Animal Man and the Legacy of Metafiction within Graphic Literature – Part I

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Brian Bolland became the defining DC cover artist of the time after his success on The Killing Joke.

A Different Species

‘Sometimes you wonder, in an interconnected universe, who’s dreaming who?’ Grant Morrison

British writer, Grant Morrison was born in 1960 to a working class family from Glasgow where his father had become a political activist. As a member of the ‘Committee of 100’ the anti-nuclear group retaliated by producing underground reports.

‘My father was, for me, a genuine superhero. A big man. A super-tough soldier guy. He was really clever. I saw him going out on campaigns, going up against the police, breaking into bases and taking photographs to get information out to working class people. He was an immense presence, and he actually helped people. My mother would say that maybe he didn’t help his family as much as he helped everyone else, but you know what these committed activist guys are like. He was always looking to improve somebody’s life, while maybe neglecting what was going on back home. That was his Kryptonite. But I only saw that later.’ www.scotsman.com

Walter Morrison would take Grant as a decoy provoking his son to kick a ball over the fences of the missile bases. It was here he would witness striking imagery of cardboard coffins in prep for the casualties of a nuclear war – a hidden world that was more than enough to spark the imagination of the young Morrison and along with his father’s own political stance forged a strong, activist voice in his later work. Glasgow’s ties to America are therefore not difficult to see through the US nuclear submarine bases at nearby Faslane and Holy Loch where the US Navy brought American popular culture into Scotland. Morrison has stated that the Yankee Book Store in Paisley may have been the first shop in the UK to sell American comics; stocking up on what was made available to the US Military personnel who were based in Scotland. With the fear of Armageddon it is also of no surprise that Grant Morrison found solace in comic books.

With a strong taste for music and fashion, Morrison’s devotion to his mod-psychedelic punk band, The Mixers had waned in the mid ‘80s and therefore began to commit himself more to his writing. Having briefly produced work in the late ‘70s with his Moorcock influenced Gideon Stargrave strip it wasn’t until just after the success of Alan Moore’s Marvelman (Miracleman in the US) that Grant Morrison and artist, Steve Yeowell, made their first impact with 2000AD’s Zenith – a futuristic satire that examined the impact of celebrity culture. With Alan Moore already pond-hopping after the success of Miracleman, his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing had sparked an interest in British writers and with the popularity of Zenith, it wasn’t long before the headhunters of DC were about to offer Grant Morrison a similar opportunity to dust off one of their lesser known characters.

Strange_Adventures_190

Although Animal Man debuted in Strange Adventures #180 in 1965 he wasn’t given his costume and name until Strange Adventures #190.

Created by Dave Wood and influential artist, Carmine Infantino in 1965, Strange Adventures #190 introduced the reader to Animal Man’s strange powers. After caught in the blast of an alien explosion Buddy Baker learns to temporarily absorb the abilities of any animal within close proximity which enables him to fight crime. With his brief appearances during the 1980s; including Crisis on Infinite Earths; the crossover and modern retellings of popular superheroes ushered in the modern age of comic books and an opportunity to rebuild another universe.

As one of the more obscure characters of the DC Universe, Buddy Baker and his alter ego, Animal Man had become one of many disposable commodities to throw towards the rise of talented British writers who had emerged during the mid ‘80s. With the reinvention of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, Alan Moore’s genius intellect had paved a unique path, not only for Morrison’s Animal Man but also the reawakening of the Sandman by Neil Gaiman.

Where Moore’s take on Swamp Thing was very much steeped in classic EC horror titles and gothic literature, there were still traces of his interest in the dreamscape and that man is in tune with his own consciousness; a belief that we are one step closer towards understanding the true power of art and therefore the power of magic. For both writers, theses notions are very much one in the same and has become the foundation of their works – Morrison in particular believing that the stories he creates are his spells. In an interview with Publishers Weekly (2008), Morrison stated:

‘Comics specifically seem to be quite magical to me—in the sense that they are directly drawn onto paper. They relate back to the very first drawings that people did on cave walls, and people believe now that those things were meant to be magical, that by drawing and creating a model of the bison, you could affect what happened to the real bison. Your hunt would be more successful the next day. So the idea of drawing and creating representations is the very first notion that we had of magic, that you could make an image of something and affect the image and, in turn, affect the reality of the thing. Like sympathetic magic, when you make, for instance, a little doll of someone and then stab it, they will experience something. So that idea of representation, I think, is the first magical idea, and comics is still very close to that.’ publishersweekly.com

There is no doubt that these two Mages of graphic literature have had a seismic impact on the comic book industry which has remained just as important three decades later. Without delving too much into the contemptuous relationship between these two writers, this essay focuses more on the ‘nature’ of Morrison’s run on Animal Man and why it has remained an important piece of graphic literature in its own right.

