In this post a few days ago I compared these two pictures:
That first, with the dragon, is from Dokebi Bride, a Korean manwha by a young creator named Marley. The second image is from All Star Superman, drawn by Frank Quitely, one of the most respected mainstream illustrators currently working.
As I said in the previous post, both of these images are meant to be awe-inspiring, or viscerally impressive. And as I also said, Marley’s drawing really impressed me, while Quitely’s didn’t as much (I don’t hate it; I just don’t love it either.)
Anyway, I was thinking a bit more about these two images, and it struck me just how almost iconically west vs. east they are. In the first place, of course, Superman’s a Western symbol, and the oriental dragon is an Eastern one. More than that, though, is the way these two symbols work, and how they’re integrated into the stories.
Superman in general, and in this image in particular, is about individual triumph and modernity — individual triumph *as* modernity in some ways. (See Tom’s essay here for his take on this. Quiteley’s image, with its retro-modernist vibe and workers-of-the-world referencing, is positioning Superman as savior and worker — as salvation through work, you could even argue. It’s the apotheosis (pretty much literally) of sacrifice figured as massive effort — man puffed up through sheer sweat and muscle to take his seat at the helm of the universe.
(There’s a socialist/constructivist tinge to the design as well too, referencing Siegel’s design sense and the character’s initial quasi-socialism (beating up mine owners and the like. It’s kind of an interesting reminder that capitalism and socialism are *both* modernist and *both* puritan; both fetishize effort and progress in very similar ways. They’re more different inflections of the same idea than they are true opposites.)
Okay, where was I?
Oh right. So the point is that Quiteley’s image is about the bittersweet triumph over adversity; man attaining Godhead through superforce and sacrifice; an effortful Christ. The awe or reverence is the glow of triumph (though laced with some melancholy, since Supes has to keep the sun going forever, more or less.)
In Dokebi Bride, on the other hand, the awe has a very different inflection. Obviously, the dragon isn’t human, and, indeed, it dwarfs the woman in the frame. The point here is not mastery over nature (Superman controlling the sun through work) but the untameability of nature. The summoner here is actually a nascent capitalist; she wants to gain individual glory through demonstrating her summoning skills, and/or just through putting on a good show. The dragon is not amused:
This isn’t to say that the dragon is evil, or necessarily inimical to human beings; on the contrary, he has a close, even loving friendship with the the main character’s grandmother, who is the village shaman. Nor is the dragon all powerful; in fact, he’s weak and tired and old. But even an old dragon is a lot bigger than you and your dreams of glory, and fucking with him is a really bad idea.
It’s also interesting, I think, how nostalgia is worked through in these images. Both are definitely nostalgic; Quiteley’s is nostalgic for a more innocent modernism — a moment when progress to a super-future seemed possible. Marley’s is nostalgic for a rural Korean past and mythology; a countryside and a spirituality that are dying out. Both reference these nostalgias thematically (it’s what they’re about) and through their art styles; in Quiteley’s case, by reference back to the art nouveau/constructivist milieu of Siegel (and Winsor McCay, I think); in Marley’s, to innumerable examples of traditional art and printmaking.
The way the nostalgia works, though, is pretty different. Quiteley’s nostalgia, is, I would argue, kind of adrift. For all the talk about Superman-as-myth, the truth is he’s not Christ; his roots in our culture go back only 70 or 80 years, and he doesn’t actually stand for anything in particular except hitting bad guys and being kind of entertaining. Nostalgia for Superman isn’t really nostalgia for any big idea so much as nostalgia for a favorite toy…and, indeed, Quiteley’s image could almost be a toy box, or a figurine. Superman seems packaged, a commodity fetish, which points to its own possession (or the loss of its possession in a nostalgic past.). The drawing is deliberately set nowhere, in a kind of suffused emptiness; it’s an eternal frozen moment of nostalgia for one’s own wonderfulness, that goes nowhere and comes from nowhere.
Marley’s drawing, on the other hand, is a nostalgia for a particular place and a particular time. It is *this* fishing village in Korea that her grandmother is tied to (literally; she is possessed by a spirit that won’t let her leave.) The dragon is powerful, but it only rises *here*. For there to be wonder, there has to be a particular landscape, a particular time. The way the earth moves can’t surprise you if you’re able to fly off and turn it yourself.
The point here is that super-hero comics very rarely have a strong sense of wonder. With all the spectacular feats, you’d think they would — but somehow they all end up as tricks; they’re fun and goofy, or I guess more recently bloody, but they don’t actually inspire awe. And I think it’s because of something Tom said, “Superman keeps the universe our size.” Super-heroes are there to make things more manageable. Awe — a sense of vastness, of human insignificance or vulnerability — is antagonistic to everything they stand for. If Superman saw that dragon, he wouldn’t be scared or impressed — he’d just punch it in the snout. (As Wonder Woman did in a similar situation..) There’d be big explosions! There’d be excitement! There’d be action! But there wouldn’t be a moment where you said, “oh my god,” and felt rooted to one particular spot, and overwhelmed.