Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing Material 4, originally released September 2nd, 2015
Patrick: I have very vivid memories of working on a project in elementary school. It was a vocabulary project, and we just had to find a creative way to use all these vocab words. I was being an ambitious little idiot, so I had decided to put on a radio program using all the words. I don’t know why I chose audio-only — I had been making movies in the basement for years at that point — but I suspect that I just wanted to get it done quickly, and radio sounded easier than video. The trick was that we didn’t have a good working tape recorder in the house, so I went from Fisher-Price Tape Deck to Sony Boom Box to 3M Mini-Cassette Recorder trying to get something that worked. At one point, I was shouting into a plastic microphone “I hope you can hear me because my grade is counting on this!” I hit the stop button, and then, rather than try to play back the tape, I realized I’d be so fixated on one solution that I was making myself crazy. I mean, come on Kid-Patrick, you could just as easily make up flashcards with drawings that represent the words – there’s no reason to freak out on your own equipment. Material 4 calls into question the solutions its characters try to apply to their societal and psychological problems in much the same way, only it’s clear that much more than some 10 year-old’s grade is counting on this.
Each of our characters is thrust into a situation meant to address the biggest problems at this point in their lives. Some of these solutions are abstract, like the Professor going to the museum to take inspiration from some Jackson Pollock paintings, and some solutions are literal, like the Protester baiting and citizens-arresting the shitty cop in his neighborhood. The other solutions fit somewhere along this spectrum: the Producer (which is what I’ve decided to call him because “Filmmaker” breaks the nice alliteration we’ve got going otherwise) applies all kinds of abstract philosophies to his job, justifying his decisions as in-service of the medium. It’s a non-concrete solution to a concrete problem — almost the exact opposite of the Prisoner. His wife proposes a concrete solution to a non-concrete problem.
Let’s actually start there, with the Prisoner, his wife and his mistress. Their problem seems like one of the most immanently solvable, right? They relationship is broken, and neither one of them are faithful to the other. His wife proposes that they all meet each other’s lovers and work toward accepting the fact that they need to share and be shared. The problem is distrust and infidelity, but the solution is simply imagining a world where that’s okay. Ales Kot and Will Tempest never let us forget what we’re talking about in this scene: sex. None of the characters in Material would have the vocabulary to discuss the problems with monogamy and fidelity because we are still very conservative when it comes to sex and relationships. His wife’s plan sounds radical, even though she presents it reasonably. Tempest emphasizes the discomfort around this sequence, but interjecting with single panels of couples (or more!) engaged in sex, forcing the reader not to abstract the problem.
Then we snap right back to reality – and it’s an awkward damn reality, where no one quite knows what to say.
We can compare that to the Protester taking down the crooked cop. This is a very literal problem which requires a procedural, measured solution. I mean, this kid’s got a plan, he’s done research, he takes video evidence and recruits a bunch of his friends to help him take the cop down. Kot is very careful to lay all of this out, so the reader can understand every single beat of his plan. Contrast that to the Professor, who’s journey is completely silent for the first two scenes. Hell, the second of the professor’s scenes is just him standing in front of Pollock’s “Biography.” We don’t need a flowchart there: the Professor’s goal is only to better understand reality and his role in it, but the Protester’s goal is much more specific. Perhaps that’s why the citations never disappear from the bottom of the Protester’s story – there’s always another concrete example of police injustice or racial inequality, and we never need to have that abstracted to a song or a poem or whatever. Kot links us to websites that inform citizens of their rights, or to killedbypolice.net or simply lists names of victims of police violence.
It’s almost strange to see such a literal injustice playing out in the pages of this book when all of the other conflicts are rooted in that very wishy-washy existential plight-of-the-modern-man bullshit. Michael, I don’t know about you, but I find myself rubberbanding between really identifying with those more internalized problems and almost hating myself for seeing a little bit of me in the Professor or the Producer. They’re so self-involved, what’s it mean that I see my priorities reflected in them and not in the Protester who’s fighting for real change? After all, if I couldn’t get that tape recorder to work, and I did fail that vocabulary project: who cares? I probably still could have pulled out an A for the quarter, and everyone would have lived happily ever after. I’m projecting a lot of morality on to what I worry about, but I’m not convinced that Kot and Tempest are. Michael do you see any evidence of them ranking the severity of the various problems they present?
