Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Image result for John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy tumult

It’s a delight to plunge into the depths of a graphic novel that so thoroughly delights in its own comics-ness. Tumult by collaborators John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy is on its surface a noir romp of a story with guns and killers and a leading lady who is several leading ladies—a victim of multiple personality disorder and government experiments who is both antagonist and heroine. But that surface also leads into a deep end of visual surprises infused with a surreal energy unseen except in some of the most obscure corners of Golden Age comics.

Artist Michael Kennedy’s style is hard to pin. The gritty noir context emphasizes the starkness of his lines and shapes in a way that evokes Michael Gaydos’s Jessica Jones or David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. And though his edges are sharp, there’s an internal inexactness to the oversized images that produces the tension of a camera set a degree out of focus. Kennedy also likes to center and isolate his subjects with deliberately anti-climatic framing—only to then zoom-in for abrupt and too-close close-ups of a mouth or an eye. Key moments sometimes go undrawn, throwing what should be a central event into unexpected ambiguity. Other times his frames inappropriately crop out heads, or he angles a sequence of panels from behind a speaking character, offering repeating black hair instead of shifting facial expressions. Except his faces often don’t shift but reproduce identical renderings with evolving backgrounds, emphasizing the drawn artifice of the page and its blocky layouts.

Related image

Each stylistic detail is fascinating, but the accumulative weirdness goes way deeper. The world of Tumult seems to be filtered through some obscure and obscuring process that throws its reality into uncertainty. As a viewer, you’re never quite sure where you’re standing—let alone whether its solid ground. The effect is ideal for the subject matter: a woman whose identity changes page to page with no clear, controlling center. Though the narrator is her observer, the fabric of the drawn world reflects her internal tumult. She is an incomplete weave of contradictory memories and blackouts, captured in Kennedy’s off-angles and odd cuts and other roaming peculiarities.

Image result for John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy tumult

But the weirdness goes even deeper still. Yes, there’s a conspiracy plot and government scientists and even a transcendent spiritual hallucination, but those multiple personalities are also meta-types from early 20th century comics. When they chat with each other, we’re dropped into a literally tarnished, benday dot-colored world of newspaper comic strips. Even the narrator’s world, the baseline reality of the novel, has more to do with the 1930s than the 2010s or the 1990s action film references that litter the dialogue.

Kennedy’s biggest and most unexpected influence seems to be Fletcher Hanks, AKA Barclay Flagg, a profoundly obscure comics creator who, for his less-than-two-year Golden Age career, produced the unlikely likes of Stardust the Super Wizard and Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. Rightly forgotten for decades, Hanks re-premiered in the ground-breaking anthology Raw in the 1980s where his incomprehensible incompetence was reinterpreted and embraced for its accidental surrealist effects. Editor Greg Sadowski writes in his Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Superheroes 1936-1941: “Hanks’ singular, obsessive—and at times unintentionally hilarious—approach found a fortuitous opening in comics’ formative period; his work would have been unthinkable only a year or two later.”

To be clear, in terms of skill and intent Kennedy’s artwork is the opposite of Hanks’. Kennedy is making carefully crafted choices for dizzying effects. He’s just selecting those effects from the idiosyncratic chaos of Hanks’ naively drawn pages. There’s also the possibility—since Tumult’s PR and surrounding matter never mention Hanks—that I’ve projected influence where there’s only coincidental (albeit unnerving) resemblance. Regardless, Tumult is artistically ingenious.

Image result for John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy tumult

Instead of Hanks, the back-cover blurb evokes Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith—a legendary film director and a noir novelist best known for her Ripley series about a psychopathic anti-hero. While both references are apt, they point away from the novel’s most interesting qualities because they point away from the comics form. Tumult is not simply a narrative that happens to have been developed graphically and so might still translate into film or prose. It is so fundamentally a comic that talking about its plot and characters without their visual grounding literally and metaphorically misses the picture.

This isn’t the case with many graphic novels. Some comics stories work the comics form like storyboards of documentary-like events set in a fictional world. The artist gives a certain stylistic spin to the content, but if the comic were to change artists mid-story—a norm of so many mainstream series—the story isn’t fundamentally affected. But Tumult without Kennedy’s defining style would not be Tumult.