Morrison’s approach, which becomes more and more apparent as his Animal Man storyline develops, is very similar to Moore’s in terms of the writer’s own belief system and personal experiences of altered states and spirituality. As Buddy Baker’s story begins to elude more and more towards a metaphysical arc of the character, it is often very clear that Morrison was injecting the story with many unconventional concepts that have often been referred to as shamanic. Where Moore’s version of Swamp Thing travels a more two and even three dimensional plane through space and time, Morrison attempts to push the narrative further and create planes that not only break the panels of the traditional sequential art form but also the very boundaries of reality.

margritti-not-pipe

René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’). Magritte’s surrealist and thought-provoking images challenged observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.

It is during Morrison’s reinvention that the titular character becomes more and more self-aware of his fictional state – his consciousness, of which becomes so elevated, that the arch concludes with him meeting his creator who is, in fact, a version of Morrison himself. With such a lateral approach to the construct of this tale one is reminded of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’). From this lateral point of view the reader is forced to question whether this is Grant Morrison, or rather a picture of Grant Morrison. As he continues to interact with Animal Man and reveal the cruelty and torment he inflicts; much like human beings inflict on nature, the sequence of images add further to the illusion of the medium. As Buddy engages in his final fight, his suffering is juxtaposed by Morrison thanking his collaborators and even urges the reader to join the organisation, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). ‘You care about animals because I wanted to use you to draw people’s attention to what’s happening in the world.’

In order to understand the subgenre of metafiction, Morrison’s Animal Man takes you through Buddy Baker’s own growth in human consciousness that explores an abstract ideal of a spiritual world beyond the physical – a key concept that deals with such metaphysical issues. During the course of the story Buddy gradually embraces and masters his animal instincts and forges his ability to his advantage. As his quest becomes more and more challenging through an increasing abstract perception of his world, it is here that Morrison’s narrative is one that is saturated in familiar motifs that are built on the importance of semiotics. This is where Animal Man travels a more cerebral plane; reminiscent of a number of religious beliefs and philosophies. As already referred to, Morrison is somewhat of a shaman himself and well known for traversing particular planes of existence and more than often are threaded into his multilayered storylines. Animal Man’s quest is somewhat reminiscent of enlightenment where only the truly wise may reach the borders of their own existence and transcend to a higher plane.

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Animal Man #26. Penciller, Chas Truog helped bring to life the many layers Grant Morrison applied in his scripts. In his final issue as writer, Animal comes face to face with his creator.

When Buddy Baker questions his reality; Morrison goes on to explain how, ‘You’re more real than I am’ which alludes to Hindu mysticism where the soul reincarnates on earth over and over again until it is perfected and therefore reunites with its Source. With this in mind there is a karmic philosophy and undertone that constantly drives the narrative of Animal Man.

It is in these metaphysical states that both Moore and Morrison, through their own controversial beliefs and British cynicism, helped reinvent the comic book; elevating it beyond ‘puerile’ and ‘juvenile nonsense’ left over from the post war era. Both writers’ leanings towards philosophy and more implicit methods have helped maintain a multi-layered approach to their stories. Both intended to break boundaries in storytelling and through Morrison’s emphasis on the existence of fiction and reality the fourth dimension becomes all the more accessible as he blurs the line between creator and creation; the idea and the final product. Some would argue that any neglected superhero could have been used to experiment on with these concepts but the mere idea behind the metaphor of man’s relationship with animals can be a similarly cruel one and during the final scenes of the story, Morrison’s message becomes all the more clear and helps to justify why Buddy Baker has been chosen.

Painting_that_Ate_Paris_002

In issue #27 of Doom Patrol, The Painting that Ate Paris, Morrison creates one of the most bizarre and surreal stories that deals with a mysterious unnamed piece of artwork that has many levels. The power of the artwork goes beyond mere appreciation and is said to absorb anyone who gazes upon it.

While writing Animal Man, Morrison’s other DC title, Doom Patrol also delved into the use of meta-fiction, albeit more of a parody of popular titles such as the Uncanny X-Men and The Punisher. Much like the discarded Animal Man, the characters of Doom Patrol were relaunched post Infinite Crisis with Morrison taking over the writing from issue #19. As the antithesis to Marvel’s X-Men, Doom Patrol would explore the truly uncanny nature of a group of outcasts that literally painted a rogues gallery of surreal villains centred around the Dada movement and the free association of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up techniques. Morrison not only delivered a unique vision but also pushed how far the written word could be fragmented; forcing the reader to analyse and therefore decipher what characters such as antagonists, the Scissormen were saying.

