Friday, April 29, 2016

Scott Bukatman's "Hellboy's World"

Scott Bukatman is Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University. He is author of Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century; Blade Runner, BFI Modern Classics; Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction; and The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit.

Bukatman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hellboy's World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins, and reported the following:
Hellboy’s World uses the work of Mike Mignola to explore what it is to read comics — and even what it is to read books in general. Hellboy is meant to be encountered two pages at a time — in a book held in the hand. Mignola’s panels and pages engage not only as linear narrative sequence but in other, non­linear, ways that produce an explicitly aesthetic encounter. And it’s a very “bookish” engagement: he tells stories in the traditions of Lovecraft and occult detection, which often involve mysterious tomes, and his comics form an elaborate textual network across his comics titles, but also through his explicit references to other writers, folklores, films, and genres.

Page 99 concludes a discussion of color in comics; a very under­studied area that deserves more attention (Hellboy’s World contains multitudes of lush color images). Did the very presence of so much color have anything to do with our culture’s suspicion of comics as a medium? David Batchelor’s Chromophobia discusses modern art’s mania for monochromaticity. Color is often associated with any of a number of Others: the primitive, the infantile, the feminine. Early comic strips combined the primitive and the infantile (yay!), and comic books were even more garish, their printing presses capable of far less chromatic nuance.

Children’s books are also replete with color, and Walter Benjamin (one of the heroes in my book) argued that these “riotous” colors had their seditious side: the text may have been scrutinized by society’s moral arbiters, but the pictures escaped notice. As with the marginal monsters on the pages of some medieval manuscripts, pictures defied the pedantry of prose. Color and image provided something that plain prose could not, a sensuous encounter that was meant to be felt rather than decoded. And color was fundamental to that non­rational affect; it worked against linear reading and singular meaning. On page 99, I write that color “can constitute a space apart that absorbs a reader, and provide an antidote to pedantry.”

I then shift from color to comics: “But comics themselves have been theorized as a form that works against (or at least alternatively to) traditional modes of reading.” The eye can move from panel to panel, absorbing information more or less linearly, or take in the entirety of the page, which has a composition of its own and other means of directing the eye. Mike Mignola does this quite a lot in Hellboy: some pages contain panels, or clusters of panels, that emphasize small details, and exist apart from the linear sequence. The eye’s progress is slowed, and reading gives way to something more measured. Linear reading yields to an aesthetic encounter with, at the same time, art, page, and book. So on page 99, we learn that color and comics complicate the act of reading, and in doing so, they afford additional layers of very real pleasure. Hellboy’s world is very aestheticized, and very bookish — in fact, it’s the world of the book.
Learn more about Hellboy's World at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue