Guest Post: Al Ewing on Comics Breaking the Fourth Wall

alewing-thefictionalmanLast month I raved about Al Ewing’s The Fictional Man. I hugely enjoyed it and I really think it might be an award contender for next year’s ballots. If you haven’t picked it up yet, make sure to get it next time you visit your local book store, because it’s really something special. Today I’m happy to bring you a guest post from Al on how comic books breaking the fourth wall affected him. So, take it away, Al!

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Previously on the Blog Tour, I’ve found myself drawn into thoughts of the Reader’s Voice in the humour comics of my youth, and thoughts of Ambush Bug, the American comic that took that easy breakage of the fourth wall and ran with it, creating something rather sublime in the process. But Ambush Bug wasn’t the last American comic to smash the fourth wall, or the last one to make an impression on me in doing so.

I would have been about eleven when Animal Man hit the shelves. He was a character from a bygone era – he’d made his start as the lead in a one-off science fiction tale, a handsome, crew-cut Joe Schmoe who gained some strange animal powers through a convoluted mishap and (as far as I remember) lost them again at the end of the story. Popular demand brought him back for another go-round, at which point he mutated into a costumed hero as was the style at the time. He guest-starred in several titles, with increasingly poetic captions, but never took off. Now he was being given another chance – resurrected for the ‘Post-Crisis’ comics of the late eighties.

‘Post-Crisis’ sounds like the art movement of a doomed world, but actually it’s a reference to one of the many crossovers inherent in superhero fiction – one that had the side-effect of reordering the continuity of the fictional world of DC comics, rebooting all of the major characters with new-ish origins, and leaving the minor ones to muddle along with the occasional flashback detailing how they fitted in now. Animal Man was one of those.

The Crisis that rewrote him also coincided with a new emphasis on making comics ‘not just for kids’ – in some cases this just meant turning Lex Luthor into a fat sex offender, but there was also a real desire to push the medium forward, to try things that hadn’t been tried. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had thrown down the gauntlet with their intricately-structured magnum opus Watchmen, and everyone was wondering what the next big, new thing would be. Into this stew of expectation and desire plopped Animal Man, who as I’ve mentioned was a blonde, buff Hero-with-a-capital-H possessed of generic animal powers. Gorilla strength. Bird flight. That sort of thing. Grant Morrison was the writer – I’d not heard of him, but this was very readable stuff, and my brother, who’d introduced me to Watchmen at the tender age of nine, seemed keen. So I borrowed his copy and dug in.

At first, it was serious comics in the Alan Moore mold – poetic captions, ironic scene transitions. Animal Man doubted himself, listened to REM on his walkman, wore a cool jacket over his costume for the sheer usefulness of having pockets. A fellow old character came back in a ‘not just for kids’ form, and Animal Man had to fight him. After three issues of this, my brother stopped getting it, and while I’d enjoyed the story so far, I didn’t particularly note its absence. A year passed.

During that year, things got interesting. Animal Man started breaking the fourth wall.

But in a way that – there’s no other way to put this – was not just for kids.

It started slowly, with a mission statement of sorts – Wile E. Coyote rising from the slapstick world of cartoons to the more ‘realistic’ world of superheroes. Animal Man couldn’t understand him, and was left baffled and saddened by the bizarre encounter. It could have ended there, as a one-off story, but issue by issue, Animal Man grew more suspicious that there might be a higher reality above him. He noticed how he always seemed to be in places without a clear memory of getting there. Villains were removed from the continuity by higher powers, reduced to thumbnail sketches in front of him. Occasionally, the action would cut to the study where the story was being written.

Eventually, Animal Man took peyote – not just for kids! – and learned the secrets of the universe, and that was the issue where we started reading again. Issue 19. In the middle of it, Animal Man turns around, looks directly up at the reader, and screams “I can see you!”

Previously, the character/reader relationship was friendly, a source of fun. Now, it was a matter of existential horror. I was twelve.

There was a lot more to it than that, of course, but I’m about out of space here, so we’ll continue this at another point on the blog trail. In the meantime, why not go to fictionalman.com, where I think I’m meant to be selling you a book?

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al_ewing-bigBio (taken from the Solaris site): Al Ewing is a major new writer whose work in US and UK comics has seen him hailed as the most exciting new voice in the field. His work for Abaddon Books has been equally lauded and his unique visions of pulp fantasy have found their home in five different novels for Abaddon Books. The Fictional Man is his first novel for Solaris and is one of the list’s most keenly awaited books.

Visit Al’s site for The Fictional Man or follow him on Twitter!

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