The single greatest panel in the long history of Batman comics does not feature Batman or contain any reference to him. In Batman #406 (on newsstands April ’87), the third issue of Frank Miller’s classic Batman: Year One storyline (and the basis for the 2005 Batman movie franchise re-boot Batman Begins), Batman, on the run from a crooked Gotham police force, finds himself cornered in an old abandoned apartment building. The mayor (a large, pockmarked man who is always depicted wearing a Mickey Mouse pin on his lapel), desperate to capture or kill our hero, orders an extensive bombing of the building. Over the next two pages there are explosions and quite a bit of fire. A SWAT-like group of well-armed officers inspect the remnants, ordered to shoot on sight: “go for the chest, we’ll need his face for identification.” Naturally, he picks them off one by one, finally managing to escape under the cover of a flock of bats (summoned by a mysterious button on the bottom of his shoe, of course). Standard superhero fare for the most part – except for one startling and unsettling moment on the bottom of the sixth page.
The SWAT-like team is scavenging the building, and a group of them stumble upon a plain room in the basement. There’s a sink, a toilet, a stripped bed, and a table. The few personal effects are religious in nature: a “God is…” poster, a “Honk for Jesus” bumper sticker, two crucifixes and a medallion affixed to the wall, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and an open Bible on the table. “Super must’ve lived here,” one of the officers comments. “Nobody home now,” muses another. “Nothing here, men. We’re coming back up,” a third says with finality. They leave. We will not see the room again. We will never hear from the super. If he exists, it is only in the spaces afforded between the relics of his room. If he exists, it is only in our imagination.
This tradition of the tragic super (this irony should not be lost on anyone) stems all the way back to one of the first graphic novels, Will Eisner’s seminal 1978 A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, a collection of four stories set in the Bronx of the 1930s. The third – titled simply “The Super” – focuses on the life of a large, surly, old super named Mr. Scuggs. He has one true friend, his dog Hugo; he has a tattoo of “mom” inscribed inside a heart. The hot water is broken; a woman named Ms. Farfell complains that her niece can’t take a bath in ice-cold water (she’ll catch new-monia). She appears wrapped tightly in a towel, wearing an expression that would have caused Humbert Humbert to violently convulse. The super’s eyes linger on her before he leaves.
Instead of fixing the hot water Scuggs heads into his room, a small basement affair much like the one in Gotham City. Pornographic pictures cover the walls of his room. We see him feed his dog and then proceed to drink a beer and flip through a handful of dirty pictures. There’s a knock on the door – it’s the beautiful young niece from before, and she offers him a “peek” for a nickel. He accepts. She flashes him, and then gives his dog a piece of candy. While his back is turned she grabs his moneybox and runs. He yells for Hugo – Hugo is dead; the girl’s candy was poisoned. He chases her, cornering her in a crowded tenement alley. He is powerless to do anything for no one would believe him – cries of “murderer!” and “animal!” follow him as he stumbles away. Dejectedly, he stokes the flames of the hot water heater before slumping into his room. Crying, he kneels to hold his dead dog. The police knock on the door. He gets a gun and shoots himself in the temple. The last page shows the girl sitting on the stoop, counting her money, and humming. A sign in the basement window reads “super wanted.”
In How Fiction Works, James Wood characterizes a “true” detail as one possessing a quality he terms “thisness,” part gravitas and part insight: “By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” He goes on to cite examples from the usual stalwarts: Emma Bovary fondling a pair of satin slippers in Flaubert, the “Kendal green” of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Mr. Casey’s permanently bent fingers in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These details are great, he argues, because they are able to exist within themselves, able to expound upon a mostly scattered notion of “reality” in a way that somehow seems truthful. The open bible sitting idly on the table, an inconsequential nugget in a genre not known for reflection is as well placed as anything Joycean; Mr. Scuggs “mom” tattoo as heartbreaking as anything Flaubertian.
That Miller’s panel appears in a super-hero comic is almost some kind of glorious joke, like a Kerouac reference on the Disney Channel (Selena Gomez’s boyfriend on the hit show Wizards of Waverly Place is named Dean Moriarty). It’s the kind of detail that one can easily miss, and one would imagine most did. That’s certainly not a knock on the comics; no one buy’s a ticket to The Fast & The Furious for wry poofs of background detail, just like you wouldn’t purchase a Batman comic in hopes of spotting something so elegant that it could bring you to tears. You and me and everyone we know just want to be entertained, and that’s all well and good, but just because something so beautiful appeared in something traditionally not is no reason to overlook it – if anything it is all the more reason for commendation.
