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The subsequent Nemesis stories that I drew were mostly straight SF strips, so for these I dropped the retro style to produce a more streamlined SF look.

This is scanned from the original artwork, the finished cover being in colour. You can see here the method that was used before computers were used in publishing: each week the title, price, date etc had to be pasted up with glue directly onto the cover artwork.

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My favourite Nemesis strip was a twenty page role-playing comic, devised by Pat Mills, for 2000AD’s Diceman magazine. In it, the reader (or “player”) took the part of Nemesis’s enemy Torquemada and had to negotiate the strip by making choices every few panels, the choices taking the reader to specifically numbered panels where s/he could continue the story. The multiple endings had Torquemada either surviving or being defeated by his enemy – in this last panel he is definitely beaten!

The story – or game – was set on a hellish alien world that resembled the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, so I used an ink line and watercolour wash technique to give the strip a painterly quality. The strip was littered with surrealist references such as Dali watches hanging on trees, Magritte bowler hats and here, these creatures on the last panel are based on ones by Breugal.

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Since finishing the final volume of Luther Arkwright in 1989 I’ve worked on several titles for DC Comics, the last being a recent issue of Fables. This is a spread from the first work I did for them, the 48 page Hellblazer Special, written by Jamie Delano.

With each job that I’ve done for DC I’ve tried to produce a piece with its own distinct atmosphere and style. This story, The Bloody Saint, was mainly set in Dark Ages Britain, so I wanted to give it a very dark, grungy and textured feel, as if you could almost smell it. It’s inked heavily with a brush, with lots of dark shadows and framed on a solid black background.

I contrasted this with the present-day framing sequences at the beginning and end by inking them lightly, leaving them more open for light and colour, and placing them with a white background.

A use of contrasting styles for different sections of a story seems to be a recurring element in my work.

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The Nazz was a 200 page 4 issue creator-owned, prestige format miniseries written by Tom Veitch. I still think that Tom’s story is one of the very best post-Watchmen superhero stories.

It’s not set in the usual DC universe of Superman and Batman. Michael NazarethThe Nazz – is the only super powered character in the story, the theme of which is very simple: power corrupts.

We both wanted to give the series its own distinct look and feel and we did several things to achieve this.

Nazz gets his powers through Tantric means, so I designed the comic’s title logo to resemble a tantric mandala, making it look unlike any other superhero comic logo.

Each of the four covers featured a full-on painting of the Nazz in different stages.

Each comic began with a few pages of black and white artwork. In context there was always some reason for this. In one issue it’s a series of views through a close circuit TV camera. In another it’s a few pages from a comic strip of The Nazz supposedly draw by one of the story’s characters in an amateur style influenced by Jack Kirby. In the fourth chapter, it’s a photograph of Nazz’s girlfriend Nina’s mementoes, in black and white, but with a few small flames in colour licking at the bottom right-hand edge. When you turn the page, the whole of the next is going up in full colour flames in a conflagration that denotes the apocalyptic nature of this final chapter, wherein the US military drop a nuclear bomb on the Nazz in a vain attempt to destroy the monster that he has become.

Each issue was a chapter focussing on one of the main characters and this last one was Nina’s Book.

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As part of giving the book its own distinct look, I chose to employ a six-panel grid as a basis for the storytelling. On the right hand page you can clearly see the grid, a format much favoured by Jack Kirby, but the grid is also there on the facing page. Remember that the outer edges of the page are also part of the grid. The left hand page has two grid panels at the bottom, with the top four panels consumed into one and going right to the edges of the page.

This is a spread from the final chapter and you can see how Michael Nazareth has become a bloated Elvis-like figure, holding court and surrounded by his disciples, all of whom are following him in the hope that he’ll bestow some of that power onto themselves.

On the second page, Nina’s brother Johnny shows Nazz his completed Nazz comic, only to be told that it’s trash.

For all sequences where the situations are relatively static – such as conversations or everyday events – I stayed rigidly with the grid. However, as soon as we have a weird or action sequence, I dropped the grid completely to give a marked contrast.

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Such as here, a few pages later, as Nazz makes his acolytes drink his own bathwater, giving them a hallucinogenic vision, we’ve completely lost the grid. Instead we have a freestyle layout, culminating in a collage of images, the individual panels becoming elements in one large panel, or meta-panel. Note also the change to non-naturalistic colours.

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I drew some of the Sandman stories, written by Neil Gaiman, who’s always a joy to work with. This is from my favourite one, Augustus. 

Apparently, it’s a historical fact that the Emperor Augustus used to disguise himself as a beggar for one day every year and beg on the streets of Rome. No one knows why he did this. In the story, Neil postulates that it’s in order to hide from the Gods while he plots the downfall of the Roman Empire after his death as a form of revenge on his uncle Julius Caesar. The story is basically a twenty-four page conversation between Augustus and an actor, a dwarf named Lycius, who disguises him and accompanies him for the day.

The story required research to appear authentic. All the costumes, furniture and architecture were as accurate as I could make them.

Because of it’s setting, I wanted to give the story a classical feel. Augustus boasted that he found Rome built of brick and left it clad in marble and reconstructions of Roman buildings always appears to be composed of white stone. So I decided to use lots of white throughout the story. As well as the walls being white, we can see here that there is actually no border at the bottom of the panel. They are standing on the pure white of the page, making the white that surrounds the panels part of the image, not simply a neutral background.

