The latest issue of Fight Club 2 is all about getting clubbed to death. Not really, but Marla does run into a whole bunch of clubs who took their names from riffs on Fight Club that exist in real life, so the pun was inevitable. What does happen though is that Fight Club 2 takes the final plunge in asserting itself as a comic book in the strongest way yet.
Last issue I talked a bit about how Tyler has evolved for Fight Club 2 not just in a way that reflects the cultural changes over the last decade, but to be immediately relevant to his new medium by drawing on the Objectivist undercurrent common to a lot of superhero fiction. This issue takes us on a wild ride of visual and narrative uses of metafiction that have a rich history in superhero comics, so make sure you’ve read the issue before continuing because there’s going to be major turbulence ahead.
The first part is Palahniuk’s appearance which has been building in the story and discussed in press for the series for a while, but Marla’s interruption of his real life writing group is his first direct introduction with the characters, and brief though it may be, still carries a frisson with it. There’s two major ways of going about these kind of interactions in comics, the She-Hulk way and the Animal Man way. In John Byrne’s classic She-Hulk work, she would berate and threaten him in amusing ways, calling on the fact that she’s on a comic page and he’s on the outside of it. Harley Quinn’s made use of a similar approach recently when she hunted down Palmiotti and Conner in last year’s SDCCI special. The other, and more relevant one plays it straight with the characters interacting with the creator in a more serious way, typified by Grant Morrison’s conversation with Buddy at the climax of his Animal Man run. This one is a tougher approach and goes wrong a lot.
Morrison’s entire run on that title had used the relationship between creators and their creations a lot in the build up to that famous conversation, most clearly in the Coyote Gospel issue that set up a loose parody of Wile E. Coyote as being a perpetual martyr with his endless cycle of deaths. What Morrison wanted to make clear, and expand on in that conversation was what higher beings project onto lower beings. It was clearly about Morrison explaining how easily characters can be manipulated to become dogmatic expressions of the creator’s beliefs, using Buddy’s decision to become a vegetarian as an example of Morrison himself doing it, as well as Buddy’s family being killed being the product of Morrison’s grief over losing his cat. But it was also about how people anthropomorphize pets, not only as cartoons, but also in how we ascribe humanity and certain personality traits to our pets.
Palahniuk seems to be taking an opposite approach so far, portraying himself as being dragged into the story by late night calls from Tyler and the kidnapping of one of the dogs owned by a woman in his writing group. When Marla walks into the writing group Palahniuk is reading aloud a version of that scene where Marla enters the room and asks him if he’s God, but she doesn’t do that in this conversation. It’s unclear whether he was reading an early draft of the scene unfolding or if it’s a later scene that we’ll be seeing further down the road. If Marla is aware of who Palahniuk is, she doesn’t show it, simply asking him where her son is instead. Which would probably be her reaction even if she did in fact know who he was and what her relationship to him is. Marla, after all, has always been a person who accepts things as they are. If anything were to come from this particular exchange, it would look a lot more like an invective filled riff on She-Hulk’s attacks on Byrne than Morrison’s stroll with Animal Man. Instead of either, Palahniuk writes an address down for her and sends her on the way, telling her not to call him “unless the plot lags.”
This tip leads Marla to Quilt Club, which she doesn’t seem to realize is the Fight Club women’s auxiliary. It takes a second to kick in, but the house is a perfect replica of the Paper Street one if it had been properly maintained, and there’s a whole gaggle of white women in their twenties and thirties crowded on the porch. As Marla leaves, we see the women drawing assignments just like Sebastian gets at the Paper Street house this issue. There’s not much time to dwell on that new development however, because of the reintroduction of one of two “classic” characters happening alongside it.
“Who could that be lurking outside the house?” I wondered, noting that the large slumping figure seemed to have sagging breasts. Could it be? It is. Robert Paulson is back from the dead, and it appears that it may have been him that lead Marla to Palahniuk, as it seems unlikely that anyone in the actual group would have stuck the poorly spelled note on the door declaring that write club was in session. Which could also be explained by the fact that it appears he’s missing most of the right lobe of his brain. It would have been fun to see Cameron Stewart’s reaction to seeing that in the script. In both the book and film Bob was very dead, especially in the film where the back half of his head spills out on the floor when Sebastian/Jack ripped the ski mask off him, which David Fincher described as “killing the clown,” but in the book he was shot under the same circumstances and presumably buried in the backyard of the Paper Street house.
Given that he returns from the dead in a very comic book way, immediately preceding Palahniuk’s own appearance, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it isn’t coincidental. Whether or not we see this logic spelled out later, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Palahniuk resurrected Bob to even out the odds a bit, especially if my suspicion that Tyler extorted the other returning character from Palahniuk proves to be true.
