Today, Ryan and Michael are discussing Material 2, originally released June 24th, 2015.
Ryan: Have you ever sat down and read the entirety of James Joyce’s notoriously difficult Ulysses? As a pretentious, young undergraduate studying English, I snickered into my coffee when a friend asked me whether I would attempt to tackle the classically obtuse text with a reader’s companion or not. Having recently curbstomped arm-loads of 18th Century British Lit. and avant-garde contemporary poetry, I thought, “How hard could it be? It’s only words. Making them make sense is what I do.” Ulysses quickly humbled me with the wall of metaphors, symbols, ambiguities, and overtones which allow it to remain one of the most critically-scrutinized novels of all time. While nowhere near the same “run away from the book right now” level as the aforementioned modernist masterpiece, Ales Kot and Will Tempest’s Material 2 struck me in a similar way – one which a comic book has never inspired in me. With the feeling that everything I read seemed fresh, dense, and that I barely scratched the surface on the first go-through, I recommended the two issues of the series thus far to a friend whose opinion I trust greatly, who simply thought that Material “had its head up its own ass.” So, which one of us is right?
In case you missed it, the story thus far follows four different narratives, running concurrently yet not intersecting in any non-abstracted ways. Kot and Tempest deliver the threads in regular, two-page increments of Professor, Filmmaker, Protester, Prisoner, rinse, repeat x 3. That’s the “what”; the “how” (i.e. use of color, line, and underlying themes of panel structure) was handled more deftly than I dare attempt by Patrick in our review for the first issue, so… go check that out now. I’ll wait.
Now, if needing to go look something up while you are in the midst of digesting a narrative seems daunting, then Material may not be for you. Nearly every page features a footnote in the form of an article, novel, song track, or the name of a police-shooting victim. This may be the most intriguing experiment happening in the series. The first time reading through, these references made the comic feel like some sort of mixed media experience, engaging an extra dimension other than the two traditionally used in this medium, adding a soundtrack to the image and text, or deep academic context to the world presented.
I love this idea for the songs. Take this page, for example:
And thanks to the magic of YouTube, I am soaring with the skydivers, Nylon and Sailor. I count that as a huge success. Sometimes the footnotes play counterpoint to the text to great effect, as well. In this scene, our man Franklin is spending time tooling around with three close friends the way that adolescent male friends are want to do.
This jovial fraternizing is undercut by the names lining the bottom of the page, all black victims of police violence, showing the danger that each of these young men face in modern day America – or, at least the America presented in the world of Material (stated delicately to stop the comment section from accusing me of bias).
Now, the ultimate question about the success of this title — in my opinion — comes from a simple question: do the footnotes belong to the characters or the author? Drew asserts the former to be true, which would make these references amazing character notes; however, if it is the latter, than I can see how my other comrade could find these references as being pedantic and masturbatory. There is a thin line between offering further context for intrepid readers and assigning homework. The Lazarus nun issue experimented with large blocks of expository text “found” throughout the issue, but even that is different than the non-diegetic text seen in this comic.
Michael, my son. Do these footnotes work for you? Is this title something beyond what we normally read? If no, could it be?
Michael: Okay guys, here’s the rule: every time I say “material,” you take a shot. As I have probably said ad nauseam, my favorite part of reading comic books is discovering a new character or idea and following it down an endless rabbit hole – which typically leads to more endless rabbit holes. So I think the concept of annotations and references in the gutters is a really cool idea that is very helpful for a thick text like Material (take a shot); if not completely necessary. To answer Ryan’s question though, I don’t think that the format Material (take a shot) presents us is necessarily something beyond what we normally read; it’s more of a guided approach.
To make a (hopefully) quick tangent, let’s look at a comic book like Grant Morrison’s Batman saga. In any given issue, there are references to scores of different themes, ideas and stories both in Batman history and in pop culture; in fact, there are entire websites dedicated to annotating stories like this. Instead of a reader searching for Easter eggs or references to similar materials (take a shot), Kot provides specific sources that he finds relevant to the conversation at hand.
These are not just recommendations for further reading however; Ales Kot is trying to provide a multi-platform entertainment/informational experience. As Ryan noted, Material 2 (take a shot) also recommends different songs to accompany what Kot and Will Tempest present on the page. Music tends to be my blind spot in the pop culture zeitgeist, but as a fan of movies and TV the choice of a particular song incorporated with an artist’s work interests me. The final panel/page of a comic book issue is very similar to the end of an episode right before the credits roll. I like how Kot throws in a song as “the credits roll” in Material 2 (shot); it reminds me of a show like The Sopranos. Kot uses the song “How Are You Getting Home?” by The Sparks.
This fast-paced, oddball tune provides an interesting contrast to the more serious and heady text provided in the book. The song also kind of asks “where do we go from here?” – especially in regards to the final scene with Adib and Atifeh. The combination of song and cliffhanger that Kot presents us as Atifeh reveals her affair really felt like a TV viewing experience. As a concept this is interesting because we know that music and television aren’t mutually exclusive. Could the use of music in comic books become a regular practice someday? With the realm of digital comics it’s not outside of the realm of possibilities I suppose. For now however Material 2 (shot) gives us the opportunity to add to our reading experience and inform our emotions by providing these annotations of supplemental material (more shots).
Just like the first issue, Material 2 (shot shot shotty shot) doesn’t seem to have an overlapping narrative as far as the four separate storylines are concerned; frankly I hope they never intersect. There seems to be a bit of a divide between half of the storylines with the Professor and Filmmaker stories on one side and the Protester and Prisoner stories on the other. I find it telling that the Professor and Filmmaker stories – featuring white leading roles – have the luxury to drown themselves in the existential excess as opposed to the other two. In both stories the two lead characters have the chance to be happy but want something more; something different. For example Julius Shore has already expressed that he has accomplished so much but he still isn’t happy. When faced with his new AI friend he simply gives up the book that he has been writing. That’s a little bit of white privilege that Franklin and Adib are not afforded; their stories are more heavily-based in “reality.” While Julius and Nylon question existence, Franklin and Adib are merely trying to survive. And while there is that divide that I mentioned between Professor and Filmmaker and Protester and Prisoner, there isn’t exactly a progression of “philosophical to real” from story to story. For the most part Kot provides us with personal yarns with varying levels of struggle.
Though they are all engaging, I find Adib’s story to be the most compelling. The stakes aren’t as high as they are for Franklin, but that’s because Adib’s story is on a psychological level. The moment where Adib nearly kills his wife’s dog with a butcher knife is super intense; nobody wants to see a dog get stabbed guys! I think the choice to let the dog go was equal parts compassion and self-preservation. Adib knows that if the dog sticks around he will kill it, but he also sees a kindred spirit in the dog – one prisoner frees the other.
That’s all I’ve got for now folks – there’s so much material here (finish your drink) that I’m sure we’ll delve into more and more as the series progresses. So, like Kot, I’ll provide a track for you to listen to from a film that is just as heady and melancholic.
Play: Jon Brion, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Theme
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?