COMICS REVIEW: HARD BOILED

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I felt much more like a junior partner with Geof Darrow in most of my collaborations, because his point of view was so distinct that he dominates. It’s like being a wrangler at a rodeo, you’re riding a bucking bronco and the best thing to do is hold on”. – Frank Miller

Context: Due to a bad herniated disk I was flattened out a few weeks ago and asked to stay horizontal for seven days. So with a head full of painkillers and limited mobility I was in a unique state of mind to spend time in Geof Darrow’s hyper brutal and elaborately dense drawings. Hard Boiled was Darrow’s American debut and was released four years after the superhero comic industry was transformed by the darker tones of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The work takes its marks from these pillars of comics and further pushes the boundaries and explorations of mature themes and violence in the action adventure genre.

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Story: Set in a bleak dystopian future, Hard Boiled operates in a world of excess and depravity reflected down from its heartless corporate domination. One such conglomerate, called Willeford Home Appliances has put into action a paramilitary army to wipe out any opposing corporate values. Not only do they build products for your home, but also build people. Artificial intelligence that look, think and act like normal humans but are secret corporate assassins. Unknowingly, a robot called Nixon is one of them. Completely reconstructed to think he is a regular husband and father called Carl Seltz working as an insurance investigator, Nixon’s fits of rage and faulty programming get scrambled up in a secret robot revolution that finds him at the center of its possible victory.

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CARTOONING

Influences and background: One of the deciding factors that separate Darrow with your regular American cartoonist seems to lie in a broad international influence. I don’t know what kind of comic shop was around when Darrow was growing up but it was more expansive than what is usually felt in action comics. Moebius is the obvious towering influence, even to the point that they collaborated together (Darrow drew, Moebius inked) on a series of images called La Cité de Feu (above) now impossible to find and a Holy Grail amongst collectors. Influences of Ku Fu films and Monster movies are also in the mix along with a good dose of Hergé’s sensibilities to form and colour.

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Look and feel: It’s as if Hieronymus Bosch had infiltrated comics – decadence and detail. The kind of astonishment and kick in the gut you get from coming face to face with extended volume and ornamentation. At the heart of Darrow’s art is a fundamental exploration of contrasts: big versus small, many versus one, fast versus slow. This creates an interesting push and pull. Full of action and speeding ahead, the plot of Hard Boiled is intentionally designed to be quick and lean. This encourages a fast reading of story, while the image making knowingly jams the breaks demanding full stops. It’s a musical thing – melodies and rhythms that push the narrative against the pull of the heavy visual bludgeoning. It has a dizzying effect, specially when seen in black and white.

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The brutality of it is hard to take in, but the tone and excess of Darrow’s vision really ties in with the story’s overarching theme of corporate culture growing out of control. Logos, product placements and pop culture references like the Flinstones, Astro Boy, Nancy, Porky Pig, Batman, Tweety Bird, Homer Simpson, Ed the Clown, Duran Duran, Hanna Barbera, Popeye, Tintin, Psycho and Bambi are plastered everywhere. Along with Ramones bumper stickers, cars named after Stallone, Eastwood and Norris, highway signs named after Goldie Hawn, giant Pepsi and 7up cans on cars, snickers, butterfingers, Baby Ruth, Milky way, Cheetos – total excess and abundance, the more absurd the better. Although I can’t spot exactly where it is, but Darrow has mentioned in interviews that he even has a battle scene that has one character with a shirt saying Godzilla and the other saying King Kong. It’s a crazy mix.

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I recently read cartoonist Daniel Clowes talking about how much attention he’s given to study how folds work when drawing clothes. How it takes time to understand and take under consideration the points of tension and release. Darrow indulges in this and there is something delightful in seeing his folds worked out with such complexity – wrinkle over wrinkle over wrinkle. Interestingly enough Darrow gives as much care and attention to folded fabric as he does to twisting metal. Car after car crashing, folding and intertwining into each other in the same way that Nixon’s trench coat folds and flows when in motion. For a lot of cartoonists drawing cars seems to be a serious problem to tackle and sometimes its avoided altogether … must be something about the geometric shapes of circles and curves in perspective that proves to be tricky – but Darrow is the opposite. Many MANY cars.

