Revolution babies

For Tripwire a review of Manuele Fior’s Celestia, a major work by an artist with a few of those already on the shelf.

Some of them contain bits of business that crop up again in Celestia, but Fior nudges his magic-realism mood into a slightly new niche in the process. Even less surprise in Celestia than usual to remember that Fior is an architect, since the comic’s built environment is all walls and floors and furniture, calmness conjured by blissful Adriatic sunlight in a version of Venice where they apparently did build Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masieri Memorial. Calm on the surface anyway: all art of change and struggle now arrives through the lens of Covid, but in an Italian context the citizens of Celestia beating a retreat from an unseen invader and barricading in a lagoon has many parallels to ponder. No one actually says that art might save the day, but the visuals work with Wright and Mark Rothko and Igor Stravinsky so it goes without saying.

You could ponder how the story’s politics decodes into something that isn’t necessarily very Left, although the message that the older generation needs to get out of the road so that the young can get on with it is barely revolutionary at this point.


Somewhere very different:

Authentic revolution in Zig Zag, the new chromatic cavalcade from Will Sweeney.

Reviewing Sweeney’s last art book Grok for The Comics Journal I said that urgency wasn’t really the artist’s thing, but this time the political message gallops in at a rapid clip.

Zig Zags 24 wordless pages are a fractal sequence of actions, any one of which can’t happen before its predecessor; a preset sequence of contingency plans that could have been laid last month or last millennium. Characters are called forth by other characters and emerge from within still other characters and then consult different characters and then merge into yet further larger ones, eventually coalescing into a large multi-part multi-pilot humanoid robot that tackles some armoured dictator in another plane of reality somewhere.

Exactly what’s what hardly matters, but the thrust of some revolutionary collective action is hard to miss, as is the circularity of the events. Another cycle of all this seems assured at some point, a semi-permanent revolution, even as the giant body of the previous dictator lays in another of Sweeney’s state funeral images. The original instigator appears to be an old soldier with medals, from whom smaller (younger?) activists emerge as he melts away. Having entered the dictator’s citadel, the unified collective converts soldiers to its cause with one blast of illumination from a gun; and in the end it’s an illuminated citizen, not one of the outside insurgents, who concludes things.

At one point a group of characters catch a double-decker bus out of whatever urban city they seem to be in so as to reach a more isolated location, and later the giant dictator holds an umbrella against the rain of yellow paralyzing jism that the good guys have called forth with a firework. So it’s not without a certain British character. On black glossy paper the colour work in Zig Zag surges with voltage but it’s an adult fable, an organised revolution against something visually coded as El Presidente carried out by small cogs in a larger collective who take public transport to get where they need to be.

July 22, 2021 Art

Naming names

George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)

First Cow arrives in the UK a fairly bemusing five months after being labelled the third best film of 2020 by a UK magazine, a situation which works to the advantage of no one and has the aroma of bovine byproduct.

Kelly Reichardt’s slow cinema story of frontier opportunism and cookery repeats the very solid observation that the American Dream is built on theft and unfairness; on unhappiness (for someone else). There was some muttering when the film came out in the US about it telegraphing this goal, but you might idly ponder how much of this complaint is sparked by the carefully inconclusive view of the characters doing the thieving, two sort-of sympathetic males from different cultures who want the best for each other but don’t show an exorbitant amount of concern for everyone else. One is persuaded by the other to leave a baby unsupervised; but straight afterwards when left at a loose end in his new friend’s shack just starts idly tidying the place up. (Elsewhere two ladies of equally different cultures chat amiably as soon as their menfolk leave the room.) A sullen youth holding the pettiest of grievances loiters around, looking a lot like nemesis. What could be more America than taking on the smelly men of the Oregon Territory and getting clobbered by a stranger’s wounded male pride?

Reichardt’s style always raises some questions about realism while also being as mannered and manufactured as a quartz watch. But the least you could say is that she’s interested in form as well as content, and in this case the form comes directly out of American visual rather than verbal traditions. Signs of that drift by from time to time, river traffic and trappers’ boats with dogs on the prow.

Cue Robert Hughes in American Visions on the everyday oddity of George Caleb Bingham’s painting of the same trade on a different river, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri:

The carrier of American identity had been Nature; Bingham brought in a much more specific documentary interest in distinctively American social life. By locking his observations into a formal architecture with its highly determined poses and theatrical range of expression, Bingham sought to name America.”

You could put Kelly Reichardt in there and not be wrong.

May 28, 2021 Films

Dr. Irony’s Irony Iron

No point blaming Tarantino for everything (apart from Death Proof which is still criminal) but what is this if not a comic caught in the eternal wake of the Tarantino speedboat from decades ago, its characters rolled up into their own talk like a poster squeezed into a tube?

Self-propelled one-man neo-noir factory S. Craig Zahler, whose films are wordy but not that wordy, has made a graphic novel motivated apparently by pure affection for the comics form, and to say the least struggles to get the words and pictures to cooperate for a greater good. Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, with a title that waves a big neon sign saying Grindhouse, is clearly keen on Benjamin Marra comics and look here’s Marra doing the title cards for a film Zahler scripted…

Zahler…Zahler… …and Marra…and Marra

…but Zahler’s words and pictures cohabit like an unhappy couple on the outs, puffing up a hill. There’s also the inevitable Irony Issue, a briar patch Marra’s comics swan-dive into constantly without puffing any more than he intends, and which Zahler himself has sometimes made lighter work of than this—assuming of course that Dr. Divinus is intended to be ironic in the first place, the alternative being the kind of scenario that leaves critics breathing into a paper bag.

