Posted by: Abhay Khosla on December 3, 2007
Chewing over a theme that keeps popping up for me:
I played a videogame recently entitled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It’s famous in game circles for its postmodern themes; essentially it’s designed to assault, insult, and berate the gamer for even wanting to play a sequel to Metal Gear Solid. This is amply reflected by the level design: after the gamer completes each level, the narrative states that the completed level was inconsequential, and the gamer’s efforts were frivolous. At one point, the game explicitly tells the gamer to shut off his Playstation. Finally, at the end, the gamer’s decision to finish the game is described as a sign of his obedience to power, and his lack of humanity.
It’s a pretty gnarly video game.
Metal Gear Solid 2 is funniest when it mocks the former game’s sentimentality. My favorite moment in the entire game involves the player character’s romantic foil, nicknamed EE– after you repeatedly save her life, she dies anyway in the arms of her brother instead, while finally admitting her incestuous feelings for him. As she dies, she pleads: “Please call me Emma.”
Her brother refuses her dying wish: “What’s wrong with EE?”
And on that romantic note, she croaks. Even the supporting characters aren’t allowed catharsis from the game! Her brother mourns her: “I’m always the survivor. [a wolf howls in the distance—despite the fact the game is set at sea!!] Why, wolf?”
Narratively, the gamer’s player-character only achieves success and catharsis by rejecting the narrative of the former game (as more thoroughly explained here). The gamer is rewarded for his efforts by being increasingly disassociated with the player-character; the more you succeed, the more you watch your player-character grow progressively disillusioned with the game itself. The finale is the main character’s escape from the artificial narrative of the game, from the genre, from video games, and most of all, from YOU.
One of the characters in the game is named Peter Stillman, cribbed of course from Paul Auster’s City of Glass which comic book fans all know and love thanks to the masterpiece adaptation from Paul Karasik and Dave Mazzucchelli. I reread the book last summer, after having not looked at it since it came out, thanks to the recent Picador reprint. Goddamn, you know?
City of Glass: a detective mystery story with no solution. No mystery. Gradually, no detective.
The Comics Journal placed the adaptation at #45 on its 100 Greatest English-language Comics (and uh: Al Hirschfeld drawings) of the 20th century list. Personally, I think it could have been a bit higher on the list, but… It’s defeated on the list by Ghost World, Dick Tracy, Plastic Man, etc. If you want an example of lovable cartoon characters trumping formalism and narrative sophistication visa vi audience affection, that might be grist for the mill. Of course, you’d have to care where it ended up on some list, which …
There’s a great quote from Paul Karasik about the book’s use of the 9-panel grid:
[It] looks like a jail cell door. That’s it! We’ll use this grid in all sorts of ways in the first half of the book to reinforce this rigid structure that Quinn has locked himself into. Bit by bit we’re going to break down the grid in subtle ways. As his sanity leaves, the drawing itself will start going off-kilter.
Mazzucchelli, in an old interview with Indy Magazine, says something similarly quotable:
Most of the comics I made before City of Glass have cinematic tendencies — and by “cinematic” I’m referring to the way each panel creates a kind of mise en scene; and the way the sequence of panels — often without narration — evokes a linear progression of time. (Actually, I dislike comparisons between comics and movies, but this is the clearest way I can describe what I’m thinking of.) Paul thinks of comics in much more graphic terms — drawing as symbol, cipher, icon…cartoon!
That interview includes “cinematic” test pages for City of Glass. They’re disastrous in comparison to the final product: they’re regular old comic book pages. The final product is so dense, challenging, disconcerting, ultimately ecstatic. For any comic book fan, I don’t see how City of Glass would be anything other than an ecstatic experience with its frequent metamorphoses: image becoming icon becoming image, text playing off image playing off text, and so on. Je-sus. What other word is there as the camera prowls about, and visual metaphors multiply, and layer builds upon layer, as the main “character” dissolves right before our eyes both visually and textually, what other word is there but “ecstasy”? Not good-piece-of-chocolate ecstasy, but…
I feel silly even talking about it– everyone’s read that book, right? But: characters escaping from their narrative, expelled from their genre, flung from conventions…
Pick up issue #11 of Casanova, on stands this week– dude, there it is again:
The issue mirrors #2 of the last series: a character meets his/her literary forbearer, gets naked with them, and— Ha-Ha— kills them. Characters violently reject the future that genre and convention would create for them. Inside the narrative, time is echoing for the characters, and outside the narrative, the book is echoing itself for the readers. I guess Hermetics might mutter something about “as above, so below” or whatever, but I don’t know any Hermetics. Oh, there’s more regret this time than last time around. It’s a bummer in #11.
Still: all in the context of an arc where the title character has disappeared from the narrative of his own book. The other characters try to fuck and kill their way through the normal spy-whatever without him, but four issues later, it’s not really working out so hot, is it? When any of the characters stop and pause, doubt floods in. If this arc is about gluttony, the characters are all in that gap between gluttony and pleasure.
