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The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit.

The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit

By Scott Bukatman

University of California Press, 2012

xvii + 266 pp. $30 paper, $70 cloth

Comic book superheroes may by now be virtually synonymous with Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. But what percentage of Christopher Nolan's fans would seriously consider picking up an issue of Batman at their local comics shop? Popular as their adaptations may be, comics themselves are still regarded as fundamentally immature by a broad section of the public, the province of juvenile summer afternoons or Sunday mornings with "the funnies." Film animation in the United States is still widely understood as "family entertainment." There are plenty of exceptions to contest the point, of course, from Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel to Hayao Miyazaki and Pixar Studios. Yet Scott Bukatman does not want to recuperate the image of the comics and animation; rather, he wants to celebrate the playfulness, rebelliousness, and even frivolity of comics and cartoons--not just in their characters, but also in the "plasmatic possibility" of their formal design. The orderliness and hierarchy of social systems is frustrated, interrupted, and undone by comics and cartoons, Bukatman argues--and by the acts of reading and viewing them as well. For him, nothing less than the meaning of life can be found in the socially unsanctioned "disorderly play" of those Sunday mornings with the comics.

The figure who animates this argument and the great majority of this book's pages--many of them beautiful full-color plates--is Winsor McCay. While Bukatman tells us in the introduction that this book is not about McCay, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. All but two chapters are centrally concerned with McCay's extraordinary early 20th-century comics and experiments with animation. Yet I can't really find fault with Bukatman's choice to spend so much time on McCay's work, as it is stunning, artistically deft and formally adventurous in ways I had naively always associated with later generations of comics artists.

McCay is most memorably the author of the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, full-color broadsheets that first appeared in the Sunday supplements of the New York Herald in 1905. (A good number of these are reprinted as color plates, though Bukatman points out that as remarkable as they are, they pale next to the immersive power of the original 20" by 14" broadsheets.) McCay was prolific, running several strips simultaneously in different papers and on the weekdays and weekends, including Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, Little Sammy Sneeze, and Hungry Henrietta. This period witnessed the birth of the modern newspaper comic, which for Bukatman valuably struggles against the social order presented in and represented by the rest of the newspaper. The newspaper was "a conduit for information, a 'fourth estate' that would inform readers, map the connections of an increasingly complex world, and, ideally, build better citizens" (7). The modern comic strip dialectically opposes this impulse, often answering the speed, efficiency, and complexity of modernity with a hilarious descent into boundary-busting chaos.

McCay represents for Bukatman the aesthetic apex of what Bachelard calls the "irreality function." The presence of Bachelard (specifically his book The Poetics of Reverie) and absence of Freud in the book notably turns us away from the logic of dreams and towards that of daydreams--an "appropriate model" for McCay's Slumberland, which offers "a brief respite from the logical strictures of the waking life" (2). Slumberland, much like McCay's other comic strips, operates within a consistent formula: Nemo finds himself in a strange world which grows stranger from panel to magnificent panel, and then in the final panel awakes to find himself tangled in his bedsheets, often on the floor, with his mother yelling at him "offscreen" to go back to sleep. (The slow unraveling of the social niceties of reality regularly occurs in McCay's other comic strips as well.)

In the most fascinating sections of the book, Bukatman traces the formal evolution of Slumberland. The first strip in 1905 contains substantial explanatory narration, like Melies's explicateur; a horse arrested mid-gallop seems ripped from Muybridge's motion studies--exemplifying how early 20th-century comics begin to parody the time-space worldview that chronophotography inaugurates.

Very quickly, though, McCay, again echoing the changes in early cinema, moves from flat to deep, intricate spaces, and explores and explodes the boundaries of the comic strip form. Bukatman sees this as not only immersive but participative, engaging with the complex act of "reading" the comics. Backgrounds change suddenly and randomly; Nemo and his friends devolve into crudely drawn stick figures; they grow hungry and start eating the letters of "LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND" hanging at the top of the panel. This foregrounding of the reader, and of the artist--the intrusion of the artist's "hand" in the corner of the frame turns out to be a long-standing motif in comics--is not unusual to McCay, though he does excel at it. The author writes, "[I]mages that play with very status as comics.... [are] almost endemic to the media of comics and cartoons" (69).

While the lengthy exegesis on this monumental early comics artist is alone worth the price of the book, the chapters that do not deal directly with McCay are somewhat less engaging. These chapters deal with the "animating spirit" of Bukatman's subtitle, expanding the discussion of unruly animation to encompass the unruly, disobedient creature who is "animated" in a broader sense--from the creations who betray or become independent from their creators in Pinocchio and (in a shift to live-action film) My Fair Lady; to the anarchic body of Jerry Lewis as a virtual human version of director Frank Tashlin's animation-honed sensibility; to Kirk Douglas's "animated" performance as Van Gogh in Lust for Life, a performance that traffics in the more modern mode of the "action painting" of Jackson Pollock and acts as metaphor for Minnelli's vivid representation of Van Gogh's paintings.

To be clear, Bukatman's analyses of these films and performers are often, on their own merits, illuminating and new. The discussion of Jerry Lewis, for example, provocatively positions Lewis' performances in the context of Marshall McLuhan's theorization of a shift from an industrial to an electronic age. Lewis "spins, tilts, and stammers, but he keeps on ticking and talking" (158); his out-of-control bodily mechanism speaks to the anxieties surrounding the technological and cultural transformation McLuhan is seeing at that same moment. And yet, even with these insights, the integration of these "live-action" chapters feels strained, even as I comprehend Bukatman's desire not to confine his philosophy of "disorderly play" to the world of comics. The fact that he explicitly hearkens back to McCay in the final chapter on superhero comics reads like an unintentional pincer movement to minimize the relevance of the previous two chapters. And for me, like Bukatman a longtime reader of superhero comics, his playful consideration of the playful work of Grant Morrison here is another high point. For Bukatman, Morrison is the perfect figure --a writer who rejects the dark, somber tone that superhero comics moved towards in the 1980s (and that superhero blockbusters largely maintain today), and in his series Flex Mentallo, Animal Man, and All-Star Superman returns to the anarchic, readerly play of Winsor McCay. Bukatman in his final sentence wants to "remind adults that superhero comics could be an oasis of whimsical fantasy--a new Slumberland, but with really cool capes" (211). The reader, sprawled on the living room floor, immersed in a playful world--that is the defining image of this largely absorbing book.
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Author:Esch, Kevin
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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