Friday, June 28, 2013

The Failure of Fumetti: Force Field Fotocomix

Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01
Seth Kushner, 2013
Ages ago, or certainly what feels like it, Mark Millar was going around telling people that he was making a meta-superhero photo-comic for Marvel called 1985. Featuring massive sets, ground-breaking CGI, and an extensive live-action cast, the budget was to be in the millions of dollars. Unsurprisingly, this was Millar going off the hype-reservation a bit, something he has quite a habit of doing. Whether or not such a project was ever an editorial reality at Marvel is known only to a few who probably could care less at this point. (1985 would eventually come out with art by Tommy Lee Edwards, illustrated like any other comic.) But if it was a photocomic in the making, did Marvel balk at the ridiculous budget - which is unlikely to have been as much as Millar was saying but still likely higher than your average funnybook - or did whatever preliminary tests that were done simply look too awful to go forward?

Photocomics are better known as fumetti for whatever reasons; odd in part because fumetti is what Italians call their normal, non photo comics. The format largely started out in the late 1970s, not as original comic productions with photographic illustrations, but by chopping up the images from movies and television shows and arranging them into a comic adaptation. Most of these were pretty bad, and the fad was short lived though there are still occasionally such low-rent comics made usually targeted at younger audiences. But published comics featuring original photography in place of art are more infrequent. Ten years ago Vertigo released two graphic novels photographed by Stephen John Phillips to absolutely no acclaim or impact on the market. Since then, outside of the wild west of the internet, there has been almost no instances of original fumetti released to mass audiences in the United States.

The question arises, why the dearth of fumetti? Is it economic considerations in the cost of production? Comics, after all, can be both the realm of the singular auteur as seen in independent comics, or the work of many hands as often seen in mainstream work. But no matter which way you cut it, longer-form narrative photocomics almost always would require many individuals to pull off, an amount of people and subsequent cost putting the work outside the realm of the auteur and into the hands of those with the resources to execute it. At the very least you need a cast, and the visuals begin to fall under the constraints of film or photography and you may also need costumes, makeup, location rights, post-production and so-on. But major publishers aren't exactly known for their willingness to take chances, and producing an expensive work in a largely untested format is largely outside their established purview. Perhaps there are a lack of creators even wanting to make the things... it's not like there is a legacy of photocomics as a touchstone for a generation of creatives. The things are a bit odd, a novelty in the best of situations, and those who are most likely to make comics are most likely to be culturally or aesthetically influenced by other comics, which are done in hundreds of different styles, all drawn or painted or designed in some fashion rarely involving the direct use of photographs. 

Or maybe the medium of photographs in place of illustrations in comics just plain doesn't work.

From "Hall of Just Us"
Into the photocomic void steps Seth Kushner, with Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01. Collecting a couple of pieces published elsewhere as well as new material, Force Field Fotocomix was self-published this spring by Kushner and was produced with cartoonist and Act-I-Vate mastermind Dean Haspiel. Aiming to revitalize if not outright recreate the whole medium, it succeeds only at illustrating the aesthetic limitations of that medium, and possibly the storytelling limitations of the creator.

Seth Kushner is an accomplished photographer who's work has appeared all over the place in print for nearly twenty years, and he's really quite good. After releasing his amazing book of photographs of cartoonists, Leaping Tall Buildings, he began working on CulturePop Photocomix, a work that combined photos of his subjects with material from his interviews with them into a kind of series of semi-narrative photo-essays, work he contends is "wholly unique." Maybe I'm being reductive, but these projects really just seem like captioned photograph sets. In any event, Kushner wanted to expand beyond non-fiction studies into a "full fictionalized graphic novel told through a dramatized photocomic," the attempts at which can be found in Force Field Fotocomix.

And as a package, Force Field Fotocomix is a bit of a mess. After a two short fumetti stories, there is a lengthy photo-essay fumetti thing by Kushner about his career and thought process leading up to the volume, followed by two more short pieces. The first story, "Hall of Just Us" by Kushner and Haspiel features various costumed types at a tarot card reader, who argue over the affections of said reader only to be shown up by a shirtless luchador (played by Haspiel). It's not very funny, though I think it's supposed to be. The second story, "Spiders Everywhere!!" is a dialogue-free comedy-horror pastiche by Kushner and Chris Miskiewicz where a woman wakes up to, well, spiders everywhere, and everyone freaking out to spiders everywhere. Fake plastic spiders everywhere. Both stories just seem like unpolished short films made on VHS by friends goofing around at home, things that simply do not appeal beyond those personally familiar with the cast and crew. I'd say these were a waste of time but it only took a minute ("a" as in quantifiably "one") to read. 

The lack of professional polish or narrative quality in the two opening pieces is a turn-off, and doesn't even get into the weaknesses of fumetti, though those weaknesses are very much on display. The overacting of the subjects in "Hall of Just Us" and the cheapness of the props in "Spiders Everywhere" are immediately evident. Also noticeable, and I think this is one of fumetti's biggest problems, is the lettering. Lettering is an art all its own, and the lettering in "Hall of Just Us" is quite bad. Bad font first, but more importantly is the jarring way that the lettering and balloons interact with the visuals. There is simply no naturalistic way to get word balloons to mesh with photographs in the same way that it can with illustrations. The way lettering and balloons work are as illustrations of language, and the illustrations of the balloons never, in any instance I have ever seen anywhere, combine well with the reality of the photographs. 