Things in mainstream comics are changing. The next Spiderman (in Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man series) will be a half-black, half-Hispanic teen named Miles Morales, and in September DC comics is rebooting their entire franchise, dialing every issue back to number one and sweeping decades worth of continuity under the rug. Batman is an American icon, as much as George Washington or Coca-Cola, and next month he gets to start over (which is nice – a lot of shit has happened to him in the last twenty years). When Bruce Wayne looks in a mirror he might just see Jay Gatsby staring back, except Jay will never get a do-over (there will always be another Great Gatsby movie, but the ending will always be the same). It seems obvious to say, but wouldn’t we all like that chance to start from issue one, with a whole slew of villains and love interests and story arcs to cover? The tragedy, and beauty, of life is that we can’t. Our redemption lies not in our pasts but in our futures, much like the faceless super in an abandoned tenement in Gotham City.
Note: The above images first appeared in Batman #406, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, colored by Richmond Lewis, and lettered by Todd Klein, and A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories, written and illustrated by Will Eisner.
At the risk of being exposed as a graphic novel novice, my problem with the genre has always been that graphic novels never quite seem to take full, exuberant advantage of the potential afforded by the form.Too often, no matter how visually accomplished and how intricately plotted, the characters (paradoxically perhaps) are too one-dimensional. To put it simply, they are mopes. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a towering achievement of intricate artistry and bifurcated plotting, but Jimmy himself doesn’t buzz and hum along with the rest of the presentation that Ware provides.In my experience with graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the towering exception to this rule. The two-volume set eschews the angst to give a gripping history lesson. The books were, for me, a stirring departure from angst-filled graphic novels like Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You, and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, which tread the same emotional ground as Corrigan.And so I picked up David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp knowing next to nothing about it and wondering if it too would shroud an awkward, angst-filled character in glorious, hand-drawn finery.The answer is no, but before I get to that, I should note that Polyp is a gorgeous book, an object with beautiful textures and colors within and without. This isn’t a new insight, but Polyp reinforced for me that these lavishly produced graphic novels will be among the niches in which the future of the physical book is secure. I would not have wanted to experience the book via the wan light of the screen.Polyp the book is pleasingly tangible, and so is Polyp, the book’s eponymous protagonist. Asterios Polyp is an architect, drawn in sleek geometric form by Mazzucchelli. Polyp’s twin brother Ignazio died at birth and narrates the story from the ether, while also appearing regularly in Polyp’s dreams. Unlike Corrigan, Polyp’s as assured and complicated a character as you’ll see stride through a graphic novel (this side of the super heroes of course). Mazzucchelli threads two plots in alternating chapters, one plot following Polyp from birth to a successful career and to marriage and the other following an older Polyp beginning with his 50th birthday, when his apartment catches fire and he gets on a train to go as far as his money will take him. Polyp is drawn in the classic mold of the hard-headed architect that so many writers have found to be fruitful archetype. But unlike the stony Howard Roark, Polyp is brimming with contradictions and a capacity to evolve under his architect’s mask.Joining Polyp is a colorful cast of characters, who, like Polyp with his architectural angularity, have their own traits subtly mirrored in the style Mazzucchelli uses to draw them. At its heart, Polyp is a love story about Polyp and Hana, a sculptor. In some ways the plot follows a more recognizable romance (or even romantic comedy) trajectory, but Mazzucchelli has many other threads going and delves into – with glorious abstract detail and inventive art and hand lettering – questions of free will, theories of representation, and the nature of the self. But the path of Polyp and Hana is the most moving element of the book. Here Mazzucchelli’s artistic cleverness is used to great emotional impact. When Hana and Polyp are getting along, they are drawn in with same line weight and color, but when they aren’t, Polyp becomes a jagged, assembly of orthogonal solids, while Hana becomes sketchy and impressionistic.A note: It took me about two hours to read this book. The book lists for $30 (Amazon has it for $20). It was a very immersive two hours, and the pages are detailed and would support repeated readings. It occurred to me that most books occupy your time for many more hours but often cost less. But its also true that few books are as engrossing and offer a visual experience on this level. A better analogy is a DVD of a favorite film, also offering two hours of immersion and bearing repeated watching, but costing more than a paperback might.Another note: I know next to nothing about Mazzucchelli, but I’ve heard that he is very highly regarded for his Batman: Year One book and also that Polyp, unlike his comic-related projects (no matter how worthwhile), is an opportunity to see his vision unmitigated by the necessary adherence to the the established tropes and tics of characters like Batman. PW said of him, “For decades, Mazzucchelli has been a master without a masterpiece.” Is Polyp a masterpiece (as PW goes on to assert)? It might be. Polyp doesn’t have the mind-bending density of Corrigan, but it has both a novelistic and artistic exuberance that will make me much more likely to reach for it again.