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It’s slapstick Looney Tunes violence gone ballistic (a man gets his arm ripped off and then stabbed WITH it). Almost to the point of being able to read it as a cyclical commentary of how comics had become plagued with gritty hyper violent stories after the influence of Miller’s late eighties work. It’s almost as if Miller and Darrow are addressing this by going all the way with it as a marker for and end point. You want to play this game, here is as far as it can get pushed in commercial comics – now move on and bring it somewhere new.

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Colours: An international comics influence is also apparent in the thinking of its colours. Darrow’s colourist, Claude Legris uses a mix of softer pastel combinations against brighter tones that creates a unique contrast when framing its violent content. And like European comics its size was bigger, the colours more complex and was printed on a heavier stock paper. The entry point to each issue (the covers) where unusually white and minimalistic, offering a sense of design and vision to the whole. These production values really made the book stand out at the time. Even just on the shelf, next to other comics Hard Boiled dominated and bullied its way into your hands.

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When looking at the colour work next to the black and white pages it becomes apparent how important the colour is in directing the eye where to go. The original ink work is so dense that the viewer is lost (which is not unpleasant as a curiosity in the deluxe edition) and totally dependent on the colours to come in as a guide, giving focus points to decode its proper pacing and direction.

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At times the blasts of colours are blood soaked and bright red, but on some pages – the more extreme ones, the blood is black (below). It reminds me of Scorsese talking about how he had to desaturate the colours at the end of Taxi Driver to avoid an X rating. I’m wondering if there was a call on the publisher to tone it down, which seems a bit odd given what else happens in the book.

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WRITING

Frank Miller said that he had to change his whole approach to writing the book when seeing the first three pages from Darrow. So much so that the overall tone had to be completely rethought. The attitude went from being a serious science fiction story to a dark bombastic satire. Miller had to play straight man to Darrow’s visual gymnastics. Look at how this straightforward plot element (main character is chased by police) changes in Darrow’s hands:

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Darrow not only draws the police car bigger (big vs. small) but draws it 12 TIMES bigger! Many times in the story Darrow’s art sets up visual jokes that play on the above mentioned big versus small / many versus one / fast versus slow dichotomies. Another one has the main character needing to get passed a series of security men. A trail of bloody agents leads to a full double page spread that has Nixon locked in and surrounded by the enemy along with the battles casualties on the ground. The damage is not just a few dozen injured men but 578. I counted them all.

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Miller doesn’t deviate much from standard science fiction themes – artificial intelligence rebelling against humans. But something about its tone does feel refreshing. When trying to readjust to Darrow’s art he says “Finally I happened to write down the words “come and get it you bum” and realized that it was going to be a comedy”. That bleak comedic edge might be what sets it apart – in the original letter pages of the individual issues (fake or not, all funny) they ran angry letters almost exclusively complaining about its violence and lack of morality. Truth is the story itself does seem a bit slim at first, but as previously mentioned the best Darrow story is slender and compact, and here Miller’s trimmed the fat considerably.

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Favourite page: (Above) Oddly enough I’m not sure exactly why this is my favourite page other than the look of it feels right. The second issue of Hard Boiled came a few months later and double the size of the first. In my copy, because of the staples and binding design it always folded open at this spread. It was the first issue I bought and always the first thing I saw when I picked it up. It’s not really about the dialogue plot point or action sequence, but more about how the tone of the colours homogenize the page as a thrilling piece of design.

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Favourite panel: (above) For me the dread of the whole thing is summed up in this one image. It’s all a sham and Dorothy can’t go back home anymore. Not smart enough to notice his part in a possible robot revolution, Nixon’s finally cornered and given a last chance. “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Not a fan of Lewis Carol, Nixon gets to keep working in the insurance business – happy ending and all.

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Fun Fact: Miller says he used Darrow’s likeness as the template for Sin City’s flesh eating murderer in the first book in the series called The Hard Goodbye.

QUOTES: GUSTON ON FIGURATION

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 He describes the reasons for his return to figuration in the late 1960s as follows: 

“So when the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kid of a man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be a way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was lying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid. Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.”