To add to the classical feel, I used mostly horizontal and vertical lines in the composition of the individual panels, with very few dramatic angles that require diagonals.19SandmanPanel2

Augustus was very powerful and somewhat frightening. This is the first time in the story that we see him and you can see that I’ve used a very low point of view – or camera angle if you prefer – to introduce him. Our viewpoint is low, near the floor of this room and, subconsciously, we have to look up at him. This is to impart a feeling of power and I maintain this throughout the story. Throughout the story we are seldom at his eye level but below it, usually on the eye level of Lycius the dwarf.

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Here they are at the beginning of the day, walking to the market place to beg. 

You can see the use of horizontals and verticals in the composition very clearly – in the temple in the first panel and the upright figures and also in the four other panels, which make 4 vertical blocks.

Again there’s lots of white and in the first panel they are walking on the pure white of the page.

In each panel, apart from the close-up, we’re on Lycius’s eye level, not that of Augustus. 

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This is what we see when we turn the page: they are arriving at the market place to beg. I carried the use of horizontals into the panel layout, using thin wide panels. And they sit on stone steps, emphasising this.

Again, lots of white stone, their feet are on the white of the page and our eye level is predominantly that of Lycius.

They sit talking here all day and so I wanted to add some elements that denoted the passage of time. One of the them was simply to have the clean floor before them become gradually dirty and littered with the detritus of the marketplace as the day wore on.

Another was the placement of the light source. When they first arrive, in panel one, the sun is very low in the sky, early morning. Although we can’t see it, it’s casting long shadows from the wall to our left. On subsequent pages, as the day goes by, the shadow gets shorter until the wall is no longer shaded. By noon, the sun, the light source, is directly overhead: Augustus pulls up his hood and deep shadows are cast downwards over his face. Then the wall to our right becomes dark and a shadow creeps leftwards until, at the end of the day when they leave, it’s almost reached the left wall, denoting that the sun has now sunk low on the opposite side from which it rose. Now, I don’t expect that any readers actually noticed this and in a way I hope that they didn’t. But their eyes did see it, whether they noticed it or not, informing them on a subconscious, subliminal level that time has passed during the course of the story.

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This is a page of the short flashback sequence wherein Augustus describes to Lycius the dream that gave him the idea to beg on the streets and you can clearly see that I’ve departed from the story’s self-imposed strictures to create a totally different atmosphere.

Now the ultimate background is solid black. The horizontals and verticals are replaced by strong diagonals, even in the panel shapes. The eye level is high and we look down on Augusts, who looks almost child-like as his feet dangle over the side of his couch: he has no power here. Also gone is the naturalistic colour.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lot has already been written in a relatively short amount of time about Chris Wares remarkable new “book” Building Stories. (Book is in quotation marks as the story is told via a series of pamphlets, books, broadsheets, and an oversized screen that resembles nothing so much as a board game.) The Comics Journal ran a series of essays at the time of its release; contributors to Chris Ware: Drawing as a Way of Thinking were given the chance to revisit their essays which explored work previously published by Ware that eventually became Building Stories. (http://www.tcj.com/tag/building-stories-essays/) Philip Nel, who taught Building Stories last semester, helpfully has posted not only a plan on how to tackle the book with students, but a fairly comprehensive list of articles and reviews that have been published in the 6 months since its publication. ( http://www.philnel.com/2012/11/09/teachingware/)

As the general plot and character of the book are covered elsewhere, I would like to focus on the representation of place within the narrative, and the significance of locality to the interpretation of specific story-objects within Building Stories. I wont touch on all of the objects within the box, leaving out Branford the Bee, and only glancing upon the pieces set in Oak Park, IL. I want to focus much more on the pieces that revolve around the old tenement-style apartment in Chicago itself. [Note: none of the four characters who inhabit the apartment building are named. It becomes clear over the course of the larger narrative that the main character is the female tenant who lives on the top floor. For ease, I will refer to her as such, and the other characters in relation to her: the downstairs couple, and the old landlady. Ironically, her cat is named, but she has given it the uninspired moniker Miss Kitty, so effectively is as unnamed as the rest.]

In order to get a better sense of the structure of the building he was constructing, Chris Ware actually built a paper model of it. This wasnt the first model he has made, mind you, as theres an image dating from 1989 in Tod Hignites In The Studio of a model he made for his grandmother of the apartment he was living in. She never had a doll house growing up, so when she asked to see what his studio looked like, he created this simulacra for her (Hignite p 250). Of course, the model of the apartment building is quite a bit larger, and more complex than previous attempts.

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Ware also made a copy of the original building model to be displayed at a gallery show that coincided with the books launch. When creating the duplicate, he realized it would be no more work for him to make plans that others could use to recreate his building, and so a limited edition companion was created: a “13 sheet collection of dry technical drawings, paper thin walls and cramped psychological spaces.”

(http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?st=art&art=a3dff7dd568fe0).

Ware has said of these models “they’re something of a joke on memory, how we reconstruct things from our senses, literally rebuilding the world in our minds” (Irving).