What would light work even look like at this point, a sincere un-ironic comic of pop-culture cop-culture horror starting from over here and aiming for over there? Even allowing for the not-left politics that Zahler habitually leans towards (the working class don’t get very far in Dr. Divinus but they don’t do anything about it either, apart from the one who becomes a criminal and makes a fortune), there’s also the small matter of a road well travelled. Sexcastle from Kyle Starks came out years ago to mock (tribute, it says here, but the distinction might be moot) the kind of B-movies that became A-movies in the 1990s, while Dr. Divinus is intended as a tribute (likewise, same) to pre-Code horror comics from an era before that, a story of the city as a cave into which predators can crawl”—Christopher Sorrentino’s phrase about Death Wish, said in admiration, and they don’t make them like that any more.

When everything that already exists is just data to play with, the results might be admiring but are always a game. Dr. Divinus and Sexcastle play the same game and end up looking similar, and looking” in this case has to skirt around the fact that Zahler is by his own admission drawing as a fan of comics art rather than a comics artist. You could skirt a bit less and say that there are fanzines containing art which asks fewer questions than this, questions such as who is that person over there and what are they doing exactly.

A review of Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus and why polite art goes round in circles maybe for The Comics Journal website. Several far more favourable reviews of it are available elsewhere, which is another topic entirely.

See also: Film directors writing comics
And also: The S. Craig Zahler Way of Death
And yet also: Death Wish 2, Critics 0

May 12, 2021 Art

Day job

Film directors writing comics:

Madi: Once Upon a Time in the Future (2020)
Duncan Jones with Alex De Campi and in this bit James Stokoe


Noah (2011 and 2014)
Darren Aronofsky with Niko Henrichon


Eucharist Sun
Alexandro Jodorowsky with JH Williams III (2002)


Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly with Brett Weldele


The Fountain (2005)
Darren Aronofsky with Kent Williams


Trip to Tulum (1989)
Federico Fellini with Milo Manara


Anibal 5 (1966)
Alexandro Jodorowsky with Manuel Moro (not shown in person here)

March 27, 2021 Films Art

Formerly known as the Justice League

Darkseid being dictator (Zack Snyder’s Justice League)Darkseid being dictator (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) Darkseid reading dictator (JLI #21 1988)Darkseid reading dictator (JLI #21 1988)

For Sight & Sound a brief look at a lengthy thing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, in which the plot hinges on the bad guys forgetting where they left the car keys and Amber Heard’s Mera now speaks in Heard’s best English accent even in the bits that are re-used from the first Justice League when she did not. These and similar mysteries just seem willed into existence by the man with his name in the title, unhindered by committee. In 2013 Snyder had Superman kill a man and after fans were vocally unhappy he had Batman kill a few dozen, so if anyone is telling him to stick to the safe data points he’s apparently escorting them back out to the car park. I didn’t bother pointing out the most noteworthy fact, which is the upbeat reception currently being given to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Have the mutterings of discontent over the Marvel movies reached the point where something cast in a very different form couldn’t be downplayed any longer? Was everyone really that keen to take Joss Whedon out for a walk?

I wrote about Snyder’s films before and on the whole I like them more now than then, especially the one in which Mark Zuckerberg storms the US Capitol; but ZSJL has enough character in almost every minute to justify the extreme number of them you end up sitting through, and enough inventive imagery to send the Russo brothers off to draft a new hot-air Directors Statement. Snyder’s body-consciousness, about his characters and his actors and ultimately about himself, isn’t discussed enough—presumably people can’t get past 300 which is built almost entirely out of the stuff—but attempts to claim he’s a man of Misogynist Cinema sound thinner than ever in the face of this four hours of newly submitted evidence for the defence.

You should resist psychoanalysing film directors but sometimes they walk in and lay on the couch themselves. I said in S&S that the coda stands for your Forever War of choice, with a conversation between Batman and the Joker specifically about dead adopted children, after which Bruce Wayne awakens to be told that no relief is in sight. After four hours the look on Ben Affleck’s face at this point is not the heroic-jawline with the Hans-Zimmer-D-minor chord of fate, but instead looks like relief, acquiescence, acceptance. He practically shrugs. Even the Forever War is a way forward of a sort. Films constantly show characters surpassing grief, closing the door on it, moving on. A more complex message, of not shaking trauma off at all but finding a way to go on living in the company of it anyway, is a mark of some form of adult art.

Adam Hughes art from JLA #32 (1989)Adam Hughes art from JLA #32 (1989)

Irony of ironies that it falls to the Justice League to receive this cinematic boost of weightiness from the far end of the periodic table, when it was also the Justice League which proved that you could channel the rhythms of peak US TV comedy if you hired the right craftsmen, a whole 1980s DC Comics franchise in which entirely serious plots were elevated by being discussed in voices from Cheers and Batman’s bat-ears were squashed by his hazmat suit, while somewhere a young Joss Whedon glimpsed a future full of ironic chatter.

March 21, 2021 Films

Milligan and Hewlett

Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett in The Warhol Dimension
Hewligan’s Haircut in 2000AD #703 (1990)

March 17, 2021 Art