Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On Comics Before Collecting (Part 2): Blocks, Unfinished Stories, and the Comic Book Sublime

Have we lost the ability to take pleasure in fragments, bafflement, and incompletion? Do we no longer enjoy the experience of arriving at an epic tale in medias res whose conclusion we will never learn?

It wasn’t always this way.

After crossing that threshold between intensely studying the pictures to imagine a story and deciphering the words in the speech balloons to summon it into being, our earliest memories of actually reading comics are most likely associated with the uniquely pleasurable confusion of the fragment. The unresolved cliffhanger. The incomplete or unfinished story. In the time before the direct market—and before the limited autonomy of allowance—when getting a comic was contingent on the vagaries of the 7-11 comic rack and the caprice of parental indulgence, the half-told tale was so inevitable as to be a basic feature of comic book reading itself.

The Avengers 176 (1978), “Destiny Hunt,” was probably not my first experience of narrative incompletion, but it is certainly one of my most fondly remembered and profoundly satisfying--or is that unsatisfying?--ones. This issue, I would learn, ten or fifteen years later, was the penultimate chapter of the epic “Korvac Saga.” It came in one of those two-comic packs that were once sold in drug stores and supermarkets. I’d persuaded my mom to buy it for me during a shopping trip to Safeway and felt I’d gotten away with something diabolical, artfully tricking her into buying me two comics instead of the usually allotted one. The other comic in the pack--The Mighty Thor 277 (1978), “Time of the Trolls”--had an attractive cover, but was in every sense secondary. I had never read a Thor comic before, and at the time my interest was only vaguely piqued by myth and fantasy (in retrospect, I suspect that the Thor cover must have struck me as promising a reading experience that would be more demanding and educational than fun). I had never read Avengers before either, but the cover—a collection of unfamiliar superheroes displayed around the luminous, energy-filled silhouette of a man whose power was concentrated in a dense core of Kirby dots clustered in his torso—gripped me instantly and didn’t let go. It was a long car ride home, and I still remember what is now a strange juxtaposition: taking the comic books out a grocery bag containing milk, potatoes, onions…

What was it like, reading this Avengers comic at six years old?

The story had already begun. I didn’t know what was going on. I recognized few of the characters. And though I understood that the rounded panels on page two were recaps of a previous issue, my vocabulary and narrative skills weren’t yet up to the task of really piecing the action together. What’s more, there was something stiff and unappealing about those flashback panels with their flat text boxes and non-sequential illustrations. Although I could read on my own quite well, I was bored by static panels and narration: my eye went to dynamic pictures and word balloons.

What I liked about this comic were the characters. The sheer number and diversity of superheroes it contained! Iron Man, Starhawk, Moondragon (a bald woman!), Hawkeye, Quicksilver (a jerk), Wonderman, Captain America, Black Panther, Thor, Hercules, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Yellowjacket, Wasp, Jocasta (a woman made out of metal!), Captain Marvel, Vision, and Scarlet Witch--many of whom were not named within the story, an omission which only increased the experience of immersion. As little as a year earlier, before I could really read on my own, I had a more primary, elemental enjoyment of differentiation. Susan Storm was beautiful and turned invisible. Reed Richards could stretch and invented things. Johnny was a Human Torch, and the Thing was orange and rocky. Now, this pleasure was deepened by the richer characterization effected by the (still surprisingly zippy) dialogue.

In one of the best scenes of Avenger-bickering ever scripted, Jim Shooter has the sublimely arrogant Moondragon interrupt an argument between Quicksilver and Hawkeye over the Scarlet Witch’s ostensibly indecent marriage to the android, Vision. Pricked by Hawkeye’s liberalism, a priggish Quicksilver fumes, “There is a great difference, Archer, between purity and propriety! That…thing my sister is with is a machine! It has no right to--” At which point, Moondragon intervenes and “cleanses” Quicksilver of his “self-righteous judgments” with some kind of psychic ray, inviting the startled pair to thank her as she departs. Hawkeye retorts: “Thank--? Hey! Wh-Where do you get off, Baldy? Treatin’ someone’s mind like a…bathtub with a ring! If you’ve hurt Quicksilver--!” But the latter, rubbing his head demurs: “No, Hawkeye, there was no pain. It was more like…insight…” At six years old, I could not have followed Quicksilver’s hairsplitting over “purity” and “propriety,” nor, I suspect, did I understand the word “insight.” And yet, this minor scene was, for me, the heart of the book—I read it over and over again as if I could wrest the meaning of the argument from the page by the sheer intensity of my reading. At one point, I’m sure I asked my mother for a definition of “insight,” but it was an elusive word.

