Monday, March 30, 2009

Cite This! New MLA Rules for Citing Graphic Narratives

The Modern Language Association recently came out with a new MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.), and at long last, there are rules for citing comics, or "graphic narratives" as they are referred to in the handbook, and as they are increasingly referred to in academic circles, foregoing the awkward, often inaccurate, but entrenched term, "graphic novels."

In grad school, I worked as an editorial assistant at a scholarly journal, where my job required knowing the ins and outs of MLA citation format. Ever since, whenever a new edition of the MLA Handbook comes out, I'm anxious to see what changes have been made. And lots of stuff has changed this time around, including an addition that requires the medium (such as Print or Web) to be included in a works cited entry.

It has irked me that MLA has never had specific rules for citing graphic novels or comics, and this is reflected in a lot of the scholarship on graphic narratives, where it often seems like each essay or book has come up with idiosyncratic rules without any standards or collective agreement. Most of these rules are drawn from a variety of other types of sources, like periodicals, film, cartoons, and illustrated books, while some rules seem to be made up from whole cloth. Now, I'm glad to see that at least some rules are codified.

Here are some examples of graphic narratives given in the MLA Handbook (Note that the indentations are not correct):

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale. 2 vols. New York: Pantheon-Random, 1986-91. Print.

Pekar, Harvey, writer. The Quitter. Art by Dean Haspiel. Gray tones by Lee Loughridge. Letters by Pat Brosseau. New York: Vertigo-DC Comics, 2005. Print.

Yabuki, Kentaro, writer and artist. Showdown at the Old Castle. Eng. adapt. by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Trans. JN Productions. Touch-up art and lettering by Gia Cam Luc. San Francisco: Viz, 2007. Print. Vol. 9 of Black Cat.

The first one is pretty straightforward: if you have a graphic narrative created by a single cartoonist, then that gets cited like a regular book with a single author. For more collaborative graphic narratives, the rules here are pretty similar to citing films: cite by the collaborator(s) who is the most relevant to your research, then include other collaborators after the title.

Unfortunately, a some types of comics publications are still not addressed in the MLA rules. For example, periodical comics still don't have special rules, which they need, as they don't fall easily into the normal rules for periodicals, and nothing really compares very easily to this type of publication. Based on the rules that do exist, here's how I would guess one would cite an individual issue of a comic:

Hickman, Jonathan, writer. "The Bridge: Chapter One." Pencils by Sean Chen. Inks by Lorenzo Ruggiero. Colors by John Rauch. Letters by VC's Rus Wooten. Dark Reign: Fantastic Four 1 (May 2009). Print.

For the issue number and date of publication, I used the format for a scholarly periodical, but that may not be correct. One could leave the issue number out entirely and just reference the issue by date. But because this is a miniseries, would I need to indicate that this is part one of five? Also, I would want to include the name of the publisher in this citation, but that isn't standard for periodicals. Perhaps the line "Published by Marvel Comics." could go in after the lettering credit. And what if the issue contained an individually titled part of a larger story? I would guess that information could go after the individual issue's title.

MLA also doesn't offer guidance on how to cite a collected edition of previously published comics, which is, after all, one of the more popular ways in which comics are published. MLA does have rules for citing reprinted works; however, Maus would be considered at least a partially reprinted work, having been originally published in RAW, yet the example above does not indicate that. So, I'm not sure if one would need to include that original publication information or not. Here, then, is how I would cite a trade paperback collection:

Abnett, Dan, and Andy Lanning, writers. Guardians of the Galaxy: Legacy. Pencils by Paul Pelletier. Inks by Rick Magyar. Colors by Nathan Fairbairn and Guru eFX. Letters by Virtual Calligraphy's Joe Caramagna. New York: Marvel Comics, 2009. Print. Vol. 1 of Guardians of the Galaxy.

That last item might seem redundant, but I think it's necessary. At the very least, it would help to clarify confusing collections like the recent New Avengers and Mighty Avengers hardcovers, which are listed as both volumes of the Secret Invasion storyline in each series and volumes of each title. And if one wanted to include original publication information, I guess that it would now go at the very end of the entry, based on the new MLA rules.

In trying to think through these rules, I find myself sympathizing with my students, who see MLA citation format as frustratingly nebulous and impenetrable. While it may not be as bad as all that, as the scholarly study of graphic narratives continues to grow, these rules will have to be worked out in greater detail and consistency.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dr. K Recommends...The Mighty!