One of the more illustrative pieces, from "The Perfect Woman"
The final story, "The Perfect Woman," largely avoids the lettering trap by using almost nothing but captions, and visually works better... until the last two pages which get jarred by the lettering and you again realize that the story wasn't all that good. Kushner is an accomplished photographer by any account, but his bona fides as a narrative storyteller are startlingly absent in all these stories. The third story - "The Complex" - is introduced by Kushner himself as "an allegorical drama about four lost souls orbiting each others lives and making a connection that matters before the end of the world." I frankly have no idea what the fuck he's talking about. I assume what we are presented here of "The Complex" is just a small part of a larger graphic novel because it abruptly ends and "The Perfect Woman" starts up. What we get is an obtuse science fiction story of some sort. Hell, maybe "The Perfect Woman" is part of "The Complex," it very well could be, it's frankly hard to tell. No matter what, though, Kushner's weakness as a storyteller is again evident.

One might see the weaknesses of the stories having a deleterious effect on my view of fumetti as a medium, but, honestly, fumetti is too weak on its own to work. There's something unnatural about the nature of photographs in a narrative medium. Perhaps fumetti represents a unique corollary to the Uncanny Valley. When you move farther away from representation into literalism, it takes you out of the work. Fumetti, to me, just looks like actors posing with or without photoshop effects and those damned jarring word balloons. 

From A Softer World
There are some photocomics that work, but they don't use word balloons and are largely extra-narrative. The captioned parts of "The Perfect Woman" are one example, a better example is the elegiac, almost undefinable non-narrative photo-poem webcomic strips of A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne. A Softer World continues to astonish me: it can be funny, sad, beautiful, poetic, often all of that and more. But A Softer World is as far from fumetti as you can get. It isn't a narrative photocomic, but a poem in words and pictures that transcends what even some traditional comics are capable of.

Art, L to R, by Hickman, Maleev, and Harris
It is very important to point out the obvious and important role photography as a reference tool is in  comic illustration. Many, many artists use photoreference in their work as jumping on points, to nail down the physiology of a movement or capture the visual of a setting. But in every case of photoreference, the finished product is still a representative illustration. Artists like Alex Maleev, Tony Harris, and Jonathan Hickman heavily rely on photoreference for the production of their visuals, which are photorealistic in many ways. Despite how much they rely on photos in their finished product, the end result is illustrative enough that the Fumetti Uncanny Valley simply vanishes, and often the settings and actions and framing breaks far, far away from what can be reasonably captured in photographs.

Kushner, by Kushner.
Kushner cannot be faulted for trying, of course, and I believe he and his co-contributors worked their asses off and were quite serious in their intention of reigniting the photocomic medium. Kushner himself notes that "Complex" is an ambitious idea and that "every other attempt to make projects like this felt like a failure" to him. But despite his obvious skill as a photographer and his love of the comics medium, the efforts presented in Force Field Fotocomix are a failure as well, a failure inherent in his chosen medium as much in the execution of the pieces on display.

Seth Kushner's Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01 is in stores now

For more on A Softer World, check out my review here.


  1. this is not for you! :)

  2. Interesting article with strong points. Though after reading your A Softer World review, I'm thinking the problem with fumetti / photocomics, might just be that only a few people have figured out how to do it correctly, or better said, effectively..

    Comic art is all about effect, stylistic choices, page rhythm, etc.. that's why some comic artists become "known" for the way they expand the medium, even while working within it's confines. Walt Simonson's Thor comes to mind , or even Moore and Gibbon's the Watchmen, that had panel work with lots of

    What's needed here is strong story telling. And to stop trying to tell the story in the same way as a comic book. Use studio shoots to and adjust the story to what could be made in that studio space. You'll get better control of light and shadow. Get into the deep end of software and the photo illustration process to create imagery with photo level impact.

    With Force Field, I get the impression that a certain level of kitsch and experimental art fun was the goal.
    On that level, I guess it's a success. But I don't see much exploration / advancement of the form of itself.
    I would like to see more attempts, or have a go my damn self before talking smack ;)

  3. Certainly kitsch was the goal of a couple of the stories in FFF. But the pretension of the other stories weren't equaled in their execution. They were simply bad comics.

    There needs to be A LOT to happen to move fumetti forward. For all intents and purposes, it is still a newborn medium with a lot of experimentation and production ahead of it before it can really hit. Or there needs to be a bolt-from-the-blue transcendent work to come and lift the medium. FFF is not that work, indeed that work has not come out yet, and it might be a wait before or if it ever does.

    1. yeah, agreed. On a similar note - I'd like to hear your thoughts on motion comics. I'm new to your blog, maybe you've written about them before

    2. I have not written about them, largely because they are not worth the effort. Motion Comics are not comics at all, but cheaply animated cartoons that use per-exisitng comic art. They are a valueless form of adaptation and not worthy of consideration with actual storytelling media such as comics.