Sunday, January 11, 2009

Iconography, Or: Pornography With Graven Images

So, I was trying to explain to someone the one time where movies and comics can do the same thing, after a long conversation about how comics don't translate to movies and how Watchmen isn't going to work and wokka wokka wokka, and I got to talking and thinking about iconography.

If any genre is ready-made for iconography, really, it's superhero comics--after all, on some level the continuing superhero comic usually depends (and often must revert by necessity) to a baseline archetype, which, like DNA for a concept, contains all the necessary information to perpetuate the concept to the next generation.

So as a thought experiment, I tried to rack my brain to see how many clearly iconographic images I could find and why they worked. I'm doing a crap job of explaining it (as usual) but perhaps once we get down to cases, you'll see what I'm going for. Any pretentiousness can be laid at the feet of my English degree and should be treated as such.

Superman's the easiest, of course--you ever notice how every Superman movie is going to have Superman flying over Earth, usually with the sun coming up behind the planet? It's symbolic of his role as the Benevolent Protector--he watches over everyone like a guardian angel, but it's not sinister or Orwellian (well, depending on who's writing him)--it's a shorthand way of summing up his purpose and his mission.

Contrast this with Batman. It is said truthfully that one could not throw a rock without hitting the iconic Batman Pose--standing or crouching over the city, in the dark, brooding like a gargoyle. There's a good picture for someone to draw in extrapolating that out to Batman lording over Gotham City like the demon in Fantasia, but to my knowledge it hasn't been done yet. It's weird how similar it is to the Superman image, except in this case Batman is the Sinister Guardian (a meme that's pretty solidly undeviating from--rarely now do you see Batman, even when not portrayed in the Miller vein as in any way "benevolent")--nominally a good guy but rather than a protector, he's more a figure of fear.

There's a bit of that in Spider-Man's iconography as well, the two classic images of Spider-Man--the primary image is, of course, him swinging through the city, but it's the second that's more telling. The other one, naturally, is Spider-man crawling up or down the wall. This doesn't slide neatly into a two-word definition, sadly, but it does play to a salient point in Spider-Man's character: he sure does look inhuman a lot. That edge of creepiness adds another level to his character which I'm not sure anyone who's worked on him has really made that explicit. It's curious that since he's primarily such a "light" superhero (those who think Spider-Man is Charlie Brown in tights are Wrong--it's Spider-Man's ability to suffer reversals and triumph simply by continuing on, that makes him a hero. He just never seems to triumph, anymore) has such a creepy edge to him. You have to wonder how much of that owes to the Steve Ditko-ness of him.

One I actually hadn't thought of in terms of iconic images, but a little digging proved to have one, was Iron Man. I'd been talking with someone about what a hard sell Iron Man was because he wasn't a well-known character amongst the general populace. This isn't that surprising--Iron Man's a hard sell among even common fans for many reasons (why care about who's in the suit when anyone can wear it, he's not relatable, he's kind of a twat, etc.) but I wondered if maybe the fact that Iron Man's appeal didn't lend itself to one iconic image had something to do with his lack of impact.

Then I looked at my bookshelf. When I bought this trade many many years ago, I didn't think much of the cover, but the image had a certain power (owing a lot to Mark Chiarello's rendering of it) but, younger and more unsophisticated as I was, I didn't get the symbolism.

I missed it the other two times it shows up as well--the second season intro of the 90's cartoon does it and there's a scene in the movie that does it as well. And that was, as they say, when the penny dropped.

The symbolism is that Tony Stark is the character, Iron Man is just a creation, and extension of the person beneath. The idea that he creates his own superpower comes through in the image of him working at the anvil. You might say, actually, that Stark's creativity is his superpower.

So you can find iconography anywhere, clearly.

And this is where I open the floor to all y'all. What images do you consider iconic and why? What do they tell someone about the character simply from that image and nothing else? Do you think this paragraph sounds a lot like an essay question from your middle-school exams? Explain your answer.

It'll be fun to see what, if anything y'all come up with . . .


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

The trouble with icons is that you have two kinds of familiar imagery in comics: one is so powerful that, despite being shown only once, it's still considered a defining moment... and then you have the images that have been repeated so many times that any semblance of meaning attached to it is long lost: Superman carrying the dead body of a comrade (originally Supergirl, but how many times has it been used now?), Spider-Man straining to lift a room's worth of debris off him, etc. Once those images get called back ad nauseum, they do achieve iconic status, but it's like a meme - the original signifiance is basically made irrelevant.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, those I deliberately left out--there's good iconography, which tells you all you need to know in one image and then there's stuff like the Supergirl and Spider-Man images, which, frankly, tell us a LOT . . .about superhero comics bankruptcy of ideas that forces them into what could be best defined as "uroborosity"--constantly rehashing the same old ground because no one's twigged on to a better solution.