A lot of good new comics have started lately, and one that doesn't seem to be getting much attention is the new creator-owned series from DC, The Mighty, written by Peter Tomasi and Keith Champagne and drawn by Peter Snejbjerg. I also haven't seen a lot of promotion for the series from DC's end, and that's a shame, because this is a series clearly deserving of more attention.

On the surface, The Mighty has a familiar Watchmen vibe, as this is another attempt to examine the possibility of superheroes in the real world. In The Mighty, the world only has one superhero--Alpha One--who is a former Navy sailor caught in a nuclear test and given fantastic powers back in 1952. To the creators' credit, they take care of this fairly basic origin in an efficient two pages. That's because the real focus of this book is not the superhero himself, but the support staff that surrounds the superhero in a global, private police force called Section Omega. More specifically, the focus is on Gabriel Cole, the second-in-command of Section Omega behind his mentor, Captain Michael Shaw. Cole has a well-known history with Alpha One: as a child, Cole was rescued by the hero from an accident that killed his parents, and young Gabriel became an instant celebrity.

The first issue feels like a solid pilot episode, clearly establishing the world in which the action takes place while still setting up a compelling story. A two-page origin in the form of a newsreel, followed by an interview with Captain Shaw by a Larry King-lookalike, provides all the exposition we need. The primary action involves a train accident that was saved by Alpha One, and we get to see how Section Omega functions as a clean-up operation for the hero's adventures. But there are also hints that this is no simple train accident, as four passengers go missing.

By the end of the first issue, we realize that something is clearly wrong with Alpha One, and the central conflict of the series will ultimately revolve around Gabriel Cole's idealistic vision of his hero and savior and the mounting evidence he experiences about Alpha One's sinister secrets. The final scene of the first issue hooked me in to the series: we are aware that something is desperately wrong, yet Cole is too naive to see the danger.

While the first issue reads like a good pilot episode, the second issue continues to build on the suspense and the compelling mystery that will be at the heart of this series. The Mighty isn't being defined as a limited series, but there clearly seems to be an endgame in mind once that central mystery is resolved, similar to a Vertigo series like Y: The Last Man or 100 Bullets. Whatever the case, the series feels like it has some forward momentum that is leading somewhere, and Tomasi and Champagne have created a series that has me curious to see how it develops on a monthly basis. In fact, on the basis of the first two issues, I'm more interested in following this series from month to month than in waiting for the trade. It has the feeling of a good weekly TV series--like Lost or one of the better seasons of 24--that generates anticipation for each new episode.

Also, Peter Snejbjerg is a perfect choice as artist on this book. Snejbjerg has a clean, classic style that hearkens back to the Golden Age, as this homage to Superman 1 exemplifies: That style contributes significantly to the overall feeling of this series, that the world views Alpha One as a classic, pure hero, when the hidden truth is much darker.

As a creator-owned book set in its own universe but published by DC, The Mighty has a steep hill to climb if its going to attract an audience that will keep it going for its required length. I have to say that I was originally sceptical of the series when I place my order for the first issue, as its premise seems to tread familiar ground--yet another dark look a a Superman analog. But now I'm hooked in, and I hope that word of mouth spreads on this series to give it the promotional boost it needs.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dr. K's Obligatory Watchmen Review

So, I got around to seeing Watchmen today at the local theater. My goal of finding a time during the day when I could see the film alone was foiled by a couple who came in just as the previews were starting. At least it wasn't the older couple who were in line in front of me to get tickets. They were asking the cashier if they could buy tickets for a screening that had 30 minutes remaining, and then go to the next screening of the same movie and leave with 30 minutes left. While I applauded their willingness to embrace a nonlinear narrative, I also thought that this was a really stupid request. I also pegged them as the type that would need to seek each other's input on plot developments during the movie, and I really hoped they wouldn't be going to the same movie as I.

Luckily, they weren't going to see Watchmen, and I became increasingly grateful of that as the gory violence and porn-quality sex unfolded on the screen. (By the way, does Patrick Wilson have a clause in his contract that he has to show his bare ass in every movie? Or at least every movie in which he co-stars with Jackie Earle Haley? It's not a complaint, but a legitimate question.)

Like most people who know how to read, and most people who read comics (the latter, I would add, is not a subset of the former), I'm a fan of Watchmen. I was 16-17 when the maxiseries first came out, and I bought each issue on a monthly and semi-monthly basis. I had already been an Alan Moore fan when it came out, thanks to my local comic shop owner recommending his Swamp Thing to me when it first started. I agree that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen is the pinnacle of achievement in the superhero genre.

But I still liked the movie. A lot.

Everything else from here is going to be spoilerific.

