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Aesthetic Autopsies
By Joe McCulloch
Tuesday July 28, 2009 09:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Last week was a big one, folks. I'm sure you've heard of the many people congregating in sunny San Diego, eager to hear news of the latest comics to be published in the indeterminate future, provided they reserved their place in line hours beforehand or obtained a press pass, or weren't otherwise preoccupied with finding the werewolf from Twilight and touching his cloak to cure their blindness or watching trailers for Halo anime. The unlucky ones were left to the dregs, the Con purgatory, like listening to French cartoonists give presentations, or looking artists in the eye.

A high-risk endeavor for sure, far too much for my withdrawing disposition and downy-soft skin. Fortunately, last week had treats in store for my type as well. Watchmen arrived on DVD, for example, and there were plenty of special surprises, not the least of which was an announcement inside the case that a much better DVD would be arriving later. I guess this is supposed to thrill and delight people; it certainly worked that way for me, in that I didn't buy it.

Hey, I saw the damned thing in theaters anyway, and I wrote about it here. I didn't think much of it, but it does still get me thinking, if you catch my drift. Always, there's questions of adaptation, of visuals, of fidelity between media. Watchmen was designed as a 'faithful' movie, even though its scrupulous recreation of Dave Gibbons' in-panel artwork was never presented in a manner that might acknowledge the sequence of those images, the deliberate pace of nine-panel grids and the critique of supermen presented in non-super perspectives.

But then, comics have an easier time, because they aren't as tethered to expectations of realism as the cinema, photographs in a firm temporal procession. You can spend one day or one week reading Watchmen, while the movie, no matter how many times you stop and start it, will always have a ‘correct' runtime (albeit depending on which version you‘re watching), and will always depict real people in costumes, and all of its incursions on the viewer's waking life will be duly noted and considered.

Comics don't have that problem, or at least not to that extent; whether it's Alex Ross or Chris Ware drawing the figures, they're typically accepted as fully ‘real' in the confines of their illustrated universes. Indeed, the old Scott McCloud saw tells us that less-‘realistic' figures are often accepted by readers as more real in the context of the page, because readers can project familiarizing characteristics onto them with greater ease. Of course, a poor cartoonist can disrupt the clarity of the reading experience, just as a clever one can brew conflict from characters failing to belong in their environment - think the distancing colors of Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds, popping figures out from haze-faded backgrounds.

Everything is in its place, however, in the best comic to see release last week: the IDW-published Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter, adapted by Darwyn Cooke from the late Donald E. Westlake's 1962 tough guy prose novel. I won't go into a detailed review here, since I basically concur with our own Tucker Stone on the merits. It's a splendid piece of pure pop comics, smart and evocative and cleverly conceived, stylish without convolution and unwilling to allow its source material to become oppressive, faithful though it is.

Cooke's artwork has never been better, cleverly distilling visual motifs from Westlake's prose -- I love the bookend images of a man with and without a ride, adjoined by sparsely-lettered scenes of a city by day and night -- while washing the whole in brushy monochrome that suggests mid-century steel sickened and filled with pus. A perfect setting for the titular Parker, a two-fisted master crook nagged by sentiment but raced well beyond moral qualms; he'll stop at nothing to destroy the people who ripped off his take and put him in jail. It's lean, cruel storytelling, keenly pitched as a ‘62 period piece so as to better soak in paperback brutishness. Don't bother checking the fridge - there's exactly one semi-major female character in this thing that doesn't get smacked, punched or lifted to her toes by her hair, and she winds up scrambling undressed out of the room as Parker prepares to shed some Judas blood.

It's Parker's world, and you'll believe it on every page; if Cooke's prior works (preeminently DC: The New Frontier) threatened to disperse in the manner of a nostalgic afternoon daydream, this is a considered, invested reminisce, adorned but solidified with style's logic. There's even wit in the flashbacks, where the images are blurry, like with movies, but in a way that suggests digital comics art reproduced at an inappropriate resolution. François Truffaut once wrote that superior movie adaptations would come from ‘men of cinema,' who could understand how to translate words and scenes faithfully to cinematographic language in a way that the literary ‘equivalence' of mere screenwriters could not; Cooke, then, animation background aside, is surely a man of comics.

Yet North American popular culture wasn't just a house of faith last week - DVD devotees were additionally treated to the least faithful Parker adaptation in history, Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 film Made in U.S.A., liberally adapted from Westlake's 1965 novel The Jugger. And by ‘liberally' (and perhaps ‘adapted') I imply that a lawsuit broke out over non-payment for the rights, and the picture played theatrically in the U.S. exactly once in the 20th century. Now Criterion brings the picture's home video debut to the land of its title.

Funny thing - in a certain sense, Parker wasn't at all an ill-fitting subject for Godard at that time. The man had always loved his crime fiction, and could probably have found some political meat deep in the work; after all, the Parker of Cooke's comic is nothing if not a determined capitalist bourgeoisie, only driven to action when his finances run low and only sexually desirous when the cash reserves are fat, since making good money means getting the blood pumping! The villainous syndicate men in the Hunter are corporate: prone to brand names and behavior lucrative to their shareholders, and their ultimate struggle with Parker becomes a wry parody of the up-by-his-bootstraps small businessman taking on the giants of finance for the sake of the American dream, which apparently requires shooting people. Made in U.S.A. indeed!

