So many comics take it real careful when it comes to communicating to their audience, that we have terms like, “duospecific,” to cover them. Chris Claremont cemented himself in our nostalgia by repeating phrases and recurring motifs that make for good snapshots, like X-Men playing baseball. Garfield is a collection of things that play well on calendar pages and t-shirts. That is on purpose.
In many cases careful is good. But, the more careful we have, the more we see comics play safe, repeat information, use text to describe blatant visuals, use exaggerated visuals to communicate every single emotion or motion. The more we get flawed representations like every superhero from Spider-Man to Batman to Henry Pym smacking a loved on so hard they draw blood, just because they found them momentarily annoying. Spider-Man hits his wife while she’s pregnant.
Too careful, trying too hard to be absolutely clear, either gives us a lack of emotional investment or clarity – inexplicable but ultra-detailed facial expressions – or explosive blows replacing brushed aside or turned away dramatically.
The Rise and Fall of Empires, a short comic recently run in Heavy Metal #292, is an exercise in trusting the audience. Letting the audience work as they will. As they can.
Grant Morrison (concept) and Rain Hughes (design) are deep enough in comics, they know that title, The Rise and Fall of Empires, will have us anticipating – especially in the pages of Heavy Metal – an unsubtly ironic tale of one army supplanting another, or two emperors who, pseudo-cyclically, are kind of the same thing.
So, they don’t do that.
These are our heroes of Really and Truly. Our kings of purified access metaphors and practice. Both of them, separately, have blown up Batman in ways that thrilled many and probably upset someone who could use it.
Hughes and Morrison know we expect comics to be representational art, mostly figure-work, probably line art, and most of that outline art another artist can color in. They know what we anticipate, what we assume and will assume. And, their comic dancing around the work our experience and assumptions will already do, to work the gears we won’t turn.
What they give us, to start, is a big, solid blue rectangle. Whole page. Page one.
Page two is page one, with one red square set in a seemingly random spot in the upper right.
Page three: more red blocks, of various sizes and dimensions, across the top two thirds of the otherwise blue page.
For thirteen pages, red overtakes blue, in blocks and with weird squiggle borders, then blue wins back territory until blue and purple are creating patterns we cannot even pretend are representing territory on a map. Blue space creates the negative space around red circles, purple fans out almost organic and then in sharp, clear angular outcroppings. Page thirteen has gone all purple, except a credit sequence in the lower right.
Who thought, twenty years after Morrison’s JLA, he would do another war of colors tale? Is that a Claremontian nostalgia pull?
And, then, fourteen: a yellow square appears.
I am only using the term, “territory,” because of the invocation of empire. The comic never calls itself a map or identifies an infographic. There are no figures. The patterns are not even repeated enough, perhaps, to be patterns. Fragments. Growth, but it is neither organic-feeling nor obviously constructed growth. Like the real rise and fall of empires, we cannot tell, on this scale, the why of any advance or regression. The empire, or empires involved are inexplicable in iconic colors that evoke assumptions but little else.
The Rise and Fall of Empires is an untraditional presentation of a traditional narrative progression. Everything is stripped down to nonrepresentational shapes, to un-politicized – or entirely politicized – elements. Red and blue spaces, after all, are more or less of equal value. Purple comes in a little secondary. Yellow, is our ironic and unanticipated final gag. How do you commit surprises in a comic with no characters, no expressible anthropomorphic plot? The surprises will get you, though. They work.
The comic works because Morrison and Hughes trust in us. What is missing is as to the detriment of how this would be told in a traditional form, as it is to the benefit of the expectations of the traditional type. You could not commit to this form for a year of serials, but as a fourteen page comic, it gives us more definitive development than an average year of X-Men comics or a year of Apartment 3G, with an openness that means never having to settle ourselves in account with what we have read.
Is the white border part of the comic?
Trusting Your Audience
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