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Animal Man and the Legacy of Metafiction within Graphic Literature – Introduction

quixote

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) by Miguel de Cervantes – more popularly known as Don Quixote demonstrates a classic example of metafiction with the central characters spiralling madness highlighted by his self awareness within the narrative.

A Story within a Story

‘Books are the blessed chloroform of the mind.’ Robert W. Chambers

To help understand the complexities of metafiction it is important to explore its origins and highlight how it has been used to inform literature and theoretical studies. In ancient Greek the term ‘Meta’ translates to ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between’ and, in true Lovecraftian fashion, ‘beyond’. It was during the late 20th century that the philosophy of ‘Metatheology’ aided in our persistence to see within, after, between and beyond; often setting the individual on a quest to look for the answers to, ‘What makes us human?’ ‘How and why do we study God?’ Philosophical questions that mankind have reflected upon in an attempt to understand their own place within the universe

Although often associated with Modernist movements; particular tropes of metafiction can be linked as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the 14th century and the later work of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy in 1756 where all these stories contained elements of self-reflexive devices. It was therefore here, within the narrative, that characters became aware of their own existence and forged a literary device that first attempted to break the fourth wall. This device has been used to delve much deeper into the narrative and, from an analytical point of view, this self-conscious method is primarily used to help highlight the work’s significance as an artefact in itself that primarily provokes a number of questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. As a clear analogy; the method could be compared to theatre where it becomes more difficult for an audience to separate themselves from the performance and it is within the words on the page that metafiction reminds the reader they are aware of reading a fictional account.

In Miguel de Cervantes’ seminal masterpiece, Don Quixote the use of metafiction was written to great effect through its use of realism and became a benchmark for any novelist who used this more self-conscious process in their writing. It could be argued that realism and metafiction are one in the same and simply another technique in parody to help highlight the zeitgeist of the time and force the reader to reflect on the world around them and, in turn, themselves. Don Quixote is metafiction because the central story highlights the nature behind the method of fiction through its own procedures and assumptions; yet Cervantes still managed to build a world that balances the fantastical element by delivering it as a state of mind and therefore is accepted more by the reader.

In 1970 the writer and philosopher, William H. Gass first coined the term ‘metafiction’ in an essay; later collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life (1983). Gass’ interpretation can simply be summarised as ‘fiction about fiction’ and therefore it would be easier to label Don Quixote as a ‘book about books’. Within Cervantes’ novel the multiple use of authors develops an awareness in how the name and image of the original creator influences the meaning behind the story. It is only in the opening prologue that Cervantes’ friend advises him on how to make the book, Don Quixote, resemble other tales of chivalry and then later, during further inquisition of Don Quixote’s own tomes, they discover Cervantes’ first novella, La Galatea and deem it worthy of existence. All the while, various other characters and authors within the text discuss processes, attitudes, history and social circumstances and even Cervantes himself; and as Quixote continues through the story it becomes more and more clear that the books are the very crux of his madness.

king_in_yellow

As well as his influence on H.P. Lovecraft, HBO crime drama, True Detective tantalised fans with references to Robert W. Chambers’ classic collection of stories.

There is a genuine sense that when reading such fiction the reader himself begins to delve into the very mindset the central character is possessed by. In Ronald B. Richardson’s Metablog on Metafiction (2014), the author states:

The madness is that most people think ‘realism’ is realer than other forms of fiction.  These people are confused by the name of the genre. They take it literally. They suppose that only tragedy is honest, only violence is authentic, and only the downtrodden are ‘real people.’ When a French student of mine was leaving on a trip to Los Angeles, I warned him that Hollywood was not as glamorous as he might imagine. When he came back, he told me he was not disappointed since the dirtiness made Hollywood seem more realistic. But dirt is no realer than glitter and diamonds. And what tortuous logic induces an intelligent man to look for realism in Hollywood? ronosaurusrex.com

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow delivered a series of short stories centred around a forbidden play which induces despair and madness in those who read it. Although the central characters are not self-aware there is a fabricated myth of a story within a story that would go on to inspire the delirious works of H.P. Lovecraft. With his Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft had created a cosmic deity that had become a nightmarish source of anxiety for all humanity and in the context of its own mythos, had become the subject of worship by a number of religions around the world. This malevolent entity was depicted as the amalgamation of a giant octopus, a man and a dragon; hundreds of meters tall with human appendages and a pair of crude, wings on its back – a nightmarish leviathan that harkened back to creatures of ancient legend. Here, Lovecraft was building his own world to explore where, often, it could be difficult to separate the writer from his own fiction. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is a direct homage to Lovecraft and a prime example of metaphysical horror.

in_mouth_of_madness

With obvious rifts of Lovecraft in his remake of The Thing – John Carpenter plunged several more layers with In the Mouth of Madness which made good use of homage to build on its metafictional storytelling.

From Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, readers have witnessed central characters pulled into the very worlds they read about and, in King’s instance, even write themselves into their own fantasy. However dark or enlightening seminal literature has been; it is clear that the greatest works transcend time because they have resonance. If there is nothing entertaining at its core then it will not last and in a day and age where the internet its digital content seems to rule; now, more than ever, a metafictional state is the perfect platform to engage new readers and build on intellectual properties.

Comics and the use of sequential storytelling have often been frowned upon by the literary circle yet the 21st century has embraced this medium more than ever. Since the mid ‘80s the comic book has attempted to reinvent the medium, particularly the perception of how the superhero functions within a modern world. Although Frank Miller was to break new boundaries with The Dark Knight Returns, both Batman and Superman were able to paint a very clear picture of Regan era America that helped to connect with a wider audience. However, it was in the pages of DC’s more obscure title, Swamp Thing that Alan Moore had already been setting the precedence in how to delve much deeper into a fictional world. In true, gothic fashion, Moore’s stories were rich in texture and romanticism and it was shortly after the title’s success that DC sought a similar approach in Grant Morrison’s treatment for Animal Man that began to set the foundations for DC’s imprint, Vertigo.

Animal Man and the Legacy of Metafiction within Graphic Literature – Part I

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Shelf Bite: Rat Queens

RatQueens_01_02_finalFangirls unite

‘What’s with men and tentacles? I’m sick of this shit.’

Following the success of Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens continues to deconstruct the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Where Saga deals with high concept and more surreal devices, Rat Queens is perhaps closer in tone to Terry Pratchet; simply not justified by a mere ‘Python meets Thrones’; this is balls to the wall storytelling with four of the best female characters to grace the pages of the medium for a long while. Pinup bombshell, Hannah the Elf, fashion hipster dwarf, Violet, atheist human cleric, Dee and the hippy lesbian Halfling thief smash their way through the sword and sorcery sub gene in an effortless read. Inverting the cliché imagery of scantily clad females, Rat Queens is a fresh depiction of various female body types and places the cliché, heroic male as ‘second fiddle’. With the current influx of the fangirl community revitalising comics, it is not hard to see the current trend, even from the big two’s Ms. Marvel and Gotham Academy, yet Rat Queens clearly remains top of the game. Current volumes are: Sass and Sorcery and The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth.

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Shelf Bite: Ex Machina

ex_machinaThere is nothing more human than the will to survive

‘Did you program her to flirt with me?’

Man’s fascination with playing God is a central concept to all those science fiction tales that force us to question our own place in the universe and the legacy we may leave behind. As with the seminal masterpiece, Blade Runner, where Ridley Scott built upon the visual details laid out by Fritz Lang and Moebius; Director, Alex Garland strips back the oppressed gloom yet still infuses the film’s narrative with a strong sense of philosophy, psychology and religious themes. The result is a near future with a similar, cynical undertone to Charlie Brooker’s series, Black Mirror – a pristine, product placed future that seems to be set next year rather than a far flung, dystopic conceit. Garland’s flawless script is about the trio of characters and their central conflict rather than a brash, Hollywood fair and closer in tone to a piece of theatre. The central drama is compelling and the special effects, as refined as they are, become almost invisible. Domhnall Gleeson’s naïve programmer contrasts Oscar Isaac’s nihilistic billionaire as he studies the interaction between his employee and A.I., Ava played by the beguiling, Alicia Vkander. With enough red herrings to keep any sci-phile on their toes, Ex Machina delivers a supreme vision of a future we are closer to than we realise.

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Shelf Bite: It Follows

movie-posters-twofive-04It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up

‘It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.’

Another step into Carpenterville that explores the common tropes of 1980s slasher films in a unique and artful manner. Director, David Robert Mitchell infuses the camera with voyeuristic undertones that allows ‘it’ to perform; linger, creep and zoom in on our central character as she is ‘followed’ by an entity passed on through sex. With some genuinely disturbing visuals and, at times, misjudged acts of sexual (Freudian) violence the film builds enough tension to hold it’s audience until the final act looses it momentum. Maika Monroe, already beginning to build up a retro reputation from The Guest, delivers a sullen, paranoid performance that helps to highlight the separation and independency that teenagers begin to experience as they move away from their adolescence and the mistakes they make. The synth soundtrack and production design is both subtle and ‘in your face’ at times; much like the central theme. As with most films that involve teenagers; the characters remain oddly unsympathetic surrounded by distanced adults and yet, in highlighting those common moments of ‘don’t go there’, still manages to deliver a more than effective horror film.

