Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dave Sim's blogandmail #124 (January 13th, 2007)


What was that novelty song back in the 80s? 867-5309 or whatever it was?

AprO-Forty-Two-One-Eight-Nine. Yeah that works.

Why did Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock work? Well, as Gary points out it worked because it originated with Truffaut. Francois Truffaut wanted to write the definitive study of Alfred Hitchcock and thought himself equipped to do so. Why he wanted to do so—as a working director write a book about another working director—is another question. My own guess would be that it was a brand of literary log-rolling. Truffaut was a world-class director, as Gary says, but he was a French world-class director which usually means big fish/little pond. The implicit trade-off would be avant garde/academe/arthouse credibility for Hitchcock (which Truffaut had in abundance and so could deliver in abundance—and did) and the possibility of wider popularity and influence for Truffaut (which Hitchcock had in abundance and so could deliver in abundance—at least theoretically—by osmosis). Let's put it this way: Truffaut obviously had to be the one to initiate the project and do all of the heavy lifting. Never in a million years would Alfred Hitchcock say, sitting in his office on a Hollywood studio lot: "You know, the next time I get some time off I really should do an exhaustive study of Truffaut's movies and his techniques and see if he won't sit down and do a series of interviews with me about them." I say that it was a species of log-rolling because there are a number of ways to log-roll. You can log-roll cooperatively and see how fast the two of you can get the log rolling under you (which is what I think this was: Truffaut would flatter Hitchcock and play up all of the things he understood about Hitchcock's work that the average viewer would be unaware of and—as long as Truffaut stayed respectful and "in bounds"—Hitchcock would allow him to try his best to get their names and reputations linked, probably knowing all the while that it just doesn't work that way. "You can't build a stairway up from where you are to where I am with a book. If you had ever been to Hollywood you would know that Hollywood is not going to think more highly of you because you explained Alfred Hitchcock's movies to them. There's a lot more to it than that") or you can log-roll competitively and see who can and can't keep up: who's staying on the log and who's going for a swim.

There was no reason for Frank and Will to log-roll cooperatively—Frank had nothing that Will needed and Will had nothing that Frank needed—or competitively: Frank was no threat to Will and Will was no threat to Frank. As Gary writes

Except for an occasional (and perhaps revealing) lapse on Eisner's part, they are both unfailingly polite, so much so that they appear to be afraid to ruffle each other's feathers; it reads more like a conversation between wary professional acquaintances than close friends.

Well, exactly so. They were close friends but their professional worlds barely brushed against each other and were drifting further apart than they had ever been. What were they going to talk about: Hollywood? Frank was turning Sin City into a movie and Will spent most of his time getting rid of people who wanted to make a Spirit movie and had been doing so for years. The best they could hope for was to be "unfailingly polite" and keep their respective oxen from getting too badly gored, because they also had many of the same experiences but had made wildly different choices as a result of those experiences. Frank Miller couldn't be further away from being a businessman and Will Eisner couldn't see another way of working in the comic-book field that made any sense so there was no way to discuss the subject of the business or anything in proximity to it in any depth without getting blood on the walls. The other problem holding both of them back is that they ARE their work in a lot of ways. I remember Bob Andelman telling me that Will went straight from his brother's funeral to working with Bob on his book. Whatever time Will had left was going into his work and trying to communicate what he had to communicate. When you're that personally invested in your work and you're in the same room with someone who is equally personally invested in his work as Frank is and you are diametric opposites in almost every choice and decision you've made, you are going to step warily. Gary identifies the only real punch-counterpunch that gets thrown in the whole book—significantly, very early on—when Will says

I talk to people about the institutions of marriage. You've got no time for that because the people you're talking to are not dealing with it.

This is Will trying to step warily around Frank as a younger man in a modern context that Will couldn't understand and mostly didn't approve of—and who knew that his expression of disapproval would be unwelcome. It isn't an indictment of Frank so much as it is a rueful acceptance of things having changed dramatically from Will's day. Marriage was no longer a central consideration in the way that Will's generation understood it to be. I picture Will lying in bed with Ann reading Frank's work in preparation and saying, "None of these people are married. None of these people even think about or talk about marriage" and thinking that this would be a fruitful area for discussion. Maybe someone forty years younger could explain to him why marriage wasn't seen as being more important than it was to Frank in his more personal work like Sin City. It wouldn't surprise me that Ann read some of Sin City and remarked on it and that put the bug in Will's ear. It would have just been depressing for both of them, I think, as if the thing that you thought was critically important in life had turned out to have just been a fad as far as the literary subject matter of the new generation was concerned. But, for Frank it was a punch, calling the legitimacy of his work into question. Trying to be conciliatory, Will just makes it worse:

You're involved in the mainstream. You're right in there with the excitement of it, and you're aware of it. I'm talking about, in A Contract with God, man's relationship to God. The guy who's reading your stuff doesn't give a shit about man's relationship to God. He wants to see whether Marvin kills that son of a bitch or doesn't kill that son of a bitch, or whoever it is he's adopted to assassinate or kill or beat up. We're talking to different people. You're aware of it. [decided emphasis presumably Will's]

Well, to be fair, Will didn't talk about man's relationship to God very often. He was on safer ground saying that he talked about marriage a lot—because he did: marriage was a natural occurrence and a core element in almost every life Will documented in all of his books—and that Frank's treatment of marriage is not exactly one of his core themes (to say the least). But I think the point Will was missing was that he and Frank were and always had been both talking to the same audience: comic-book fans who had never outgrown comic books, because those were the only people who knew who they were or cared what they had to say. It was an audience that followed Will from The Spirit to A Contract with God without batting an eye: an audience that followed Frank from Daredevil to Ronin to Dark Knight to Sin City without batting an eye and which was usually made up of the same people who just wanted to read good comics. If Will had said "My next book is about head lice" no one in his audience would have batted an eye. Will Eisner doing a book on head lice. Excellent. When's it coming out? When Frank said his next project was a Life of Jesus no one batted an eye. Frank Miller. Life of Jesus. Must have.

Will certainly desired a mainstream audience that wasn't born and bred to comic books and often talked about his audience as if he already had that but wishing don't make it so: the audience you desire is very seldom the audience you actually have. As a good example of how dramatically wishing don't make it so, DC pretty much gave up on the Will Eisner Library almost as fast as they acquired it—they had as much as admitted it to Will at the time of "My Dinner with Will & Other Stories" (Following Cerebus No.4—and now cheerfully makes money off The Spirit alone and almost exclusively in comic book stores while the new publisher of the Will Eisner Library, W.W. Norton has, so far, only gotten a couple of the titles onto the market and seem to be in no tearing hurry to get more of them out there—so much for Will's intended mainstream work finding a mainstream audience. Frank desired a mainstream audience of a different kind and chose to roll the dice on a Sin City movie in the hopes of achieving it that way and I think he's had more success than anyone else in trying to pull those Hollywood/mainstream/comic book/cult pieces together. But, there's no question that what Will was saying and the way he was saying it constituted a punch. Frank couldn't help drawing the inference that his work was being compared unfavourably to Will's in all the areas that matter in terms of professional and critical credibility:

Really, that was an unfair characterization. My stuff deals with that, too. It's more than pandering. My stuff is just more operatic than what you're currently doing. I'm not going to go into a lengthy defense of the complexity of my work, but my stories aren't just about people killing each other.

Frank cushions it as much as he can but it's still a counterpunch. "what you're currently doing" would be a staggering body blow to a guy well into his twilight years who had made all his choices and was just trying to get as much of his work down on paper as he could before the clock ticked down to zero. Frank could discuss what he was "currently doing"—who could say what Frank Miller would be doing ten years from now? Twenty years from now?—but that wasn't the case with Will. But for all that, it was a measured counterpunch. If you call into question the other guy's professional and critical credibility as Will did (however inadvertently) which suggests fundamentally bad creative and career decision-making, it's fair to call those same choices into question as a response/defence ("what you're currently doing" i.e. you can choose to do different work: technically true but very unlikely at Will's stage of life). I thought Frank's use of the term "operatic" was good. It's true that the plot line of many an opera is pretty grisly and blood-soaked so it's a good analogy when you've made the creative choices Frank has made, allowing for a highbrow sanction of lowbrow themes with a single adjective. You might not be able to make it stick in the long term, but it's certainly a "hill to die on".

The fact that Frank told me that he and Will were barely on speaking terms by the time that Will went in the hospital and that they only managed to patch up their differences very late in the day, a day or two before Will's surgery—which was strange to me because Will mentioned Frank more times than he mentioned any other cartoonist at our last dinner a good six months before—makes me think that the book itself was an incautious choice to be offered either one of them. Once offered I don't think either of them—as champions of their own points of view and career and creative choices personally invested in every one of those choices—saw or could have seen backing down from participation or evading participation as a viable option (and consequently the suggestion itself meant that they were being backed into it in a real way) but I also don't think any large purpose was served with the book that resulted—Eisner Award aside— when compared with the personal price that they both, evidently, paid for that participation.

Coming on Monday: Let's see what else they've got in here.





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