I'm going to start with the end, because that's the part of the movie I've been chewing on the most since seeing it. Much has been made about the fact that director Zack Snyder and the writers chose to change the ending of the original graphic novel, where Ozymandias creates a giant, psychic alien squid and transports it into New York City, killing millions and motivating the Soviet and American governments to put aside their differences and attack this alien threat. In fact, Snyder was pretty straight up about this in the run-up to the film's release, and a lot of comic fans got worked up about this big change.

I was surprised, however, at how well the new ending fit within the framework that was set in the original comic, and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse logically built on that framework to set up the ending they created. Instead of a psychic alien squid, Ozymandias creates several devices that mimic Dr. Manhattan's power and then sets them off in various major cities around the world in an attempt to frame Dr. Manhattan for the massive destruction. The belief spread quickly around the world is that Dr. Manhattan launched these attacks because of his dissatisfaction with humanity. The effect is similar to the original: the world powers band together to combat this common enemy.

There is, though, a key difference: the world now operates under the fear that Dr. Manhattan will attack again if he is further displeased. In the end, Ozymandias has created a new religion in which Dr. Manhattan is a kind of Old Testament-style God, teaching humanity lessons through massive violence and destruction. The fear that Dr. Manhattan is watching motivates the world-wide peace that follows.

The film plays with the religious implications of Dr. Manhattan throughout, making the ending both appropriate and ironic. When Laurie tries to talk Manhattan into saving the Earth from nuclear destruction, he comments that God doesn't exist based on his observations. Clearly, the existence of Dr. Manhattan challenges most conventional religious beliefs. During a flashback to Dr. Manhattan's origin, we see his sidekick Wally Weaver give a TV interview where he announces that God is an American. And most notably, in a flashback to Vietnam, Viet Cong soldiers surrender to Manhattan and supplicate themselves to him as well. Despite his basis as a scientifically created superhero, his power and mere existence inspire a religious level of awe, and it makes perfect sense that many humans would look at him in this way.

In the end of both the comic series and the movie, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth to create new life somewhere else; however, in the movie he announces this plan to Laurie, and not to Ozymandias, which implies that he's learned about the value of life from Laurie. This I don't buy as much as the scene in the series. Directing this plan to Ozymandias is much more ominous and much less hopeful than the corresponding scene in the movie. Nonetheless, it still makes sense in this context that Manhattan would take on this new mantle of God and play it out even further.

The ending is also consistent with Ozymandias's fascination with ancient history. Ozymandias's interview early in the movie, where he explains his resolution "to apply antiquity's teaching to our world," foreshadows the Biblical destruction that he has planned. It also makes him appear even more cynical about humanity, that they would buy his "practical joke" that plays on their fear and their reliance on faith and religious belief.

I don't really have any significant complaints about the rest of the movie. There were some minor things left out from the original, but I don't find the film lacking in their absence. Some things that are more subtle in the comic are instead made explicit in the film: Dr. Manhattan announces that the Comedian is Laurie's father, and the scene where Dr. Manhattan kills Rorschach is more clearly a suicide than in the comic. But on the big stuff, the film gets it right. The violence, when it appears, is brutal, as it should be. Nothing about the scene where Dan and Laurie are attacked in an alley glorifies the violence that occurs, and I found myself looking away as Dan breaks a guys arm right into the camera. And in that violence, and the characters' responses to it, the film gets one of the key premises of the comic series: One has to be a little off in order to dress up in a costume and fight crime. Like in the comic, Dan is impotent when he isn't Night Owl, and the film doesn't shy away from the fact that he and Laurie get a sexual charge from brutally beating up bad guys, despite the fact that they ridicule a villain who is turned on by the beatings he receives.

I'm interested in seeing this movie again. For one, I want to see it with someone who hasn't read the comic, as I felt while watching that I may have been filling in gaps with information from the original (I know I did that, for example, with the appearance of The New Frontiersman office at the end of the movie. The film really does nothing to establish that as a right-wing newspaper read by Rorschach.). I also want to pay closer attention to earlier scenes in the movie. Snyder frontloads a lot of visual information in the early scenes, especially during the opening credit montage, and I think the film will overall bear multiple viewings (though minor flaws may also get amplified later).

Many fans of the comic reject the very idea of a Watchmen movie, rightfully pointing out that the original story functions as a commentary on the comics medium, and such a commentary would be lost in the transfer to another medium. Also, I respect the desire of those fans to keep their experience of the comic pure. With that being said, I still think the story made the transfer to film well, and I don't think it's necessary to qualify an evaluation of it with phrases like "It's good for what it is," or "At least it didn't suck." It's a good movie, and it still manages to capture the spirit of the original source.