All right. After all the fireworks (which are still ongoing) on my Ditko post, I want to extend some of this investigation, but for now in a more modest fashion. (I will return later with another post on Ditko, which I'm guessing may continue the controversy; think of this one as a palate-cleanser, something like a lemon sorbet.) So. Let me say from the start this has nothing to do with any kind of word/image hierarchy, any interpretation of the work as an organic whole or not, any assignment of intentionality (well, maybe that last one just a tad). It's primarily an observation I made recently, and that to some extent I find fascinating precisely because it does not (easily) allow itself to be integrated into any higher interpretation of a work--or, rather, all such integrations I can think of seem too facile, which paradoxically amounts to the same thing.
Here is the best way I can introduce it--not with Frank Miller, though he is in the title of this post. I have noticed that some comics stories, and only some, occasionally resort to a formal motif that recurs throughout the story and that, so to speak, gives our visual experience of the story a kind of shape. The clearest example I can think of appears in a 12-pager, "The People vs. Batman," from Batman no. 7 (1941), drawn by Bob Kane. The story is peppered with circular panels, often inside a darkened rectangular frames, like this:
The circular form also, obviously, echoes the shape of the full moon (which, most Batman stories taking place at night, is often featured in the art). While circular panels also appear occasionally in other Batman stories (indeed, probably more often than in other early superhero strips, such as Superman or Captain America), statistically, the number of occurences of these circular motifs (panels and full moons) in "The People vs. Batman" is off the charts (I have compared it to all other early Batman reprints I could get my hands on, in the collections "Batman in the Forties," "Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told," "Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told," and a few older pamphlet reprints). Here is a montage of all the circular-themed panels from that story:
The point is clinched for me when you look at the splash page, with the curved caption box and Kane's signature in a circular frame (in most other cases, it appears in a rectangular frame):
Now, what does this mean? Probably nothing. (Which is not to say it's not significant; just that it's probably not meant to mean.) One can obviously draw the parallel between the circular panels and the moon--but the resulting interpretation (Batman as creature of the night, etc.), would be generally valid for ANY Batman story: so why specifically this one? Similarly, one can find some connection to the closing words of the story, where Bruce Wayne, with a wink, tells Commissioner Gordon: "I guess the life of Bruce Wayne does depend quite a bit on the existence of the Batman!" There is a kind of circularity implied there, I guess, and we can then claim the circularity is echoed formally in the art... And yet, if that's the great realization, the theme of the story--again, the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy is a constant throughout the strip. Why this story specifically?
I don't know. Maybe Bob Kane had a brand new compass he had purchased the day he drew this story, and he was just dying to use it. But my point here is: I'm not so much interested in fully motivated signs, portentous (a la Wagner) leitmotifs charged with meaning as you can find in, say, "Watchmen" or "The Dark Knight Returns"--works in which their creators seem fully in control of their formal language, in which every single (or almost) signifier can be seen as adding something to the story's theme. Rather, I'm interested in what, at this point, may be called automatisms, tics perhaps, that nevertheless affect our experience of the comic.
So we get to Frank Miller. I was looking through "The Complete Frank Miller Spider-Man" collection recently, and was struck that every single story in it seems to be organized around such a leitmotif, or maybe the better word would be automatism. For example, the two-parter Spider-Man/Daredevil Team-Up from "Spectacular Spider-Man" nos. 27 and 28 (1979), seems particularly interested in (again) circular motifs:
Now, given Daredevil's presence (whose radar sense is conventionally signified by concentric circles), this may not seems so surprising, even if the profusion of circles in the second example I gave is quite extraordinary--and, I should add, the composition of the four-panel tier is exquisite, exploiting the circular form much like recurring formal motifs might be in a seventeenth-century Japanese screen by Korin:
However, on top of this, there are plenty of panels with circular or near-circular compositions that add to this feeling of formal recurrence. Look at panels 2 and 3 here:
look at the placement of Daredevil's body in the top three panels here along a curved compositional line that is completed by his motion line in the bottom panel:
Or look at the overall page composition here, as defined by the "Thump!" in the first panel, the landlady's poses in the next three, and the "Eeeeee" sound effect in the bottom tier, combined with the Carrion's pose in the last panel:
Not convinced? All right, let's look at Miller's next Spider-Man story, in "Amazing Spider-Man" Annual no. 14, from 1980. Here, the leitmotif seems to be a wedge-like composition across a tier of (usually) vertical panels. The composition usually results from the tier constituting a held-frame or following-pan sequence, and a figure or group of figures rising or falling from panel to panel. Here are the clearest examples:
Mind you, I'm not claiming that these are the only instances of this motif that appear in Miller's work, and that he hasn't used similar sequences somewhere else--in the same way that, if a composer writes a movement particularly emphasizing the diminished fifth, it doesn't mean that the diminished fifth doesn't appear anywhere else in his oeuvre. Just that there is a statistical preponderance of this device in this specific piece, and that its recurrence is highly likely to be statistically significant--i.e., in some way, intentional. Also, just like in a piece of music, once the (formal) theme has been established, it can be alluded to or transformed in other passages, which still clearly refer to the theme in question. In this sequence, for example, there is a clear movement downwards of the light (yellow) across a tier of held-frame panels, though the exact wedge shape is missing:
while here the motif is made more complex with changes of framing, but if you squint you can still see it:
Now, again, let's try to interpret this. Since the story is about Dr. Doom's summoning of Dormammu from his nether dimension, etc., I guess the theme of a movement upwards or downwards kind of makes sense. However--and I know that Charles H., for example, is going to rebel against my saying this--if that's all that it is, that revelation is pretty paltry. I would rather interpret it closer to the way Julia Kristeva uses the notion of the semiotic chora in her book, "Revolution in Poetic Language" (and, again, because I don't want this to be an overly academic post, I'll try to make this quick and painless; we can elaborate at length in the comments, if you so wish): there she analyzes the play of sound in poetry, especially in Mallarme, and sees it as a pre-signifying, seemingly inchoate realm of drives and forces, one that cannot be fully explained in terms of the verbal or thematic meaning of the poem. To do so is to fold the "semiotic" (yes, Kristeva's use of that term is highly idiosyncratic, and actually the opposite of how we would usually use it) into the "thetic," and thereby to rob the poem of some of its power.
