Thursday, September 25, 2008

Plastic Man: On the Lam by Kyle Baker

Let me start by talking about how I learned to love Blake Edwards' movies:

For most of my movie-buff career, I didn't feel too strongly one way or the other about Blake Edwards and his movies. I didn't dislike them, really, but I didn't see too much in them to get me that excited, either. I had a fondness for The Party and A Shot In the Dark, but I attributed that mostly to my enjoyment of Peter Sellars' performances.

In fact, if I thought of Edwards at all, it was usually as "a guy who made Peter Sellars vehicles".

Anyway, back in April of this year, I started watching a letter-boxed version of The Pink Panther and it blew my mind. All of sudden, I was seeing Blake Edwards as a Great Filmmaker.
What had changed was that I had already come to love Jacques Tati's films and watching The Pink Panther I got the sense that Edwards was doing something similar to Tati. It was "getting" the artsier, more rigorous Tati that allowed me to appreciate what Edwards was doing.

I had had the same kind of experience with Kyle Baker's work. I'd always been aware of it: I'd read Why I Hate Saturn and I picked up some individual issues of his Plastic Man series when they were first out, but I hadn't had a strong reaction to it (in either direction).

But, after immersing myself in some of the artsier comics out there - PictureBox/Kramer's Ergot-style stuff - I started seeing Baker's work in a new light. Watching Tati's movies helped me to see that Edwards' are often about the frame (or about the way he uses the frame): reading these art comics helped me see that Baker's work is really about the drawing.

This Plastic Man book makes that pretty apparent. In Baker's hands, the series is about cartooning and about being a cartoon character. It's an approach that is ideally suited for a character like Plastic Man, because it fits perfectly with his concept - actually, it almost is his concept.

One of my major complaints about contemporary super-hero comics is that they suck all of the visual excitement out of what is, at its heart, an extremely visual genre. IMO, in too many of these books, there's too much reliance on dialogue and narration to carry the story. And when artists are praised, it's often for the style/skill of their illustrations, not for their "comics making"* ability. Anyway, the appeal of Baker's Plastic Man is almost completely in the cartooning. Not that his dialogue is bad or anything: it's perfectly fine, with just the right amount of "groaners" for a tongue-in-cheek comic super-hero comic book, but the best gags here are the sight gags.

Though Baker's use of computers is something that made me lukewarm to his work in the past, I've come to appreciate the fact that he owns it. He isn't trying to obfuscate the technology he uses: its right out there - his process inscribed in the product.

*I know the comics equivalent of "good filmmaker" is supposed to be "good cartoonist", but "cartoonist" doesn't quite fit what I'm trying to get at here.

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