– Taken from Philip Guston: Das Grosse Spätwerk / Late Works, Strzelecki Books

COMICS REVIEW: THE KILLING JOKE

Martin Dupuis Killing Joke_1Brian Bolland did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.” – Alan Moore

It’s probably well known that John’s choice of colors turned out to be startlingly at odds with what I had in mind” – Brian Bolland

Context: Tim Burton’s Batman came out in 1989 and got lots of kids picking up comic books for the first time, me included. My dad brought me to a comic shop he had found during a lunch break and bought me The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (seen below). It had a cover by Brian Bolland, which looked great. But to my disappointment none of the art inside, which was all drawn by different cartoonists was as good as that cover. A few months later I saw The Killing Joke on the shelf, fully illustrated by Bolland and written by Alan Moore. Thirty-seven of its forty-eight pages feature drawings the Joker. And as much (or as little) as that sounds it solidified Bolland as the definitive artist for the character.

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When The Killing Joke came out the superhero revolution had happened a few years before with Frank Miller doing The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore on Watchmen. Both books brought a darker perspective on the superhero genre, which influenced Burton’s take on it and flooded the market with violent, gritty anti-heroes. Bolland was unhappy about its final color treatment by John Higgins and Moore (who generally likes bigger more far reaching ideas) felt a smaller story between the iconic Gotham characters didn’t lead to anywhere interesting. No big ideas. Interesting to see a book loved by so many but looked down upon by its creators. Moore has pretty much disowned it and Bolland got to recolor it the way he originally intended in a 2008 deluxe edition re-release.

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Story: The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, takes over an old dilapidated Carnival playground and terrorizes Gotham with a simple premise – all that’s needed for someone to snap and go insane is one bad day. That everyone is one bad day away from being like him. He chooses to prove his point by singling out the commissioner as his test subject, first crippling his daughter with a shot to the spine and then submitting Gordon through a series of humiliating events and eventual witness to his daughter’s horrific suffering. Throughout the story we are shown several flashbacks that propose to be the Joker’s origins: the one bad day that lead him from being a normal husband who is trying to support a pregnant wife, into a green haired sociopath.

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CARTOONING

Influence and background: Like many cartoonist of his time Bolland was heavily influenced by the superhero visions of George Perez, Joe Kubert and Neal Adams. Adam’s cover for Batman issue 251 has been noted as a direct influence on him to want to draw a Joker story. Bolland’s art school background aligned itself with creating art that had, as its foundation a deep understanding of anatomy and perspective – something not easily found in a lot of comics art. Early work includes finely crafted black and white pages for Judge Dredd and British sci-fi magazine magazine 2000 AD. And along with British artists Dave Gibbons and Brenden McCarthy, Bolland broke into the American comics market in the eighties but now has the luxury of mostly only doing comic covers. He has stated that after working with the best (Alan Moore) on Killing Joke, it would only be a step back to draw any stories for anyone else.

Martin Dupuis Killing Joke_17Look and feel: I’m flipping through the book and surprisingly enough my first reaction is that it’s all very normal looking. Nothing too obtrusive, panel after panel of un-frivolous comics pages. He must have stood out at the time in my collection because from an early beginning it was the heavily stylized art that got me picking up comics. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen. Bolland stands out from all of them. In fact, that’s what saves him now – maybe it’s the fine arts background.

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Lord knows I’ve spent many a teenage Friday night drawing superheroes – the “fun” stuff is always the dramatically exaggerated fight stance, the power poses. But if you learn to draw comics by reading comics you’ll only really know how to draw those kinds of dramatic moments (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen) and will be completely lost when having to tell a proper story  – where people have to sit at tables, open doors and walk down the street. Mapping out all that anatomy and perspective stuff is tedious, most action cartoonist avoid it as much as they can.

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And the truth is that Bolland draws those small moments with as much focus and detail as the more grandiose ones. All within a very structured grid system that trusts the story and allows for a visual system to support it rather than trying to show off. It brings a sense of reality and balance to the more fantastical elements of the story and ultimately renders it all the more terrifying because of it. Comparing it to other artwork done at the time, even next to Dave Gibon’s masterful pages in Watchmen has only solidified how strong Bolland is in Killing Joke. And I’d challenge anyone to hunt down any comics of its time and find better panel to panel cartooning in a mainstream book. It’s deceptively good.

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WRITING

When I picked it up I must have had a bit more money that week because it spotted a 4.50$ cover price. Triple what a normal cover cost at the time. Right next to the price tag was a “suggested for mature readers” label, which either the shop owner didn’t see or didn’t care. At 13, I brought it home and its tone was unlike any other comics I had. To a young reader, its mix of violence and nudity was startling, revolting and titillating at the same time. A strange mix to take in. I hid it in the back of another comic and carefully placed it in my collection so that no one could see.