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The same might be said of the structure of the apartment building itself, a sort of off-kilter rebuilding, mash-up or pastiche of two apartments Ware actually lived in over the years, an amalgamation of a real and imagined Chicago. Its “like a weird bad memory of or a misremembered version of two different apartment buildings recombined” (Reid). Ware wanted to create a shell, much like the doll houses his grandmother never had, empty spaces filled with potential energy. We inherently want to make up stories to fill these charged spaces. Ware fulfills this need by not merely telling us about the current inhabitants, but, through the use of the building as a character, allows the reader to know the story of the building itself.

The embodied voice of the building speaks in the two hardbound books in the collection, providing an expanded framework for the story. While most of the stories in the collection focus on the buildings current inhabitants, the voice of the building reminds the reader that, while these may be unique individuals, little in the routines of their lives is significantly different from any of the previous litany of tenants over the past hundred or so years. This is not to say that each person is just a blank automaton fulfilling robotic gestures, dictated by the space they live in; the building has empathy for its tenants. When the woman downstairs storms away after a fight, the building plaintively calls her back, even though it knows that she will never be happy with her boyfriend. The building has a bit of foresight into the lives of its tenants, at least for the duration of their stay. Yet its own future isnt so clear as it once was; the landlady is growing older and has no family to inherit the house once she passes away.

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The realities of short leases, brief stays and a hurried city lifestyle may cause us to wonder if any trace of us remains in these places which anchor our daily lives. Do we leave psychological marks behind, as well as holes in the wall? When Jacob Brogan revisited pieces of Building Stories for his essay, From Comics History to Personal Memory, he discusses a sequence where the reader sees a tabulation of occurrences within the buildings walls:
Building Stories turns from problems of the collective past to questions of personal memory. What we find here, then, is something like a sedimented record of all those everyday banalities that must go forgotten if we are to continue going about our lives. Like the apartment building itself, which disappears into the weave of the text as a whole, these are the things we leave behind as we mature.

The house is a repository for the collected lives of those who have come before, and the few yet to come.

While we leave marks on the places we inhabit, we must also acknowledge how much these places shape us as well. Tom McCarthys book, Remainder, is focused on a man who tries to exactly recreate a place he lived in an attempt to evoke a feeling he has lost. Its something as subtle as passing between a couch and a counter while his shirt just barely tugs along a rough edge of the counter ledge that takes him back to the state of mind he longs for—a motion he performed countless times without ever paying it any mind, which etched itself into his subconscious. In an interview with Chris Mautner, Ware discusses this link between the physicality of space and mnemonics:

My incessant use of rulers is more of an attempt to get at how houses and buildings affect the shapes and structures of our memories, and how these shapes can        continue to live on in our minds years or decades once the buildings are gone. For example, when one comes down a stairway day after day after day, something gets imprinted on the memory and the mind about rounding a corner and grabbing a banister in a very primal, almost non-verbal way. Even though it’s not an “image” exactly, that shape or the shape that movement creates is just as much a memory as how a house or a person looked at a given time, and it can shape dreams and even experiences, inducing recollections to arise at odd, unexpected times whenever a corner is rounded and a banister is grabbed.

This physical deja vu speaks to how deeply we internalize the spaces we live in. In a way, this is the real-life version of the memory palace that Romans used as a mnemonic aid, associating certain facts or ideas with spaces in an imaginary room. Rather, actual memories are tied to the physical spaces and objects we mindlessly interact with daily. In his Globe and Mail article, Jeet Heer asserts that part of Wares genius is his ability to use architectural constructs to show the symbiotic relationship between building and residents. The main character even muses out loud about the link between architecture and memory after a conversation with her landlady. The older woman discussed her old artwork that is stored in the attic, leaving the main character to wonder:

Why is it always in the *attic* where we banish our past? Is it because, since its always above us, it feel analogous to our minds?… I wondered if maybe somewhere there was a culture that imagined its memories residing somewhere other than in the brain, like in the heart or in the feet, and if they built their houses accordingly, storing things in the middle, or in the basement (10am September 23rd 2000).

4This concept is obviously more thoroughly realized in the sections pertaining to the apartment building, but there is still some semblance of these themes running through the Oak Park material. Truth be told, when I was first making my way through the box, I thought that the Oak Park material was divergent and was disheartened to see how much of the narrative was set there. But as I waded through the pieces and started to figure out that the whole story is filtered through the main characters imagination, I started to appreciate the subtle cross-references that tie the whole work together. For example, in the aforementioned conversation, the landlady would never have said her art was in the attic, because she would have known that the building she spent her whole life in didnt have one; that her things were all in the basement. The main character is only alerted to the lack of an attic when a previous tenant comes to fix her plumbing. While the home she moves to with her husband doesnt speak in flowing cursive lettering, that doesnt mean its character doesnt have a similar impact on the protagonists life (Worden).

Ware plays with readers understanding of place in more ways than bestowing the building a voice. I found one of the slighter objects in the box to also be one of the most formally interesting. The primary conceit in Building Stories is that each person will make their way through the collected objects in a different order. The reader has to choose their own method, and I chose to read the story from the smallest objects to largest. This meant that I approached the silent, flip-book-style story fairly early on. I did not have the context from the larger narrative to frame this story-object, so took much of it at face value.