This is lit crit, though, and thereby threatens, in the words of Godard's occasional co-director, Jean-Pierre Gorin, to reduce the man to mere content. You can watch Godard simply to see a story unfold, but you'll often get frustrated and you'll always miss something.

Take this scene from Breathless, the man's revered 1960 feature debut. The jump cut near the end, right before Jean Seberg starts one of the film's most famous exchanges - it's not there just because it looks cool (though it does), but because it's an incursion on the ‘realism' of film, the illusion of time passing as it passes for you. It's Brechtian, to an extent, snapping you to attention and forcing your acknowledgement of the artificiality of cinema; after all, Georges Méliès first popularized the jump cut as special effects -- having something present in one frame then stopping the film, removing the item, and filming again, editing so that the vanishing occurs in a blink, like magic -- but the practice was abandoned as too obvious in its violation of realism. With Godard, the violation became purposeful.

And so, Made in U.S.A. gives us the broad outline of Westlake's plot -- Parker travels to meet an old acquaintance, discovers him dead, then sticks around with a shady sort to give him an alibi for a subsequent murder -- while taking every opportunity to fragment the whole corpus of cinema. No Parker movie actually called Parker "Parker" -- that's what makes Cooke's comic extra special -- but none of them also went so far as to have him played by one of the girliest girls of ‘60s European cinema; it's tough enough picturing Anna Karina ripping though a salad, let alone the hardest men of the underworld. And indeed, Godard has her faded trench coat hiding the brightest, prettiest outfits color film can capture - nowhere else does Parker inquire as to which pair of shoes best matches his dress before handing out a beating (although I haven't seen the director's cut of Payback).

It's a puzzling, narratively convoluted (if simply plotted) picture, with all your favorite techniques: repeated dialogue; the soundtrack giving out before its scene; addresses to the camera; musical interludes; a girl (several); a gun (several); and a loosely-improvised yet disconcertingly cerebral, academic feel. It's also more specifically political than Godard had ever been before - Karina isn't just checking up on a dead safecracker in the film's Atlantic-Cité, but investigating the political murder of her once-beloved, Richard P---, whose very name is denied by the region coughing up loud noises before Karina can quite complete it.

Noted magpie Quentin Tarantino borrowed that technique, stripped of political significance, for whenever anyone utters the Bride's name in Kill Bill. But Godard too isn't above simple reference; Karina is his all-but-ex-wife, and the tape recorded voice of Richard is provided by himself, in a reversal of that other marital meltdown Karina vehicle based on a crime novel, 1965's brilliant Pierrot le fou, wherein Jean-Paul Belmondo-as-Godard shoots Karina-as-Karina, then blows his own body to bits. Here Godard is the ghost of politics, far-Left activity in an Americanized, fractured France. Dig the title?

Made in U.S.A. pales in comparison to Pierrot le fou, however - its rigorous citation of crime genre history and the political present -- this Parker is more a detective of the Big Sleep mode -- while clearly meant to evoke radical ideas through a radicalization of form seems more likely to push the audience toward sleep than revolution. It's a love story, in a way, but Pierrot's conjuring of vast, abstract emotions through voluminous cultural citation and scenes-between-scenes has been replaced by a seething, sunken rage, one that would blossom in 1967's formidable Week-end before compressing into the artist's infamous Dziga-Vertov period, nothing of which I've seen but is spoken of by cineastes in tones typically reserved for the 14th century in re: dragons.

Yet there's a real difference from Godard's colorful, comics-like visuals, at one point breaking out a Batman-style visual sound effect when Karina gets whacked on the head. The man always was interested in the funnies, from his much-quoted assertion that cartoonists Jules Feiffer & Charles Schulz were his favorite American writers to his recruitment of gag artist Jacques Faizant to consult on 1961's A Woman Is a Woman. His visuals understand, though, that you can't put, say, Dave Gibbons on the screen and expect it to become real. For Godard, the colors and the effects are part of the loosening of reality, comic-book visions as a dismemberment of the sweet fantasies of movies, forcing the audience's participation, interrogating the culture behind each element.

It's like Belmondo said in that earlier, better adaptation, at a party where the rooms are color-coded: he has eyes for seeing, ears for hearing and a mouth for talking, but they're disconnected where he's at in life, just as the realism of color is disconnected on screen. That disconnect carries through to "Parker's" colonized France in Made in U.S.A., totally broken and frankly off-putting. You may check your watch, until the final irony of the final scene, where Godard's work ends in the same way as Cooke's: the tough guy/girl scoring a ride, and taking off to somewhere less troublesome, if to drastically different ends, through entirely separate means.

Joe McCulloch is the fist behind Jog - The Blog. He posts to The Savage Critics, and prints with The Comics Journal, Comics Comics and Bookforum. Via fists.

The Watchman is ©2008 Joe McCulloch.


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