Hello, friends and lovers!
Sorry for the long hiatus. I'm currently in graduate school and several projects have taken precedence over my comic book musings this quarter. Plus, I'm in the process of courting a guest writer to join "Metropolis Is Actually Chicago" for at least one post -- and courting takes time ... not to mention flowers, copious text messages, and much pleading over beers. In short, I've been otherwise disposed these past few weeks and I apologize. I'm going to make it up to my two known followers (and potential visitors) by doing a long post now, concerning comic books' relationship with theatrical performance. Hope it proves fun for you guys!
I am in school for playwriting, but my obsessive relationship with comic book heroes started about the same time my love of theatre popped up. I attribute this to my glorious joint discovery of MGM musicals and "Batman: The Animated Series." (Age eight was a great year for Sarah Bowden.) In both outlets, I saw miraculous things happening. On "Batman," guys made out of clay and men with (literally) frozen hearts were constantly trying to take over Gotham City, gleefully unaware of the drug addiction metaphors they represented. Over at "Singin' In the Rain," I couldn't believe my eyes when a speech therapy lesson transformed into a tap-dancing extravaganza. And the insanity didn't end there -- only five minutes after "Moses Supposes," I saw Gene Kelly ask a girl out via a make-believe romp in a stage-fogged meadow! Movies and superheroes were clearly magical, and I wanted to be a part of both.
My parents quickly took me to see every great musical available at the local theater: Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, etc. And every afternoon I would park in front of the TV to see what adventures lay ahead for Batman; in a clear sign of magnanimity. my parents shucked out the cash to let me buy "Batman: The Animated Series" comic books, despite misgivings about violence and comics rotting my brain. Of course, once proffered, this gateway drug led to the regular purchase of Batman books, along with Spiderman, The X-Men and New Kids On the Block comics (which involved Danny, Joey, Jordan and ... uh, [the other one] being chased by girls). My mom supported my interest in theatre more than my fascination with the Caped Crusader and his print pals, but at heart, I think both things fulfilled the same need in me, so she needn't have worried about my turning into an illiterate juvenile delinquent.
Let me explain by way of giving an example:
This past weekend, I saw Available Light's theatrical adaptation of the graphic novel Skyscrapers of the Midwest in Columbus, Ohio. Now I've never read the novel, but a grad school colleague thought I might be interested in seeing its stage counterpart because I'm my program's resident comic nerd. This distinction is not something I'm particularly proud of for a lot of reasons (primarily because I love Shakespeare and Maria Fornes, too, and nobody ever seems to talk with me about those interests these days), but I simply can't hide my love for comic artwork and stories, or what I view as their important cultural contribution to our world, despite being labelled "trash reading" by the great blank majority out there.
Anyway, I went to Skyscrapers of the Midwest and found it to be maybe too close an adaptation of the graphic novel, i.e., there wasn't much in it that was inherently dramatic. By dramatic, I mean, there was little in the way of onstage conflict between characters (conflict being set up in the following example: A wants a grapefruit, but B's blocking the kitchen door; A needs to get B out of the way to get what A wants, and so uses a series of tactics to get around the obstacle B is presenting, with escalating results as A and B work against each other). There was not much of a plot present, or apparent consequences for characters' actions. And none of the scenes seemed tied together in service to a larger narrative. The play was more like a series of graphic short stories or vignettes. Which is fine, but it means very little happened onstage, and what did happen, I struggled to understand, and later, describe in a tangible way to someone who hadn't seen it. Everything just felt important with a capital I, as opposed to engrossing or enlightening. (And I felt stupid for not getting how the images onstage stacked on top of one another.) In my book, confusion is the hallmark of deadly theatre. Theatre that resists clarity in its storytelling excludes me as an audience member. That type of withholding condescension is why the general public doesn't seek out straight plays. Instead, they go to musicals, which entertain, as well as provide obvious stories to follow. I say all this not to slam Skyscrapers, which is certainly an original work (rare to see these days), and should be applauded for its excellent production design and solid ensemble work. I say all the above to prepare readers for what was actually special about the play: its brief translations of comic booky-ness into something that lived and breathed onstage.
Comic books are inherently theatrical. Like all good dramatic writing, comics use the audience's mind to complete pictures. Comics take you places you've never been before; they show you one thing and then turn that thing into something else entirely -- right before your very eyes, and somehow inside your mind. This sort of transportation and transformation more or less encapsulates my program's definition of theatricality, which requires that everything onstage happen not to the characters, but to the audience. Comic books play with perspective, conflict, dialogue and philosophy just as much as surprising dramas. When they base their thrills solely on what the readers discovers, comic books are inherently theatrical.
I've been saying this for years, but had yet to find a good drama/graphic combo proving comics capable of theatrical delight -- until seeing Skyscrapers. "Watchmen" made an okay movie, but it didn't transport me as easily as it did Dr. Manhattan. Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark is a mess of stage show, from what I hear, and it assumes that rigging people to fly and then flashing them in front of audiences' faces will make up for lackluster storytelling. Likewise, nothing could match the visual delight of Peter Parker's panel-bound web-slinging, and it was a mistake for Julie Taymor and company to make it a physical reality. (I seriously see no value in taking Spiderman's cartoony zip and planting it dead onstage. Seems to me that if Spidey can't bend like an impossibly graceful pretzel ... well, that takes some of the strange wonder out of his story for me. And if you can't find a way to translate that spider-driven wonder to the stage in a non-realistic way, then count me out as an audience member.)
In comic book art, you never see the strings. Onstage or in spectacle-obsessed amusement park rides, you ALWAYS see the strings, and they will NEVER BE ANYTHING BUT STRINGS. That's what makes such fare less enjoyable than the comic-reading experience -- the spectacle is never fully transformed. Unlike in the wonderful world of superheroes, where people are resurrected from the dead every five minutes, everything in spectacle-driven shows is what it appears to be. Unless theatre artists use those strings I mentioned. If they allow those strings to ignite your imagination, if they force you to fill in the blanks and discover something new while you do it, they've achieved good theatricality.
