by key elements of their persona, history, and/or supporting cast.

The double, or pastiche, is a powerful fictional technique, in which an established character is effectively remade (and frequently repurposed); it’s especially common in comic books, where “copycatting” is an established (if not especially reputable) practice.  As an example, the core members of DC’s Justice League of America—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—have been copied numerous times, individually and as a team.  It should be noted that I’m not speaking so much of identical twins or copies of the same characters inhabiting parallel universes, although those are equally common story-telling tropes. The doubling to which I refer is almost always intertextual, allowing a writer to tell a story including (a version of) a character owned by another publisher, or including story elements that would be unacceptable for a well-established (and ongoing) character.

Adhering to genre conventions is not enough: recall that National (DC’s parent company) sued Fawcett over alleged similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel, yet the elements the two characters have in common—super strength and other powers, colorful costumes, secret identities, and an ethos of doing good—are practically universal among Golden Age heroes, and in other specifics the characters are quite different.  Superman, orphaned son of the doomed planet Krypton, doesn’t have much in common with Billy Batson, who is given his powers by the wizard Shazam.  It is precisely those details that a writer can exploit, filling in the pastiche character’s backstory with variations that are functionally the same; sometimes it is as simple as changing a few names (Superman’s Krypton becomes Hyperion’s Argon), at other times a more thorough reworking is undertaken, but the connections are still apparent because of the overall dynamic of the story.  This goes beyond parody, although the line can be fuzzy: Mad’s “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles” are clearly a joke, but one intended to reveal, among other things, the venality and absurdity hidden beneath the costumed hero’s civic-minded facade (“Once a creep, always a creep!”). Hyperion (from Marvel’s Squadron Supreme) and Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman/Miracleman (instantly recognizable as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively) are largely dramatic in their treatment, but just as flawed.

The value of the double is summed up by Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, a study that looks at the evolution of superhero narratives through the lens of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence:

The current character, though obviously in debt to its source, can often act as a powerful misprision [a reflection, or reinterpretation] of that original character, while the fact that it is not actually the original frees the writer from the constraints of copyright and continuity.

For example, earlier in his book, Klock argues that “Warren Ellis’s Four Voyagers [from the pages of Planetary] are a trope of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is to say that while the Four Voyagers are characters in themselves, they are also an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (emphasis added).

Such misprision is most useful when the writer has something to say beyond aping an already successful character: in Klock’s scheme, informed by Bloom’s statement that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem,” well-known characters stand in for their creators, so that one generation of writers can exorcise or assimilate the influence of the preceding generation.  (And obviously, the technique of parody allows the writer to zero in on whatever element of the original character they wish to critique, exaggerating it, sometimes to the point of absurdity–see above.)  One doesn’t have to agree with all of Klock’s conclusions to see the value of this dialectic approach, and in fact the finest realization of a pastiche character isn’t always written by the person who first created it.  Alan Moore took over Supreme, a character created by Rob Liefeld, and transformed him into a meditation on Superman; the resemblance was already present, but Moore brought it into focus.  As another example, Mark Gruenwald used the Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s trope of the JLA (originally introduced by Roy Thomas), to examine the relationships of the characters to each other, bringing out unspoken subtext or real-world concerns (such as the tendency toward paternalistic fascism inherent in the concept of super-protectors; the alienation of super-beings’ human friends and family; and the finality of death, as opposed to comic book characters’ typical return from the grave for shock value, marketing purposes, or narrative convenience) that would halt an ongoing series in its tracks if acknowledged. (Another version of the Squadron, effectively a trope of a trope, was launched in 2003; more about that later.)

Such concerns, when addressed at all, used to be the domain of the parallel universe or “imaginary story:” What if the Justice League used their power to oppress humanity instead of protecting it?  One answer was Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate of America; another was the Squadron Sinister, created as part of an unofficial “Avengers vs. JLA” crossover (since by Comic Book Law, when two characters meet for the first time, they must test their powers against each other in battle; the Squadron Sinister later, of course, became the Squadron Supreme). Later, such projects as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier would address many of these subjects using flagship characters in speculative settings outside regular continuity, but Squadron Supreme (1985) predates the more critical approach to characterization kicked off by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and by Miller himself, and the aforementioned projects benefited from the more fluid approach to continuity that became fashionable after the high water mark of Crisis on Infinite Earths’ obsessive attempt to keep things in fixed positions.

Time is short tonight, so I’ll save a discussion of Watchmen, one of the most prominent and influential reinventions of this type, for next time.