Question for you: Is Zephyr the “bad guy” for wanting and doing the same things Casanova did in Vol. 1, i.e. to kill her progenitors, deny her father, escape into a new family, escape from a comic book that’s not quite about her? Are Cass’s friends the “good guys” for wanting to drag Casanova back into their world of empty genre thrills, even after all it got him was a trip to the hospital? Which side are you on?
Extra credit: Do you get a little teeny-tiny shiver from the shift on the first page from the rocket launch to the scuba scene? Is that something we all get? Is that a big reason why we still read comics? Is there a word for why we like that? When a fingerprint becomes a library becomes a city becomes a cupcake sandwich in City of Glass, do you just want to throw your fist into the air and howl like the illogical wolf from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty? Can you buy cupcake sandwiches? Is that a thing? That should be a thing. I think I just invented a thing.
I could wring another couple paragraphs for the very enjoyable, very similar Umbrella Academy too, droning on about the rather obvious ways that fits in. Or I could talk about J.M. DeMatteis and Paul Neary’s Captain America Issue 297, my favorite comic when I was a kid and the second comic book I remember buying. It was about Captain America being trapped by Baron Zemo in a machine that recreates the adventure where Bucky dies for Cap, in order to drive him crazy with the memory of his failure; instead, Captain America escapes the machine by saving Bucky in the false reality instead—achieving victory only by defying the previous narrative.
But you get what I’m talking about: that theme, man, that goddamned theme.
Escape. Dissolve. Disappear.
You know? It’s everywhere. It keeps turning up like a bad penny, or the number 23, or ads for that movie about the number 23. And I happen to subscribe to the school of thought that what we notice in what we read, what we respond to, often says more about us than about the work itself… So plainly, this is all my subconscious trying to tell myself something, albeit via Playstation games, cheap comic books, bubblegum wrappers. And that something … that something… that something is what? What is it? I’m experiencing a feeling of a need to escape the present strictures of my life…? The walls are closing in? Time is fleeting? Madness takes its toll? That I’m easily replaceable both at work and socially? That I don’t even know how I got here, and I’m just looking for a way out, and … and… and—and – and–
#####@#Okay, then, fuck em all– First, you have to burn off your fingerprints using hydrochloric acid– Is hydrochloric acid something you can buy? — Fuck it, you can use a rusty knife– Tetanus can’t stop you– the fingerprints are coming off — they can find you with your fingerprints—creditors will hunt you down– the credit card companies own dogs– they collect your urine when you’re not looking– you have to start reading David Ickes– Sell everything in your apartment– anything you can’t sell gets burned—you’re going to burn this mother to the ground—oh wait, it’s probably a breach of your lease agreement to burn things in your apartment—and you won’t get your security deposit back—They always screw you on the security deposit– How is that legal? — GO OFF THE GRID — You take buses to a different city– grow a beard– use only cash– the streets will be your bathroom– the streets will also be your university– the University of Bathroom will be your alma mater—your official transcript will be printed on toilet paper and it’ll be printed in feces — (probably your own!) — that way no one will ask to see it twice—you’ll have diplomas made at Kinkos– then burn the diplomas– then burn down the Kinkos just to be sure—shave off the beard—find a job where they don’t ask too many questions on the job interview– Pot deliveryman– Working a counter at a leather corset store– Head of FEMA– zciuiopzsfgfsgaahfgnmhm— Read Catcher in the Rye on your days off– You’ll play an acoustic guitar for tips– play Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins — Write for a Freegan blog named Rude Not Bombs– yeah, yeah, be a Freegan– That’s kind of a step up from Comic Book Fan, right? — It goes Wiccan, Comic Book Fan, Frotteurist, then Freegan– that’s a deuce—- hide your pubic hairs in library books– get food and clothing out of dumpsters— Jodie Foster probably likes you– the next time anyone hears from you, your name will be Roger Thornhill and you’ll be an anonymous leather corset salesman who smells like a dumpster and you’ll probably have severe burns over 23% of your body– Except – noone – will—hear—from—you—
… On the other hand, I really do want to find out who the Skrulls are. I bet Black Panther’s a Skrull. Getting married? Joining the Fantastic Four? Does that sound like the Black Panther to you? When he could be out in Wakanda, enjoying the fruits of his Vibranium mines, straight chilling? Come on. Come on, now. What does he have to do, take out a billboard on Highway 90 that says “Kl’rt the Super-Skrull is my Co-pilot”, people? Am I right, here? What a total Skrull that dude is. That dude? Skrull. I gotta get up early for work tomorrow.
But after I find out about Black Panther, then that whole “off the grid” pubic-hair thing is on. Yeah… Win-win. Thanks, Casanova.