This was one of my first memorable fictional encounters with the complexity of human interaction. The fact that the initial argument could seemingly be resolved in Hawkeye’s favor by the appearance of a more powerful third character, only to have Hawkeye reverse positions and take the part of his former antagonist against his would-be ally, and then to have Quicksilver himself concede (albeit, with dubious agency!) the virtue of Moondragon’s psychic lobotomy was an exciting and perplexing discovery.

In this way, page three and the top of page four formed a sort of brick, or stable fragment within the story that was infinitely more interesting to me than the story as a whole. This “block” had a heft that the surrounding panels of ephemeral narrative business surrounding it simply did not possess.

Looking back on this issue now, I’m struck by the degree to which the episodic quality of the story itself reinforced this intuitive practice of fragmentary reading. In fact, the first half of the story consists primarily of two sorts of scenes. Inside the mansion, Avengers squabble amongst themselves in a series of loosely related vignettes (Hercules throws Thor through a wall; Natasha, the “Black Widow,” zaps a deliciously bemused Hercules with her “widow’s bite”; Iron Man and Moondragon jockey for position). Outside, meanwhile, Avengers dispersed in the field respond to Moondragon’s telepathic summons. These latter scenes (in which the characters are generally not named) are even more fragmentary and (to a six year old reader) uninterpretable than the mansion scenes: Ms. Marvel is perched on a rooftop having trouble with her “seventh sense cognition”; Yellowjacket and the Wasp are shrunk down to size and talking to ants; the male Captain Marvel soars through space; the robot, Jocasta, suddenly bursts from a purple trench coat on a busy city street to the amazement of passer-bys.

As was so typical (and wonderful) of 1970s Marvel, great delight is taken in providing these moments of sudden public exposure with a comic chorus-like commentary, usually from mustachioed man who cry, as they do here, “Huh? A-a woman m-made outta metal?! A-anybody see Alan Funt around?” I of course had no idea who “Alan Funt” might be, never having heard of Candid Camera. Adding to my confusion, the word balloon containing the Funt gag was ambiguously positioned, and I mistakenly attributed it to Jocasta herself, assuming that she was either engaging the surprised man in banter, or trying to alleviate his nerves. I wondered if Alan Funt might be an Avenger.

(Later, the unforgettable set piece of this issue—the Avengers’ commandeering of a city bus to take them into the sinister middle class suburb of “Forest Hills Gardens” where a deadly cosmic being they know only as “the Enemy” is thought to be lurking amid the perfectly manicured lawns and ornamental shrubs—raises this meme to nearly self-parodying heights as steaming ousted passengers threaten to write the Mayor, their Congressman, and Anne Landers, while Iron Man promises that call them all taxis at the Avengers’ expense!)

Like the earlier scene between Moondragon, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye, the minor four-panel scene between Hank and Jan (in which the couple suddenly grow to normal size and fly off, surprising an onlooker who croaks, “Da wife ain’t gonna believe dis!”) and the two-panel scene of Jocasta on the street which echoes it were the “blocks” on which my first microscopic reading focused and to which it repeatedly returned. There was little interest for me, at the time, in assembling these Avengers fully into the pattern of a larger coherent story, except in the most general way. I could see that they all ended up at the Avengers’ mansion to pool their efforts at…something, but it was the subtle details of these “bricks” or “blocks” that held me.