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American Sniper

 American-Sniper-Movie-PosterSharp Shooting?

‘There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.’

There has been much controversy surrounding Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper based on both its depiction of the central character, Chris Kyle and the innocents caught in the cross fire of bullets and politics. Many arguments have been forged around the film based on its apparent nationalist leanings, all of which are embedded in many US war films leading to propagandist views. Is American Sniper a patriotic, often one-sided view? Absolutely – the clue is in the title. Is American Sniper ground breaking cinema? No – nor does it try to be anything else. What it does do is attempt to deliver how one man becomes a killer and in his own warped perception, a ‘sheep dog’ who protects the flock only to leave what is most important behind as he sheds all humanity in order to pull the trigger.

It is interesting to note that Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct and had plans to expand on the Iraqi sniper and in equal measure show a point of view that would help humanise the other side. Aside from this being a less marketable offering, it is Eastwood’s fearless trademark approach of stripped down efficiency to his direction that also makes it such a different film. It is more than clear that, although it is briefly touched upon in a scene that lasts no more than a minute with the opposing sniper’s wife and child watching him pick up his rifle; Eastwood’s story was to focus primarily on Kyle and the impact of his killer instinct on not just himself but also his own wife and children. It is here that both Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, considering the sensitive nature of the story, deliver more than earnest performances – Miller in particular who is beginning to show a deft in her acting that is marking somewhat of a recent revival of her career.

Unfortunately it is the nature of film to manipulate and sacrifice most truth for cinematic effect yet, after the shit storm has settled; there needs to be a degree of responsibility in the messages it conveys. Most see this film as what it is and find it difficult to see past how one of the most respected and revered filmmakers has the only balls in Hollywood to deliver a film that doesn’t just provoke but aims for the kill. Only Clint could do this and for that alone there is a degree of respect in the film’s execution rather than that of Kyle’s own actions. Yet, in order to do that, there is the difficult decision of removing oneself from the original material and, in the wake of recent incidences at home and abroad that involves the potent image of the gun it begs another debate whether anyone should be watching such films at all.

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Shelf Bite: The Guest

The_Guest_Main_One_Sheet.jpg_cmykBe careful who you let in

‘I’m afraid I haven’t been fully honest with you…’

If you’re an appreciator of the current trend in retro thrillers kick started by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive then The Guest is another welcome addition to the sub genre. Much like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, the Director’s latest effort is a film that mixes sinister undertones, blistering action, thrill of the hunt and a dose of horror akin to the best of John Carpenter. There is even the menace of James Cameron’s original Terminator programmed with enough charm and finesse to give Jason Bourne a run for his money. With a solid soundtrack that sets the perfect tone Wingard keeps the delirium flying while he throws one or two red herrings into the mix. The Guest doesn’t set any new precedence’s but delivers a lethal punch and old school affair that elevates Dan Stevens’ central performance well beyond Downton Abbey’s tweed stereotypes.

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Jaws 40th

-font-b-Jaws-b-font-font-b-JAWS-b-font-Movie-Cloth-SIlk-font-bIt’s not about the Shark

‘Here’s to swimmin‘ with bow legged women!’

In a proverbial sense of the word, Jaws is very much about a shark. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece in Hitchcockian suspense is a piece of celluloid that, not only kicked off the summer blockbuster but also continued to terrify, traumatise and help to signify an entire generation. The bold four letters and iconic image of the poster alone conjures an immediate, almost primordial reaction and has enabled the iconography of such a film to transcend age, language and cultural background to build on its lauded, legendary universal appeal. And, let’s not forget John Williams’ iconic soundtrack; the shark’s signature akin to Prokofiev’s wolf – a deep, instinctive sound that plods and thumps along until it reaches its frenzy; conditioning the audience all the more.

Yet, Jaws isn’t really about a shark at all and the basis of this can be seen in Peter Benchley’s original novel. In his attempt to paint more soap operatic elements, Benchley peppered his plot with a rather cheap attempt to emulate a slice of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as Mayor Larry Vaughn’s mafia connections are exposed amongst shady political undertones and conflict of class. The result tends to deliver some uncomfortable racial tension and misogynistic undertones – the later of which culminates in an unforgettable moment where Lorraine Brody’s affair with Hooper resembles something closer to J.G. Ballard’s Crash. For all it’s pulpy foibles, Benchley made every effort to craft his work into a piece of literature that had much more going on ‘beneath the surface’ as many of the characters were, seemingly, caught in the jaws of their own flaws; eaten away from inside rather than devoured so figuratively by a lone predator. The shark is therefore background noise and in stripping away these elements, screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb helped to refine a story that was built around three very distinct male characters and, most importantly; witnessing what happens when a Great White shark terrorizes a small community.

With the shark centre stage to the story, Spielberg very much set out to make a film about a shark by dropping the broader sweeps and literary vices that could have sunk the whole film. Yet, it wasn’t his original intention to be so sparing with the shark’s screen time and, due to the unreliable nature of the animatronics and brutal nature of the sea, Spielberg was forced to be creative with the camera. Saving the film through a more submersed and therefore psychological experience of treading water, the final result took on the uncomfortable feeling of being placed within the belly of the beast as the camera becomes more than our eyes and aids in the horrific moments during the first act where the shark attacks.

As Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) tackles his fear of the water. We all pretty much experience what he is going through; a man who has brought his family to a small island, trapped and left to flounder somewhat as he attempts to persuade the local Mayor to close the beaches. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the smart, Oceanographer highlights further how dangerous it is through his knowledge of the Great White; while shark fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) scratches his nails down the chalkboard and introduces himself in legendary fashion. As the second act of the film unfolds the story becomes more of an adventure tale of three men on a boat, boasting scars while Shaw, in all his method, delivers the unforgettable Indianapolis speech that grips you as much as the shark takes hold of its victims.

Spielberg always intended Jaws to be about a shark and would never argue otherwise. But as any classic film gains weight and veritable credence it is only by dissecting the very nature of the animal within to understand fully what else it may represent. It is through analysis that separates the average cinema goer to the cineliterate – those who wish to be merely entertained other than those those who seek more of a reward. Of course, Jaws is hardly Eisenstein, but without a doubt just as important in what it achieved – a film that was set up to fail at each hurdle; over schedule, over budget – an ambitious effort that forced a revolutionary young film maker to bend the rules and think very much on his feet whenever he was able to reach dry land.

When I was a kid, it was always about the shark. I can recall the first time it was on television – one of three traumatising incidences in film at a young age; this one up there with my hero, Lee Majors being eaten alive by Piranha in Killer Fish. This was another aquatic incident involving creatures of the deep that not only cemented my life-long obsession in film but also an interest in sharks, so much so I was labelled ‘Shark boy’ at school. My thirst for writing resulted in a highly pretentious rip-off at the age of eleven in my attempt to write a novel called, (wince) There’s Blood in the Water – ironically not that far off what the original novel, Jaws was going to be called. There lies the genius, you see – where writing is, more than often, about the distillation of the material where the story holds the depth; the title has to summarise what the story is about. The title ‘Jaws’ is suggestive (jaws of what?) it doesn’t tell you anything unless you understand its context, which is often one of the golden rules you learn within the craft to elevate your work beyond naivety and emulating your favourite stories. Because this story is so universal and embedded within popular culture it can be very difficult to separate one’s self from the concept, which proves its power all the more.

Jaws is many things – a thriller, a horror an adventure tale, a masterclass in screenwriting, direction, editing, set design, production, acting and marketing that helped Hollywood keep its head well above the waterline. Jaws was a phenomenon that paved the way to a galaxy far, far away…showing that even a fake looking shark has more legs than any CGI effect.

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Spring

Spring_poster_goldposter_com_2-400x592Love is a Monster

‘I don’t think you’re ready for where this is going.’

Often, amongst the subpar horror fair of late, there are the hidden artefacts you stumble across that dare to deliver something different. As part of the current renaissance in intelligent, independent horror films that have the unhinged freedom to explore more metaphysical concepts there are the hidden gems built on the germ of an idea – the less tangible…the less obvious. Often deemed to have smaller audiences, the likes of Honeymoon and The Babadook have, at their core, something deeply personal shrouded in expressionistic brushstrokes that help to convey more thought provoking ideas. Although The Babadook descended into more of a cliché, Honeymoon managed to retain its serious, speculative approach and it is the same conviction that makes Spring one of the strongest horror films of 2015. It’s a sad state of affairs that such a masterpiece has zero marketing and is only released in the UK on DVD at the bargain bin price of £4.99.

With its more obvious tropes nested in the masterful tales of H.P. Lovecraft, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s second feature reminds us how a heady mix of romance can work wonders. Traditionally, these genres are not as removed from one another as we may think and have more than been taken advantage of in these Twihard years. Yet Spring manages to deliver a fresh and often beguiling approach with its meandering nature and stunning scenery swaying close to Richard Linklater’s conversational piece, Before Sunrise and therefore attempts to avoid the imagery we are all too familiar with.

After his mother passes away, a young bartender by the name of Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is left alone and angry with regret. When he prevents his friend from a potential glassing, a bar brawl ensues which results in the loss of his job. Before long his life is threatened by the hapless thug and the authorities begin their search. With nothing left to keep him rooted, Evan sets off for a random destination and ends up in Italy where he briefly meets up with a couple of cockney backpackers, secures a part time job and, amongst the wine and sunshine, meets the beautiful and alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker). As they begin to spend time with one another, it is soon clear that she hides a dark and terrifying secret that literally evolves throughout the course of the film.

