Are comics at their best when they are hyper-compressed? My adjudication between The Unwrittenand Sandman in the previous entryrested on my preference for speed and daring. Sandman’s pondering pace feels like a waste of the potential of the comics form, whereas Carey and Gross’s snappiness feels like its fulfillment.
Virtuoso is the operative word. It doesn’t just mean an expert in the craft, but someone who can dazzle you with their expertise. Machiavelli used it to describe the finest politicians in the very particular sense that they were audacious, unpredictable, inspiring fear and wonder. Nietzsche reading Machiavelli would see Napoleon as the last such figure in European history. Virtue in the Nietzschean sense would mean the ability to overpower existing narratives, and mould them to your will. The most impressive comics creators rule their stories with an iron grip – twisting them into shapes that you thought weren’t possible.
Some more examples. David Lapham is probably best known for his seminal underground noir epic Stray Bullets. But I got to know him from his three volume Vertigo series Young Liars, a comic that upends expectations almost with every issue. It’s a book that introduces one scenario only to step back and outside it. Your sense of where reality begins and ends is unloosened at every turn. The book introduces each issue title with a suggested soundtrack (usually indie punk type stuff), and it does feel like it captures the energy and effervescence of great three minute pop. It probably doesn’t make sense, but it sure does feel like it while it’s playing.
For no comics work is this more true than for the Invisibles. Warren Ellis is spot on to allude to pop music in describing the series – “about everything and nothing”. A bit like with the Unwritten, I could only enjoy it once I let go of the imperative to make sense of what was going on. The ~sensation~ of its anarchy was far more persuasive than any actual statements Morrison could make on the subject.
Where in current comics would you be able to get the same head rush? You could do worse than check out the work of Jonathan Hickman. His Manhattan Projects feels like it was expressly designed with the aim of flipping expectations on their head at the end of every issue. The plot freewheels so quickly and spectacularly that you’ve soon lost all bearings. I’ve read each volume as the libraries get hold of it, and am blissfully unconcerned with whatever broader arcs are being traced. The madness is immediate and all-engrossing. My guess is it’s a book about how scientists are often the most irrational people in the room. And that’s enough for me. The rest is pure joy.
Hickman is for my money the most innovative comics creator at the moment, and the cutting edge is probably East of West. Three volumes in and I only have the very faintest grip on where the book will go, and what it’s trying to say. In some respects it’s comics on the widest possible screen – telling the story of entire civilizations rather than of characters. Its constituent elements are world-building and myth, with very few recognizable or relatable people in between. I wouldn’t have thought it were possible. But then someone had the audacity to try. Here’s to many more Napoleons.