Ok, so much for that. Let me give some more examples. The following panels are from "Marvel Team-Up" no. 100 (December 1980), written by Chris Claremont, penciled by Miller, inked by Bob Wiacek. The motif here seems to be again a wedge-like composition, in this case in a single tier-wide horizontal panel, with the wedge also indicating movement in depth (the point of the wedge deeper into pictorial space, its thick end closer to the picture plane):
Notice in the full page I posted, the reference to "Spidey's moves flowing from the one to the next with a fluid inhuman grace that makes this seem more like a ballet, a meticulously choreographed work of art, than a battle to the death." Now, these are probably Claremont's words, though Miller is listed not just as artist but as "co-creator." I don't know whether the story was done full-script or Marvel-style, so I can't tell you who exactly was reacting to whom--but, given especially the placement of these words on a page that repeats the formal motif to exhaustion, it seems pretty clear to me that the story, in some way, shows awareness of its own aesthetic formalization (formalization which, by the way, is also, in a way, "inhuman"--as opposed to the humanist, organicist view of the integrated, meaningful work of art. There's a lot that we can get out of this quote.)
Oh, and that last example I gave? Here is a view of it with the tier right above it--which may look familiar:
Again, I don't know for a fact how much of this is intentional. To some extent, I actually value it if it's not. Yes, the story itself shows "awareness," but it can be argued that these wedge compositions--across held-frame tiers or tier-wide panels--are favorite devices of Miller's. Yet I find the statistical preponderance of each in a story significant, as if they give a kind of formal mood, around which the story is formally organized--kind of like the key, d minor or C major, in a piece of music.
One last example, and I'll be brief. Miller's last Spider-Man story, from Annual no. 15, 1981, has an even more complex organization. On one hand, it has a very clear, meaningful, significant leitmotif (closer to what he would later use in "The Dark Knight Returns"), which is a page with an image of the Daily Bugle front page occupying the top three quarters, and shifted a bit to the left, while the bottom right corner is occupied by two tiers of panels, a narrow horizontal one over two vertical ones, that partly occlude the newspaper page:
This motif occurs six times in the story, that is to say it occupies six of its thirty pages, including the first and the last two.
Now, so far this is clearly meaningful, the artist's intention is fully present to his spirit, etc... Yet it is interspersed with a more formal motif, again something closer to an automatism, which again involves one tier-wide panel, but in this case a motion, usually parallel to the picture plane, of an object or movement line that suggests a kind of conduit from one end of the panel to the other. This conduit can be Doc Ock's tentacles, Spidey's web, or the barrel of the Punisher's rifle:
Now, going back to my notion of sequential dynamism, from my last post, this motif also has the effect of drawing us across the surface of the panels, swiftly moving us forward. Or, as Doc Ock puts it:
What's interesting is that these two themes also end up combining, like in a sonata form. The story ends with a fight in the Daily Bugle printing presses, and those presses themselves, and the paper rolls going through them, end up functioning like the formal conduit I mentioned:
J. Jonah Jameson ends up falling into (and thereby disturbing) that conduit:
And he and Spidey, as a result, literally enter the newspaper page, echoing the first leitmotif I discussed:
On the last page of the story, when we last see JJJ, he is in the narrow horizontal tier of the "newspaper page" motif, but his trail of pipe smoke evokes the second, formal "conduit" motif:
The two themes have been combined. The sonata movement can end.
So, there you have it. I have emphasized formal motifs here so much because in my teaching I usually subscribe (how can one not, didactically?) to the more integral, integrated interpretation of the work of art, showing the artist in full control of his or her devices, and showing how each formal element illustrates, comments on, expresses or enhances the theme of the story. You can tremendously easily--and rewardingly--do this with Eisner, Ditko's Spider-Man, "Watchmen," "Black Hole," "Maus," and so on forever. However, I've been trying to discuss here the points of escape where this logic of illustration is not so certain, and where another, more formal logic may be superimposed on it. Because, as Kristeva would say, if you try to reduce that formal play of forces to a completely meaningful, controlled thematic message, toward the expression of which form and content work joyfully in full concert, you lose something.
Oh, and when I wrote at the top that "this has nothing to do with... any interpretation of the work as an organic whole or not"? I guess I lied. (I, honestly, had planned to keep it less involved than that. I guess when you start writing you can't always know where you'll end up.) But I'm not going to go back and change it now.