The four video monitors on the wall containing isolated, decontextualized images of Jocasta incognito, Moondragon meditating, Ms. Marvel on her rooftop, and Captain Marvel in space that Iron Man fiddles with on the terrific splash page of this issue concretize these “blocks” very suggestively. Without meaning to, perhaps, these discrete, juxtaposed “video” images (ostensibly narrative and forward-moving images, yet strangely static ones, disconnected or “dangling,” pendant-like, from the narrative thread that strings them together) precisely capture the reading-effect the story produced for me as a six-year-old reader.

Once the Avengers have assembled at the mansion and coordinated their search for the mysterious “Enemy” that is eluding them, the story became easier to follow, and to some extent the fragmentary pleasures of the first half are succeeded by a more coherent narrative drive. All the characters become absorbed within a single action: feeding the findings of their various searches into a computer, pinpointing the location of the threat, waiting for a bus (!), and fruitlessly searching the apparently benign home of a man named “Michael.” The climax of the story consists--all too uncannily--in a moment of radical narrative disjunction: the revelation that Starhawk literally cannot see “Michael” (who is standing right in front of him) and his false belief that the Avengers are making him the butt of some bizarre practical joke. The Avengers now realize that they have indeed stumbled upon the “Enemy”--the only being powerful enough to selectively blind Starhawk in this way.

This scene, dramatically speaking, is a tour-de-force. In retrospect, though, and on a personal level, it is much more. At the level of plot and affect, the reactions of the other characters to Starhawk’s outburst conveyed (and elicited in me) a genuine thrill of horror at a more-than-human power that can warp perception to such a degree that one’s own eyes could not be trusted. More abstractly, the (non)confrontation between Starhawk and Korvac is a (non)confrontation between blindness and insight, between partial and perfect knowledge. On a purely personal level, therefore, it also stages the (non)confrontation between reading in “blocks” and reading for narrative synthesis that I was only just learning to negotiate. In other words, it stages the (non)confrontation or impasse between reading the bricks and reading the wall. Starhawk, the selectively blinded superhero, becomes a metaphor for myself as a child reader as surely as Korvac, the seemingly omnipotent and omniscient machine-god-man, embodies what adult knowledge—what the coherence of narrative—might look like to a child who is still playing with blocks.

But these are the fanciful reflections of an older reader who, in attempting to reconstruct an experience of childhood reading, has been tempted into narrative at the very point in the story when narrative is precisely what has to be resisted, because it literally stops short. Starhawk’s meltdown precipitates Korvac’s acknowledgement of his true identity (a mad god with a plan to save humanity that the Avengers have somehow interfered with), and culminates in one of the most memorable full-page cliff-hangers of my childhood: The man, “Michael,” transforms himself into his true shape—the yellow and purple energy being Korvac—and promises to make the Avengers pay for “destroy[ing] the hopes of a universe, the dreams of a god.” And this, for me, was where the story ended.

I didn’t make it to 7-11 soon enough the next month. Or maybe they just didn’t stock the Avengers that week. It wasn’t until much later, once I had been collecting comic books for ten years at least, that I sought out the conclusion to that old story that I still read with enormous pleasure at the family cottage where it had come to reside. You know, I hardly remember that subsequent issue now. For me, the Korvac saga ends in medias res on the final page of Avengers 176. It ends unresolved, and yet not exactly unfinished, for it has a kind of aesthetic, almost metaphysical closure that is in many ways more satisfying than the narrative closure it manifestly withholds.

The final image, in which the Avengers cower before the looming, homicidal god is the most powerful of the issue. As Korvac grows to his full, towering height, the Avengers vainly shield their eyes from the blinding transformation, and the artist, David Wenzel, imbues this image with all the sacred connotations that Shooter unsubtly weaves into the script--most obviously in the form of Starhawk’s blindness upon glimpsing the face of some awful divinity. It is also subtly present in the Avengers themselves, arms flung out before them in gestures that simultaneously convey helplessness and something approximating supplication. This strange sense of religious appeal inheres most strongly in the ambiguous postures and attitudes of the figures in the foreground: Hercules (a semi-divine member of the team, and the only one who risks casting so much as a side-long glance in Korvac’s direction), Moondragon (the mystic), and of course, Starhawk, the blind star-man himself. It is the latter two especially who seem almost to reach out to Korvac at the very same moment that they ward him off--yearning and yet retreating from the terrible blossoming of his power, the revelation of his true, unbearable form.

