Friday, October 20, 2006

The Ostensibly 'Resonant' Pop-Art of Wildcats

On Grant Morrison/Jim Lee's Wildcats #1... (written October 20, originally posted to

Morrison and Lee’s newest incarnation of Wildcats is about surfaces, what they reveal, what they obscure, and how to understand and problematize that difference. “I want to see beautiful people doing amazing things,” explains Morrison of his choice to join Lee on the comic, merging something of an early 90s Image sensibility with a later Vertigo approach. (but isn’t that what the Authority was?) It’s also somewhat reminiscent of Morrison’s Marvel Boy, an experiment in comic pop art where Grant and J.G. Jones ran through all the tricks in the artistic playbook – and invented others that didn’t yet exist. The pop art effects are most evident in Hadrian and Voodoo’s conversation – ‘screen print’ backgrounds and neon painted sex scenes obviously recalling Andy Warhol – but Lee’s pencils are so highly stylized, lush, and even ridiculous that they serve as their own effect of pop art.

I write ‘ridiculous’ because Lee’s art, for me, falls victim accidentally to the same trappings that Warhol fell into willingly: detachment and insincerity. Every Jim Lee line is perfectly placed and every figure is perfectly unreal – ostensibly realistic, yes, but posed and sculpted in absurdly impossible ways. With few exceptions, their symmetrical and proportioned faces are incapable of registering of emotion outside of the same sort of stock expressions you’d find in an issue of GQ or Cosmo. Lee is all surface, and by reflexively calling attention to the superficial through pop art convention – and in emphasizing Wildcats’ “beautiful people doing amazing things” – Morrison takes Lee in a Warholesque direction.

Hadrian suggests that the Authority failed to change the world because “they were tamed by the inertia of ‘things as they are’”, but this is perhaps just as easily understood as a criticism of Lee’s Wildstorm as an exercise in superhero universe building – a failed artistic venture that collapsed under the weight of its own artist-driven artifice. But this new Wildcats refuses a superficial reading as a ‘thing as it is’, as a mere signifier of Marilyn Monroe (which is elevated to something entirely different in a Warhol print) or beautiful heroes saving the world from yet another all-powerful enemy. Hadrian wants to form a team with “the semiotic resonance of the ‘superhero’” in mind, and Grifter is Morrison and Lee’s first semiotic excavation. Lying in a gutter and ironically spouting Wolverine lines – “I’m the best there is at what I do. And what I do… is drink” – Morrison and Lee play up Image’s influences and the original company’s failure to sustain reader interest merely with beautiful people: “The world ran out of room for heroes like me,” Grifter explains. If he’s back, then it better be as something new. When Grifter finally does rejoin the fight at the end of the issue, he does so with a speech in German in which he proclaims himself “chaos” and “death”. Crucially, though, the German words are in German, untranslated. Echoing Morrison and Lee’s new mission, Grifter’s declaration can’t be absorbed by a non-German speaker and requires some sort of interpretive exercise. This isn’t a one-off moment, but rather an indication of the kind work that the new Wildcats requires of the reader – the search for ‘semiotic resonance’.

It’s said that, in calling attention to the mechanics and pretense of pop art construction, Andy Warhol destroyed the self-effacement that was characteristic of mass produced images in the post-industrial era. Likewise, Morrison is mining the glossy Image/image of Jim Lee to destroy Lee’s own representational self-effacement, calling attention to the men behind the comic and their artistic mission. The only question remains, what is there to the mission other than calling attention to itself? We’ve been told, with one eye winking, to be better readers – but is the comic going to have something to say that's worth that kind of close reading?

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