Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Perry Bible Fellowship, The Uncanny Valley, ABC, and some shoe-horned in Achewood towards the end

The comic I want to point you towards is the Perry Bible Fellowship. PBF is largely old school; it has no big plans for an infinite canvas It’s just a really funny, all-nonsense comic. The other cool thing is Nicholas Gurewitch’s artistic range. He uses a cast of white spherical-headed people for his more domestic strips, but check out the variety of the following:

Colonel Sweeto

Sun Love

Sgt. Grumbles

Angry Hammer has a very rich middle panel.

Mountain Dad

Punch Bout

I love this stuff, I just wish he was more prolific. Sorry if this isn’t the kind of genre-bending stuff that a graphic novel is, but I really can’t endorse any with comfort. To me, the medium of comics is inherently silly. I mean, holy shit, everyone involved is a cartoon character. I know that graphic novels are trying to reinvent that valence. But I am a blood relative of Maurice Noble, the creator of roadrunner. I feel like the precence of Themes in cartoons would cause him to spin in his grave like so many roadrunner legs. Now, I know that world is animation and this is stills on a page, but I think a lot of the aesthetics are the same. Some of the worst things in the world are the serious comics like Mark Trail or Prince Valiant. Political cartoons are even worse.

Now I know this is all gut-level reaction, perhaps backed up by my ability to somewhat accurately point to the Uncanny Valley to explain my feelings. The Uncanny Valley (I probably won't capitalize it consistently) is a term that describes the phenomenon wherein the emotional resonance of an anthropomorphized character steadily increases as it becomes more lifelike until a certain point, where it plummets. It’s called a valley because it picks up again, but from the graph I’ve seen, only a bunraku puppet is on the ascending side of it. I don’t know what a bunraku puppet is. Context tells me it is extremely lovable, however. The Uncanny Valley is why we like Roadrunner—I hope—and are creeped out by the Final Fantasy CGI movie.

I probably explained that pretty badly. Look it up, if need be.

Now the question is, where does a serious comic strip like Apartment 3-G fall on this spectrum? I feel like anything still and hand-drawn is safely to the left of the sickening Blockbuster dancing baby.

But I thnk the Uncanny Valley pervades all aspects of life; we love the life and fear the lifelike. Certainly, I think any visual medium has to deal with this problem. We talked a little bit last week about how real radio seems, especially on NPR, which Chadé exposed as fake, but still. When you hear the voice of that overexposed movie trailer guy, it means much less than that of a bounty hunter who quit the game because he got beaten in a meth lab. I think even visual, photographic media suffers from an uncanny valley. As much as we like looking at pretty people, particularly Claire Danes, we feel divorced from them by our neck hair and comparative poverty. Also, the most attractive thing about Claire Danes is that a parallel universe version of myself could have a shot with her. This isn’t because other people look fake or whatever, but she just looks much more human than more beautiful people. Her eyes don’t blaze with the fire of unsnuffable stars. It would be foolish and inaccurate to compare the color of her lips to any varietal of wine. She just seems like a nice girl is all.

With respect to graphic novels, I think maybe they come upon the uncanny valley in a different way. A traditional cartoon strip is one short scene, typically in ten or fewer panels. It doesn’t seek to emulate life the way American Splendor does. When we look at the quaint foibles of Marmaduke, we respond to that little nugget of truth about that day’s specific way in which a dog can misbehave. With the added length of a graphic novel, we zero in on what seems false, as the very nature of the medium means that it is trying to recreate reality more accurately simply by exposing us to a larger portion of would-be truth.

As ever, it is entirely possible that in the previous paragraphs, I have failed to excavate truths of the human condition and instead unearthed the horrific mummy of my worldview enclosed within the shroud of my own inadequacies as a communicator and a young man.

Also, the area far to the left of the Uncanny Valley is also problematic. The recently released Charlotte’s Web movie was delayed almost two years. From what I understand, this was because they originally animated a photorealistic, anatomically correct spider.

