Thursday, December 17, 2009
"When I saw each frame as a unit I remembered something from my youth: as a young person I could completely concentrate on each frame of the comic book. I could see every line and gesture as if it were part of a sole painting hanging in the center of a blank wall. This, I thought, might be what separates me from my younger self. Now I look at the whole page, read far too quickly, and move on before seeing what Jack Kirby saw when he set down his images forty years ago.
And so I increased the size of each frame and I printed them, as large as possible. The result was a return to my childhood. In isolating the drawings of Jack Kirby I was able to see them with clearer, if not childlike, eyes."
A few years ago I picked up Maximum Fantastic Four, an impressive and fascinating comic book experiment.
The idea was conceived and shepherded by author Walter Mosley, as excerpted above, in an attempt to rediscover what it was about comic books - specifically the early Marvel Comics of the 1960s, and even more specifically the earliest issues of The Fantastic Four - that so affected him as a child. I think we can all relate: Whatever we may think of, and to whatever degree we may enjoy, the comics we currently read, it's usually not with the same sense of magic and wonder with which we read when we were young.
Part of this is certainly due to us being older, and wiser, and less easily open to the wild, magical charms of these tales; when asked about the Golden Age of Comics, Mark Waid's famous answer is that the Golden Age is the comics you read when you were twelve years old. But Mosley also hits the nail on the head when he brings up the issue of relative size. When we were children, lying on the floor, the comic book spread flat in front of us, the pictures seemed huge. And every picture, every frozen moment in time, seemed an entire world ... if you just looked closely enough.
This is also why I can't help but scoff when someone invariably complains about how short comics are these days; that they can read through an entire comic book in five minutes. News flash: Your reading speed is up to YOU. I picture these same goons making a speed run through an art gallery or museum, only glancing at each work to get the barest needed data: "Good. Good. Eh. Good. Weird. Lame. Fine. Good."
I can't say I'm never prone to the same behavior, and you can see why; it is in fact possible to make the words in comic books your focus, only glancing at the pictures to give us the necessary context - who, what, where, when - in which to frame those words. And a convincing argument could be made that's as it should be; that, like the rhythm section in a band, the art works best when it's acting in service to the whole without calling attention to itself.
But then, I enjoy listening to the bass line in a song, and I find a masterful drummer - one with a great beat, and the occasional interesting fill - exciting and energizing, something to pay attention to while still enjoying the whole. And when reading a comic - any comic - I always try to keep that in mind, and remember that each panel is in fact its own piece of art. Mosley's analogy of panels being paintings is accurate and insightful, because every frozen moment in time, every panel, was conceived as a unit by its artist. A unit as part of another unit (the page), and part of another unit (the comic book), and another (the series), and on and on ... but each picture, each box, is the smallest discrete piece in the work. And when the artist was first conceiving that, sketching that, drawing that ... it's certainly the world that he lived inside.
And that's what makes this book an innovation, and an experiment that succeeds, and a treasure. Because this comic book story, which was originally told in 25 pages, is now displayed in over 200 pages. Giving the comic the space to breathe that it hasn't had since we were young, every panel is larger than life, and commands our attention accordingly. Most panels are blown up to the size of an entire page of this coffee-table book, with some taking up the double-page spread - or larger than the book itself, as in the couple of four-page gatefold scenes. One of these is the tableau of the giant, green, burrowing monster attacking the French African installation, which in the original comic took just over a page and is really a very small part of the overall story. But here, with the moment of attack shown as one oversized, four-pages-wide display of ferocity, you feel the rumble of the earth, you hear the guardsmen's screams, and understand the terror in their hearts in a way you never have before. In a way you'd always just skipped past.
When Maximum Fantastic Four came out, I suspect it flew under the radar for many; after all, as massively important as Fantastic Four #1 was to the development of comics, and the seismic shift it left in its wake, I can imagine even the hardiest of fans scoffing at the thought of paying $50 for a single comic book "blown up real big". What I would like to convey, though, is this:
It's absolutely worth it.
Partly for the experience of reading this seminal comic book slowly, hugely, poring over every panel, and taking in the story at the measured pace it was meant to be read.
And partly for the lesson that this is how we should always aim to read them.