A Reflection of Evil: Image’s Bedlam
There’s a subject that has drawn my avid interest of late. Well … perhaps interest is an understatement. It would be a little closer to the mark to call it an obsession; however, to use that term in conjunction with the subject at hand is, to me, a little ironic.
It’s not just me that seems to share my infatuation. As with all art throughout history, there are themes that become the focus of an era or a generation, subjects that fascinate not just the artists in question, but also the audience. Michelangelo; Pablo Picasso; Andy Warhol; Stan Lee; Frank Miller; all of them were the pioneers of an artistic movement that was (and still is) equals parts aesthetic innovation and social commentary.
You think I’m a little crazy. That’s okay – in fact, it fits the subject quite appropriately. But before we move on, allow me to give you some evidence of my thesis.
Michelangelo … well, I hope I don’t have to tell you who he is. His most famous work is, of course, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a massive undertaking that consists of dozens of frescoes covering over 5,000 square feet.
But that’s not the piece that has always grabbed my attention. Instead, it’s a painting he was commissioned to add to the chapel twenty years later known as The Last Judgement. It depicts the ol’ Man Upstairs and Mary, the seven trumpeting angels of the Apocalypse just beneath – and below their clarion call, we, the puny mortals, are being split into our respective camps of Saved and Damned like cattle at a factory farm.
Why is this relevant?It’s not just because of what it depicts, but where it’s located – right at the exit of the chapel, where the pious could stare in horror at their fate if they missed next week’s Mass — an example of how art and propaganda were once synonymous with each other (ah, how the old becomes new again…)
Next, Picasso. This guy is one of the most influential artists of the past hundred years, but to be honest I used to hate him. When I was a youngster in first year Art History, I always scoffed at the Cubist movement the same way that some city councillors scoff at graffiti. After being forced to stare at his work for a while, though, I must say that I understand him much better – even though I’m still not a fan.
What made Picasso important to art was his ability to deconstruct; that is, break something natural into its basic geometric components. Looking at Picasso’s Cubist work is like seeing the artist’s sketch – and it allows us to put the art together in our own mind.
Warhol, on the other hand, was in many ways the antithesis to Picasso. Where Pablo was breaking it down for us and leaving it to our imagination, Andy was all about redundancy – his movement, known as pop art, was made up of single images that were recast infinitely with different colour schemes, all shown in tandem together to create a monotonous tone. He was the first artist to employ “factory art”, and even had employees solely for the purpose of creating his redundant work.
Stan Lee is someone you should all know – and if you don’t, GET OUT!
Seriously. Don’t come back. You’re not welcome here.
Why is he even mentioned? Because he, along with Will Eisner and Jerry Siegel, was one of the first writers to bring art and literature together for an audience above the age of nine. Sure, his early stuff is pretty tame by our standards, but considering that he was writing in the war-torn ’40s and the censor-ridden McCarthyist ’50s, he did the best he could. If you consider that he was writing stories about genetic and radioactive mutation, employing concepts such as homo superior and cosmic otherworldly influences to a generation that was fond of using the colour pink to describe social assistance programs, you can see the sort of prophetic insight the man really had.
And then there’s Frank Miller, arguably the man most responsible for the darker edge we now attribute to the comic realm. His first true impact began with his depiction of Daredevil in the early ’80s, where he was the man to make Hell’s Kitchen worthy of its name. From there the list gets longer and more notable: Sin City, 300, The Dark Night Returns, and the original Wolverine mini-series, the famous four-part legend of “Patch” and the island of Madripoor that brought our clawed anti-hero into the annals of Marvel one-shot history.
“Holy shit, dude. Is there a point to this?”
Watch your mouth, friendly reader. I’ve been really good about keeping the swears to a minimum in this one.
The point is that each one of these artists, from Michelangelo right on down to Miller, in some way represented the zeitgeist of their time.
The Last Judgement – and the rest of Michelangelo’s work – depicted the mass obsession of the 16th Century with damnation, the divine, and the End Times – an obsession that barely seems to have left our consciousness today.
Picasso was using his art to deconstruct natural forms, much in the same way that particle physicists and chemists were performing the same task in the laboratory in the early 20th Century.
Warhol’s pop art was a blatant commentary on the factory-fed super-consumption of the 80’s – something we still grapple with in the early years of the 2000’s.
As for Lee and Miller, they were able to successfully deliver the spirit of their time periods to a mass audience in a way that left both the aesthetic and literary sides of us satisfied – something that had previously never been done as successfully as they performed it, at least until the adoption of comic-to-film adaptations and the subsequent increase in attention to the world of comics – and thus, fandom – that has resulted.
And now we return to my recent obsession, the focus of my own increasingly divided attention over the past month or two as I’ve barraged my mind with series after series of graphic masterpieces in the pursuit of subjects worthy of my penmanship and your perusal.
Ah, but as I said, this isn’t just my obsession; true to my thesis, a quick account of the successful films and television shows of the past five years will show that we are all fascinated by the same phenomenon: Hannibal, The Following, American Horror Story and True Detective are just a few of the examples of this current trend.
I’m talking, of course, about psychosis.
