March 17th, 2009
Part 1 here
Daydreaming and trains. A topic I keep coming back to.
Britain has long been in the throes of a difficult and passionate relationship with it’s vast, antique rail network. Delays and overcrowding ride by side in the popular imagination with adventure and freedom, the feeling that the final terminus can still be the Britain of myth, the nation as idyll and possibility. Growing up without a car, a viable and not entirely uncommon experience this side of the Atlantic, I spent more than my fair share of time staring out of train windows watching countryside blur into city blur into countryside. Perhaps the most familiar spectacle, one which has remained a constant over many years, is the view over the rooftops of central London as the South East of England’s railway lines flow together before and beyond Charing Cross.
Of course, the rooftops of London don’t share much in common with the rooftops of Marvel’s fantastical New York. To paraphrase David Byrne, London is a small city, at least it is vertically – the majority of buildings don’t get above 5 or 6 stories, and many are considerably smaller than that. Additionally, London is an architectural hotchpotch, a grab bag of styles and forms where the very old rubs shoulders with the ultra modern, and cobbles meet corporate. However, the particulars of the rooftop landscape aren’t what’s important, but rather it’s the ways in which we’re forced to engage with the space that matters. Given it’s unseen and unknown nature, the rooftop as understood from the street is inherently imaginistic. From the train window, and in particular for a fan of a genre that devotes a considerable amount of time to mythologising the space, the rooftop is a glimpse into a magical world, a concretising and perhaps a sullying (more on this later) of fantasy. Given the essentially transitory nature of the experience even the direct line of sight afforded by the train contributes to the feeling that the rooftop landscape is more fiction than fact – the train is in motion, you can’t get off, and as a consequence the rooftop can never truly be known. It’s chimneys, slates, and yes gutters leave more to the imagination than they reveal.
Which brings me in a roundabout way back to Born Again. I have always found Mazzuchelli’s depictions of Gotham’s skyline beautiful, but recently I have started to fetishize* them in exactly the same way that I fetishize their concrete cousins. Both can be seen but not touched, both are filthy as hell, and both are pregnant with fiction. In fact, on that basis Born Again makes the stronger impression in that it’s a readier route into the fantastical. Mazzuchelli’s skylines are, after all, the well trodden pathways of the Big Apple’s superhero community – this is a truly magical landscape, one inhabited by super scientists and space gods, mutants and monsters. But, as a depiction of a space that even in the real world is almost entirely engaged with on an imaginary and symbolic level, it is one that can’t fail to evoke the impossible. The obvious objection here is that Mazzuchelli was conjuring an environment that leans towards descriptions like realistic and gritty, that in some way it eschews the Marvel Universe’s more outré dimensions, but it is this focus that positions the rooftops of Born Again as my quintessential MU rooftop landscape. The tension between Mazzuchelli’s crumbling brickwork, webs of telephone wires, smoky chimneys and bent television aerials, and the four colour imagery and genre heavy subject matter works to evoke Marvel’s New York in its entirety. A world populated by the aforementioned sullied fantasies: angst ridden super beings, mutated saviours, hobbled gods, and, yes, crippled ninjas.
*Roughly put, to imbue an object with considerable personal meaning and significance
This Marvel Universe in microcosm is better described, to my way of thinking, as less a series of locations and more a unified place. I’ve used the word landscape above quite deliberately, but perhaps a better description would simply be “land”. Despite the fact that it is explicitly linked to the ground by much of the action, it is the space where so much of the story takes place, so much of the atmosphere is created, and so many of the genre aspects of the work come into play that I can’t help approaching at as discrete, whole. Daredevil finds his fullest expression as a superhero in those sequences where he is racing across powerlines and throwing himself from slippery ledges, flipping behind chimneys in an effort to dodge bullets from a helicopter gunship, or encountering the Godfather of all Marvel Superheroes, Captain America, on a windswept fire escape. Murdock’s first outing after returning from his symbolic death, a successful mission to save Ben Urich from the Kingpin’s henchmen, is capped by a panel in silhouette that depicts a lone figure, first held aloft as if in triumph, vaulting upwards into a minimalist, abstract architecture. These moments run in stark, if sometimes understated counterpoint to the book’s moments of catastrophe, the first of which depicts the collapse of a building, and the second a cab ride to the bottom of the river.