As it turns out, no one wants to hear Julia Roberts’s voice piped through Shelob. Well, I do, but that probably has to do with Claire Danes. It took two years to craft a spider with the appropriate composite of matronly grace and hairy thorax. So realism isn’t always a defense.

Hmm, I don’t know what happened up there. Onward to American Born Chinese. I had fun with this, although maybe I didn’t quite know how to read it. I find I miss a lot of details in pictures. I certainly tend to read all the text in a panel before looking at the illustration, which intuitively seems backwards, but I can’t help it. I have to read the footnotes before I read the body copy, too. Fluidity matters, I guess. My inability to just focus on one channel always makes me uneasy when I read comics. Anyway, the use of white space in this thing is interesting. Every page is only three fifths filled with pictures. You would feel cheated if this was a straight-up novel. You’d feel like John Steinbeck’s estate was playing you for a fool who buys unnecessarily ornate hardcovers.

I think my favorite thing is the monotony of the laugh track during the Chin-Kee sections. The Ha’s are so evenly spaced. I don’t know, I just like how it points out the unwavering unity of what is supposedly a cacophony of voices. I also enjoyed Chin-Kee’s switching of L and R even in mathematical inequalities and the fact that his suitcases were Chinese takeout containers.

A fantastic timing device that crops up throughout is the single panel of a head-on expressionless face. It does a wonderful job of provoking the reader into a beat of contemplation on the situation the character endures and what’s in his mind. I think if the face had an expression, we would take it at face value, pun originally intended, then immediately regretted but left unchanged. Instead, we look for a facial expression, analyzing everything that could be going through the character’s mind and using that information to try and twist the face into a meaningful mask. Rad stuff.

The structure was pleasant enough, although the realization of how the three parts will converge occurs quite a bit before the actual convergence. As soon as you’re able to juxtapose Danny’s cauliflower-like hair against Jin’s new ‘do, it’s appallingly clear how this will play out, and the pages between my recognition and the book’s reconciliation were spent in an unwelcome anticipation. I’m now wondering why that anticipation is unwelcome, and I think it has something to do with the question of tense Adam raised within his post. To me, the vast majority of this thing is in present tense. Jin’s early childhood and the legend of the monkey king are narrated in the past, but I think the kneticic qualities of colorful drawings with a big yellow “ZZZT!” where appropriate offset any tense indicators in the narration. (An uninteresting aside is that British comics seem to eschew some of the more onomatpoeic tendencies of their American counterparts. Thus in The Dandy, it is not uncommon to see “Scream!” inside a speech bubble.) The very fact that a story is told in the past tense gives some indication as to how it resolves—namely that the narrator, if an active character, must be in some position to tell it. Devoid of this information, the present tense has a capricious energy that the past doesn’t, and I think it sucks to know what’s going to happen next if you’re in the preset tense. Hmm, that was circular and obvious.

Now then, the question of this medium compared to a novel. This was my first graphic novel. The only cartoon characters that have had emotional resonance for me are those in Achewood. This has been achieved over five years of strips and scads of supplementary blogging, however. Maybe I am just insensitive to the Asian-American experience, but ABC lacked the sort of specificity that 100,000 words worth of novel can provide.

Jin’s kissing of his bud’s girlfriend made a modicum of sense, but not quite enough for me, but then again I’m not crackling with romantic spontanaeity like some.

I don’t know how to tell Jin from any other sudsy-pitted awkward Asian teen. Part of this is that being an awkward teen means he’s unable to literally assert himself in a way that exposes his character traits to a reader. I don’t know if that’s a limitation of Jin, Gene Yang, the medium or what.

This was more negative than positive, which doesn’t mirror my generally favorable feelings towards ABC. It’s just that Jin falls well short of an Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov or a Tom Joad or a John Locke or a Stringer Bell or a Roast Beef Kazenzakis in terms of being rich and compelling.

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