Upon first reading I worked out that each page seems to take approximately one season, and tracks the development of the protagonists daughter. I also made some erroneous assumptions. For example: the father leaves for work in the 5th spread and does no appear again until the 19th, originally leading me to think that perhaps the couple had split up or taken a break, when actually, I had missed that each spread also accounts for one hour in the day, chronologically, so he simply went to work and returned, albeit a fair bit older. I also took for granted that each of the rooms I was presented with were stable (i.e. the living room we are shown in spread 4 is the same as 7). As a reader, we assume a certain amount of stasis in the places we are shown. Yet the bedroom the protagonist is shown sleeping in shifts without any warning, and very little visual indication. On the first page, other buildings in urban Chicago are clearly seen, marking the setting as the apartment building, but in the 3rd spread, the protagonist looks out the window and sees the front path of her Oak Park home. Only after reading several other pieces did I become aware of enough of the larger story to understand this shift in place had occurred. Ware subtly betrays the readers expectations to foreground preconceptions surrounding place and location in traditional narrative.

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Location grounds us in time, as well as space. My understanding of the change in location in the previous example came as much from my knowledge that the protagonist moves home around the time of her daughters birth as it did from the view out her window. Jeet Heer, Daniel Worden and Matt Godbey all draw attention to time in relation to Wares use of architecture, focusing on the apartment building as the locus for a shift in the perceived “historical scale” of the narrative (Worden). While Godbey argues that “Building Stories is a project obsessed with [a] lived experience of time”, he also notes that the presence of the building, as a fixed point in a changing city, alters the readers perception of the time-scale involved in the narrative. The building acts as a sort of archive, locating the current cast of characters within a history of tenants whom they are, mostly, unaware of. The former inhabitant, now plumber, reminds the protagonist that she lives in the current version of the house, in the current version of Chicago. This notion is thrown into even sharper focus in one of the more jarring episodes within Building Stories; the reader is wrenched hundreds of years into the future, where a woman is accessing the emotional past associated with her location, and watches the actions of the couple from downstairs at an El stop. This is still Chicago, with its elevated trains speeding through the city, but it is not our Chicago of “now”, or the buildings Chicago of the early 20th century.

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Ware utilizes locality and architecture to problematize the readers understanding of time and place in the multi-textual Building Stories. The looping cursive voice of the apartment building anchors the narratives past, at least as far back as the elderly landladys childhood memories. As Chicago grows around it, the building grounds its inhabitants. Each new tenant enacts similar patterns to the one who came before, be it kicking their shoes into the same corner or staring out the same window when planning their lives. We are seldom conscious of the patterns our dwellings instill in our lives, and it is perhaps the very effortlessness of these banal habits that imprint them so deeply in our memories. As Heer says, All of us are boxed in. This sentence can be taken as a figurative description, but it also happens to be literally true. We are born in boxes, live in boxes and die in boxes.” Ware deftly draws our attention to these innocuous moments and makes the reader aware of tthe importance buildings have in our lives.

Works Cited

Brogan, Jacob. 2012. From Comics History to Personal Memory. The Comics Journal [Online].        Available: http://www.tcj.com/from-comics-history-to-personal-memory/ [Accessed     28/01/2013].

Godbey, Matt. 2012. At the Still Point of the Turning World: Chris Ware’s Building Stories and the Search for Structure in the Contemporary City. The Comics Journal [Online]. Available: http://www.tcj.com/at-the-still-point-of-the-turning-world-chris-wares-building-stories-and-the-search-for-structure-in-the-contemporary-city/ [Accessed 28/01/2013].

Heer, Jeet. 2012. When is a book like a building? When Chris Ware is the author. The Globe and Mail [Online], 05/10/2012. Available: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/when-is-a-book-like-a-building-when-chris-ware-is-the-author/article4591752/ [Accessed 28/01/2013].

Hignite, Tod. 2006. In the studio : visits with contemporary cartoonists, New Haven : Yale University Press, c2006.

Irving, Christopher. 2012. Graphic Novel and Comic Book Creators in New York City Graphic NYC. Graphic NYC [Online]. Available: http://www.nycgraphicnovelists.com/2012/03/chris-ware-on-building-better-comic.html [Accessed 28/01/2013].

Mautner, Chris. 2012. “I Hoped That the Book Would Just Be Fun”: A Brief Interview with Chris Ware | The Comics Journal. The Comics Journal [Online]. Available: http://www.tcj.com/i-hoped-that-the-book-would-just-be-fun-a-brief-interview-with-chris-ware/ [Accessed 29/01/2013].

Reid, Calvin. 2012. A Life in A Box: Invention, Clarity and Meaning in Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories’. Publishers Weekly [Online]. Available: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/54154-a-life-in-a-box-invention-clarity-and-meaning-in-chris-ware-s-building-stories.html.

Worden, Daniel. 2012. Loss as Life in Building Stories. The Comics Journal [Online]. Available: http://www.tcj.com/loss-as-life-in-building-stories/ [Accessed 25/01/2013].

ABOUT

Kat Sicard recently completed a Masters at the Glasgow School of Art, where she explored definitions of “the book” and how interaction can shape understanding. During her time there, Kat became interested in the structuralist constructs that are inherent in how we understand comic books and created work around manipulating and subverting these constructs to challenge the reader. Currently, she is researching how comic books can be used to interrogate and analyze narrative structure. Kat is working on a practice-based PhD and will be making work that questions the form and format of the comic book and encourages the reader to engage with the work in non-traditional ways.

