For this edition of Comics for Cinephiles I will turn my attention to the trope from our thesaurus, Breaking the Fourth Wall. This trope turns up throughout modernist and post-modernist art and writing as a way to break the artifice of the spectacle and call the audience’s attention to reality (whatever that happens to be) and sometimes to a pressing issue. The prototypical version of this comes from film and television when a character looks right at the camera and addresses the audience. This effect or intent can be achieved in many ways other ways as well and can be found in most art forms. What started as a way to shake audiences out of their stupor and call their attention to important issues of the day has now become a way for artists and writers to give a knowing wink to the media savvy audience a la Ferris Buller’s Day Off. None-the-less, sometimes Breaking the Fourth Wall is still used in surprising and meaningful ways. Here are two examples of meaningful and interesting uses of this trope from two stories that share a few other similarities as well – the comic Animal Man and the film JCVD.
Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man is the stuff of legend. Although this one came out in the late 80s, I just recently got around to reading it. Wow, this totally floored me. I was expecting some good early Morrison, but this beast comes on like Athena. There was a real magical alchemy at work and much of his following work has revisited themes and ideas on show in this series. He managed to take a totally forgotten, small time comic character (much like Alan Moore had done a few years prior with Swamp Thing) and work with the raw material of that character and build on his relationship to the rest of the real superheros of the DC universe.
Animal Man in Morrison’s comic is a pretty pathetic superhero, he has some interesting powers, but he never seem to get the lucky break that catapults him into the big leagues and stardom. At the beginning of Morrison’s run the comic mostly focuses on Animal Man’s day-to-day existence as a family-man who is trying to put bread on the table. Of course Morrison has much more in store for Animal Man than exploring the character’s family life and everyday troubles. Animal Man begins to get some paying superhero gigs and for awhile and the comic is action packed and entertaining. Then things start to get really weird and out there, though still entertaining. Morrison begins to pull at the edges of Animal Man’s reality and Break the Fourth Wall to meditate on the nature of the comics medium, culminating in a grande finale. Using this trope to do something more than wink at the audience, Morrison ultimately turns the plight of Animal Man into a truly moving work of art.
JCVD is a film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself, and before you run away shuddering with an image of his greasy, wavy mullet or the infamous split on top of a washing machine, let me tell you that, seriously, this is one of the better, more interesting films in the last several years. And no, you don’t need to be a Van Damme fan to enjoy this one, although if you have seen another film of his, JCVD will be all the more shocking and interesting.
Van Damme starred in tons of action films in the 80s, but never really reached the success of Arnold or others. The film plays off of his career trajectory, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction while using post modernist techniques to Break the Fourth Wall and say something about celebrity, stardom and the medium of film. JCVD stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself, a washed up has-been fighting to make ends meet, paying child support and making yet another lame action film. The film is not all the sad-sack, everyday reality of a former star; at the same time there is an action plot going on that keep the story moving and tense. Van Damme has an amazing, honestly moving monologue that is totally shocking to anyone who has sat through any of his other films and came to the conclusion that he is a pretty crummy actor who somehow got to make some films because he can do a roundhouse kick. Turns out the truth is a bit tougher than that.