If there's one thing that will always impress me in any medium, it's when Pop approaches Art. That opera escape from Quantum of Solace with all the weird flashes of imagery (sorry for the vagueness, it's been a while)? Made me like the movie way more than everyone else did. That part in Modern Warfare 2 where suddenly you're playing as astronauts to show the scope of the EMP explosion? The people who made that game went to extra effort to create something that served story and effect and didn't directly cater to the gamer's boner for running around and murdering foreigners, and that to me is courting art, a concept that, when combined with video games, everyone argues about.
Aaaaand now everyone's going to have the "Can video games be art?" discussion in the comments section.
Obviously there's a difference between art and something with artistic elements, and we already know comic books can be art just like paintings and music and sculptures and poetry. But superhero comics (save that one comic that I've already discussed ad nauseam) often get left out of that discussion. Jeff Lemire's Animal Man reboot certainly approaches art more than many of its New 52 peers by virtue of taking an unconventional approach to an established property, turning a the goofy concept of a guy who can take the abilities of any nearby animal and turning it into a supernatural horror story about a family in danger.
In Animal Man #6, Lemire takes an odd digression mid-story by showing us a movie within a comic book. More accurately, the indie movie Animal Man starred in that turned him into an actor/critical darling, which is apparently what he'd been up to since his previous series had been cancelled.
Digressions are fascinating to me. In Sandman Volume 2, where in the middle of "The Doll's House" there's a story about Death continually extending a man's life by a century every time they meet? As a teenager it blew my mind that Neil Gaiman was willing to drop in this almost non-sequitur interlude that would prove relevant by the end of the story, but still begs a sort of trust in the storyteller as it's happening. And (oh fuck, here it goes) it's why I really enjoyed the Watchmen movie for all its flaws — it was willing to go to many of the places that the comic was willing to go but the traditional bullshit three-act structure wouldn't normally allow. And, hey, remember that documentary episode of M*A*S*H? I love stuff like that because it breaks formula and keeps a viewer on his or her toes.
Conversely, the two-part Action Comics fill-in by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert reeks of giving Rags Morales some buffer time to finish his pages, and thus doesn't feel like an artistic digression. But I'll cover that some other time.
Tights, the film we see in the pages of Animal Man #6 combines the sad, end-of-one's-rope desperation of The Wrestler (it is "a RYAN DARANOVSKY film," complete with a verrrry similar opening shot) with the homemade loser superheroics of Super, where a guy in a goofy costume gets the shit kicked out of him once or twice. It's not the most original film ever put to paper considering the clichés of our hero's failures at child visitation and job interviews, and the requisite scene where the protagonist approaches some hoods in costume only to be met with laughter.
Lemire has to know what he's doing here, and either way he scripts it perfectly fine. The movie he's written certainly fits within the meta-story, as Buddy Baker is a lower-tier superhero with a family and some heat from his acting gig while his character Chas is a lower-tier superhero and down-on-his-luck divorcee. Buddy's got supernatural troubles threatening his family while Chas battles the quotidian: relationship problems, job problems and his own self-destructive tendencies.
The best move Lemire pulls off, however, is that somebody's watching this movie within the comic, but the ending isn't too pat or clever. We return to the real world and remember that there's a plot going on that must be dealt with, sacrificing a few pages to transition back to the main story. Lemire could have easily stayed with the movie until the final page and cut to the viewer reacting, as one might expect, but thankfully he didn't.
You can kind of tell what kind of movie this is supposed to be — a pretty-good-not-great indie film. You know, one of those decent movies that's difficult to get made through the studios because they're only interested in total LCD romcoms and robot cartoons for retarded 13-year-olds, but Fox Searchlight will totally snap up the distribution rights to at Sundance because of a great lead performance that it damn near carries the thing. I think The Wrestler is really, really good, but Mickey Roarke's spirited, tragic performance certainly puts that film way over the top.
To illustrate the movie, regular artist Travel Foreman wisely takes a back seat to John Paul Leon, an artist we don't see enough of in comics these days. Over the past decade I've only seen him do the odd but great fill-in (oh, and The Winter Men), so anytime he shows up it's a big deal to me. His figures — decidedly in Sean Phillips/Michael Lark territory — figures are distinct from Foreman's deliciously weird style, and like the former two aforementioned artists Leon can convey mood and lighting perfectly as the inks get heavier and our hero's world gets darker. This issue effectively proves that using a different artist can more than just a distracting fill-in because somebody's off-schedule — fill-ins can make an interlude issue like this one feel like something different from the norm.
There's one concern that bugs me in Leon's pages, and it's near oxymoronic: his layouts are too comic booky. Not in the pejorative sense that some people use as a synonym for "cheesy" or "stupid," but in the sense that it starts feeling like reading a comic book instead of watching a movie.
Let me unpack that. Leon's opening the issue with four horizontal panels (Page 1) and five horizontal panels (Page 2), effectively recreating the widescreen frame in which movies are presented to us. "Widescreen" has become a dirty word in comics as it often means "glorified storyboards," but it's a method that works for t
his particular issue. It's also one that bookends the "movie" portion of the issue — the final four pages are each five full-tier panels before returning to the Travel Foreman-illustrated adventures of real-life Buddy Baker and his family, already in progress.
Then again, movies often have an incredibly stylistically impressive opening 15-20 minutes and then become more subdued as a viewer gets engrossed in the story. Think about the huge Normandy invasion of Saving Private Ryan or even the the way-too-clever-and-verbally-contrived opening 20 minutes of Juno versus the less ostentatious viewing experiences that follow those begninnings. It's entirely possible that Lemire and Leon were thinking in similar terms with the "flashy" opening pages and then the normally rendered rest-of-the-movie-within-the-comic.
The pages in between are more traditionally laid out with rectangular panels of varying size. Which perfectly shows off how comics differ from cinema — the size and shape of your frame can change at will depending on what you want to convey — the passage of time, claustrophobia, expansiveness, whatever. Meanwhile, cinema has stuff like music, shot length and actual movement at its disposal. Comics can pull off effects similar to movies, but use different methods to do so. And even though all the frames aren't widescreen, Leon often creates the effect of watching a screen continuously with mini-sequences of repeating panel sizes.
For example, look at Page 5, consisting of two separate mini-sequences:
While I enjoyed the overall digression, I'll admit I was a little too hyped for Animal Man #6. However, that the actual technical elements of the issue made me think about it beyond plot and character thrills me to no end. Most superhero comics — even ones I like — rarely get me thinking about how the creators present their story to the reader, which is something really good art always elicits. So, the new Animal Man series = good art? I guess so.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.