New Avengers begins with a desire to build a brighter future. On Wakanda, the country that Black Panther rules over, a group of youths pass a series of trials that prove them the most intellectually and physically capable of their generation. Upon completion of these, Black Panther informs them that their next task is to travel to the stars and forge a new path for their society. Suddenly, there’s a disruption in the atmosphere, and as Black Panther steps through an invisible wall, represented as a gutter between two panels, he witnesses another earth looming in the sky, from which a group of strangers descend. This mysterious group, led by a woman named Black Swan, proceed to kill the Wakandan youths and destroy the second earth.

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After detaining Black Swan, Black Panther gathers the Illuminati, a secret and exclusive group of superheroes who have deemed it their duty to make tough decisions that ensure humanity’s survival. Upon investigation they discover that earths from parallel universes are being pulled towards each other, and upon collision the universes they belong to are destroyed. Black Swan’s destruction of the second earth was her way of ensuring that only one universe, rather than two, died. The Illuminati are left with a dilemma: the next time an earth threatens to collide with theirs do they destroy it, and the universe to which it belongs? What started with a desire to build a brighter future therefore soon becomes an exploration of whether the supposed heroes are willing to destroy the future of others to secure their own.

This is not a simple gateway into the Marvel Universe for new readers. Fans of Marvel’s films will recognise Iron Man, Captain America and Mr Fantastic, but will be less familiar with Black Panther, Black Bolt, Namor and Doctor Strange. Together, these seven form the Illuminati, and are later joined by Beast of X-Men fame. Furthermore, rather than have heroes assemble to perform unequivocally noble and inspirational deeds, here we have a secretive group of powerful men contemplating shameful actions. Hickman’s sister comic, simply titled Avengers, presents a more familiar dynamic where the Avengers from the recent film act as the team’s core and gather more heroes. The exclusive team and ominous tone of New Avengers therefore provides a striking counterpoint to the breadth and heroics of the team in Avengers. This contrast is conveyed by the covers for the first issue of each series. New Avengers shows its cast standing apart from each other, silhouetted against a murky red sky, while the team in Avengers marches forward together, a bright light beaming from behind illuminating their grandeur.

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However, both comics feature science fiction narratives of great magnitude, with the Illuminati facing destruction on a multiversal scale, and the public team engaging in intergalactic battles. At the time of writing this review the first four issues of New Avengers have been released, and each one builds on the multidimensional concepts that are central to the story.

The complexity of the storyline is multiplied by elliptical narrative devices. Initially, Black Swan seems to speak in riddles, but when her dialogue is repeated later it gains new meanings. The repetition of dialogue, panels and whole pages becomes a key feature, these elements acting like threads of a tapestry. Each time they recur a larger, clearer picture is woven. However, this occurs throughout the whole series, meaning that the relevance of a panel in one issue may not be properly understood until a subsequent issue, when it reappears in a more fitting context. For example, the first issue opens with a page on which Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) seemingly stares out of the fourth wall, morosely telling the reader about the inevitable death of all things. Surrounded only by darkness and shrouded in shadow, any sense of location is absent and all that is left is Richards and the reader.

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It is only in the second issue, when the page is repeated, that a diegetic context is provided. Here the proceeding page gives us a perspective from behind Richards, revealing that his is addressing the Illuminati. He continues by asserting that he will not tolerate the end of all life being accelerated through unnatural means. What initially seemed to be a solemn acceptance of impending death therefore becomes a call to arms to prevent the universe’s destruction.

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The fact you have to wait between issues for this context means that single issues of New Avengers may provide more loose ends and riddles than clear narrative developments. From following some of Hickman’s other work, I’ve come to revel in his sophisticated, if initially confusing, structures. There’s much satisfaction to be found in anticipating how contextually marooned panels and sequences will later slot into the story, and generally your patience will be rewarded as the intricate narrative weaves together. It also gives the comics great re-readability, as often reading a new issue will make you return to those that came previously to see where it fills in the gaps.

The comic is not designed to be wholly confounding though, and when required the storytelling can be impeccably clear and concise. The best example of this occurs when Richards explains the nature of the multiverse, and how the death of one universe triggers that of others. This vital piece of exposition takes advantage of a tool available to sequential storytelling that is rarely utilised in mainstream comic books; diagrams. Cleanly defined circles representing the birth and death of earths and universes, with lines connecting them indicating the timespan between these points, are presented alongside Richards’ dialogue. The panels these appear in are evenly shaped and their interiors mapped by gridlines. All of this provides a geometrically precise symbolic representation of a relatively complex concept, making it simple to understand.

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While conveying the problem they face, these diagrams also reflect how Richards’ thoughts are reasoned through logic. For example, his statement regarding the death of all things is not pessimism, but an acknowledgment of scientific certainty. The only concession to emotion is the fact that his opinion regarding the lengths to which they should go to protect their universe is motivated by love for his family.

However, familial relations, and the characters’ ties to anybody outside of the Illuminati, are rarely depicted. We are primarily shown the tense interactions between the Illuminati, with Epting’s art imbuing their facial expressions with pronounced definition, while a sense of claustrophobia is conveyed in the deep shadows that envelop them. It is often through disagreements that their characterisations are marked out. Black Panther becomes a central voice after initially calling together the Illuminati, whose very existence he once scorned. The fact he abides working alongside Namor, after Namor’s recent assault on Wakanda in Avengers vs. X-Men, reveals his newfound desperation to protect what remains of his civilisation.