The ambiguity contained within this astonishing final image--the desire, simultaneously, for annihilation and self-preservation--is the ambiguity of the sublime itself, however one might choose to characterize this complex and universal notion. And the happy coincidence which made this cliffhanger into the de facto conclusion of the Korvac saga in my own personal comic book history provided me with a particularly vivid, even paradigmatic, example of how the serial form’s inevitably unfinished narratives could afford profound pleasure and even profound wisdom through their very incompletion.

On a very simple and immediate level, the story satisfied. It was complete in and of itself--but only in the manner that “blocks” are complete. If I read it as a “block,” and not as an unfinished narrative (and I have no doubt that, on some level at least, I did), then the final image of this issue depicted not a cliffhanger, but a self-contained episode, indeed the last episode of the story: the triumph of Korvac over the Avengers, the inevitable triumph of the divine or of the abyss over even the most heroic assembly of protagonists. In short, Greek tragedy. Or better still, the enigmatic final encounter with death whose “resolution” is necessarily unknowable and, strictly speaking, unrepresentable. Sublime.

And yet this will not entirely do, for of course I did know that there was more, that this apparent triumph of Korvac was only gestural, that the Avengers would regroup and find a way to confront the unconfrontable, overcome the threat of god the destroyer. For some reason, however, this awareness of incompletion did not diminish my enjoyment of the story. Incompletion itself turned out to be the bearer of its own unusual satisfactions. Keeping the story open, escaping the drive for closure, was not necessarily disappointing; it could also be a kind of affirmation, an assertion of the inevitability, not of death and endings, but of continuity and possibility. The serialized story that never ends, the ending that might come, but has not arrived yet. A story that beckons hesitantly towards endings and yet is at pains to ward them off, or at most, casts only a side-long glance towards them. Hercules’s story… Moondragon’s story… Starhawk’s…

This non-ending to the Korvac saga is the story of the comic book as serial form, in which endings are constantly projected and closure is endlessly deferred. And it is the story of much else besides.

Look again at the final image of “Destiny Hunt.” Hercules is still daring to glance into the divine abyss. Moondragon still seems to summon this ending with the same gesture by which she protects herself from it. But Starhawk, once blind to Korvac's presence, now closes his eyes and looks away, as if to shield them from the newly dawning, unbearable light...


Expos 1983 Blog said...

As a fan of the fragmented aesthetic (and of seventies superhero comics) I love what you're doing here man!

It's all well and good to suggest incompletion (the hallmark of literary fiction since the advent of modernism), but there's no substitute for the real (and genuinely "unfinishable"!) thing!

thanks for the wonderful material!

Jim Roeg said...

Hey Dave,
You're welcome, and thank you! I just posted a more general thanks on your (awesome!!) site, but wanted to respond more specifically here to you comment about modernism. I couldn't agree more. It's always been kind of funny to me as an English Lit/Comic guy to hear modernism's challenge to more organic forms of storytelling like the Victorian novel (though this too was serialized!) celebrated as a form of aesthetic radicalism. Modernism was a significant aesthetic development, of course, but how interesting that pop-culture forms had already been experimenting with serialization for some time before modernism even began, and became even more prominent in the years after modernism had ended. I recently heard someone give an outstanding paper comparing T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" to the aesthetic dimensions of comic book storytelling--particularly the fragment. Eliot may have moved in the direction of synthesizing his "fragments," but the comparison certainly made me think. Someone needs to write something more substantial about this relationship...

Anonymous said...

i remember this. you succintly put into words what i felt about this issue. i never got to read the ending of the saga, but the feeling of completeness, and ineffable mystery of how these characters connected to my impressionable self, is well-put in your blog.