Comic Book Logic works because it maintains the coherence between the reader’s expectations and the storyworld. We accept superhuman powers as a given, and so we accept their functioning inside its own intrinsic logic. It is as if each and every super-powered being acted inside a sphere of non-causality, with varying radius, and inside that sphere, their powers work as they should were it not for the uncompromising laws of physics. To reach such affect, writer and artist must aim at the realistic portraying of impossible feats, both in story structure as in art. By realistic I don’t mean mere photo-imitation (one can be realistic without adhering to realistic representation), but a special codification of the logic structure of the working of such feats against the story’s expectations. The risk here is that Comic Book Logic should inadvertently slip into Cartoon Logic.
The image above, from FANTASTIC FOUR #4 (1962), sits uncomfortably near to that fateful incline towards ridiculousness. Mr. Fantastic, here penciled by “the king” Kirby, looks disproportionate in relation to the buildings that surround him. At that height, just try to imagine the size of his feet, dozens of meters below. In the early stories from Marvel’s Golden Age (during the Silver Age of Comics) the super-heroes’s super-powers were somewhat fluctuating and malleable, as if they hadn’t been completely thought out (as they probably weren’t) before being committed to the printed page. Here, Mr. Fantastic not only expands his body, as he seems to expand his size and mass as well – something that seems awkward, for a man of the size of Reed Richards on the panel above would be so massive that he wouldn’t be able to stand, and much less move. But although it is a silly situation – Mr. Fantastic stops a helicopter to ask if those aboard have seen the Human Torch – it still hasn’t slid entirely into a cartoonish mindframe.
As it had done, for instance, in the previous issue (FANTASTIC FOUR #3), when the same Mr. Fantastic turns his body into a racecar-wheel:
Please mind that Mr. Fantastic didn’t turn himself into a tire (which would be ridiculous enough by itself), but into a full functioning wheel for a speeding racecar, in the middle of a high-speed chase. Think of the sheer mechanical complexity of such feat, and the mind boggles…
Truth is, Cartoon Logic, just as Comic Book Logic, does not adhere to the laws of physics, but unlike the latter, it does not aspire to present a credible representation of the storyworld. Cartoon Logic thrives on the unexpected, on the surrealist logic of dreams, on the unchecked imagination of children still free from a sense of the world as it is. Its is a logic of free-association, of willingly incoherent rules, where one cause does not necessarily produce the same effect twice. Its dimension is a dimension of symbols, and when it invades the real world, it does so with a hint of madness.
Maybe madness is a strong world, for this madness I’m thinking of is no more than the craziness of childhood. For only a child could imagine an entire building floating through the skies, ridden like a ski by a semi-naked Amazon that, lassoed to an invisible airplane through a golden lariat, drives that incredible mass of tons of bricks and steel, with the might of her shapely thighs. Well, maybe not just children, for the above scenario appears on the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28 (1960), written by Gardner Fox and penciled by Michael Sekowsky:
Super-hero comic books were on their twenties when these two examples were published. Still a long way away from the revolution that would shake the comic book world around 1970, ushering the greatest comic book era of all time – the Bronze Age of Comics –, and that being so there were sometimes childish stories, already bearing the seed of great things to come, but not always more sophisticated than their forebears from the Golden Age were (1938-1954). Comics in their infancy, are surely entitled to the occasional slip into cartoonish situations.
Not so with more recent comics, where Cartoon Logic sometimes erupt like a mushroom on a well-kept lawn. In modern super-hero comic books, such eruptions tend to signal a return into childishness, an attempt to remove comic books from the adult status they sometimes have achieved, and throw them back into a mythical infancy of safe parental embraces. Of Saturday morning cartoons. Consider, for instance, the following panel from HARLEY’S LITTLE BLACK BOOK #1 (2016), written by Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner, and penciled by the same Amanda Conner with John Timms:
This is the kind of image we expect from French or Italian comedy films of the sixties and seventies (movies by Jean Girault or Michele Lupo for instance), films where the chaos of the surrealist imagination would subvert to comic effect the strictures of neo-realism and the less than ideal real world politics.
I’ve stressed in my previous post that Comic Book Logic could be a symptom of the infantilism in the medium of comic books. When it slips into cartoonish antics, it is undeniably so. Consider that Wonder Woman would be subject to the same Newtonian laws that governed Superman’s attempt to stop the Metropolis Bullet in ACTION COMICS #1 (2011) (as also discussed in my previous post). The same as saying that in the real world she wouldn’t have made it. The momentum of the speeding Mini would push her for kilometers, even if she could keep her arms locked with enough strength to prevent the sword from cutting her in half. Accepting – as we do – Comic Book Logic, we would also accept that she would be able to stop the car with the blade of her sword, smashing in the entire front of the Mini. But to slice the car in two perfect halves, cutting through the motor innards like it was butter… I’m sorry, but that is pure Cartoon Logic – something beyond even the brilliant cartoonish buffoonery of Deadpool, a character with a logic all of his own.
As I reread the previous lines, I can’t help but feeling that I’ve wasted too much time on what shouldn’t be more than a short footnote to my previous post. And I’ll be the first to admit that none of the examples quoted are enough to disqualify comic books as relevant pop entertainment. But I feel that these hints of childishness that sometimes creep back into comics, hark to something darker, as childishness is not always equated with innocence. Childishness is also a symptom of totalitarian thought control, and there is one aspect of this control that I want to discuss briefly in my next post: rape.