Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dense & Difficult

Once upon a time I saw this in a comic book store and I saw the friendly and familiar DC Comics logo on it and I did not buy it...
...since it was a Morrison/Case Doom Patrol comic, those of you in the know are already realizing I am an idiot.

Or at least I would be for a few more months.

At the time I just glazed over the (unbelievably well-painted) Simon Bisley Doom Patrol covers the way a kid would glaze over dozens of other comics whose logos he or she didn't recognize. Then I'd stop, look back for a second at the Bisley cover, accept some small part of its deep weirdness into my brain, then decide (almost unconsciously) this was some kind of esoterica for other, older people, and keep moving.

I was experiencing what I'm gonna call the Dense & Difficult reaction.

If you're me, you read these two words a lot when you go around looking up reviews of things you like, in all cultural registers...Gravity's Rainbow, Neurosis' Souls At Zero, Eyehategod's  Take As Needed For Pain, Giffen's Legion Of Super Heroes Vol 4, Werner Herzog movies, Ulysses.

The phrases usually don't refer to some absolute difficulty scale but just relative to what the audiences expect. Legion Vol 4 is not Ulysses by a long shot, but relative to its audiences' expectations of what's gonna be in a comic book called Legion of Super Heroes it is.

Dense and Difficult usually comes up like "Most audiences found the piece too Dense and Difficult and it failed and the author died miserably with only a pile of ugly dog carcasses to mark his miserable grave". (This is pretty much what happened to Herman Melville after he wrote the great Dense and Difficult novel of American literature but before he was rediscovered.)

For a long time I didn't get the Dense & Difficult reaction. I never had it to anything. The first time I picked up Naked Lunch I liked it, the first time I heard Pink Floyd's Final Cut I liked it and was surprised, years later, to find out how many millions of people didn't.

Bisley's Doom Patrol covers, though, gave me the reaction. I avoided those comics. Which is odd because twelve months later I'd have a subscription and I'd know Simon Bisley was the best artist in the whole comic book world.


I stopped having my Dense & Difficult reaction and here's how...

I had a copy of DC Comics Who's Who--a guide to all the shiny friendly things I wanted to know all about. From Aquaman to Zzzzazzala. With shiny friendly happy pictures.

Here was DP interior artist Richard Case's Who's Who illustration of Doom Patrol villains The Brotherhood of Dada :
Richard Case Drew This
The name was weird, the costumes were weird, their goals were obscure, their powers unfathomable but, really, that's 90% of comics. They were bad guys who fought good guys in a lurid landscape and that was nothing I wasn't into. I went to buy the back issue they were in and was surprised to see it was this one...
Simon Bisley Drew This
...with the Dense and Difficult cover. And I opened it up and I read it and it was wonderful and life has never been the same. Because Motherfucking Grant Morrison Doom Patrol (Especially When Steve Yeowell Drew It).


Bisley was Dense (the longer you look at that picture, the more you'll see) and it was Difficult (at least it had obviously been for me) and it was so worth it.

Something they never tell you about Dense & Difficult art is that, in lacking the standardized polish we expect from the usual commercial product (ably represented above by Case) it is, for all its difficulty, a lot easier to see how it was made. And, therefore, it communicates the message "You, too, could do this" in a way a more processed image does not.

For all the Difficulty of Crass, Amebix or Big Black, it is clearly just a certain number of voices and instruments making a certain number of organized noises, for all the difficulty of a Godard film, it shows you clearly that movies are just cameras pointed at people talking, for all the difficulty of Bisley's cover, his technique makes it obvious how a jagged line turns into the shape of an arm and paint strokes organized in a certain way make a boot. Regular comics hide behind the sheen the process provides: Richard Case's opaque ink shapes look like they were born that way and that background color looks like no earthly force a kid with a pen, a pencil and a set of markers has access to. Try to get a piece of paper to do that.

That is, the Dense and the Difficult are often intimately tied to the DIY.

Traditional commercial art is like a magic show: easy and accessible for any audience, but made that way by Phil Spectorish layers of sleight of hand designed to tell you This Is Unlike Anything In Your Normal Life, This Is An Exceptional Experience Worth Paying For TM Just Sit Back And Leave It To The Professionals.

There's a reason a good magician never reveals his tricks: then he'd have to leave the comfort and old armor of Presentation behind and skate by (like Penn and Teller) on only what is new in the show they're putting on.


Now to get back to what the fuck my blog is supposed to be about, RPGs have always been Dense & Difficult--as games go. And there are people who love RPGs but just hate that.

The first D&D things I got were the original Red Box--widely considered the most accessible version of D&D ever written, and Unearthed Arcana--a second-rate accessory to the most inexplicable version of D&D ever written.

The Red Box did a great, shiny, commercial job of teaching me how to play the game.

But Unearthed Arcana is what convinced me the game was worth playing. It was Dense it was Difficult, it was almost incomprehensible, it had Sword, Broad "Final Word" Type, it had a picture of a Bec De Corbin. It had nine kinds of gnomes, it explained that the Sword, Khopesh was an Ideal Druidical Instrument and did not have stats for a druid.  It had sigils and secrets and Evard's Black Tentacles. It looked more like a spellbook than anything I'd ever seen.

The Red Box said "Hey, it's your world, do whatever".

Arcana said "There is a world behind the world and this is the tip of that iceberg".

And when I finally got the DMG? Seldom is the name of Vecna spoken, except in a hushed voice, and never within the hearing of strangers. How could you not play that game until you died?

The pre 2e Dungeons and Dragons art and writing are not always good but they are sui generis--there is no other media that looks like it in its combination of grimoire-ish linework and Oh My God It Has To Look Exactly Like This semiprofessional enthusiasm. Much of the later D&D art is great but looks like stuff you might see elsewhere like in a Tolkien calendar or a video game concept art. The early D&D art looks like....early D&D art and that's it.

When it is bad, it's bad in the way only something genuinely experimental could be--you tried something new and failed. Which is a good thing to do.


Point is...we need both.

Yes, there needs to be the comfortable accessible new thing but we also need the convoluted nightmare of esoterica.

A lot of independent versions of D&D seem to privilege accessibility uber alles--open shapes and colors, familiar lines, homespun language, an intentionally pop sensibility, the standard graphic designer  bag of tricks, friendliness, hand-holding, no experiments--and that is needed. But it is not the only thing needed, because, in the end, you make the thing comfortable by making it like stuff you already know, you make it fun by making it unlike stuff you already know.


Seth S. said...

This post is awesome and you should feel awesome about it. I feel like this is an idea I've had but never fully developed the connection.

Daniel Dean said...

Had this response to someone in film school although I forget the director, and he was talking about not being ready for their ouevre yet because This Thing He Read said to do something else first to prepare himself, "like reading Ulysses."

(Neither of us had read Ulysses.)

My argument was and is "You become the kind of person ready to read Ulysses by reading Ulysses, just like you learn how to pitch by bitching and how to fuck like fucking"

I still haven't read Ulysses and gave up pitching. I'll leave those who disagree with me to speculate about the fucking.

Daniel Dean said...

Fuck, oeuvre.

Dungeon Smash said...

Aw, Christ! i know what you mean, and i hate you people for it. I know that there is a response called "Too Dense & Too Difficult"; i never experienced it myself. I want you, and everyone who similarly feels it, to overcome it. i saw the Dense & Difficult and I loved it and thrived on it and I <3 it to this day. :( i am sorry. i don't know what to tell you.
find what is difficult; appreciate it in every possible sense from today unto the end of your days. let it devour you; let it become the new "you". god bless the dense + difficult! may they be fruitful and multiply

Zak Sabbath said...

I was once like you and thought I never ever thought anything was too dense or difficult for me.

Then I thought about it and remembered when I was a little kid the one thing that I remembered thinking was too difficult (those Doom Patrol covers). Once.

Then I wrote about it.

Then you misread it.

Maybe because it was too dense and difficult for you? Don't know

Roger G-S said...

I can dig it, I see my own slew between elegance and baroqueness. Right now I'm into Isotype and 18 point fonts but in the fall I was all about gnarly spells based on obscure Renaissance engravings.

Dungeon Smash said...

i dunno eithr, i haven't read doom patrol. there are things that are "dense & difficult", but never "too" thus. i havent' found 'em yet. when i have, i guess we can continue this discussion; there is a very great chance that i am wrong. i admit thus; so far, though, i can't relate; sorry

Unknown said...

There are people who maintain a healthy reverence for the shifting nature of semiotic frameworks and the self-accountability that comes with engaging any one of those frameworks. And then there are people who lack even the slightest control over their perversions and live in total fear of the expectancy that comes with gaining a sense of symbolic freedom. And then there are people who overcompensate for a lack of relational knowledge regarding the complex dynamics of fetishistic interaction.

And there are, respectfully, a lot more people. But I think I made my point convoluted enough.

Zak Sabbath said...

what on god's holy name are you on about?

Unknown said...

Oh, um, I felt that your initial avoidance of Doom Patrol presented an excellent example of one's relationship to the malleability of familiar media. You know, when it becomes participatory. And there is an anxiety that comes with that realization, when a comic (or campaign for that matter) stops presenting and starts inviting/revealing the thing in itself more than itself. There are people who engage this with absolute ingenuity and balance, much like yourself. But then there are people who never pick up Doom Patrol for fear of how it confronts them and would prefer to voyeur upon the content of an archetypal canon. Then there are people who take for granted their collection of Doom Patrol comics as something to be consumed without comprehending what it's really asking of the individual and who are deprived of experiencing the psychological transformation that can occur whilst engaging something 'dense and difficult'. I can't be certain if that clears up my perspective on the matter, but the post title was 'Dense and Difficult' so I errantly decided to be clever and condense my thoughts into something, well... yeah you get the point.

Zak Sabbath said...

The difference between "dense" and "obtuse" is a whole other essay but for now I can just recommend David Foster Wallace's essay "Tense Present" as a pretty much perfect example.

faoladh said...

Damn. This sort of thing is why I read your blog.

Unknown said...

I would very much like to read an essay on that topic, insofar as it concerns itself with RPGs and not the impulsively indulgent actions of a fan. And I would make attempts at defending my knowing the difference between "dense" and "obtuse" but seeing as I have hereby failed to implement that knowledge in any observable manner whatsoever, I must humbly refrain. The fact that you pulled "Tense Present" on me so quickly exhibits a high intimidation modifier that I'm not sure I can save against. Maybe we could talk DFW under less corrective circumstances sometime. But for now, I'll take your advice and give the piece the reread it deserves.

Deadtreenoshelter said...

Great post!

For a long time, I avoided tough art of all varieties. Books, movies, paintings. Anything that required too much effort to decipher was avoided in favor of easier, ground level fruits.

For example, poetry of all kinds fell into the too dense, too difficult category. Over the last few years my perspective has changed and it has made all the difference.

As I have begun to embrace complexity, I have found a rich vein of gaming ideas.

I would be fascinated to hear some of the gaming inspirations that have come out of folks' "dense and difficult" reading, viewing, listening etc.

Todd said...

Giffen's Legion run had some real grownup human relationships in it and no one needed to write media blurbs about how inclusive or progressive they were being or look at this going down over here (snicker). I learned that sometimes love is complicated from reading that run. It was some great shit.

Zak Sabbath said...

Whereas I never noticed them or just took them for granted and enjoyed the intrigue and lasers.

...and that, kids, is how you make everyone happy.

Thiago said...

I have the entire run of the Doom Patrol by the hand of Grant Morrisson. You should also go read Transmetropolitan, if you haven´t already.

Zak Sabbath said...

Didn't really like Transmets. The art kinda sucked.

scrap princess said...

I think the art did a good job in making the future look as stupid, ugly and incomprehensible as it most like will be if the internet is anything to go by. But sometimes I think about a world in which transmet is illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp , like he did for Angel Stomp Future and then I am very sad to be in this one instead.

James Holloway said...

Morrison has said that one of the things he tries to put in his comics is that confusion, the sense of starting in the middle without a map, because that is (contrary to the conventional wisdom) one of the things that makes comics appealing to young readers. It's one of my favourite aspects of his work.

I guess there's a certain sweet spot you have to hit -- as a kid, I was also intrigued by comics and RPGs with that "what the heck is going on here? I have to find out more" reaction, but put off by some other things with a "what the heck is going on here? I guess I'll never know". Whatever interest-to-laziness ratio is involved, RPGs hit it just right for me.

jmk jr said...

Funny, it was the Bisley and Bolland covers that attracted me to Doom Patrol, but then the -- what I considered -- typical house style of DC's interiors scared me away. Something about the interiors always seemed workman-like and the colors lurid. I couldn't reconcile all the praise the books received with what I was looking at, that's what confounded me and what epitomized how 'dense and difficult' '90s DC/Vertigo seemed to me at the time. But, oh how wonderful it is to ultimately come to appreciate it.

Pere Ubu said...

I'ma go out on a limb here and argue that LBB D&D, regardless of the fact that it's only about a hundred pages of large type, is indeed an example of Dense And Difficult, and that's why I love it.

It takes some work to interpret, and your interpretation might not be mine. Yet there's a lot implied there. It's disorganized, and yet a few readings and you can find anything fairly easily, since it's so short. And it has that feel of "you could do this too"; indeed, a lot of people did, to our benefit.

nick said...

The first time I heard Bach, I went to my band teacher and said, "Ach, it's all noise to me. Should I even keep trying?" He responds, "If you're looking for something easy, then no. If you're looking for something important, something that'll change you, then Hell, Yes. I won't lie, you're going to have to work for a few years before you get it, but once you do, you won't just know Bach better--you'll know *music* better."

He was absolutely right. Wouldn't have even attempted jazz (Monk? Miles? Coletrane?!?) if I hadn't made that initial effort.