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The smaller and more intimate design of The Killing Joke is part of what attracts me to it all. The way Moore loops up the ending as the start and vice versa, its construction is effective and condensed – not grandiose. His scripts are infamous for being completely mapped out and fully detailed when it comes to what should be drawn in each panel. I’ve read that smart cartoonists follow instructions step away and do their best to follow his vision.

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I’m not a big fan of stories that explain motives and back story so much, Moore addresses this by making the Joker mention how he often remembers his past in different ways – choosing to have it as multiple-choice. This introduces the subtle idea that he’s been an unreliable narrator in portraying himself as an innocent victim of bad circumstances.

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The story jumps from present to past in effective visual transitions (a part of the image always repeating itself when jumping from past to present). Some of these flashback sequences involve two gangsters and a naïve pre-Joker trying to put together a heist. These are by far the least interesting parts of the story and carry with them an amateurish tone that point towards a possible open affection for the bad acting and dialogue often found in old film noirs.

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The story element that is most referred to when speaking about the book is the treatment of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. The Joker assaults her and breaks her spine with a gunshot. The sequence in which this happens is well paced but terribly violent. It alone is jolting, but it’s the extra touch of darkness when the Joker unzips her top to take photos that gave me the feeling I was reading something I shouldn’t have been as a 13 year old kid.

Moore now talks about the sequence as possibly being too extreme for the time, and I might not disagree. The mix of violence and titillation often seen in horror films is used to similar effects here, but looking back its darker implications give weight to Joker’s main objective. An earlier draft (above left) of the photos in question shows that they had pushed it even more with a center drawing not only suggesting nudity, but outright showing it.

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THE ENDING

Even for it’s biggest supporters the ending of the book has often been a moot point. Some tolerate it, while others downright loathe it. The story climaxes with Batman saving Gordon and confronting the Joker in a fight. It ends in the same way it started, after years and years of fighting each other Batman wants to stop the cycle and genuinely reaches out to help the Joker. Man to man, one on one. It’s as tender a moment that they will have together, and with a sense of helplessness and defeat the Joker declines and offers up a joke in return:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!” B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!

To which Batman chuckles at, and like two old friends they fall into each others arms laughing as the final panels show the police arriving to take the Joker away.

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After such violence, possibly the most brutal seen in any Batman book, how could it end with Batman laughing it all off? How could Moore end his bloodbath on a joke – and one that isn’t even funny? Taken at face value the joke seems to trivialize the previous events, but its underlying message is poignant.

Dressing up like a bat and running around fighting crime is as unleveled an activity as one can think of. Certainly as odd as dressing up like a clown creating havoc on others – “two guys in a lunatic asylum”. Batman offers to reach out and help: “I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me“. But the Joker sees through the well meaning gesture and points out the obvious – Batman is as crazy as he is and might not be the most solid of anchors to rely on : “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!“. 

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This reading of the ending satisfies me and seems fitting, but a few years back comics writer Grant Morrison (Batman Arkham Asylum) brought a whole new perspective to the ending:

No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. That’s why it’s called The KILLING Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it. But he did it in such a way that it’s ambiguous so people will never be able to be sure, which means it doesn’t HAVE to be the last Batman Joker story. It’s brilliant.

Listen to full Fatman on Batman episode 44 segment here:

I find this take on it terribly exciting and if it isn’t what the original authors intended, maybe it should have been. Presenting the book as an origin story, and at the same time killing off the character on the last page is a great idea. The ultimate loop. But nowhere in Moore’s script (see below) does it hint to anything more than the two longtime adversaries leaning on each other in a quiet moment as they are allowed to laugh at the absurdity of their eternal struggle:

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And if killing the Joker was intended, it might of happened in a very subtle fashion, perhaps as an in-joke just between the two creators that Bolland eventually let slip out in his 2008 intro to the re-edition. He hints at what Morrison mentions above – but Batman’s arm stretched out is clearly not on the Joker neck in the final illustration.

But all this fact checking doesn’t take away from the validity and impact of Morrison’s suggestion. In fact there is an odd tone to the story right from the beginning. Batman wanting to put a legitimate stop to their feud – obsessing over the idea of death and possibly putting into gears the self-fulfilling prophecy of one dying in the others arms.