Comparisons to Upstream Colour can also be noted; yet where Shane Carruth’s film deals with many ambiguous themes in a more speculative light, the visual language is just as arresting. Throughout the labyrinthine streets and swell of the sea, Benson and Moorhead take their time to explore character, which enables the viewer to accept the grotesque transformations Louise undertakes. In the moments the creature is seen it is disquieting, unsettling, shocking and disturbing – each transformation exploring the familiar while still retaining a fresh direction that helps to elevate its more primordial nature.

While Evan’s character deals with his estrangement from his homeland, it is during a key scene that reminds us of his unbridled love – in that no matter what happens to those closest to you, love knows no bounds; both emotionally and physically. In the opening moments of the film we understand Evan’s grief and relationship with his mother before he is cast adrift. As much as Louise is a myth, Evan is the truth behind how simple one man’s love can be.

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75 Years of Batman – Part IV

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Dave McKean’s more abstract approach divided readers upon its publication but has produced a rendition of Batman’s world that has rarely been matched for its visual style. Textured and more tactile than what had gone before, the final work was one that sort to be scratched at, much like the unhinged mind of Batman and Arkham’s inmates.

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‘The Scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls…’ Edgar Allan Poe

The duality of Bruce Wayne’s persona is intrinsically linked to how he utilises a seemingly negative emotion to his advantage. There is contradiction and conflict and it is within these dark confines that Bruce discusses the need for justice and how to save Gotham from criminals at great personal risk to his own mental and physical health. His pragmatic approach and extreme focus is shown directly through his actions and ability to make the most of his surroundings – tempering mind, body and spirit in to the weapon he needs to gain an insight into the criminal mind and deliver his own, swift form of justice. To aid further, his privileged lifestyle has enabled him to have many resources at his disposal – a seemingly endless supply of wealth that has helped him to seek out the most effective teachers in their fields.

Yet, despite this commitment, his own dilemma lies in his own personal ambition and how unsure he is of revenge – a weakness and conflict that his antagonists more than often exploit. It is this moral dilemma that have been explored to great effect in seminal works such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Not only did these stories reinvent the character but were also a major turning point in comic book history. Having now given birth to a much darker and morally ambiguous rendition of Batman, both Miller and Moore in particular helped to reshape the public’s perception of the world Batman inhabited and over the past three decades have formed somewhat of a Holy Grail for any version that has proceeded.

The extraordinary nature of Bruce Wayne’s physical abilities often overwhelm his own, mental discipline. In a scene from Batman: Year One (1987) he questions his ability by the graveside of his parents and, after leaving, lowers his moral guard that leads to him initiate a street fight. It is this moment that forms an important turning point in his career as a vigilante and, in assessing the situation, understands how much he must control himself. The scene also highlights how much he is still driven by similar adolescent urges that need to be tempered by discipline and the comprehension of why he must follow a strict morality.

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Frank Miller’s bold, iconic style was one of both clarity and brute strength. Influenced by Film Noir, Manga and European artists, Miller’s style is closer to the work of Saul Bass than conventional comic book illustrators. His depiction of Batman is a hard boiled outlaw – grisseled by his experiences and a fine thread away from becoming the very thing he fights against.

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) paints a bleak, post-apocalyptic future Gotham that has fallen in to fear and violence – a Reagan era comment on excess and consumerism grown out of the control of a dystopian society. It is here, that the lack of effort in controlling the escalating violence, the retired Bruce Wayne must, once again, pick up the mantle of the bat, raising the concern: should Batman use violence to help change a society? It is here that his own personal conflict is highlighted once more: if those who are adverse to him are using similar methods then what justifies Batman’s own methods?

In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988) the exploration of fear is shown from the opposite end of the table where the Joker is presented as a yin to Batman’s yang. Saturated in the Clown Prince’s bright colour palette of green, purple, red and yellow, his presence throughout the book is constantly felt. Moore’s Joker is a terrifying Cheshire cat who exacts the most brutal acts on his victims while, with his trademark grin, flippantly laughs off the crime only highlighting his anarchic approach. With the Joker there is no rationality, no empathy – only highlighted further by a man who laughs at his own, sick jokes. Here, Batman doubts his own ability to fight his mirror image and in the book’s opening, while visiting Arkham Asylum, shares these doubts with his archenemy. ‘I’ve been thinking lately, about you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?’ (Moore p.1)

It is more than evident that Batman recognises that his vigilantism and the Joker’s terrorism take advantage of fear, presenting him with the unresolvable situation of how he can fight a villain who understands fear more than he does. The story concludes with both of them reaching their final confrontation where they share a laugh together over one of the Joker’s bad jokes as they realise neither of them will win. The end, according to writer Grant Morrison can be seen as the final story of these two adversaries and that the title alone hints at the potential of Batman killing the Joker as his laughter abruptly stops before the final panel. This has never been confirmed by Alan Moore and is often seen as one of a number of jabs the two writers have made towards each other during their career.

Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1987) marked his first foray in to the world of Batman and can be seen as a comment on the society at the time. Much like Alan Moore, Morrison, as a British writer, had come to prominence through the pages of 2000 AD and had developed a similar, cynical approach to his subject matter. The result was a more repressed Batman; a violent figure who was painted as a borderline psychopath that now cast him in a far more complex light.

Morrison’s own interest in the occult and use of symbolism is clear throughout the book. While it often references sacred geometry the main influence is the architecture of a house where Morrison structured the tale of Amadeus Arkham around the lower, basement levels while the long forgotten secret passages connect the wider concepts. The result is a journey through the floors, brought to life by the nightmarish, visceral illustrations of acclaimed artist, Dave McKean. From a visual experience the artwork is multi-layered and hints at the shadows and shapes that play at the back of our own minds; much like the solid execution of a horror film. Influenced by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Morrison’s own dissection of the character leaned more heavily towards European cinema such as the German Expressionistic masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). McKean’s abstract renditions of the Asylum and its inhabitants are enough to hint at the underlining themes, yet to a lot of readers at the time, including Morrison himself, was not a conventional approach to the story. Where Morrison felt his symbolic elements were lost in their representation, the final work has more than stood the test of time and has been a major influence on the mythos, recently spawning a popular line of video games, Arkham Asylum (2009), Arkham City (2011), Arkham Origins (2013) and next year’s Arkham Knight (2015).

Due to his reinvention through these seminal works a far more complex picture of this tragic hero has arisen. It has become ever more apparent how Batman is not a superhero but simply a human being who struggles to remain in control and shows us the full potential of what we can be. Born out of a decade of depression and violence, Bruce Wayne’s omen that he chooses the image of a Bat is intrinsically linked to those early incarnations of his psyche. As a wealthy crusader he cloaks a dark secret that symbolises how he has conquered fear – an ‘exposure’ that helps him remain with what he is afraid of until he is calm. One of the most influential writers who has contributed to the mythos, Dennis O’Neil states, ‘Batman operates in the shadows – outside society yet his values are that of a virtuous man.’ Therefore Bruce Wayne attempts to integrate the ongoing conflict he has between good and evil and presents the person he thinks he is over the person he wants to be.

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As well as the notion of a ‘Shadow side’, Carl Jung proposed and developed the concepts of extroversion and introversion; archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

The Swiss Psychiatrist, Carl Jung believed that a distinct, personal struggle wages between the socially acceptable self and the ‘Shadow side’ – a state that we project our dark sides on to. Bruce Wayne taps in to a childhood fear adopting the iconography of evil that resembles old medieval imagery of demonic figures clad in darkness, horns and batwings that personifies a disturbed fascination. As Batman he explicitly owns this identity and exposes it to criminals in his night time crusade as a masked avenger who works outside the law. There is an aspirational purpose as he masters fear, crushes the chaos and, instead, soars upwards above society.

Although there is what can often be seen as a glorification of violence in comic book culture, both history and fiction remind us that one person’s hero is another’s vigilante. However it is clear that this point would not match up in the real world – an idea that simply does not translate efficiently to the masses. While some would ask, ‘Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne just go to therapy?’ Most of us learn to realise that the truth is that the masks he wears are his other personas – the tragic Socialite behind the walls of his Manor and Bruce Wayne the Billionaire playboy. What defines the character is the central humanity that Bruce Wayne possesses and therefore Batman is not only a finely crafted tool but his true identity – he can’t stop being Batman but he can stop being Bruce Wayne as his behaviour prevents him from having any lasting relationship. As a man he is more than capable of falling in love and has often been an exploited weakness as it is the one thing that has no shield – he can’t love openly due to the fear of loss which could act as a reminder and distraction from his exposure.

As complex as he is contradictory, Batman must constantly battle with his own adversity which forms a core element of his humanity and without this conflict there would be no need for a Batman and therefore every right for Bruce Wayne to retire – with this in mind, it could be argued that he isn’t a superhero and simply a human being who demonstrates the great things we can accomplish. He shows that we can learn to understand this difficult world and pursue justice that provides the hope that all of us need where heroism is often found amongst the darkness and fear that resides in all of us.

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