Master Stroke

Ok, The Trenches annoys me. Frequently. I don’t know why I keep reading it, really. I mean, it is well written, and the characters have depth. If the events are mundane, it’s because that’s the focus of the comic—it’s about the mundane lives of a bunch of mundane people working a mundane job. (What’s that adage about how the only normal people are the ones you don’t know yet?). It’s all slightly exaggerated, because that’s what caricatures do. But something about it, some sort of background buzz perhaps, ticks me off. The tone, maybe, or the setting. Or the fact that I don’t really like (or identify with) most of the characters. In fact, almost none of them are likeable; they are mostly petty and self-interested, with a smattering of other not-so-hot traits thrown in for seasoning. Isaac, ostensibly the main character, is a scheming dick (but happily, an incompetent schemer). Gwen is selfish and somewhat lazy. Marley is admittedly not selfish or petty, but his brain is so fried that he’s lost touch with reality, and I just don’t want to be near him. Q is an arrogant corporate climber, and also a bit of a dick. And the others are pure caricatures, and caricatures that depict only the banal, the weird and the pathetic, at that. (One person thinks he is a bat. One is batshit looney.)

Let us be clear. I think the comic is masterfully dislikeable. (I want to use words like “repugnant” and “repulsive”, but they are too strong.) It is not awful. The characters are not detestable, not horrifying or disgusting. They are unsavory. Shady. Everyone (except Cora) is trying to have an angle, some sort of advantage for him or herself, or is so far gone on some trip or another (weed, dementia, whatever) that he or she can no longer really see reality.

But this particular strip is spot on. It “exposes” (scare quotes because this is not news to readers) and makes fun of Isaac. He is a villain, or he wants to be one, unconsciously. He is exclusively self-interested, and actively tries to harm others for his own benefit—not out of sadism or a desire to hurt, just out of greed, selfishness, power-hunger. But he is an incompetent villain; his plans fail, backfire. And as this strip makes clear, he is incompetent enough not to realize that he is not a hero. He is the opposite.


(A) Higher Power

Looking at Scott Kurtz’s PVP Online comic from a few days back.

The joke here turns on wordplay, obviously, and also on font choice. (The joke would be given away if Kurtz used a font that allowed for lowercase letter.) But there’s an interesting discrepancy. The lineman specifically uses the phrase “A HIGHER POWER”, which allows us to think for the briefest moment, before we see the lineman, that Cole is having an encounter with the divine. But the company name written on the basket of the cherry-picker is simply “HIGHER POWER ELECTRIC”. If the lineman were introducing himself and his company, wouldn’t he just say “I’m with Higher Power”? So shouldn’t the company name really be presented as “A HIGHER POWER ELECTRIC”?

On the other hand, there is the possibility that the lineman gets a kick out of saying things in such a way. Imagine such a situation in real life. The lineman probably wouldn’t bother to mention the company at all. He’d likely merely say “Look up, son”, or some variation thereof, and leave it at that, trusting Cole’s hearing and sight to locate him. And of course all the visual cues of the work outfit, location, and cherry-picker would immediately tell Cole that he was talking to a lineman. And it probably wouldn’t matter much either.

The joke is repeated in today’s comic, this time by Cole, who has climbed into the cherry-picker basket with the lineman. If the repetition came from the lineman himself, I would take it as a small indication that he enjoys uttering the joke, and so deliberately throws it in wherever he can, even if it’s a little forced. But since it’s Cole who says it, and since both Cole and the lineman react disdainfully when the receptionist takes the words literally, i.e., falls for the trick, it would seem like the discrepancy is not meant to be indicative of the lineman’s character, but is instead maybe a small miscalculation in setup/delivery.


ASL? LSF? Any one of the hundreds of others that exist?

Why doesn’t Black Bolt write notes, or use sign language to communicate?

That one thought keeps popping up as I slowly read through the Marvel Knights Inhumans series (Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee). Imagine: you’re the ruler of a nation, yet you can’t talk. In order to be effective at your job (and you want to do that; you believe in the importance of it), you need to communicate. Wouldn’t you learn some other means of doing just that? Your culture has existed for thousands of years; surely some deaf members have developed a sign language. And if not, can’t you invent your own, or have someone invent it for you? Or, with the advanced level of technology present in the Marvel Universe, and the especially advanced level supposedly at the command of the Inhumans, couldn’t you develop (or have developed) some tech that reads your thoughts and generates a voice for you, or detects gestures and translates them into speech? Or even find some way of circumventing or controlling your power? And even if not, how have you not developed writing, simply to trade and develop the knowledge needed for your amazing technology?

One argument is that the point of the character is the tension between an everyday human need and a “chronic” condition that renders that need dangerous, and the resulting struggle between mind and body, or in Black Bolt’s case, the triumph of will over form that he gets out of that struggle.

That is to say that a well-crafted superhero’s situation, as it were—the nexus of power and power cost, as well, perhaps, as origins and relationships—should allegorize something true. Bruce Banner and his struggle to control anger (and the way in which anger makes him increasingly strong but increasingly childish). Batman and his fight against myriad types of “madness”, impersonated by his enemies. Also the drive and discipline that can come out of loss. The X-Men and their perpetual confrontation with prejudice. And so on.

But the price is often a heavy demand of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. And with the increasing number of crossover events in both Marvel and DC comics, it becomes harder and harder not to ask why Batman’s buddy Superman doesn’t just step in and resolve problem X or Y for the Caped Crusader and save a lot of trouble. Why techno-genius Tony Stark doesn’t call Charles Xavier up and say “Hey, I found a cure for your paraplegia”.

Also, the popularity of long-time characters means that even death does not keep them at bay, which is often unfair to storytellers.

On a side note, who names superhero “Black Bolt” and then gives him the secret identity name “Blackagar Boltagon”?

That’s right. The 1960s. You can’t have superhero comics without some level of cheese.


Stretch goals (PVP Online)

Referring to the PVP Online webcomic for January 10, 2013.

The comic is rather simple in presentation: two figures on a monochrome background, then one figure, then two again. Two dialogue balloons in the first panel, one in the third. Only ten words between the two characters.

But I can’t help but feel that’s too many. There’s some slack that can be taken out.

Let’s try an experiment. What happens when we remove the final dialogue balloon? Scratch Fury gives but a one-word reply to Skull, then rolls over, fulfilling his promise then and there. The sarcastic reply which had seemed extraneous is gone. All that is left is Skull’s bewilderment and Scratch’s silence, which speak more powerfully than the sarcasm ever could have.

Now, what happens when we remove all of Scratch Fury’s dialogue? It looks like we may not even need the cat to talk at all in this comic. Skull poses a question which is answered by a simple movement that conveys the cat’s attitude and the strip’s humor perfectly well. No words are required; in fact, they over-explain.