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Friday, July 3, 2015

Panel Vision - Golden Age, Bullet Points, & the Importance of Prose

The Golden Age was a four-part prestige graphic novel series by star writer James Robinson, published from 1993-1994 directly prior to Robinson’s seminal work on Starman.  The series is a little hard to quantify in terms of genre, the story takes place across several years and is more about the lives of its large cast of characters and the shifting flow of history.  There is a central binding arc concerning a charismatic superhero turned politician and his plan to build an atomic superman but for the most part that plot is actually very unobtrusive for the bulk of the story.  Eventually, as things build to a head in the 4th installment and the various threads of conspiracy and villain fray into focus the plot becomes more focused and crystallized but for most of the series The Golden Age is just concerned with examining the lives and struggles of its cast of retired superheroes from DC Comics’ Golden Age.  

Bullet Poitns is a series that’s on harmony if not on melody.  In the case of Bullet Points there’s still a heavy emphasis on the ceaseless march of history and the personal lives and struggles of its cast rather than villainous machinations or doomsday threats.  Again, like The Golden Age, Bullet Points eventually reaches a sizable conflict of high stakes by the time its 5th issue rolls around but that’s the exception not the rule.  The bigger emphasis of the series is on exploring the strange world of what Marvel Comics would be like if Dr. Erskine had died before turning Steve Rodgers into Captain America, and the various ripples that spread across reality. 
There are a lot of things that make both The Golden Age and Bullet Points incredibly underrated classics; their earnest depiction of aging and the passage of time in a superhero universe, a looser emphasis on narrative allowing the creators greatly increased breathing room to explore character and develop atmosphere, and some truly spectacular and unique artwork and coloring.  The biggest element that attracts me to both series however is actually the most divisive and derided element: their bombastic and somewhat overwrought prose. 
Prose has always felt out of place within the comic medium.  Comics are inherently a visual medium so more often than not authors will refrain from any extraneous writing beyond character dialogue and internal monologue.  This is a big part of why comics abandoned omniscient narrators and thought balloons as the modern era dawned in favor of first person narrative caption boxes.  However, I think that direction ends up a bit of a missed opportunity and part of the growing issue that I’ve seen choke a lot of great comics out of their potential.  The rule of the day has become that all text within a comic must exist solely to move the story forward or to impart something about the characters at hand and as a result the text of a comic is relegated solely to the realm of a perfunctory organ.  Text isn’t allowed to be descriptive or artistic within its own merits and is rarely ever used to complement an overriding sense of atmosphere.  That’s where both The Golden Age and Bullet Points truly shine. 

The Golden Age is written like a novel, using beautifully written descriptive language to punctuate Paul Smith’s stunning artwork and Richard Ory’s amazing color work.  What makes it work so well is that the narration is written almost like poetry or a speech, there’s a meter within the writing that bleeds over into the presentation.  The verbose tone and purple prose work as well as they do because they’re so measured, as if it’s meant to be read aloud by the audience.  Most importantly however the words are crammed full of detail in very small sentences.  Most of the time the narrative caption boxes will contain sentence fragments but that’s because the point of the words isn’t to convey information but to convey emotions.  The words work in tandem with the art, often reiterating a similar point, all in order to create a comic that’s less of a story being told than something you simply experience.  The same goes for Bullet Points, in which each issue starts with a full page of very measured and very rhythmic narration about the physics and mechanics of bullets.  Bullet Points uses this opening narration as a directing theme for the entire issue, yoking the story, theme, and character to the central emotional concept of the narration. 
The main reason this approach is so incredibly underrated is that neither Bullet Points nor The Golden Age actually has a deeper insight about their respective subjects to be conveyed.  There are, of course, some vague intimations towards greater meaning, as is the nature of all storytelling, but the over aching goal of both series isn’t to convey a deeper idea to the audience or even to tell an amazing superhero story.  The point of both comics is to elicit a deep-seated emotional response from the viewer about key aspects of life.  In the case of The Golden Age the emphasis is on aging, the inevitability of change, and how we try to shape our lives to the passage of time.  Meanwhile Bullet Points’ central focus is about lost chances and new beginnings, about the lives we could’ve lived and the lives we’ve built in their ashes.  Again, there isn’t some deeper thesis being conveyed about these ideas in either case, simply a desire to produce a meaningful emotional response from the audience, and that’s a perfectly valid goal.  

This goes back to my earlier point about the misconception of text in comics as a purely perfunctory aspect of storytelling.  We’ve locked ourselves into this tragically limited way of thinking where all series must convey a message to have worth and must convey that message through narrative subtext.  The truth, however, is that’s not what art is.  At its core art is about moving your audience in some way, a story’s message and narrative end up secondary to that goal.  This is why we have whole genres dedicated simply to emotional responses like horror, thriller, or romance.  The worst thing about this misconception however is that it denies the greatest strength of comics as a medium: the fusion of words and art.  We become so concerned with what the text says or if the art is aesthetically pleasing that we forget the two are meant to work together to craft an experience. 
Finally, denying a work’s value as an emotional experience concerning very real, very human aspects of life only serves to devalue the act of being moved in anyway outside of the standard thrills of excitement.  When I read The Golden Age or Bullet Points it’s not to experience visceral adventure and action through superhero beat downs, those are a dime a dozen in comic books, I read them because they make me feel contemplative, resigned, sad, and hopefully about things like the tragedy of loss or the unstoppable march of time.  That’s why the prose on display in both series are so incredibly important to how great they are, they’re what help create the experience of such complex and intense emotions about such incredibly grounded issues, all through the lens of comic book superheroes. 

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