Woodrow Phoenix’s “She Lives” – a (fan) experience

On 23rd May 2014, during my second, unplanned visit to the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library, I happened upon the very talented Mr Woodrow Phoenix getting ready to give a live presentation of his monster-sized work, She Lives.   I had no idea these ‘short’ talks were going on, so the whole thing was doubly serendipitous.  All the more so for the fact that what I was treated to was an amazingly tactile and visceral experience.

Being at the front helped.  It meant I was one of the few in the audience that had the distinct privilege of helping to turn the pages, to feel the handmade, embossed cover, to run my fingers over the smooth, shiny expanses of black ink and the knobbly ridges of corrector fluid.  All too often reading comics involves solely visual ingestion of the material – you pick up the comic, you open it, you look at it, read it – its pages are either smooth and glossy or matt and slightly rough – as a printed artefact it is uniformly homogeneous, a processed piece of finished product wherein the story of its production is, if you will, a closed book.  She Lives reminds us – like the illuminated manuscripts that preceded the printing press – that comic books have a double life: on the one hand, a life as a commodity; on the other, a life as a work of art.  It is all the more interesting that Phoenix does not plan to print the book – in an industry that is known (whether rightly or wrongly) to churn out the throw-away and the ephemeral, She Lives will remain a one-of-a-kind, a real work of art – an artefact that refuses to suffer from the losses of reproduction.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

What is also apparent with She Lives is the vast amount of real blood, sweat and tears that went into its making.  It’s physical size is staggering (it’s just under a square metre, it’s width double that when opened).  When you consider that it was hand-bound, embossed, and went through at least 3 previous iterations (as dummy books), the work involved in its creation is all the more impressive.  Stitching together such a large book was a feat in itself (involving much self-puncturing with the needle); and none of the repetitive sequences (totalling about 60 individual panels in a single round) are mechanically reproduced.  All are hand-drawn.  Ink spillages (of which a few were substantial) were painstakingly whited out.  The physical processes involved in bookbinding and embossing demanded much research.  So too did the environments and acts of a 1940’s circus and its performers, which make up the setting of She Lives.

Seeing the comic in its display case is impressive in itself.  But having the chance to read it is something else.  There is no narrative text, no captions or speech bubbles – yet still there is a sense that it is read.  Phoenix’s talk-through focuses mainly on the making-of the piece, which does not interrupt the flow of that reading, but instead augments it with a sense of wonder that such an endeavour was possible at all.  The sheer size of it demands a more leisurely pace in the reading of it, and this affords the chance to appreciate the artistic details of the comic.  Turning the large, heavy pages makes the reading a tactile experience, a communing with a piece of art that made me wonder what it must have felt like for the kings, princes and nobles of yesteryear to leaf through their priceless manuscripts.

This act of reading was carefully crafted by Phoenix himself.  As a document, She Lives plays with concepts of reading a book or comic when there are no words to read.  The physical size and weightiness were intentional experiments in resolving this question, as Phoenix explains:

Because silent comics can paradoxically be very difficult for readers to engage with (many people interpret a silent panel as having no important story content) a comics creator must make readers understand that the pictures do not just support the captions and speech balloons but contain and deliver as much or more information in their own right.

Back in 2002, Marvel tried a silent comic campaign with their ‘Nuff Said event.  My enduring impression of the event was how confusing some sequences were – how you sometimes really had to think what on earth was going on.  She Lives doesn’t suffer from that.  There is an elegant flow to the panels and action, no doubt thanks to the meticulous thought, effort and time that went into its making (time that the Marvel guys probably didn’t have the luxury of).  Size and weight prove to be brilliant strategies in pacing the reader, in guiding their journey through the book. “In order to hold the reader’s attention,” Phoenix says, “and to direct their gaze, my strategy was to present them with a large surface and heavy paper that would  have the effect of slowing the reader down and making them stay on the page longer, to look more closely at what the page contains.” It was clear, from the reactions of those at the page-turning event, that the strategy also increased readers’ sense of immersion and wonder.

On a more personal level, what struck me about She Lives is that it is a fan work.  I’m aware that the term has derogatory connotations attached to it; words such as derivative and even intertextual, which have been applied to concepts of fan work, imply a somehow subordinate role to the original material that a fan work may be based on (Derecho, 2006).  The point is that She Lives proves that such works can be both original and of high quality.  Set in the late 1940’s, it takes up the story of the Bride of Frankenstein, giving one of those continuations of a closed off plot that fans so enjoy playing with (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Derecho, 2006; Jenkins, 2013 [1992]).  Everything about the comic – from the lavish attention to detail, to the sense of motion in its panels, to its visceral physicality – pays testament to the love Phoenix has for his subject matter, to his desire to explore beyond the boundaries the 1935 movie presents.

Still from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that Phoenix himself does not see his piece as fan work, or even as a tribute.  “This story was inspired by the ending of Bride of Frankenstein, but I don’t think of it as a fan tribute,” he says in an email conversation with me. “It’s more like I’m using something that was discarded. The titular character only appears in the film for two minutes and she dies without speaking, having barely done anything… There’s nothing to her as a character apart from a fabulous visual design.” And, according to Phoenix, it was that visual design that prompted him to continue her story:

I would occasionally wonder about what could have happened with her had she lived. And then one day an image occurred to me of her sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. I thought it might make a good short story: the bride of Frankenstein had survived the explosion but had no function, no purpose or place to be, and was living in a trailer or a motel somewhere in Glendale, California.

