catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16



A reflection

Graph-ic: (adjective)

  1. Vividly detailed; including a number of vivid descriptive details.
  2. Shown in writing; representing something such as a sound by means of letters or other written symbols.

Here are some other ways of explaining this word: Explicit, vivid,
striking, detailed, full, lurid, garish, gaudy, shocking, brassy,
strident, grating, vulgar…

What does it mean to be graphic? I mean really? Graphic can be quite
arbitrary. When someone sees a violent scene in a movie or television
show you might hear it described as “graphic.” When someone is
referring to promiscuity or sexuality you might also hear it—“graphic.”
For those out there that follow Brian Michael Bendis, Alan Moore or
Frank Miller, you also know it: graphic. These graphic novel writers
and artists are the up-and-coming storytellers of the post-modern era.

These variegated tales are permeating the pop culture landscape in a
big way. So what exactly are graphic novels and why are they important?
When is it okay to address mature matters in creative and artistic
ways? How thoughtful are we about this technique historically? What
about the ancient artistry of Egyptian murals: storytelling in colorful
and creative form in a systematic pattern, with structure? Is it more
than a low-brow art form? I believe it is. It has a significant place
in the current market and is a viable means of conveying the essence of
the human condition via story.

Not many folks will read this article or hear about these artists
and head on out to the local comic book shop to pick these stories up.
So what will it take for us to appreciate how the comic book and
graphic novel are viable and influential means of storytelling? Or to
put it in pop culture terms, I’ll frame it in the question a young boy
posed to a willing owl in a commercial I watched growing up: “How many
licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”
Well, in the words of the old owl, “Let’s find out”?

First, why are we even having this discussion? Consider this: in the
last five or more years, a myriad of comic books and graphic novels
have been adapted to film unlike any time in the history of filmmaking.
Batman was re-launched in the 80s by Tim Burton, then by Joel Schumacher and most recently by Christopher Nolan, whose Batman Begins and the highly touted and upcoming Dark Knight
(the last complete screen role by Heath Ledger) evokes the darker
themes of graphic novelist Frank Miller. This is just one example.
Among others already released or in production that stem from comic
book and graphic novel adaptation are Catwoman, Spider Man (3), X-Men (3), 300, 30 Days of Night, Fantastic Four (2), Hulk, Blade, Men in Black, The Crow, Hellboy, Van Helsing, A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daredevil, The Punisher, Constantine, Aeon-Flux, Alien vs. Predator, Elektra, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, V for Vendetta, Sin City, Iron Man, Ghost Rider, Wonder Woman, Silver Surfer, Nick Fury, and Superman (both the Richard Donner series of the late 70s and throughout the 80s and the more recent Bryan Singer project).

What does this trend suggest? There’s clearly an audience for the
stories that are found in the pulp pages of comic books and graphic
novels. Whatever the past might suggest, the future promises a
continuing trend. Paramount Studios, the studio owned by corporate
giant Viacom (masterminds behind Blockbuster Video), has a mega-deal
with Marvel Comics, which should keep a steady stream of adaptations
flowing in the coming years. This medium of storytelling seems to have
a voice that resonates with the human condition. It spells big budgets
and bigger profits for studios. With merchandising and the steady fan
base, we ought to consider these stories more seriously.

Graphic novels, if you’ve not read any, are quite captivating. 
I particularly enjoy the work of Frank Miller, whose recent works have
been adapted to produce 300, Sin City and Batman Begins. Then there’s Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta
which was a subversive comment on Reaganism and Thatcher’s leadership
in the UK in the 80s, which was recently adapted by the Wachowski
brothers of Matrix Trilogy fame.

Now, I could just give the standard pat answer that graphic novels are
too “graphic.” Regardless, I think there’s quite a bit we can glean
from the graphic world. If we’re honest, we don’t have to thumb through
the pages of our Scriptures too long before we find some graphic
stories. What I enjoy most about graphic novels and comics, in addition
to the technical aesthetics, is how they’re colorfully honest about
human nature. I believe these stories can challenge us.