Michael: Patrick I don’t think it is surprising at all that you (and I) are identifying more with the problems of the Professor and the Producer; like them we are both white American males. The last time I wrote about Material, I pointed out that because that white male status, the Professor and the Producer’s problems were more abstract and less rooted in reality. The minor/major eccentricities and neuroses of the human mind aren’t something that should be downplayed or ignored, but they’re typically not as imminently threatening as your wife confronting you and your lover or a group of black men trying to turn the tables on a dirty white cop. What I like about this book is what I find so interesting about any interpersonal relationship: it’s fucking complicated, man. Do the problems of a mother-resenting movie producer matter more than those of a shell-shocked former Guantanamo detainee? I think that one of the points that Kot is trying to make is that that particular question is irrelevant. The important thing to take away is that they are both Material; they both inherently MATTER. Since a good portion of this book is dedicated to the injustices faced by African Americans and the judicial system, I’m reminded of the current #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the misguided response #AllLivesMatter. To echo the point I just made, arguing that black lives matter does not necessarily rob any other lives from mattering. All lives DO matter, but the point is that everyone goes through their own personal struggle that no other individual person else can ever fully understand; and we need to try to respect that fact. So basically, if I could send a temporal message back to 10-year-old Patrick it would be this: Though minute in scale, your suffering is still meaningful.
That very important lesson of “mattering” is at the core of Material, but we can’t forget the way that Kot and Will Tempest utilize and enhance the comic book medium to tell their story. Patrick pointed out how Tempest’s color palette varied among the four separate tales presented; describing the bright hot purples present in the Prisoner’s story as “alien.” In a book that constantly cites references and “further reading,” the stark changes in color serve as the significant passages that are highlighted in a text book. Like “detective mode” in the Arkham games or the titular character’s process in (the long-forgotten, short-lived and generally terrible) cartoon Action Man, Tempest demands our attention by making certain objects and people stand out among the rest of his drawings. Atifeh, Adib and his mistress are shown as individual people separated by their own panels only to be grouped together in the following panel, highlighted as objects of awkwardness for the reader.
All three main characters in the Prisoner’s story have eyes that are that same color of purple – which is made to be more prevalent in some panels over others. Adib and his “mistress” (technically she’s just a prostitute, but Atifeh is giving her more significance than that) engage in sex acts of dominance and control, but here the power belongs to Atifeh. Tempest makes the purples in Atifeh’s eyes more evident when she is asserting her power until she is entirely colored purple. I think it’s interesting that this occurs when she is the one in charge but establishes that they all have an equal right to take control of their lives. Another example of Tempest playing with his highlighter colors is when the dirty cop opens up the bag passed to him by the Protester and the reveal of toy gun inside is enhanced by its glaring yellow hue. The significance of the phone that the Protester has been recording the cop with is similarly heightened by this color shift.
To inject a little speculation, I can’t imagine that things are going to work out in the end for many of our characters. So much of the narrative that Kot and Tempest are weaving is about calling out the injustices and quandaries that human beings (Americans in particular) fall prey to. I don’t think that this means that these societal maladies will be cured as far as our characters are concerned. I’m anticipating a “real world” ending, where some wrongs are just never righted. If I had to place bets, I could see the Producer and the Prisoner stories ending relatively optimistically, but I foresee existential doom for the Professor and an unfortunate and tragic end for those in the Protester story. Kot has provided us with supplemental songs for every storyline in Material thus far save the Protester. The intricate psychological problems of the remaining three storylines can be scored with music of melancholy and uncertainty. When it comes to the very real-world, serious and too unbelievably believable story of the Protester however, we don’t need agonizing songs about how the world is cruel and unfair. Instead, Kot provides the names of victims of police violence, facts and laws. Because when you’re presented with cold, hard facts it would stand to reason that addressing and fixing the problem would a relatively easy task to accomplish…right?
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?