This thought led him to the backdrop of She Lives – to “the idea [of] a freak or outcast who hides amongst other freaks”.  The circus seemed to be a natural extension of that; and once the idea had started rolling, the Bride character was no longer strictly needed.  Nevertheless, Phoenix kept her as a sort of ‘anchor’ for the reader, not simply as a striking visual motif, but as an “extra resonance” to those who would recognise who she was.  To other viewers or fans of The Bride of Frankenstein, the story would be enriched, as the Bride brings with her a cultural and narrative baggage that adds a dimension to her character (and the story) that a non-viewer or non-fan might be bereft of.  Her presence is not necessary, but for those in the know it provides a powerful story in its own right.

Even though Phoenix doesn’t self-identify as a fan artist per se, She Lives encapsulates several of the aspects that drive fans to create – the closed or unfulfilled plot that is rich for further development; the attraction to a certain character; the persistence of an image, plot point, or character trait that demands further exploration (Derecho, 2006).

As a piece of art, She Lives is an immensely satisfying work, beautiful, tactile, absorbing.  As a comic, it is compelling, perfectly paced, painstakingly plotted, wonderful to look at.  As a fan work, it is one of the best examples, even if Woodrow Phoenix did not intend it to be so.  As a fan of the original film, one must certainly feel a thrill when such an iconic and beloved character reveals herself and demonstrates a continuing life beyond the four walls of the movie that once enmeshed her.

And that is what fan works are really all about – feeling a character, and bringing that character once more to life.

* Future She Lives page-turning events with artist Woodrow Phoenix take place on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 at 6pm, and Tuesday 12th August at 3pm, at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.

References

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006). Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction. In: Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., ed. 2006. Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson, North Carolina; London: McFarland.  Ch 1.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
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My British Library Doctoral Open Day for Digital Research Experience

I am ashamed to say that Christmas and New Year’s was a very fallow period for me as far as reading and research went.  Luckily, my lovely family and friends bought me a whole slew of fan studies/information science related books (plus a book on Dewey, the Library Cat) with which to expand (or confuse) my mind in the coming weeks.  I will now have to force myself to go against the grain and not be the voracious reader, which is my general inclination.  I must learn to skim read properly now, otherwise I may well have a nervous breakdown.

Anyhow, in order to alleviate any feelings of guilt that may have welled up in me during my study-free holiday period, I attended the doctoral open day for digital research at the British Library, which proved to be enlightening on more than one level.

As soon as I arrived I was able to speak to some very interesting fellow researchers and academics who were happy to share hints, tips and experiences with me.  They always tell you networking is a huge part of doing your doctoral research, but honestly… I have never exchanged so many Twitter follows in one day as I did today.  It is amazing how much in common you can find with other students who are researching completely disparate fields from your own, and one another.  I really learned to keep my ears to the ground and my mind open.  You never know what you might find out that’s of potential use.  Serendipity is a great finding aid.

Of course the purpose of the day was to concentrate on digital research, and this involved some excellent talks and some group exercises that encouraged us to get into groups and come up with a project plan  based on some digital sources and tools.  The plan had to be formulated in 30 minutes and presented in two.  What was amazing was how quickly our group was able to pool our resources and skills in order to come up with a research project that all of us were interested in actually looking into.

It was also rewarding in that I finally got a straight answer as to what Digital Humanities actually is (via King’s Andrew Prescott).  To paraphrase him: “The digital humanities is concerned with the use of computing tools in the humanities and the arts.  It is the sociology of knowledge.  It is cross-disciplinary.  It is the way we use computers in the humanities and the arts.”

Some other impressions I got of DH:

  • It has fuzzy edges.  For example, it has embraced social media and videogaming into its midst, even though these are not traditionally humanities or arts subjects: DH is trans-disciplinary.
  • It integrates technology and theory; computers and people.
  • It incorporates all types of media.
  • It makes use of both traditional art and data visualisation.

I may be wrong about all this (which wouldn’t surprise me, considering the fact that I read the entirety of Introduction to Digital Humanities and still had a very nebulous idea of what it was).  But I feel I actually have a handle on what it is now.  This is a very good thing as my research question just happens to be cross-disciplinary and therefore DH should be quite pertinent to my studies.  Fan cultural artefacts are, after all, analogue as well as digital objects, although they are increasingly more digital than they were in the days of fanzines and newsletters.  For example – many pieces of fan art start life as a paper sketch; many born-digital fanfictions are printed out in an analogue form so that readers may have a physical copy.  Fan practices such as ‘gifting’ (creating fan-related works to give to other fans or friends) often involves the exchanging of physical objects.  Lastly, fandoms themselves are ‘multi-disciplinary’, covering everything from comics to cult TV to videogames and manifesting themselves both online (e.g. on social media) and offline (e.g. fan conventions).  Taken in this light, DH seems to be a good fit.

British Library Labs aims to aid scholars in their digital research by opening up their digital archives for exploration and investigation.  This includes audio and visual data, and I am quite interested to see whether fan works are a part of those digital collections, and whether the history of fan information behaviours can begin to be mapped.

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