“There are no works, there are only auteurs.”
In 1954, François Truffaut coined the phrase la politique des auteurs. So-called “auteur theory” is an ideologically individualist approach to film criticism that reformed both academic and popular approaches to cinema. Without undue digression, auteur theory can be understood as simply the idea that films are best understood and analyzed as the work of a distinct individual artist, usually the director, rather than as a collaborative effort.
André Bazin, Truffaut’s contemporary and co-founder of the influential French publication Cashiers du Cinema, at one point argued persuasively for a more sociological approach to film theory. But ultimately, auteur theory has come to define the way we structure our fundamental understanding of filmmaking.
A forthcoming comic book from Oni Press explores these ideas in a way that feels both casually intellectual and rousingly fun. Written by Rick Spears with art by James Callahan, The Auteur follows the struggles of Nathan T. Rex, a Hollywood producer on the verge of creative, emotional, and professional breakdown.
Rex bears a striking physical resemblance to the legendary Ed Wood, as does his frenetic approach to moviemaking. The parallel is perfect. Quite like Wood, it’s hard to tell whether Rex’s erratic behavior is the result of delusional caprice or singular vision. And like Tim Burton’s eponymously titled biopic, Rex’s predicament speaks volumes to the joys of and inherent limits to vesting unfettered creative control in one individual.
From the very first page, I knew that The Auteur was something special. The opening sequence is a visual depiction of David Lynch’s essential statement on artistic inspiration. Lynch said,
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re beautiful. Everything, anything that is a thing, comes up from the deepest level. Modern physics calls that level the Unified Field. The more your consciousness – your awareness – is expanded, the deeper you go toward this source, and the bigger fish you can catch.”
As the comic begins, we watch Rex swim down through layers of Lynch’s epistemic/aesthetic construct. “I seek the truth,” Rex says. His movement penetrates the integrity of the page’s individual panels, communicating a brilliant sense of travel through the layers of our symbolic order. After swimming through myriad trivial cinematic signifiers, Rex reaches his idea in an astonishing double splash page that showcases Spears’s sense of comic irreverence and Callahan’s violently gonzo ability.
Spears’ writing is smooth and humorous. He paces the first issue briskly, bringing us through disorienting sequences signaling Rex’s inner turmoil and then slowing things down with pithy anchoring dialogue. The issue is also packed with nods to the expansive world of cinema, including a much-appreciated Cashiers reference.
Callahan’s art fully owns the characters’ body language and facial expressions while in conversation. But his pencils really sing when Spears steps back and lets him run wild, most notably in a hallucinatory sequence ending in the preview issue’s epiphanic climax. His confident lines separate skin from bone and brain from skull with playful élan, as he gives the book an uncompromising aesthetic that is both savagely adult and ticklishly childlike.
Lastly, I cannot overlook such skillful work by colorist Luigi Anderson. His bright solid colors make Callahan’s most shocking imagery really pop, igniting his profound visuals with balance and attitude. In a pointed exchange between Rex and a villainous studio executive, Anderson’s use of alternating background colors lend a wonderful adversarial air to the confrontation. The colors really tie the book together.
In short, I haven’t been this excited, or impressed by, a new comic in a long time.
It’s clear to me that Spears, Callahan and Anderson are in completely in synch with each other, sharing a perverted vision grounded in an understanding of what comic books can do and why they’re important.
At a time where the comic book world is interfacing with the cinematic world at an unprecedented (and practically unwelcome) level, The Auteur is here to help advance the art of serialized graphic fiction for its own sake. The Auteur is the anti-Mark Millar, because although this new title is about moviemaking, it’s not about making a movie. It’s about making an incredible comic.
The Auteur hits stores March 5, 2014.