Taken as just a narrative—presumably the narrative that Dunning wrote in script form and handed to Kennedy to illustrate—Tumult is a perfectly good retro-thriller. While unsympathetically dickish, its primary narrator Adam is no talented Mr. Ripley or hard-boiled avenger policing a moral wasteland. He’s just a second-rate film director sabotaging his life because he doesn’t have what it takes to be a main character. So when the femme fatale finally enters on page 46, she’s not only his life line but the story’s too.

Though Adam longs to be her noir savior, he recedes into the plot’s margins as Morgan and her multiples rightfully claim center stage and the dramatic action. It turns out Adam literally is just a supporting character. That’s an intriguing meta-fact, but neither the character nor the story seems aware of it, dropping the elaborate first act into retroactive limbo. If Adam’s actions, including his motivated point-of-view on Morgan, don’t unlock some key plot or personality element, then what’s the pay-off for our having watched him cheat with a teenager to dump his girlfriend of ten years and then squander his single shot at a major movie deal because he’s too busy binge drinking? Not only he but his entire character arc recedes, and so then Morgan’s story might have been observed from just about anyone’s perspective, not just this particular nobody’s.

Image result for John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy tumult

But the artfulness of Tumult isn’t Kennedy’s alone. Dunning’s Adam offers more than one killer description (“Like a spaghetti western set, I looked okay from a distance”), and I presume it’s Dunning’s script that mapped any of a range of visual motifs that Kennedy executed. I especially admire the fantasized close-ups of the teenager’s foot stepping on Adam’s fingers as they grip a cliff edge. The initiating sequence runs parallel to but is unexplained by Adam’s panic-driven narration, leaving the viewer to decode the visual metaphor and how, even though the event never actually happened, it kinda did.

I could go on, but these visual pleasures are best experienced first-hand. Tumult is also this dynamic duo’s first adventure together. I will be startled if it’s their last.

Related image

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

[Also, here’s an email conversation I had with the author:

Mon 10/8/2018

Hi Chris

I’m Michael Kennedy, the artist on Tumult, a graphic novel you recently reviewed for the Pop Matters website. I’m writing with positive thoughts about your analysis of the book and my work in particular as you touched on a couple of things that haven’t been noticed by other reviewers! And when I read your author profile as a scholar of comics and literature I was no longer surprised.

Firstly I appreciate the comments on the panel choices, only one other scholar has asked me about the choice to ‘zoom’ in on certain things, the script did contain a few visual directions like that and it then became a stronger part of the adaption into art. For me I’m a big fan of heightened emotion and melodrama, although a large fear I had was storyboard comparisons. I feel as though it comes from instinct and a level of primivitism in storytelling that I’m fond of.

That leads to the Fletcher Hanks influence which there was an fair amount of, however the true influence comes from horror comics of the 1950s (of the non E.C variety, found in “four colour fear” a Fantagraphics collected book) so I was indeed setting out to make a comic.

This all stems from John’s script again, as the Ben day cymk type scenes were in the script, with the hotel sequences deriving from strips like “little lulu” and the graveyard scene derived from Frank King and some of his more experimentally drawn strips in “Gasoline Alley.”

Anyways I really just wanted to reach out and show my appreciation for your article. I imagine John feels the same way.

All the best

Michael Kennedy

 

*

Hi Michael,

What a pleasure to get your note. And, frankly, I’m relieved that I didn’t completely invent the Fletcher Hanks influence! I know some EC, but not Four Color Fear–but I still sense that 50s horror vibe generally. And I probably should have tracked down the specifics on Little Lulu and Gasoline Alley. It really is a remarkable book you and John made, that great balance of accessible but still idiosyncratically weird. Are you working on anything new right now?

Chris

I’m glad you enjoyed me reaching out, I think the little lulu and frank king refs were only subliminal influences but a Easter egg for some nonetheless. We’re currently working on some pitches for the American mainstream, monthly comics, African science fiction, some alien abductions, (all top secret obviously haha).

*
Well, good luck with those pitches and projects; I’m looking forward to your future work!

Tags: , ,

%d bloggers like this: