Archive for the 'formalism' Category

Review: FIGHT OR RUN by Kevin Huizenga


FIGHT OR RUN: Shadow of the Chopper
Kevin Huizenga
Buenaventura Press, November 2008

Huizenga, as ever, blows minds six times per page without breaking a sweat, but my first read through this project felt unsatisfying. On almost every page I found myself asking “why did that happen?” and resorting to “because he felt like it, I guess.” The victor of each fight is pretty arbitrary, which I don’t mind, but in some fights the apparent loser is declared the winner — which has a certain rock-paper-scissors logic (what the hell does a rock care if it’s covered by paper?) but still struck me as unfair.

Fight or Run is described as “an open source comics game” on the back cover (H doesn’t even list his full name anywhere in the book), which implies that other artists are encouraged to try it out for themselves — it’s an activity rather than a story. Things happen less because of logic and more because Huizenga simply enjoys drawing them. A character has two heads? Let’s go ahead and have him grow another! And then another and another! But what if the head-stack gets severed? Ooh, then each head could sprout its own body — wait for it — made of heads! Once you get into it, the goofy improv fun of the thing is infectious. Of course, Huizenga being Huizenga, he doesn’t even make it halfway through the book before he’s already diagrammed out the Platonic algorithm of the concept, broken his own rules (with a sub-fight taking place between the personified “Fight” and “Run” options themselves), and conducted a deconstruction of the old cartoon dustcloud “fight” symbol.

There’s also a lot of classic animation influence here, I think, where you have two characters engaged in a battle for completely arbitrary reasons (Tom & Jerry, Roadrunner & Wile E., Bugs & Elmer), giving the animators license to just come up with goofy visual gags and tables-turnings. No consequences, just fade to black and fade in with the next gag.

It does seem like a great loosening-up exercise, along the lines of the 24-hour comic, with the added benefit of not requiring 24 hours… and also (though Huizenga doesn’t explore it) the possibility of collaboration. James Kochalka has done similar projects (both “The Conversation” series with Jeffrey Brown and Craig Thompson and the monster fights with his son Eli). Mostly it made me want to hang out with a bunch of cartoonists and try it out… New SPX tradition, anyone?

As a demonstration of the possibilities of a new game, FIGHT OR RUN: Shadow of the Chopper is definitely successful, and certainly worth your $3.95. But like most games, I bet it’s more fun to play than to watch.

Shadows in the fog: WATCHMEN

Like everyone else remotely connected with comics, I’ve been considering the Watchmen film all week. My reactions to it (in the aftermath of a Wednesday night advance screening, thanks to some very kind local connections) are kind of strewn around the internet, largely on my Twitter feed, but also commenting on posts by Sean Collins and Pádraig Ó Méalóid.

[Edited to add: for the sake of preservation, here are those comments:

  • leighwalton accepts that Zach Snyder probably made the best movie he could 1:18 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton do I just love movies less than most people? Guess I don’t see why a pretty-good WATCHMEN film is so fulfilling (aside from book sales bump) 11:42 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton for my personal take, I’m somewhere between Walter Chaw ( and Tasha Robinson ( 11:54 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton “he would ejaculate only energy”: I’m not sure how to feel, seeing Roger Ebert encounter WATCHMEN for the first time 8:53 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert is working SO HARD to reconstruct the graphic novel from the movie – seriously, dude, it’s a $20 book. DC will send you a free copy. 9:03 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert:300 was empty. but WMEN, “maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s a growing discernment on Snyder’s part, but there’s substance here” ARGH 9:06 PM Mar 6th from web

reply to Pádraig:

Aside from some big-picture considerations (e.g. the tone wandered all over the place), I was frustrated by a lot of stilted line-readings. Oddly enough, a lot of the unconvincing lines were actually Moore’s — in WATCHMEN as in much of his writing, he often leans upon a line to carry double or triple meanings, so of course it’s going to sound unnatural if you take it “straight.”

It was most obvious to me during the Chapter III scenes — did the screenwriters really not understand why the TV man says “that’s certainly dark enough for my purposes”? Or that when Laurie says “shadows in the fog” she is hidden behind the steam from a teakettle? Without that double meaning, it’s an idiotic line (especially delivered by Malin Akerman, but let’s not go there). Snyder kept holding these long interpersonal scenes, which are not his forte — look, man, you’re an MTV-style director; make an MTV-style film! The book shows you how to do it! Cut rapidly between scenes, with lines bleeding over from one to the next! If you’re going to use the book as storyboard, friggin’ do it!

Your point about wasting time with the opening fight scene when so many important things were left out is right on. Why the hell was there so much emphasis on the Gunga Diner (and its Pink Floydian floating elephant blimp)? It’s a pun that Moore and Gibbons tossed off in a single panel, and it’s not even particularly relevant thematically. Meanwhile, where was the Gordian Knot Lock Company? Veidt’s decision makes less sense without the model of Alexander’s legend. Why include Bubastis at all? And why, in God’s name, change “I did it thirty-five minutes ago”?

It’s certainly a better film than most crews would have made. But I guess it’s just good enough to fall into the uncanny valley where we take its virtues for granted and see only its flaws.

Reply to Sean:

I thought it was cold when it needed to be flashy (no alternating jump-cuts between scenes? did they READ the book?) and flashy when it needed to be cold (fight in Blake’s penthouse, fight in Antarctica, bone-protrusions).]

The task of writing a full review of the film is daunting, and I’m afraid the perfect may be the enemy of the good in this case.


What it ultimately boils down to, where I’m sitting right now, is that Snyder et al adapted Watchmen more or less exactly as they would have adapted Kraven’s Last Hunt or Emerald Twilight or Secret Wars II. “Here’s a great comic book story, and we’ll bring it to life on the big screen.” But Watchmen is fundamentally unlike those other stories — there’s a reason Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo put it on their 100 Novels list (as you’ve heard ad nauseam), but declined to include Crisis on Infinite Earths. Spelling out what sets Watchmen apart could take a year, but broadly it’s 1) the self-conscious ambivalence of its thematic approach and 2) the Byzantine grandeur of its storytelling. Both are missing in Snyder’s film.

This is Watchmen without the irony and without the technique, which is still pretty fun, but it’s not the Watchmen that I read anymore.

i c whut you did thar

The irrepressible Corey Lewis is one of the first wave of cartoonists in DC’s Zuda webcomics site. His strip is called Dead in the Now. Not a lot of content yet (and that interface is pretty clunky…), but as a card-carrying comics formalist, I was enthralled by this little moment:

Word balloons in Rey’s Dead in the Now

Check out those word balloons! They go into and back out of the page to avoid the zombie’s head!

How did that make me feel, Roast Beef?

“gold appearing in hands”: money, poetry, politics

ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
ἄνδρ[α …]

But even wisdom is enslaved to profit.
And gold appearing in hands (reckless wage!) turned
that man […]

Pindar, Pythian 3.551

At Powell’s the other day, I noticed an anthology called Poetry After Modernism (Robert McDowell, ed). Since I think contemporary poetry, in its overwhelming rejection of traditional forms, has often thrown the baby out with the bathwater and created a new, equally boring, status quo, I was curious to see what the deal was with the “New Formalists” mentioned in one essay. The author was particularly enamored with Dana Gioia, author of the apparently-famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and one of Gioia’s poems quoted in the book impressed me. Some research at home reveals that Gioia is an ex-corporate-executive and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by George W. Bush.

So I’ve been having a morning of cognitive dissonance, reading through this essay by Steve Evans, “Free (Market) Verse” and sorting through some thorny questions about art, commerce, populism, tradition, and form. These questions seem especially relevant now that I’m a member of the arts industry. I’m currently living off (running out of!) the cash award I got for the poetry I wrote for my thesis. As I begin working with Top Shelf I’m going to be intimately concerned with (and dependent on!) the principle of charging people money for art.

