Comics for Cinephiles – Animal Man & JCVD

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 Cover

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.  JCVD Poster

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.

Comics for Cinephiles

Creators working in both comics and films draw much inspiration from each other.  Sometimes this takes the form of a direct adaptation, which usually has limited success translating what was great in one medium to another.  More interestingly, one medium often takes inspiration and builds on ideas from the other in much more subtle, unexpected ways.  Comics for Cinephiles will write up comics and films that have some connective similarity that may likely appeal to fans of one or the other.

The Comic:

BodyWorld

Written and Drawn by Dash Shaw

ISBN 978-0307378422

This comic is a drug crazed, psychotropic mind trip. Both the story and the art create a strange, tripped out, messed up world that sucks you in. BodyWorld follows the mis-adventures of a loser lowlife botanist Professor Panther as he runs tests, chain smokes and tries to get high from some mighty weird plants. Along the way he gets entangled with the locals of the strange small town, Boney Borough. The schoolteacher and two highschooler’s get sucked into Panther’s madness.  As Panther gets more involved with the locals, BodyWorld looks at the pressures to conform that adolescents face in small towns, in addition to questioning identity, perspective and reality.

Genre:

Affect: Pessimistic / Humor

     Physical Location: Earth — Fictional Geography

     Plausibility: Imagined — Fantastic

     Plot: Quest / Relationships

     Time: Future

Art: Iconoclast – – Harsh  Following the psychotropic angle of the story the art is garish and psychedelic.  Clearly the art falls within the Iconoclast camp, but it seems like it could be mistaken for being surreal.  Although it is most definitely psychedelic, it does not try to represent reality in a seemingly realistic, but heightened way – as surreal does.  Rather the art here is of harsh juxtapositions of color and line.

Tropes:  Magnificent Bastard, Hero with Bad Publicity, Love Dodecahedron, Crapsack World, Moral Dilema — Black and Grey

The Movie:

Pi

Written and Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Its actually been a little while since I have seen this one, but its definitely one that sticks with you.  The film focuses on a loner weirdo who is trying to figure out mathematical patterns in all sorts of phenomena around the world.  This character Max lives in New York City, but spends most of the time locked inside his apartment, or symbolically locked inside his mind.  The main character’s obsession pushes his mind to the edges of reality, and maybe even over it.  There is a somewhat similar effect from the obsessive behavior of Professor Panther in BodyWorld. Unlike BodyWorld, there are not a whole lot of interpersonal relationships going on in Pi.  Even though Pi is shot entirely in black and white, while BodyWorld revels is glossy, garish color they actually share a lot of qualities related to the iconoclastic and harsh approach both take to the visual art.