It seems to me that another factor that contributes towards my feeling that the rooftops of Born Again describe a kind of magical land is tied to the way in which their presence speaks to the genre more broadly. The costume, the supervillain, the acrobatics, along with the rooftop are almost superfluous to the plot of Born Again, the story doesn’t need any of those elements to work, they are included willfully in an effort to channel the superhero into the text: pixie dust sprinkled over an urban noir narrative. The upshot of this is that there’s a purity to those rooftop moments despite their contribution to the narrative weave and the overarching plot; a feeling that we’re dealing in pure iconography, pure meaning that can exist outwith the text it makes its home. In that way the rooftop sequences in Born Again stand in for all rooftop sequences in superhero comics, and point outwards to the possibility of stories told and untold.
I don’t wish to overstate my case. I’m not of the opinion that the text values and ascribes as much meaning to its skyline as I’m inclined to – certainly the plot pushes against some of what I’ve written. What I’m attempting to do is describe how my fetish has refocussed my attention and my priorities; Map the symbolic and aesthetic encounter that comes into play now that I find myself obsessing over one particular element. I’m tempted to describe my fascination with Mazzuchelli’s rooftop sequences as a lens through which I’m currently approaching the text, but thinking about it that wouldn’t be quite accurate, a better description, maybe, would be that my appreciation of the text is haunted by their presence. Dark corners of the comic have taken on much greater significance than Frank Miller ever intended. The mere suggestion of the skyline, the many establishing shots that settle on Gotham architecture, seem to throb with meaning and importance, with the sort of beauty that I normally associate with my very best encounters with art. The feeling that stories are waiting to be told, that the universe is opening up. But perhaps I also mean haunted in another way. I’ve talked above about the rooftops seeming to exemplify a sullying effect, dirty dreams – an idea mirrored in the tension inherent in the text between the fantastical and the mundane (the superhero vs drug addiction and mental illness, etc…) – but looking harder I’m forced to ask what does that sullying mean to me. What is lurks behind the image of a blind man racing across icy rooftops and flinging himself from slippery ledges, the shots of weather beaten water towers, and the craggy, snow covered canyons of the city, the sheer height? It’s the presence of danger, of transience, of contingency, of limits, and in some way death. The ghostly presence that floods the text has this quality: stories, potentially wonderful stories, held fast by time and inevitable endings. There’s something both ominous and strangely liberating about this resonance, a similar feeling to the one I described when I wrote about that V for Vendetta panel. The fantastic in the finite, and the finite in the fantastic.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why I feel that Born Again has the air of legend. It isn’t simply that the story ends, and ends in such a way as to suggest that this really is it – no more Daredevil stories need now be told. Or that the principal character is forced to undergo genuine change, a narrative component that runs against the conventions of the superhero genre in that it implies the passage of time, and the imposition of limits on a species of fiction which is most at home with stasis. For me the energy of the rooftop both exemplifies the quintessential genre moments whilst simultaneously containing the genre’s conceptual opposites. The rooftop strives to reach the sky, to transcend, but it is also a grimy, functional thing. It seems to me that the text, as a whole, resonates with this energy, although its presence can be most strongly felt when I read those few pages where Daredevil encounters the godlike Avengers on the broken streets of Hell’s Kitchen. In the juxtaposition of two such antithetical elements, by forcing them into alignment, it feels to me as if Miller is making explicit the promise contained in the rooftop sequences. This is a text that has the feel of legend because it is both magnificent and transcendent and burning with the fire of time. Captain America, of course, has Thor put the fires out, but the streets are littered with the injured and the dying, and Daredevil has been badly beaten in a fight with Cap’s malkuthian doppleganger.
Looking back up this mini-essay, I’m struck by my lack of engagement with how rooftops are intended to function within the text. I could have talked about the contrast between the rickety Hells’ Kitchen skyline and the Kingpin’s blazing towers, or the finer points of artistic detail, or the individual rooftop sequences’ relationships with the plot, or I could have discussed, in more depth, the contrast between the rooftop sequences and those that take place on the ground or within buildings. Of particular note would have been the emotional high points – Matt holding Karen in the snow, and the final panel that shows them walking arm in arm down the street – but that’s not really what this was about. It’s been tricky capturing something quite so subjective and noting where it interacts with more conventional and intended readings. There has been some slippage and conflation, some unintentional blurring of the lines, some rambling. Maybe I should have spent more time, but I can’t help feeling that there would have been something slightly dishonest about that approach. For what I’m trying to do I’d rather be meditative and sloppy, than distant and precise because, as I mentioned at the beginning, we’re talking at least to some extent about daydreaming here. The rooftops forcing my mind to wander across the text in new and unusual ways, exploring it afresh just as the rooftops on the journey into London continuously work to reconfigure my relationship with the world, albeit for only a few fleeting minutes.
I might try and be a bit more grounded next time.