I watched a lot of movies growing up. My dad was a big fan of Smoky and the Bandit
starring Burt Reynolds. One of my favorite characters was Sheriff
Buford T. Justice, played by the great Jackie Gleason. He had a
distinct southern vernacular, always “in high speed pursuit” of ole
Smoky. I think we should adopt a similar approach to comics. We need to
examine why this market is becoming so viable. What in the human
condition is being represented that makes it so appealing to so many
people? I think we should consider Princeton professor Robert George’s
words: “It is very important for us as Christians to appreciate the
value of knowledge in all domains. We must not assume that there are
some branches of knowledge not relevant to Christian concerns and
others that are.” Media has the potential to open up and lay bare vast
descriptive elements of the human condition and more, and we’ve yet to
plunder this with gospel compassion and vigor. 

Bottom line, we’re talking about common grace. All of culture touches
on a basic element of common grace, the idea that God’s goodness is
evident in the works of his creation. In creating images, we manifest
our being created in the Creator’s image, even if it’s to oppose him.
John Calvin wrote it like this: “Some men excel in keenness; others are
superior in judgment; still others have a readier wit to learn this or
that art. In this variety God commends his grace to us, lest anyone
should claim as his own what flowed from the sheer bounty of God."

Knowing the context can help us better appreciate any work of art. For example, Superman, which began in Action Comics #1 1938,
was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, both sons of Jewish
immigrants. Appropriate to their context, Shuster and Siegel create an
all powerful hero in an age of oppression. Often such stories are
hyperbolic, fantastic or mythical, yet they’re drawn from real life.

Before the pulp pages of H.L. Mencken’s Blackmask magazine
in the 20s, it was Vidocq, a criminal who had escaped and eventually
was utilized by the French to study criminals. He founded the Sûreté
and his criminality led to a splendid career and his renowned memoirs.
According to master criminologist Joseph Geringer, “Vidocq’s factual
successes inspired world-class authors who borrowed his brilliance to
embody their fictional heroes. Doyles' Sherlock Holmes character is
much based on Vidocq; so are both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in
Hugo's Les Miserables. Dickens mentions Vidocq in Great Expectations; Melville cites him in Moby-Dick; and Poe refers to Vidocq's methods in Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Vidocq’s real life and experiences inspired other creative artists to
draw from his and their own experience to tell stories. This is the
crux: human experience—struggle, hardship, pain, loss, tragedy,
comedy—all framed creatively as an attempt to make sense of existence.

Additionally, our knowledge of graphic culture can allow us an
opportunity to engage the worldviews of others in a way that’s clear
and vivid. Through knowledge of cultural context, the apostle Paul was
able to speak to people who wouldn’t have been familiar with the
Scriptures. He referenced their poets instead—several of them in fact.
By utilizing their language he was able to appeal to his audience’s
religiosity and proclaim the gospel. I hope we can endeavor to a
similar end though I know it is a challenging one.

Yet, I realize that some out there believe that there’s still nothing these stories offer, like New Yorker
film critic David Denby, who notes, “Pop cannibalizes and regurgitates
everything, including history, and in normal circumstances only a
literal-minded prig would treat graphic novelists or big-screen
fantasists as if they had any responsibility to truth.” However, I’d
like to suggest we begin by simply opening up by reading a comic or
graphic novel, seeing one of these film adaptations when they come out
and talking to fans about what this movement means for us, the current
culture. That doesn’t mean we hold the genre in faultless regard.

In conclusion, I recall the wise words of Edward R. Murrow when he
addressed another influential medium of media, the television: “I have
reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a
controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public
recognizes it for what it is—an effort to illuminate rather than to
agitate. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can
even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are
determined to use it to those ends.” May we utilize our wits and the
gospel to do just that.

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