But is that really what it’s about? Looking at this from the same perspective as the artistic movements I just described, one might even consider that this isn’t just about the nature of the mind, but the nature of humankind itself. For me, this appears to be not just an investigation into criminal minds, or even into our psychology as a whole – in truth, this is an inquiry into morality.
In the same way that a painting can force us, even unconsciously, to observe the intrinsic components of form as Picasso did; or that a photo of a celebrity, repeated into redundancy, can be a commentary on the banality of mass production; television, film, and comics – the nouveau art form – are reviving an age-old discussion, one that Michelangelo himself was neck-deep in almost five centuries ago.
Unlike the old days, though, we’re no longer trying to gussy it up, putting pretty bows and flowery words on it, gluing wings to its back or planting horns on its forehead, giving it some sort of anthropomorphic representation. Gone is the era of glancing sidelong at ourselves through a tinted glass. Now we must stare directly at it, study it in full, gory detail, for our fascination is not with psychosis or maladies of the mind, even if that’s what they call the morsels they feed us — no, what we are studying are maladies of the soul.
We all have a capacity for it – that godlike ability to justify our immorality while we belabor the same vices in others, slowly putting one foot in front of the other on that road paved with the oh-so-smooth tarmac of our “good intentions”. And the less we acknowledge it, the stronger its hold on us becomes, until we are laughing maniacally at the horror that we have inflicted … the horror that we are growing to love.
It’s called evil.
But is evil something you are, or is it something you do?
This is the question that Nick Spencer posits on the cover of Bedlam, a tale of mayhem, morality and madness … and it’s a question that remains the centerpiece of his feverish 11-issue rampage through the darkest corners of the soul.
Yeah, it’s that Nick Spencer – the same dude who was hurting my brain with his mad story skills in Morning Glories. If you haven’t read his work, get on it! This is going to be a man who shares the halls of 21st Century comic fame with Bendis, Millar, and Kirkman (among others, but these guys are the top dogs to me).
Alright, I don’t have to laud Spencer’s skills, since they’re staring you in the face in everything he has a hand in. With Bedlam, however, the power of the story is shared equally with the art and colouring – and I mean hand-in-hand, death-do-us-part, hold-these-rights-self-evident kind of equal.
I’m a writer, so when I say that the art had as much impact on me as the writing, that’s like a pop singer digging a guitar solo; there’s always an appreciation, but it’s gotta be top-notch to get our undivided attention. And with Riley Rossmo (Cowboy Ninja Viking, Daken: Dark Wolverine), my attention is assuredly undivided – he has a style in this book that gives me shivers: as much sketch as it is detail, it gives everything this sort of frenzied madness that brings the emotions right to the front, ready for Spencer to slash to bits with his sharp wit.
The colour takes this work from impressive to awe-inspiring: Jean-Paul Csuka uses his palette to paint the past in vivid monochrome, forcing your eyes to places you’d prefer to hide from. The present, on the other hand, is faded and almost listless in tone, as if the main character’s memories are more real than the present will ever be.
And who is this protagonist – a term never used more loosely in comic history than it is in this case?
His name is Fillmore Press.
His name is also Madder Red.
Which is his real name? That remains to be decided: each is a creature of their own motivations, each unfortunately sharing the same vessel, like siamese twins attached at the brain.
Madder Red is the past, a monstrous villain who brought the city of Bedlam to its knees … years ago. As far as the terrorized citizens are concerned, he’s long dead.
This, of course, is not the case. The truth is that Madder Red was … rehabilitated. Sort of. In the same way that Alex was turned from his life of ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange, or Darth Vader was made Sith through the Emperor’s machinations, Madder Red has been crushed, twisted and re-molded into a semi-functioning, heavily-medicated social moron known as Fillmore Press.
But the memories remain – as hard as Fillmore tries to forget his days as the criminal overlord of Bedlam, he sees Madder Red in every mirror. Somehow, though, Fillmore resists. He knows what he’s done in his past is terrible, barely even passable as human, and he craves redemption. As such, he begins showing up at the scenes of horrific crimes inspired by his former scarlet persona, and before long his natural kinship with psychosis gets him involved in bringing his acolytes to justice.
But with every case, Fillmore brings himself closer to Madder Red. He’s always just on the edge, clawing at the door of his mind, staring through his eyes, waiting for his moment to regain the advantage. And as the plot thickens and the madness he’s unleashed in his past begins to bring him closer to his past, it becomes less and less clear which identity is the true one.
I’ve warned you all before in previous articles, but this warning is more serious than ever – if you are the least bit queasy, do not read this comic! This story is not, in any way, for the faint of heart. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s for the strong of heart. As far as depravity, violence and insanity portrayed in graphic form are concerned, Bedlam isn’t even in a different league – it’s a different game altogether.
But isn’t that how it always is with the most poignant of human expression? Like Michelangelo and Picasso, like Lee and Miller, the best art forces us to look at ourselves from an angle we’ve never considered before.
Even if that angle shows us as the very devils we crusade against.
More evil for y’all next time, folks.
Posted on March 16, 2014, in Bedlam, Image Comics and tagged American Horror Story, Andy Warhol, Art history, Frank Miller, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Picasso, Stan Lee. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.