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And it would, in a backwards way completely prove the Joker’s main point. That given the right circumstances people can be pushed to the edge, go crazy and burst out in violence. His broken neck would be the punch line to the joke that killed. The commissioner might have had a hint of this when he warns Batman that he wants the Joker brought in “by the book … in order to make him understand that our way works”. To which he gets the unconvincing reaction above.

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And it wouldn’t be the first time Bolland would be attached with a Gotham murder. He shoots Batman in the head in a short story he wrote and penciled in 1996. So maybe he is daring enough to pull a fast one on us all – it’s true that without the Joker around after the Killing Joke, having Batman is useless.

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Favorite page (above): I love the pacing and classic grid system of the layout. Real Slow. The way Bolland gradually reveals all the elements of the joke, beat per beat. Pink elephant, handshake and weapon that land on the poisonous punchline. A hint of Joker’s madness is showcased as we see that part of his delight lies in the flirt and buildup. The ownership of the circus has already changed hands well before this chat, but he still strings along the owner as long as he can to meet up and talk. The yellow teeth and bulging eyes are the result of the deadly handshake attack, but not much of a challenge. Harder will be the trial up ahead – setting up the right circumstance for someone to end up with the same blank stare of psychological defeat, but getting there on their own without the old gag prop at hand.

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Favorite panel (above): Drenched in rich pinks and popping purples, I’m attracted in the image’s strength to underlining how ridiculous the idea of dressing up as a bat is – much sillier than dressing up as a clown. The bat mask sliding down, the Joker is in full swing unleashing years of unfair feelings of how his oddities have been vilified while Bruce Wayne’s championed. Both are as crazy as the other, one has found a socially acceptable way to focus his psychotic tendencies, while the Joker keeps getting put away. Both locked into a cycle of doomed patterns, needing one another to define themselves.

CRITICISM

DC Comics released a deluxe edition of The Killing Joke in 2008. Bigger page size, new design and according to Bolland’s wish – was completely re-colored by the artist. Unfortunately none of it works as well as the original version, even down to the logotype re-design.

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Graphic design: The original design credit (above) is given to Richard Bruning, who’s bold center aligned type layout brought a strong sense of branding in a medium that rarely allowed for sophisticated design work. As they went into further printings, the logotype changed colors – making the typography an active participant in the impact of the opening image. Smart stuff.

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In comparison, the type design in the new deluxe edition seems dull and uninspired. On the cover (above – top) a bold slab serif font is mixed with thinner condensed typeface- a big step down from the original. The type design inside the book (above – bottom) doesn’t even match up with the cover, showcasing an even worst layout with a default looking font, bad kerning and terrible spacing considerations. Look how unbalanced the space (too tight) between “BATMAN” and “THE” is compared to the space after “THE” and “KILLING” … and how they forced the line under to align with “BATMAN” and “JOKE”, opening up the kerning in between the letters even more. None of it seems to be working together, none of it works. Which are also my feelings about Bolland’s recoloring job.

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Coloring: The original colors by John Higgins have real flair, popping out on the page and giving an offbeat tone to the drawings. Bombastic and surprising at times, the dark tale is told in splashes of oranges, reds, greens and purples. While detractors say it shows signs of its time, I say the baroque palette elevates the hyper nature of the mania into a pseudo-psychedelic light show.

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Bolland chooses to go in the opposite direction – stripping down the colors and bringing it all down to a more muted, lifelike palette (above right). I fully understand the exercise of trying to ground the visuals to a more realistic standstill in hopes of making the story even more palpable – but the end result lack vividness and excitement. Look how the original colors (above left) bring an urgency to the action, soaking them in a spastic fever dream. Something in the nature of the Joker’s character allows for the more frantic approach to work more effectively.

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In Bolland’s revision, the flashbacks are contrasted with the story told in he narrative’s present tense by totally desaturating them of color. All black and white. The function of making a clear division between the two time-frames is not uninteresting, but it all seems too easy and somewhat cliché – like a bad TV show that makes the screen fuzzy to indicate a dream sequence, or black and white to indicate the “past” or a “reenactment”. He also adds another bothersome element by highlighting one color a la Schindler’s List that seems gimmicky and frivolous rather than helpful.

