Monday, January 25, 2010

Abstract Form as Leitmotif: Frank Miller's "Spider-Man"

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.


  1. Hi, Andrei -- Another interesting post... But aren't you just pointing to a moment in the history of superhero comics when artists began to incorporate design principles from graphic arts other than comics? I'm thinking not only of Eisner, but Chaykin, Simonson, Mignola, maybe Rogers. I think it's unsurprising to find a different approach to composing a page or a story, a foregrounding of formal devices that may or may not be organically related to the script. At the same time, it isn't the wholesale remaking of the page that Adams or Steranko were doing a few years earlier -- this moment is marked by a more careful restraint and greater subtlety.

    So I don't disagree with all that you're pointing to here, but I wonder whether the critical apparatus that you deploy is really necessary for the discussion...

  2. Well, I really don't think that Eisner fits in there, but I would agree with the rest, I guess (I tend to care more about Miller than about the other artists you mentioned, but I suppose something of the same point could be made with them--at least I'll take your word for it). That said, I'm not sure how you disagree with me at all! I do think that this evolution, toward, as you say, "a foregrounding of formal devices that may or may not be organically related to the script" is important, and challenges a unitary view of the work of art. I was trying to draw out the importance--the philosophical importance--of this evolution (or rather this difference, I don't want to turn this into an evolutionary narrative), which is the only purpose to which I put "my critical apparatus." (Maybe I find this evolution more philosophically or artistically significant than you do, though knowing you I wouldn't have thought that was the case). The rest of the "critical apparatus," such as it was, was only designed to provide a close (-ish) reading of a few Spider-Man stories--it was used for critical, object-oriented purposes.

  3. I.e., I was trying to hum the buried melody I hear in Miller's stories, so you can hear it too.

  4. I have no idea why I mentioned Eisner... except that he was an evident influence on Miller.

    I guess I'm not entirely sure that invoking Kristeva tells us a whole lot about this particular phenomenon. There's no question that comics and films (to take two media I know fairly well) both contain plenty of non-narrative information (for want of a better word). And that this is often the aspect that's most satisfying. Sometimes narratives exist to be fucked with.

    It's something that I was thinking about re the infamous Ditko post -- and yes, we're in complete agreement -- that the notion that "form" serves "content" is entirely inadequate to explain... well, to explain anything. It ignores, for one thing, the ways in which story serves form -- you know: Kirby does AWESOME cosmic shit, so let's write a Psychoman story! Ditko does that funky abstract thing, so let's send Dr. Strange to another dimension!

    To take a film example, you don't decide to film Krakatoa East of Java in Cinemascope because the story demands it; you make Krakatoa East of Java because it lets you show off Cinemascope. Avatar: same thing.

    Anyway, we don't disagree -- other than in our estimation of Chaykin, Simonson, et al -- the music is there, you can dance to it, and it may or may not serve a larger purpose. And that larger purpose may or may not pertain to the narrative.

  5. I admire and am convinced by your readings here, and I think that doing such readings on this kind of material is extremely important, for reasons we can maybe get into later. Of the many interesting issues this post and your Ditko discussion have raised, I’ll just take up one almost at random. When you say that the theoretical implication of your argument is to “challenge the unitary view of the work of art,” do you see that as a particularly urgent critical project in regard to comics? Isn’t the mere possibility of a fairly run-of-the-mill Marvel comic being read as a “unified work of art” a relatively recent and by no means yet dominant one?

    As the equivocation at the start of your post suggests, some unresolved issues concerning authorial intention seem to be at work here. I’m moved to ask what are the specific cues that allow for the reading of some textual gestures as consciously intentional, some as motivated and thematically consequential but perhaps not consciously intended, and some as unintended, i.e. automatisms?

    Put another way: I think your reading of the interaction between the “newspaper page” and “visual conduit” elements in the Spider-Man story is pretty brilliant. But you seem to want to position that argument as something more than “these motifs appear here and work like this,” which by itself, I take it, you would see as one of those “pretty paltry” insights. (If so, I’d disagree.) In order to make that Kristevan point, though, you seem to need the consciously intended/automatism distinction. Certainly I’d grant that Miller’s Daily Bugle pages can hardly be anything but intentionally meaningful, but that’s at the far end of a spectrum of intentionality. Printing errors like blobs of ink or torn pages would be at the far end of the other. But how does one make more nuanced distinctions? Is it important to be able to distinguish between things that are “meant to mean” and those that are significant but unintended?

  6. Hi Rusty--

    thanks for the comments. I would say that the reading of a Marvel comic a a "unified work of art" is at least dominant in academic comics scholarship (see some of the responses to my Ditko post). So maybe that's what I was reacting too. In general, though, even if the "non-unified" reading has been more common within the general reception of comics (and, outside of rabid fan circles, I don't know if that's true--think of all the people who imagine Stan Lee was the writer, artist, and letterer and colorist too, I suppose, on every title!), I don't think it--and its implications--have been really formulated critically or academically. I'm just taking a first step here, and I'm glad I decided to blog all this here before writing it up in some more official manner--all the comments are helping me clarify and fine-tune my points.

    As for the notion of automatisms--I guess I was, again, responding to an objection I received when first outlining this project to a friend, and which has some validity: namely, "but Frank Miller uses these kind of panels all the time." (And I would say that's how one approaches your question of "more nuanced distinctions." For example, it would be unwarranted to analyze one Ditko story as intentionally making all the female characters look alike, as most Ditko stories make all the female characters look alike, which begins to question his intentionality, or his doing it for a specific desired effect, in any one piece.) That's why, on one hand, I was insisting on statistical preponderance--yes, he uses them all the time, but in some stories with a much higher frequency than in others. Maybe, on one hand, it was fully intentional, maybe only partly so. But if it turns out that it was (anyone have Miller's contact info so we can check?), no, I don't think the notion of the automatism is indispensable to the argument. Again--Kristeva analyzed the frequency of the use of the letter "R" in one of Mallarme's poems, and I don't recall whether she made an argument that it was intentional or not. To a large extent, it does not matter.

  7. OK, here's my problem -- with that last point about Kristeva in your last comment in mind, the leitmotifs you're focussing on seem too prominent, too potentially deliberate. I would think that a random brushstroke, a fortuitous juxtaposition, would be more in keeping with what she's getting at. Something where the artist's skill is producing something more than what the artist is "putting" there. A motif, even a leitmotif, is more coherent, less inchoate, I would think...

  8. Scott, I daresay that the leitmotifs may seem so prominent only because I pointed them out (obviously, I'm not referring to the newspaper page on in the last story, but to the others). Also, I isolated every instance of them, and I'm just showing you them here with nothing in between. Take a look at the complete stories and see if you still feel so. And I think you're selling a bit short what Kristeva is getting at. Her analysis of alliteration in Mallarme, for example, clearly throws into relief that "sound music" under the poem (which is a formulation that Mallarme himself had used--so, come to think of it, probably was intentional, whether Kristeva says so or not), which upon further readings becomes a clear, inescapable effect of the poem--something much more than a random brushstroke or a fortuitous juxtaposition.

  9. Okay! I'm gettin' it now.

  10. Actually, I'm not strongly tempted to rebel against what you've got here, Andrei, either in the analysis itself or in its Kristevan framing. And I fully agree with Scott's point that sometimes narrative is just the occasion, the (as I said re: your Ditko analysis) warrant for fucking things up in an interesting way. I certainly wouldn't want to reduce the experience of comic art to a bunch of discrete quanta that, by God, are "meant" to be there and can be explicitly thematized.

    I've been using Zou's wordless six-pager "Champion" (from Comix 2000) in class this past week, as an icebreaker in my current comics course, and one notable thing about that story, sometimes an intentional device surely but at other times perhaps an automatism, is the reliance on round panels, shades of your Batman example. Sometimes these round panels seem to prop up certain plot or thematic points, quite deliberately, as when one panel, drawn to resemble a Swatch face, becomes two (a split panel) to convey the passage of time. But at other times the insistent visual rhyming, the sheer preponderance of round panels and round shapes, seems like a tic, that is, an effect that adds to the sensual appeal of the images but is thematically ambiguous. Another way to put this is that, yes, I can offer a "unified" reading of the story, as indeed many of my students did the other day, but there are always noteworthy elements of the story that seem to slip through the net of analysis and simply (or rather complexly) confer a kind of visual unity, or identity, without lending themselves to an enunciable (literary) meaning.

    That Zou story invites comparison to the Kane!

  11. "at other times the insistent visual rhyming, the sheer preponderance of round panels and round shapes, seems like a tic, that is, an effect that adds to the sensual appeal of the images but is thematically ambiguous. Another way to put this is that, yes, I can offer a "unified" reading of the story, as indeed many of my students did the other day, but there are always noteworthy elements of the story that seem to slip through the net of analysis and simply (or rather complexly) confer a kind of visual unity, or identity, without lending themselves to an enunciable (literary) meaning."

    Bingo, that's exactly what I'm trying to say...

    BTW, check out my reply to you on the other post, I mentioned that "rebelling" thing. I guess I was just being silly... in a friendly way. :)

  12. I find this and the Ditko post fascinating. Thought provoking, persuasive, and illuminating, too. And yeah, I agree with Scott that it took a little elaboration in the comments to help me see better what you are getting at. Again, the moreness. Again, the insufficiency of purpose (or intention) to explain all of the elements, their confluence and repetition.

    I am also struck by your patterns of synesthesia in analyzing these fragments. No accident, I presume, that music is a frequent interpretive frame for you. As I think you noted somewhere in the Ditko talk, music also exceeds, resists "meaningful" correspondence even when it is connected to narrative. And, of course, the temporality of musical performance lends to a focus on sequence and progression.

    Perhaps there is something too in the tension and difference between score and performance in music. The true mastery of musical performance cannot be "notated" -- it's always in the colorful (!!) excesses beyond the map or structure of the score. And in improvisational music, the celebration of the happy accident turned into motif more or less only by in the moment recognition and repetition.

    And so, I am also fascinated by your mash-ups and remixes. Sure, maybe this analysis is more like "Schickele Mix" than, say, "Girl Talk". But I dig it, and I like the things you are playing for/showing me.

    (In contexts where appropriate and anticipated, fireworks are a good thing, right?)

  13. Oh, man, Girl Talk totally ripped off Jason Forrest and Duran Duran Duran, and is laughing all the way to the bank!

  14. Yeah, probably. But then, if "Girl Talk" doesn't exactly subvert the idea of "ripped off," at least he embraces the logic of rip and remix. And I gotta love a geeky data processor who turns his hobby into a day job.

    No judgment, um, "intended" about the artist I use for analogue. "Schickele Mix" is most often a mix for analytical purposes, showing similarities across different composers and often disparate genres (and often with a sly wink). "Girl Talk" (or pick another remix artist of your choosing) is a collage artist, doing his remixes often for the hedonistic excess of the club scene. Sure, I could gyrate to the swirl of color and motifs you are laying down here. But I think there is a "moreness" to your analysis than just "hey cat, that's really cool."

    And I wish any artist (definitely including you and the other contributors to this blog) mirth on the way to the bank! ;-)

  15. The problem with Girl Talk is that he uses overly obvious samples, to get the frat boys to party. (I should add that I've never heard Schickele Mix.)

    To answer your other points, I'll email you, I don't think that discussion belongs on this forum anymore.


Please note that anonymous comments will be rejected.