My thesis was centrally concerned with questions of accessibility. I may not have succeeded in my goal of writing a thesis my grandmother could read, but I’m a big fan of art that actually reaches people, and in some ways to translate is to popularize (or to vulgarize — in Latin they’re synonyms!). I wanted to get the poems out of the Classics department and into the ears of the public.

My work in comics activism/advocacy is similarly rooted in a desire for accessibility, although I hadn’t made the connection until now. I try to promote comics to people who don’t read them; I hunt for books that appeal to those readers. I’m more likely to change somebody’s life by giving them Blankets or Strangers in Paradise than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The comic book scene, like (Gioia argues) the academic poetry scene, has its head up its own ass and is busy talking to itself rather than communicating with the world.

Yet I’m uncomfortable with the idea of connections between aesthetics and politics. Does nostalgia for an old-fashioned art form imply nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideology? Is the impulse to defend the institution of rhyme related to the impulse to defend the institution of marriage? I think not, in my case at least. I think there are a few more things at work here.

I’ve been asked to write a new school song for Reed College. Writing an alma mater is one of the most public, populist things you can do. The alma mater genre, like the Pindaric victory ode, is inherently conservative — institutionally normative, you might say, or counterrevolutionary — but I love the challenge of writing an anthem that the notoriously cynical student body of Reed can proudly stand behind. (Luckily, Reed itself is weirdly conservative in many ways.) It’s the same challenge I enjoyed as an atheist at Baptist Youth Camp, serving on the worship planning committee: finding ways to create a service that would be meaningful to everyone. In my thesis, I loved the challenge of writing deliberately old-fashioned translations of old avant-garde texts for a contemporary audience.

My father once made a remark that has stuck with me ever since: I was raised in a relentlessly heterogeneous environment, in a world of apparent contradictions. A liberal & educated city in a relatively rural state, a fiercely progressive church in a resolutely conservative denomination, a lower-end neighborhood in a wealthy suburb. My brother and I are both devoted to the idea of applying high-culture perspectives to low culture, and vice versa. I tend to feel like the geekiest person in a room full of “normal folks” and the most well-adjusted in a room full of geeks. In the Taijitu, my father implied, I’m the white in the black and the black in the white.

I don’t think I’m going to figure this all out today. I don’t think that everyone who agrees with my aesthetic values is going to be someone I’m comfortable standing with. But, I realize, that’s nothing new. I’ve been preaching the gospel of heavy metal and comic books for years, and God knows I have a pretty dim view of the average metalhead and comic fan. The fun part, after all, is loving something that’s insufficiently loved by people I respect, and then teaching them to love it.

[Did that make any sense? All of these points could use some elaboration, but this has been sitting on my computer for a long time now and I need to get it out. I’m sure there’s more to come.]

1 Pindar is describing the corrupting influence of wealth on the ancient healer Asclepius, who was once paid a ton of cash to resurrect a dead man. Zeus, outraged at this violation of the laws of nature, killed him with a thunderbolt. As a freelance poet who sold his praise to the highest bidder, Pindar is very careful to denounce the evils of capitalism and conceal the economic realities of his own situation. The way he operates, the poet assures us, Pindar only writes poems about people who are genuinely his friends, and every word is deserved because his patrons really are that awesome.

bonus: spot the Don Hertzfeldt line!


It’s like Douglas Hofstadter and Chris Ware and H.R. Giger made a baby. An evil, evil baby.

The initial link is worksafe, the actual comic is definitely not.

lengthy pondering about ambition, sophistication, and formalism in comics

Of course, I’m also constantly trying to apply these ideas [i.e. art/lit theory/criticism] to making comics. Anybody who’s tried to talk to me in the last year knows that I’ve had comics on the brain, but the development of the last month or so is that I’m thinking about making them. There’s a strong argument to be made that comics is the ultimate artistic medium (except perhaps film), really. Any criticism or theory that applies to literature or visual art should theoretically apply to comics just as well. It’s a very young medium still, and the collective intelligence of its creators has never been terribly high*, so there’s only a bit of work that shows a care for really high-level concerns. But we’re getting there.

*as in pop music, it’s probably less appropriate to speak of a dearth of intelligence as it is a dearth of education: Jack Kirby was a brilliant guy, but he never went to college. There’s also been a lack of ambition until recently: I can’t get that image out of my head from Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics of Rube Goldberg telling Will Eisner that they were nothing more than vaudevillians.

Reference list for structurally/theoretically intelligent comics:
Ernie Bushmiller (need more of him in the MLLL)
Eddie Campbell
Howard Chaykin (him too)
Will Eisner (him too)
Warren Ellis?
Los Bros Hernandez?
George Herriman??
Paul Hornschemeier (him too)
David Mack
Winsor McCay (him too)
Scott McCloud?
Dave McKean?
Frank Miller
Peter Milligan?
Alan Moore
Grant Morrison
P. Craig Russell (him too)
Bill Sienkiewicz
Dave Sim
Art Spiegelman (him too)
Osamu Tezuka
Chris Ware

And presumably a whole heap of stuff I’m not yet aware of, probably including:
-Small-press “pretentious art-school fucks” that The Comics Journal loves
-Forgotten pre-WWII innovators that The Comics Journal loves
-European and Japanese innovators that even The Comics Journal tends to ignore

ninjas who fight zombies! on the high seas! with lasers!

Robby and I discuss marketing:

(16:42:33) robby: you’d probably like Street Angel: blinged out Aztec gods, basketball-playing ninjas, immortal Spanish conquistadors, the first Irish astronaut, a mad scientist who wants to recreate Pangea
(16:43:00) me: hmm
(16:43:22) robby: It should be in trade by now
(16:43:26) me: personally, i don’t think that i respond very well to just “concept” marketing
(16:43:44) me: i don’t usually care what’s being done so much as how
(16:44:08) me: for example, Fables is a pretty cool concept, but it could easily have been done very poorly
(16:44:20) me: but the art and characterization makes it worth reading
(16:44:36) me: Y: The Last Man is a great concept
(16:44:43) me: but again, same deal
(16:44:59) me: it’s probably been done before by a lot of shitty indie 80s creators
(16:45:24) me: what makes it work is the characterization and continuously-interesting plotting
(16:45:31) me: plus good visuals
(16:45:47) me: i admit, it’s harder to market something in that way
(16:46:20) me: it’s easier to differentiate a new series if you can describe it with a unique concept
(16:46:46) me: but that’s not going to sell me
(16:47:10) me: i’m tremendously more willing to buy something if I’ve seen preview pages for it
(16:47:22) me: so I can see how the artist works and the dialogue style
(16:47:51) me: this is why i have such a hard time with manga
(16:48:02) me: i really want to have the reed collective branch into manga
(16:48:12) me: but i’m looking at fifty one-paragraph solicits
(16:48:21) robby: right, and the concepts sound good
(16:48:28) robby: but the execution doesn’t appeal
[edit: really, it’s not that; it’s that all they give me is concept, and the execution is completely unknown until I buy the book.]
(16:48:47) me: “Fujuki moves into a new school! and she falls in love with this guy who’s actually a robot duck! follow their wacky adventures!”
(16:49:20) me: or sometimes the concept is something simple
(16:49:44) me: “Takahoshimitsusama moves to a new school and has trouble adjusting”
(16:49:56) me: but maybe the characterization in that series is brilliant
(16:50:22) me: some of the best stories, if you think about it, have really simple concepts
(16:50:54) me: so I’m really skeptical of “it’s full of ninjas who fight zombies! on the high seas! with lasers!”
(16:51:12) robby: yeah, I had a teacher this year that was always going on about how there are maybe 15 stories, 25 tops
(16:51:12) me: but give me a page with ten word balloons on it and I’m right there with you

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.