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Bolland really layers on the gloss and Photoshop slickness when coloring lips in the book, especially for the the Joker (above right). It’s a micro detail and I guess it’s to add realism – but it has the opposite effect for me. Looks fake and sticks out like a sore thumb. Much prefer the elegance of Higgin’s more subtle colors and touch of white paint (left) to indicate a highlight.

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And call me old fashion, but a pet peeve of mine in comics today is the homogenous look of computer coloring. Everything looks the same when flipping through mainstream action stuff. The hand rendered, sometimes hand painted craftsmanship is replaced with overly glossy, slick, web 2.0 soft gradients and machine-like thinking. Not all of it is bad, but enough to look back at some of the pre-computer color designs, however primitive they were with a certain amount of affection. Look at how the grassy background on the left is highlighted and accentuated with tone and texture in the original – seeing the human touch of the brushmarks completely affects the mood.

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I’m really curious to know what was behind Higgin’s process for a panel like this – it seems like a mix of older CMYK plate color techniques with slight painterly touches on top (above left). Not 100% sure. The background gradient seems like an airbrush effect, layer of purple looks like a more traditional flat color plate and Batman has touches of what seem like had painted brush details. Love the small splash of white on his chest, really adds personality – something the Bolland’s recolored version on the whole (right) is lacking. The design, coloring and vision of the original was better left alone.

QUOTES: BRIAN ENO ON STYLE

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“Art is style: art is about style. In the past people used to think art is about content: It’s got to mean something. This is why people always say – but I don’t understand what it means, when they look at abstract painting. What are you trying to say? As if the reason that art exists is to package up messages that the artist passes to you through the work. So, that idea claims that art is a communication channel of some kind – I’m the artist, I shout down that communication channel and you receive the message at the other end. Well, I don’t think art has ever been about that really.

The other theory, the other way of thinking about art, is not that it’s a channel for communication something but that it’s a trigger; it’s a way of making something happen. And my interest in art is much more on that side of things – saying, what can I make happen? What can I make that will trigger something in you?

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So, what is it that makes people do something? I think it’s stylistic. What’s the difference between a reggae song that makes you dance in one way and a disco song that makes you dance in another?

The difference is the beat. What is the difference between one beat and another? They’re stylistically not the same. There’s no content difference. In one of them, the kick drum is on the one and, in the other, it’s on the two – that’s a style difference. So, I think that everything that moves you in art is a stylistic issue of some kind. This is something I lecture about and is a long story, and I usually have to use examples to prove it”.

– Taken from Mono Kulture #34

MILTON GLASER: DESIGNING DYLAN

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I can’t help myself – when I go to record stores, sooner or later I find myself in the Bob Dylan section. Seems reasonable, but I’m usually trying to spot if they have one of my least favorite albums of his: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. Problem is, I already own it. Three times. If they have a copy, I quickly open its dusty side pocket to see if I’m bringing another one home with me. I can’t help myself.

In 1967, when Columbia Records released the album each copy was accompanied by a beautiful poster designed by Milton Glaser. It’s rare to see one still slipped inside an old copy, but when it happens I bring it home. I really love this poster and have looked at it a lot. Two full sized copies are framed in my living room, next to each other. When people come over, we refer to it as our Double Dylans. Mr. Glaser was kind enough to talk to me and answer a few questions about it all.

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I’ve heard that the aesthetic of the Babyteeth typeface you used in the Dylan poster emerged from a sign you saw in Mexico. What attracted you to this sign and how did it influence the tone and personality of the other letters you made?

Milton Glaser: I saw this strange sign and was intrigued by the sort of innocence of the E and the fact that if you knew anything about typography you would never do a thing like that, the funny little staircase. There were a couple of other letters that also were primitive and simple in their reduction of letter forms and they sort of gave me a clue to a way to do a simple minded flat typeface.

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So, the naive element of how unreadable it was attracted you?

Actually it’s the opposite. It’s how readable it was even though it deviated from our understanding of what an E is supposed to be. I’m always interested in the nature of perception and how much you understand from limited information. That issue of being able to understand what you’re looking at has always been such throughout my work. I’m interested not so much in its peculiarity but in its recognition.

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Was Babyteeth specifically made for the Dylan poster, or was it something you were working on before and had around?