While Namor is yet to play as central a role as Richards or Black Panther, he frequently obnoxiously mocks the other characters’ attempts to maintain a sense of morality. To assert himself as the most self-assured among this group of alpha males he laughs in the face of death.

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The frosty relations between the central characters provide a platform on which moral issues can be debated. The key question here is whether anything ever warrants the building of a WMD, let alone if a small governing body should have to power to make this decision. This resonates in Richards’ statement that if all else fails, they will need to learn how to destroy a world, a direct allusion to Robert Oppenheimer quoting from Hindu scripture as he reflected on the creation of the atomic bomb: “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.

The discomforting implications of this group of men self-electing themselves as secret rulers of the world are potently conveyed by the fact that they keep the only recurring female character, Black Swan, imprisoned. The conditions of her incarceration, contained in a transparent cell that is constantly monitored by security cameras, are notably inhumane. I don’t think that this is the comic itself being misogynistic. Rather, it reinforces how the Illuminati aren’t an admirable team, but an unsettling representation of the kind of discriminatory, backroom politics to which those aspiring to, or seeking to retain, power often resort.

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Many may argue that while comics exploring the ethics of superhumans granting themselves authority over society were mature and exciting in the eighties, this has now been overdone, and grown middle-aged and tiresome. However, I feel that when presented in such a structurally assured comic as New Avengers, and entwined with its array of finely tuned science fiction ideas, this approach can still seem fresh. New Avengers’ deployment of an array of tools available to sequential storytelling, and plotting that takes advantage of serialised form to entice readers, make it a smart and rewarding read. As such, I think it’s perfectly possible to dislike all the characters but enjoy the comic. However, as the characters wrestle with the dilemmas they face, they might yet redeem themselves. One quibble is that the dialogue can seem cold and detached, although this is mostly justified by the emphasis on scientific reasoning. The odd witty quip from Iron Man can momentarily lighten the mood, while Namor’s pigheadedness spices up the dynamic, but as the series progresses I hope to see more nuanced relations develop between the characters.

Whether New Avengers will continue to focus solely on the Illuminati remains to be seen, and original characters will need to be introduced at some point if the prefix ‘New’ is anything other than arbitrary. Hickman and Epting have made a strong start though, challenging their small cast with gigantic threats and dilemmas. If things continue at this rate, the Illuminati’s problems are only just beginning.

ABOUT

James Taylor is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Warwick’s Film and Television department. His doctoral thesis studies the adaptation of the superhero genre from comic book to film. Other academic interests include comic studies, media convergence and science fiction cinema/TV.

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Even as the fantasy genre has become increasingly popular and ubiquitous over the past decade, it still continues to be reviled by critical theory for its bourgeois, politically reactionary ideology. And to some extent, one might say this position is legitimate: most varieties of fantasy narrative engage in the kind of nostalgic regression to an imagined sense of pre-modern “pastness” that builds on ossified concepts of culture and identity, and which imparts supposedly universal qualities to gender models, ethnic stereotypes, and class conflicts.

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This is certainly the case for the most popular “high fantasy” texts that have appeared in the tradition of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and even in the work of authors who have sought to transform the genre for a more contemporary audience, such as George R.R. Martin. Generally speaking, these fantasy narratives present thinly veiled allegorical mappings of European geographies, organized as bizarrely utopian feudal economies, populated by cultural stereotypes associated with real-world nation-states, and threatened from the East and South by barbaric, far less developed races that create what Fredric Jameson describes as “the ethical binary of good and evil” that informs fantasy fiction.

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Most critics working in this field therefore voice a strong preference for the style and aesthetics of science fiction, which Darko Suvin has defined as “a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” The elaborate system of estrangement and cognition, through which the text prompts readers to relate to the fictional world in terms of cognitive tension, explains the fondness many Marxist critics have for the science-fiction genre, as it enables a dialectical process that estranges us from the fictional world while opening up a space that invites us to criticize our own empirical surroundings. Science fiction as a genre is therefore fundamentally invested in utopian thought, and its narratives provide opportunities to articulate systems alternative to our own.

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Fantasy, on the other hand, is frowned upon due to its irrational, nostalgic character and what Jameson describes as “the fundamental role it assigns to magic.” Rather than causing cognitive estrangement, fantasy narratives generally produce a coherent and geographically detailed alternative world that functions as the kind of past one wishes Europe might have had. Its classic, most popular texts violently reject nearly all forms of progressive politics, offering instead a reactionary worldview in which every character is defined primarily by specific combinations of race, age, and gender, and a nostalgic yearning for a romanticized pre-modern era in which the white male heroes engage in heroic quests that hardly ever involve the raping and pillaging of foreign cultures.

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Steampunk emerged as a genre, a style, and even a fashion in the late 1980s as a hybrid form that incorporated elements from both fantasy and science fiction, alongside other genres such as horror and speculative fiction. By presenting fantastical alternate worlds in which 19th-century fashions and technologies were re-geared to produce environments that were simultaneously futuristic and nostalgic, steampunk took up a position in relation to its generic “other” cyberpunk that mirrors the antinomy between science fiction and fantasy: while cyberpunk quickly adapted the critical concerns of classic science fiction to the hybrid, fluid identities of the postmodern or even the posthuman, steampunk on the other hand has tended to reify and romanticize the industrial forms of the Victorian era. Rather than producing the kind of cognitive estrangement that critical theory finds so stimulating in science fiction, steampunk has come to be associated primarily with the reactionary tendencies of the fantasy genre: according to Evan Calder Williams, “steampunk is a romanticized do-over, a setting of the clock back to a time of craftsmanship and real (fetishized) objects, remaking the world, not in the mode of the ceaseless slow sprawl of cheap oil but in the Victorian self-aware world-making spirit.”

But genre and style are themselves fluid and deeply unstable categories with poorly-defined borders, allowing space for transgression and subversion even within the most seemingly unsavory genre tradition. From this perspective, I will discuss the work of fantasy author China Miéville, whose books are set within the fantasy and steampunk genres, but which nevertheless succeed in creating the forms of ideological criticism and cognitive estrangement that are not commonly associated with these frameworks. In order to differentiate what is specific about Miéville’s fiction in relation to his generic precursors, Evan Calder Williams coined the term salvagepunk in his book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: “In the place of steampunk, that weak hand-maiden of Obama-era capitalism, is what will be called salvagepunk: the post-apocalyptic vision of a broken and dead world, strewn with both the dream residues and real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, détourning, and scrapping.”

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In order to examine this new category of fantasy fiction more closely, I offer a brief discussion of Miéville’s so-called Bas-Lag trilogy, made up of the novels Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), and Iron Council (2004), alongside a few comments on his most recent book, the Young Adult novel Railsea (2012). The three books in the Bas-Lag series are set in a fictional world that answers to the specific mix of genre elements that informs the steampunk genre: a fantasy universe populated by humans and other intelligent species, ranging from the frog-like “vodyanoi” to the human-plant hybrids “cactacae,” using varieties of steam- and coal-driven Victorian-era technology with diverse futuristic uses. Magic, as beloved in fantasy as it is despised in science fiction, takes on a hybrid identity in this genre pastiche, referred to consistently by the term “thaumaturgy” and presented as a mixture of craftsmanship and hard science. But despite the presence of magic in the fantasy world of Bas-Lag, and the absence of any connection to our own empirical world, Carl Freedman points out that “the underlying philosophical assumptions of Miéville’s imagining are unswervingly materialist, as is typically the case with science fiction, rather than idealist in the manner of conventional (or Tolkienian) fantasy.”

Therefore, whereas the use of magic in traditional fantasy and steampunk narratives has a liberating, transcendent effect, its institutionalization in the Bas-Lag series emphasizes the power relations inherent in state-sanctioned uses of such privileged knowledge. The most prominent use of thaumaturgy throughout the novels demonstrates its use as a repressive tool: the deeply sinister and massively bureaucratic government of state capital New Crobuzon punishes those it deems criminals by transforming their bodies through thaumaturgy, inflicting radical surgery that leaves the victims physical hybrids of human and animal, human and machine, or even human and human. The ways in which these so-called Remade are transformed often make up a sadistic reflection of the crime for which they were sentenced:

I was in court the other day, saw a Magister sentence a woman to Remaking. Such a sordid, pathetic, miserable crime ” She winced in remembrance. Some woman living at the top of one of the Ketch Heath monoliths killed her baby smothered it or shook it or Jabber knows what because it wouldn’t stop crying. She’s sitting there in court, her eyes are just damn well empty she can’t believe what’s happened, she keeps moaning her baby’s name, and the Magister sentences her. Prison, of course, ten years I think, but it was the Remaking that I remember.

Her baby’s arms are going to be grafted to her face. ‘So she doesn’t forget what she did,’ he says.” Derkhan’s voice curdled as she mimicked the Magister.

They walked in silence for a while, dutifully munching candyfloss.
“I’m an art critic, Isaac,” Derkhan said eventually.

Remaking’s art, you know. Sick art. The imagination it takes! I’ve seen Remade crawling under the weight of huge spiral iron shells they retreat into at night. Snail-women. I’ve seen them with big squid tentacles where their arms were, standing in river mud, plunging their suckers underwater to pull out fish. And as for the ones made for the gladiatorial shows !

Thus, by reframing the context in which magical powers are put to use, Miéville attempts his own form of “Remaking,” transforming the fantasy genre from the conservative narrative form famously described by Tolkien as “a form of consolation” for nostalgic audiences that feel alienated by the forces of modernity and industrialization.

Simultaneously, it overturns the fetishization of bodily transformation that occurs so regularly in the broader steampunk style, where characters are frequently represented with cool-looking industrial appendages and tools. Instead, Miéville’s thoroughly modern appropriation of familiar genre elements brings to mind Foucault’s concept of bio-power as a term to indicate the ways in which state power in capitalist societies seeks to control populations by intervening in the regulation of individual bodies. In his essay “The Political Technology of Individuals,” Foucault writes: “I think the main characteristic of our political rationality is the fact that this integration of the individuals in a community or in a totality results from a constant correlation between an increasing individualization and the reinforcement of this totality.” The Remade of New Crobuzon are the most literal embodiment of this dialectical process, as they make up a form of totality in which every individual member is uniquely altered, but whose presence as an ostracized group within a totality sustains the larger community’s identity through the process of othering. Therefore, rather than pointing away from modern state politics and questions of identity, subjection and ideology, as the use of magical powers in most other forms of fantasy tends to do, Miéville’s use of “thaumaturgy” instead keeps pulling one back towards issues most other fantasy and steampunk narratives work actively to avoid.

