TELL, DON’T SHOW: THE DARWYN COOKE LESSON
Erich Auerbach is no help to us in this discussion.
Auerbach, author of the name-dropped-if-not-widely-read scholarly book “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,” from 1953, spends the entirety of his lengthy analysis breaking down the different types of mimesis in literature from the Old Testament to Virginia Woolf. He doesn’t clearly define “mimesis,” however, and though he explores the different forms of it over the years, the different approaches taken by writers of various eras, he doesn’t contrast it with anything else. He doesn’t say, “this is mimesis, while this other thing isn’t.” At least not in any useful way. All he does is analyze its existence and describe it in action. Again, and again, and again.
So why do I bring up Auerbach, then, if I say he’s no help? Well, he’s the big gun in the world of mimetic inquiry, and we’re required to mention him in every examination of fictional representations of reality. It’s in our contract. And he does offer us a guide, a way of looking at mimesis, even if he doesn’t reach any useful conclusions. But his analytical approach, breaking down the syntax of a narrative scene, works. We can apply it to comics. So that’s what we’ll do.
First, let’s not assume, as Auerbach does, that you’re fully aware of the history of the word “mimesis” in literary scholarship. Thus, a brief definition, by way of a sanitized and simplified Aristotle (we’re contractually obligated to mention his name too, in these kinds of chats): mimesis is the representation of “reality” in a work of literature. It’s the “show,” as opposed to “tell.” The “tell,” would be diegesis.
In literary terms, when Herman Melville writes the Quarter-Deck chapter in “Moby-Dick,” and we “see” and “hear” Ahab nail the doubloon to the mast and lead the crew in a chant of “death to Moby-Dick,” via Melville’s prose, that’s mimesis. He’s showing us what happens in that fictional world, which may or may not be an extreme exaggeration of what we accept to be reality. It’s not the verisimilitude that makes it mimetic, it’s the act of showing as opposed to telling.
In that same book, when the narrator, who we know by the name Ishmael, provides a chapter-long discourse on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and all its historical and symbolic connotations, Melville is employing diegesis.
Your middle school English teacher probably told you, at some point, “show, don’t tell,” in your creative writing exercises. She could have said, “employ the memetic mode more often than the diegetic,” and it would have meant the same thing, but you can imagine why she didn’t phrase it that way. You had yet to be schooled in your ancient Greek literary terms.
It’s good advice, right? Show, don’t tell?
It’s the advice, for example, Richard Kelly should have followed with his “Donnie Darko Director’s Cut,” a version of the film that replaced the haunting, empty, evocative spaces in his debut movie with leaded exposition and actual text that described the “physics” of time travel, much to the detriment of the story. The original theatrical release was almost all show and no tell, and that gave it significant narrative power. By adding the tell, Kelly explained more, provided more answers, but upended the balance of the story and sapped its power. Turns out that that ten or so extra minutes of tell was far more than the narrative could support.
But then there are plenty of exceptions, where the diegetic technique overwhelms the story and yet its still a satisfying experience. Great American Novelist Don DeLillo may not have written a masterpiece since 1997’s “Underworld,” but he has certainly written his share of them, and the quality of his fiction relies almost entirely on his use of diegesis. His novels are essays couched in narrative, and while the emotional impact of Jack Gladney’s fractured family in “White Noise” may not linger, the incisive post-consumer monologue about the packaging of supermarket items or the virtuoso, near-anthropological analysis of the comings-and-goings of college students might have left its mark.
Diegesis is also the primary mode of pretty much everything Rick Geary has ever written and drawn. His “Treasury of [fill-in-the-blank] Murder” volumes tell more than they show. Or they show what they tell, which amounts to practically the same thing.
Yes, I’ll take a stand on that, and say that when these terms are applied to comics, mimesis means any sequence that involves words and pictures without any (or with very little) narrative captions. Diegesis, in comics, would refer to those sequences that use narrative captions to tell what happens, and then provide images showing more detail on what is described in the narration. Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” would be a work of, primarily, diegesis. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” even though it is framed by a narration, would be primarily a work of mimesis. Perhaps you like one more than the other, and maybe the diegesis/mimesis difference is one reason why.
So what does any of that have to do with Darwyn Cooke?
You may have figured it out already. I’m going to talk about mimesis and diegesis in Cooke’s visual exploration of the crime genre – the tough guys and the dames, the firearms and briefcases full of money, the violence and the quiet heroism – yes, I’m talking about Darwyn Cooke’s famed graphic novella, “The Private Eye,” published in 1985.
Oh, wait, you thought I was going to write about “The Outfit,” that high-end, bookstore-worthy 2010 hardcover that everyone else is talking about? Yeah, I’ll mention that too, a bit.
But first, “The Private Eye”!
Okay, it’s not officially a graphic novella, whatever that would mean, it’s just a five-page story in DC’s “Talent Showcase” #19 (the final issue of a series that was called “New Talent Showcase” a few issues before – they must have run out of new talent, I suppose, besides Darwyn Cooke). It’s Cooke’s first published comic book story, as far as I know, and, last time I checked, it wasn’t even mentioned in his Wikipedia entry.
It doesn’t look anything like the work of “Darwyn Cooke,” as we’ve come to know him, but if you hadn’t purchased this particular comic in 1985 (and, honestly, few had, or it wouldn’t have been cancelled), then your idea of Darwyn Cooke would have been, “that guy who did some Batman animated stuff and then ‘Batman: Ego,’ and has kind of a cartoony style and, oh yeah, he did that ‘New Frontier’ thing about the JLA, and then went off and made artsy crime books for IDW after he got frustrated with how poorly his ‘Spirit’ comic sold.” That’s pretty much everyone’s idea of Darwyn Cooke, with a few variations of adjectives thrown in at whatever their favorite project happened to be.
But no, he began with a five-page, wordless crime comic in “Talent Showcase” #19. (Which, for the record, also included such now-completely-forgotten talent as Daryl Skelton, Darren Auck and Dennis Yee. I guess the theme for the issue was “guys whose first names begin with ‘D.'”)
Cooke’s “The Private Eye” doesn’t stand out as substantially better than the rest of the comics in the issue. It stands out because of its silence and its notable use of shadows and panel size to control pacing, but the drawings are raw and inconsistent from page to page. But, boy, it’s mimetic as hell. The lack of narrative captions will do that, of course.
It opens with a splash page showing the floating letters of a ransom note: “Ten thou in small bills – or the girl dies,” a looming mystery man with a briefcase, a speeding red car and the title of the story. Cooke packs the entire set-up for the conflict into a single image on a single page. It’s not a great-looking image – the folds on the man’s coat don’t quite work, and the text of the title overlaps the image a bit inelegantly – but it is still a striking opening composition.
Page two and three give us the rhythmic approach of the Private Eye toward the location of the kidnapped girl. The flashlight he’s holding guides us through a montage of images: a purse on the floorboards, the corner of a picture window, a single stiletto heel near a cracked wall. Then the look of surprise on the protagonists face before we cut back to a flashlight-lit image of a girl tied down on the floor. Close-up to him flipping the light switch.
That kind of pattern of moment-to-moment transitioning continues throughout the final three pages, and though Cooke jams up to 14 panels per page into his story, he tells it nearly frame-by-frame. The kidnapper is revealed, guns are drawn, the Private Eye gets knocked on the head, a fire is lit by the kidnapper.
One of the major twists of the story is underplayed as the P.I. grabs the sheet from under the kidnapper and flips him, and the can of gas, into the flame. But only a close look at the panels reveal the Private Eye’s tiny hands in the corner of the image, pulling on the sheet, causing the accidental self-immolation. It’s a rookie storytelling mistake – not emphasizing the action of the hero, just the results of what he does – and it nearly sabotages the whole story, but Cooke pulls it off in the end, even in his not-nearly-close-to-fully-formed style. The hero saves the girl by throwing her, and himself, though a window. They stride toward the car in darkness as the kidnapper’s cabin, and the money, burns in the background.
If you were to look at the pages without seeing Cooke’s name on the first page, there’s nothing to identify it, at least stylistically, as the work of Darwyn Cooke. The drawings look nothing like his current style – they are closer to early David Mazzucchelli than anything else – and the pacing and page layouts are unrecognizable. Almost.
Because there is something about his use of insert shots of objects and cuts back to close-ups that resembles his current work on the Parker books. And while his work for DC tended to have a more “widescreen” look – particularly “New Frontier,” which was three horizontal panels per page almost all the way through the story – his work on “The Hunter” and now “The Outfit” have shown his facility with multiple small panels on a page. And though the rhythm of the scenes are different now, with more happening between panels than in “The Private Eye,” the focus on fragmented, symbolic moments or objects reminds us of what he did 25 years ago, in his first comic.
So, yes, “The Private Eye” is pure mimesis, a step-by-step representation of the reality of the story. It shows everything and tells nothing. We don’t even know who the guy really is, though we assume he’s the title character, and we don’t know where he got the money or why the girl is worth it. Does it matter? Nope. We see the story unfold, and that’s all there is.
But with “The Outfit,” Cooke goes diegetic. Even more than any of his previous work, and “The Hunter” contained a bit of it, but not nearly as much as we see here. “The Outfit” thrives in the diegetic mode. It turns out that as good as Cooke is when he’s showing, he’s even better when he steps back and starts telling.
“The Outfit” lends itself to diegesis, not just because it’s an adaptation of a novel which features a strong narrative voice. That, actually, was one of the problems with “The Hunter,” as good as it was. Cooke seemed to hold the work of Donald Westlake (or Richard Stark) in such high regard that he became to precious about the novel he was adapting. “The Hunter” reads like an adaptation, it feels constrained by it, so the graphic novel never breathes the way it needs to feel alive.
“The Outfit” feels alive, vibrant, not because Cooke abandons his apparent adoration of Westlake’s prose, but because Cooke becomes more playful with it. Let me put it this way: “The Hunter” seemed like Cooke was telling a second-hand version of a story he heard Westlake tell. “The Outfit” seems like Westlake is playing a tune, and Cooke has come in to jam with him.
And though “The Outfit” has many mimetic sequences, several of them wordless, just like “The Private Eye” – handled with more stylistic flair and the confidence to show just what’s important to the emotion or plot revelations of a scene, rather than all the small details that would ground it in reality as we know it – the best bits of “The Outfit” are the moments, the full sequences, where Cooke rides the diegetic wave along with language straight from Westlake. And he tells.
The telling takes the form of the descriptions of a series of heists with Cooke using a different style for each. One’s an illustrated short story, heavy with text. One’s like a UPA cartoon, rich with captions. One’s near-storyboard which breaks off into a comic strip. And one’s practically a manual, with diagrams like you’d see in Will Eisner’s “PS, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly.”
And that section of the book – almost all diegetic, shifting into a “sit back kids and watch a master show you how to use comics to tell” mode – is the most powerful, most engaging, most exciting part of “The Outfit.” It upends the “show, don’t tell” maxim and illustrates how wrongheaded that advice can be.
It’s a long way from “The Private Eye,” and it knows it. “The Outfit” does end like that story from 25 years ago, with the hero in shadows, but it’s a more reluctant stride, as if this guy wants to stay and play for a while, no matter how dangerous it might be.
“What the hell,” Cooke tells us, via Westlake, through Parker, “…it’s not like anyone would recognize him.”
In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan
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