That was just an accident. I kind of had it on my desk at the same time. And I said if I have to use the word Dylan I’ll use this typeface largely because there wasn’t anything that looked quite like that around and I wanted to make the word itself look peculiar.

You’ve stated that the best work of an artist or designer emerges from unifying separate occurrences. Can you talk about the separate occurrences that came together to help shape the Dylan poster?

My idea is that you link things that are unrelated; it’s ninety percent of the imaginative content of what you do. The interesting thing is that firstly everything is connected, and secondly – once you find the connection it seems inevitable.

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The Dylan piece is directly derivative from the self-portrait out of cut paper that Duchamp did. I saw it for the first time and was astonished at the amount of energy and power it had from a simple black silhouette. No technology that was impressive or anything – it was just this black profile in the corner of a piece of paper and I said Jesus! look at the energy that that releases. And it was just in my mind and I thought, I could do that with Dylan.

Than I thought that it was too austere and too easily understood and I was also interested in Islamic painting and so I said I’ll take a little piece of this decorative Islamic idea and combine it with a very unlikely self portrait by Duchamp and see what comes out for Bob Dylan. And that’s what I meant earlier – that connecting seemingly unrelated events is one of the essential tools of artists.

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I haven’t checked the dates, but were you around when he was in NY?

He was around. In fact Duchamp quite coincidentally had a studio on 14th street next to mine. I rented a little room to paint in and Duchamp was right down the hall. I never had a long conversation with him outside of do you have the keys to the bathroom but he spent all his time playing chess by mail. And he never did any artwork during that period. This was late in his life.

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His readymades greatly puzzle me, I’ve always had a hard time getting my head around it all.

It’s hard to talk about an understanding of them for they are meant to be confusing, transgressive and provocative. Above all what they don’t want to be is explained in a literal way. You have to understand that at a certain point the logic involved in explaining a piece of art collapses, because you can’t explain art through logic.

Art occupies another part of the brain, it doesn’t affect your neurology in the same way. And all attempts to be analytical about this stuff turns out to be nonsense, or a good part of it is. So you have to respect the unconscious function and the profound mystery of art making without trying to analyze every gesture and thought because mostly that’s bullshit.

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The iconography of Dylan seems like a dream canvas to be molding and commenting upon, what did he mean to you then and what does he mean to you now?

I liked Dylan very much. I knew him. He was represented by Albert Grossman, who is a good friend of mine. And I would see him occasionally, actually I haven’t seen him since I did that poster which is a very long time ago. He was just one of the true poets and artists around who’s work moved you in a way that went beyond entertainment.

The poster you did was for a greatest hits album, so I imagine he was already big and that the mythology of Dylan was already in place when you did this work.

It was. He was very famous and he hated the album that was produced, which was the last album he did for Columbia. They did all the editing and assembly of that album. He had nothing to do with it and he had already broken his contract. So he tended to hate everything in it, and although he’s never told me that he never liked the poster, in fact we’ve never discussed it at all – it will probably remain the most iconic representation because its been reproduced so many times.

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I’ve seen a rough version of the Dylan image that has a different silhouette and a harmonica, did the project go through many different phases?

No, the silhouette is the same but in the original I had a harmonica. It was the art director who said you know maybe you can take out the harmonica and he was right. And actually this was the only solution I arrived at, which happens very frequently.

There is a great sense of exploring contrasts in the poster: the black and white silhouette vs. the blast of color in the hair, the organic shapes in the image vs. the geometric rigidity of the type – do you see the exploration of dualities as an element that finds itself in your your body of work or did it spawn out of a personal reflection from Dylan’s music and mythology?

No I think it’s like most stuff, it’s highly intuitive. You are trying to make something that will change people’s perception without exactly knowing how to do it except through a certain response to form making. You know, the mystery of how an artist with three strokes can make something that moves the mind as opposed to artists that never move the mind is beyond anyone’s understanding.

Martin Dupuis_Glazer_12I went to the Matisse show a couple of weeks ago and I looked at these colored scraps of paper and I thought why are they so profound and why do we respond to them the way we do … why is this museum full of thousands of people who want to experience these little cut paper pieces. You don’t get there. There is no way to explain it except that there is some unique understanding that the artist have of what moves people. And not everybody has it, and in fact its one of the distinctions between artists and professionals. It’s that most of the work you see is not art because it does not achieve that consequence and does not make you feel that your life has been changed by the experience.