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Moreover, the ways in which individual characters are simultaneously concretized and abstracted into members of communities and totalities of various sizes develops further the Foucauldian sense of biopolitics that defines the multiple ways in which the creation of sustained discourses of race operate in order to sustain state power. Besides the many exotic humanoid species that populate the ethnically diverse city of New Crobuzon, and which together make up numerous minority groups that are emphatically treated as such, the state-created minority group of Remade again forms a hybrid caste that foregrounds some of the problems and contradictions of capitalist society. Created by a combination of what book critic Henry Farrell has called “the cruel and sanctimonious whimsicality of the Victorian magistrate” and “the machineries of Kafka’s penal colony,” Miéville’s universe of Bas-Lag continuously recycles salvaged items from Britain’s imperialist past. But rather than fetishizing this Victorian past by using an aesthetic that “rewrites the outcome of late capitalism according to a different, kinder industrial trajectory” (Evan Calder Williams), the Bas-Lag books reveal instead how technologies, identities, and forms of state power are continuously interwoven in past and present, and that neither the historical past nor a fantasy narrative can be isolated from questions of exploitation, oppression, or any of the other contemporary crises of global capitalism. The task that he seems to put to this “Remade” genre of salvagepunk therefore becomes a literal one of salvaging items from the past that can be made useful to our current situation.

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Miéville’s new Young Adult novel Railsea provides some of the most vivid illustrations of this process of crucial salvage-work, on a number of different levels. Most obviously, there is the level of the plot, which is stitched together from some of the great adventure stories of 19th-century literature. Primarily a pastiche of Moby-Dick and Treasure Island, the story involves an obsessed captain’s quest for a pale-skinned giant mole and an orphan boy’s desperate flight from a variety of forces that expect him to lead them to a rare hidden treasure. Written with the linguistic playfulness and almost-too-clever narrative conceits that are familiar from Miéville’s other books, Railsea’s plot at times seems like a salvage project of its own, picking up bits and pieces of literary flotsam and incorporating those items it considers useful.

CaptureBut salvagepunk is as much about discarding the useless as it is about recycling what is useful. When the story’s young hero Sham ap Sharoop is stranded on an uninhabited island in the middle of the vast Railsea, the following passage appears:

Sham rolled up his sleeves, went to the shoreline, & looked out at the ruined trains. With care, effort & bravery, he was able to brace himself on the iron, the ties, the various bits of natural & wrecky business he could reach. He even walked the earth where he had to, dragging a makeshift cart. Sham made it at last to the ruin of some once-grand cargo train, stripped it of fittings. He dug into the ground & hauled out debris.Dangerous work, but he got on with it. He dumped his finds on the shore. Gathered junk. A few more trips out to the wreck & Sham had a yard-load of nu-salvage. As night fell he began to cobble it together. When the sun came up he was standing, proudly, in a hut.

He made it into the old train’s hold where he discovered that, by happy chance, it had been carrying seeds. These he planted. He continued building until he had made a small township of corrugated iron. His crop grew. Sham collected rainwater & wove flax. He tamed local animals & got more stuff from the train. Sham made bread.

In the second year he got a bit lonely & then luckily he found the footprints of another human being on the island. He followed them & met a native, who was astonished but impressed by him & became his happy servant. Together they continued building, & after a few more years Sham managed to build an actual train, & he left the new country that he had founded with the handy discards of his old, & he set out on a journey back to Streggeye, the wind in his hair.

That didn’t happen.

Sham sat, cold, frightened, starving, on the beach. Staring at nothing. His fantasy hadn’t made him feel any better. It hadn’t been convincing at all.

This seemingly inevitable parody of Robinson Crusoe, that archetypal myth of modern capitalist individualism, is picked up by the author as another salvaged piece of narrative, examined, and quickly dismissed for its lack of usefulness. The self-reflexive comment that this “fantasy hadn’t made him feel better,” and that it “hadn’t been convincing at all” is quite obviously meant to be read as a comment on the role of fantasy narrative in relation to real-world politics and ideology. Many of the most popular narrative myths, and particularly those that make up the largest part of fantasy and steampunk narratives, are useless to us because of the fact that they perpetuate offensive myths that should therefore not be salvaged, but must either be transformed or else forcefully discarded.

Only in this way can a path be opened up to a re-articulation of fantasy fiction and the steampunk style along lines that are socially, ideologically, and artistically productive. Miéville’s books demonstrate that this can be done without resorting to the kind of mechanical, programmatic forms of fiction that read like political treatises in thinly disguised narrative form. Miéville’s books are first and foremost fully realized, exciting fictions about monsters, quests, romances, adventures, and magical transformations that one expects from a novel in this genre. The magic –or perhaps I should say “thaumaturgy”—that this author accomplishes is that he is able to do this by salvaging elements that are still worth saving, and by rejecting –or “Remaking”—the more problematic heritage of Neo-Victorian fetishism for which we should no longer have any productive use .

About

Dan Hassler-Forest is assistant professor of popular culture and cultural theory at the University of Amsterdam. His most recent book Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age gives a politically-charged analysis of the post-9/11 superhero film genre. He is currently working on research projects on the topics of zombie theory, fantasy and horror in quality television, and comics development in conflict areas.