Skyscrapers showed me two highly theatrical moments, and proved itself worthy of my time:
1. The first time we saw Jeffrey, the protagonist's little brother, he shove a stuffed animal T-Rex in his brother's face, and asked, "Do you think Rex could beat He-Man in a fight?" The protagonist wouldn't answer, so Randy went on to spin a tale of what the fight would look like, and how Rex would triumph. End scene.
The next time we saw Jeffrey, he was taking a bath before services on Sunday morning. And with him was Rex, whom he complimented for more imagined feats of derring-do. Only this time Rex wasn't a doll. He was an actor in a T-Rex mascot head. He was gussied up in a Team Adidas jacket and a pair of sweatpants, with his tail sticking out the back. And he was washing Jeffrey's hair. This is only the start of the insanity.
As Jeffrey pretended to blow up his church by pretend-carpet-bombing the building, Rex climbed into the bathtub with his charge, and turned it into an airplane by extending his T-Rex arms out like wings. He began throwing invisible dino bombs out the side window, while a nearby Foley artist whistled the bombs' descent and generated exaggerated action movie explosions when they hit their target. A projection screen at the back of the theater provided context for what Jeffrey imagined the destruction of the church to be (cheesy gigantic explosions from 1980's action movies). The pair went on to bomb Jeffrey's elementary school and the house of "that kid Kirby I hate," the audience cheering all the while.
They cheered not just because this sequence was ridiculous, but because it demonstrated us how Jeffrey viewed the world, after exposing us to what the world actually looked like to the other characters. In Jeffrey's mind, Rex is a kung-fu king who beats up wolves and gladly blows up buildings. To the rest of the world, Rex is a doll, and Jeffrey's running around the house, making explosion sounds. In the span of two short scenes, we see one reality turn into another, more magical one. And the impressive part is -- we were prepared for the change. The carpet-bombing scene wouldn't be nearly as sweet if we didn't see how Jeffrey's flights of fancy struck his brother. Without that first scene, we wouldn't understand what the second scene means, and that type of discovered context is what makes any dramatic exploration worth an audience's time. Images are built on top of one another to help an audience draw its own conclusions about a person's perspective.
Good comics do this, too. I could toss off a million examples (Batwoman: Elegy and Blankets are the first two that spring to mind), but I'd prefer to stay in the realm of theatre and demonstrate how, unequivocally, Skyscrapers moved from creating one nice bit of theatricality, to PROVING why comic books on the page have all the theatricality a person could ask for ...
2. During the first act of the play, a storyline was told solely through comic panels shown on the back wall's projection screen. An abusive deadbeat bedded and abandoned a casual hook-up, who then followed him to his house, where he was working on his truck. As a series of panels appeared parallel to one another onscreen, actors offstage provided the voices of the boy and girl (this was theatrical because I had to match their voices with what was happening onscreen of my own volition). The girl begged him to forgive her for being needy in the wee hours of the morning, and the boy shrugged her off. She touched his arm, and then the screen went completely white-blank. The male actor offstage screamed in pain. The panels returned. The boy was holding his hand. The actor yelled that the girl had broken his fingers. The actress apologized. The screen flashed blank again. The actress screamed in pain. Then the panels returned, showing the girl holding her head and running to her car so she could escape the maniac who just socked her in the head with a wrench.
This sequence, and its construction, helped me define EXACTLY WHAT it is that makes comics theatrical. Skyscrapers demonstrated theatricality in those white flashes. What makes comics theatrical on the page, and therefore magical onstage, is that little strip of white space between each panel. That little strip -- the gutter -- allows your mind to create the images that move you from one panel to the next. We didn't need to see the boy hitting the girl; we created that image in our heads. We found the meaning of the white space ourselves and didn't need it spoon-fed to us by the acting company or special effects. We understood what was going on between the panels because the artists gave us just enough clues to come to our own conclusions. I can't think of another reading medium that asks for that level of engagement and participation from its audience. That intense involvement is why I'm mad about comics, at the end of the day.
But how does that realization relate to my love of theatre and the old-timey musicals which ignited that love, you may ask. I think it has everything to do with the translation I just talked about. Every song in a musical stands in for dialogue. In "Singin' In the Rain," Gene Kelly doesn't just announce he's in love after dropping Debbie Reynolds at her front door in a rainstorm. No, dammit, he sings about it! He dances about it! And he never, ever flat-out announces he's in love. He allows us to draw that conclusion. He talks about being ready for love, and having the sun in his heart. He commands the rain keep pouring, because he's in the middle of a happy refrain. And we learn something about him because we're smart enough to see the guy's besotted in more ways than one.
Even as a kid, I never thought what made musicals special was all the flashy tap numbers and eye-popping costumes. What made musicals special was the fact that I could imagine what the characters were supposed to be doing while they were singing and dancing. The songs were the white space between the panels, the getting from point A to B; they moved the story forward while expressing the unspoken. But they weren't what was literally happening to the characters in the moment. I liked that in-between space. And I liked translating the emotions depicted in song, then running to my parents to discuss my observations. Soon that led to us seeing straight plays together, and led to my life-long love affair with subtext and simple staging techniques.
Because theatre's always forced me to think about what's in front of me. It's my chosen field because theatre empowers me to analyze and respond to the world around me. Comics empower me, too, in much the same way.
See? Mom didn't need to worry about my brain rotting from comic book violence and ridiculousness. Like those MGM classics, comics books helped me get to where I am today, an avid questioner of the world around me.
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark Photo: Associated Press picture.