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Illuminated manuscripts

Exactly 4 months ago today, Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to a grinding holt. No it didn't. It came to a spectular and appropriately graceful conclusion, leaving me wholly fulfilled and my ISP grateful that I wouldn't be downloading 500mb files every week any more. I was well prepared for the ending (perhaps even secretly a bit "over it"), and I did not shed a single tear, whatever you may have heard to the contrary.

Still, it's not easy to say goodbye to something that's been a sort of emotional pillow for so long. So I went looking for a sequel. There's no sequel, you say. There is, say I, there's a sequel to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's not a tv show though. It's a comic book.

If you know comics, you might be rolling your eyes, thinking of that rather ordinary series put out by Dark Horse Comics (featuring, incidentally, Ms Amber Benson on its roster of writers. Not that that redeems it). If you're not a comic book nut (neither was I), you might be rolling your eyes, thinking of those "funny books" for kids. Stop rolling your eyes already, and listen.

Fray, by Joss WhedonThis sequel, it's called Fray. It's written by Joss Whedon. It's set a couple of hundred years into the future. It's really very good. There are eight books in the series, which is now completed. First issue was back in 2001 (Year 5, Buffy calendar), the last issue came out in early August this year (that's post-apocalypse, Buffy calendar, I guess). It features the mythology of the Buffyverse, the artefacts, the (since-evolved) slang, and even a fleeting appearance from the inestimable Ms Summers. The "scythe" (it's an axe, dammit!) from the final Buffy story arc first appeared in the pages of Fray a year or so before its tv debut.

The comic medium is enriching, not constraining. Joss' directorial experience is constantly on exhibition in the pacing of narrative and the composition of frames. The artistic talents of Karl Moline, and more particularly, of Dave Stewart (the primary colorist) effectively give Whedon the unlimited special effects budget that UPN could never have. Dustin' vamps never looked so purty!

But I'm not really here to talk about Fray. Buffyholics should be placing their orders already. I want to talk about comics as -- how to put this delicately? Literature.

You might notice in the coding section that I developed a viewer for digitised (that is, scanned) comics. It's not finished, but it works well enough and until I finish my honours year it's not going to get any more attention. The screenshot features a panel from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Back. Even excusing the geeky title, that's a Batman comic, so have I finally paid my dues and joined the pocket protector set?

No. Frank Miller, at his best, is a brilliant writer. Not a brilliant writer of comics; a brilliant writer sans any qualification. That Batman series, written in the last couple of years, is the sequel to one of the two most hallowed books in comics literature: The Dark Knight Returns, published in '87. (I'll come back to the other hallowed book later.) The Dark Knight Returns took the familiar story of Batman's origins and mission, and cast it into real world. Which is not to say that Gotham City and Metropolis were discarded, nor other icons of the DC universe such as Superman, Green Arrow, etc. Fantasy is woven thickly through the narrative. That's partly my point. The fantasy elements serve as the medium through which the features of 1980s America are depicted in their metaphorical essence.

Okay, I'm coming in to bat for The Dark Knight Strikes Back -- the sequel to the '87 book -- at this point because I suspect it is the more disparaged of the two series. The guiding principle is the same, but now Frank Miller is tackling the features of the post-millenial world. His pen is bitter and biting and pedantically accurate even at its most exaggerated. Though he's not always exaggerating, even when the imaginative excesses seem to strain credulity. There is, for instance, a news reader who appears occasionally to read the news in the buff -- nothing more than a cameo character. Several real world web sites have offered such a service for years. The media as the savage, uncontrollable and subliminal influence in people's thoughts and actions is a central theme of The Dark Knight Strikes Back. As an extraordinary indictment of the 21st century West, it demands attention.

Frank Miller is good, and if you are unjustifiably self-conscious about reading such a "juvenile" title as Batman, you can get Sin City instead. Sin City is less thickly laden with anthropological themes, but is nonetheless, energising. It makes me, a fairly timorous and mostly pacifist soul, want to go out and hit something. Really hard. Knock it's teeth out. "Umf, kaf!" as Marv would say.

So Frank Miller is good. But Miller, at least in my assessment, is not consistent enough to occupy the upper level of this pantheon. I place him beside Warren Ellis, the writer (please let me say "author") of the breathlessly hyperactive Transmetropolitan series. Above those two, I look up at the two lords of this literature. One is Neil Gaiman, the author of the Sandman series. Neil Gaiman's ability to write soulfully, capturing every emotion and twisting it up to the light, is a rare talent in any author. In him it seems depressingly effortless. There are two further remarks to be made of Neil Gaiman. One is that he keeps a weblog, at neilgaiman.com. The other is that he has collaborated with Alice Cooper on graphic novels about Alice Cooper -- I cannot condone this, I'm sorry. I can't condone it, but I can forgive it and I can ignore it, on the strength of the Sandman series (and his other graphic novels -- I haven't read his novels yet).

Then there's Alan Moore. I don't really know what to say about Alan Moore. I would like to say that the movies From Hell and LXG have nothing much in common with the comics they're based on, both of which were written by him. I would like to commend to you the comic book version of From Hell as an extraordinary piece of historiography in its own right, quite apart from the quality of its narrative. I feel obliged to say that he's a mean lookin' bastard. I would like to quote something, something like the opening lines of the Saga of the Swamp Thing (circa '83):

It's raining in Washington tonight. Plump, warm summer rain that covers the sidewalks with leopard spots. Downtown, elderly ladies carry their houseplants out to set them on the fire escapes, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings. I like that.

But I'm just going to say: Read the Watchmen. It's the other hallowed book I mentioned earlier. For once, mass consensus is absolutely right.

(Read it for starters, then read his V for Vendetta. Then read whatever else of his you can get your hands on. Melbourne Uni students have the incredible resource that is the Rowden White Library for just this purpose. Another reason why the Student Union should be protected against scoundrels and paternalistic "saviours".)

Joseph | 20 Sep 2003

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