The other reveal is going to have to go down as one of the greatest of all time. It’s so obvious, so poetic, and yet it never crossed my mind. Sebastian, back inside the Paper Street House, attends his first Fight Club in a decade, only to discover that there’s someone else there who’s been waiting the entire time for a rematch. When he emerges from the shadows, it’s pure Frank Miller. Stewart doesn’t alter his style very much, it’s mostly in the deep shadows and the sudden darkness that surrounds him, but there’s an unmistakable aura of Miller at his peak as an illustrator in what Stewart evokes here and it couldn’t be better placed.
The last time we saw Angelface, Sebastian had beaten him so badly he probably broke his nose and both orbital bones. What we’re told, and what is self evident in Stewart’s gruesome illustration, is that Angelface has been going to Fight Club every week for the last ten years, turning him into exactly the kind of gnarled monster you’d expect to see in a Frank Miller gladiator comic. The fight starts out badly for Sebastian, as one would expect, but he rallied around the fact that if he can muster up a comeback and beat Angelface again. In pro wrestling speak, a hope spot. Angelface stuffs the comeback and the Stewarts dig into their own take on the most vicious and brutal scene in the film.
They’ve recalled elements from the film before like evoking specific imagery like the yin yang coffee table that ended up in the smouldering wreckage of Sebastian’s apartment along with his refrigerator with nothing but condiments in it, but there’s a particular care to invoking the imagery of the film’s Fight Club, right down to the duct taped cardboard lining the floor and the imagery of the blood mask on the floor. Invoking the Angelface fight, though, is the biggest shoes they’ve sought to fill yet.
On the commentary track that Palahniuk recorded with screenwriter Jim Uhls, he described it as “…getting back to just the joy of destroying things. Steinbeck used to write about how little boys would walk miles to break a window in an abandoned house. I went to a party once where they provided hundreds of plates to break against a concrete wall. It was a great party. There’s a joy in breaking things. And it’s not just a guy thing.”
We see that here coming back on Sebastian to be sure, with Angelface getting that joy as comeuppance, but Palahniuk followed up on that statement of it not being just a guy thing when Marla took it to him in the motel room, which we see in flashback again this issue. All the punishment and misdirected anger that Sebastian took out on people the first time around is coming back to him now. Throughout the track that Fincher, Norton, and Carter took part in they repeatedly stressed the importance of how Fight Club was about taking a punch as much if not more so than giving one.
Taken as a whole, it’s hard to argue against that fact, given that the first fight in the film happens when Tyler asks Sebastian to hit him as hard as he can, one of the film’s most notorious quotes, and the pattern repeats itself with most of the fights being about losing, most evident across the montage beginning with Lou beating Tyler and the “homework” assignment that culminates in Sebastian beating himself up in front of his boss. Yet the perceived brutality of the Angelface fight still leaves a lot of audiences with the opposite impression. The reversal of that fight, making the protagonist the subject rather than the object returns the overall focus to where it was originally meant to be, that taken against the whole Sebastian’s drive towards self annihilation was far greater than his urge to destroy. In the current context, it’s not much more than survival.
David Fincher, on his solo commentary track discussed his intent in shooting the scene and how the audience reactions changed according to how it was edited:
“This is a scene that we definitely got into trouble with the censors in Britain. It was funny because they basically found that they thought the beating was too brutal, that it went on too long, and that’s really kind of the point of the scene. The point is that when [Sebastian’s] position with Tyler is challenged by somebody else, he out of jealousy beats this guy. He beats this guy’s face off and I thought it really should be a moment- it made audiences very uncomfortable, but it’s supposed to. It’s supposed to be that scene where you realize there’s, you know, Fight Club isn’t the answer. Fight Club’s gone too far and it’s now become an excuse for him to vent his frustration and rage about all kinds of other things on somebody who’s not in on the joke.
So it was funny, you know, the censors came back and said ‘it made us uncomfortable. We thought the fighting went on too long.’ We were, like, ‘I guess we did our jobs.’ They made us take two shots out or something. Initially there was a lot more pummeling in it, and we showed it to people and they weren’t that disturbed. Then we went back and shot- I just felt like we didn’t have enough of the impact on the other people around them so we shot some inserts of guys going -like Kurt- you know where you see he’s cheering and then he turns his head away, and you have the crowd becoming appalled. So you have this moment where people are cheering, then they’re appalled, then people stop, and then they all move to him. When we put in the reactions of the crowd, all of a sudden people got way more disturbed than they had before. It was almost like by giving them the subtle signposts that said this is wrong, it got their sort of moral ire up. But you know it’s one of those scenes that I think is a powerful scene and it isn’t supposed to be likeable, you know. […] It’s supposed to reaffirm for you that you’ve always thought Fight Club was a little bit questionable, and this is Fight Club and the rules of Fight Club being abused. […] It was amazing to see, you know, if you just showed carnage and mayhem, and people weren’t as disturbed by it as they were when you put in everyone else being appalled.”
So, especially in terms of the film, it’s an incredibly central scene to be returning to and signifying on. One of the things that I do really appreciate about Fight Club 2 is that there’s a clear understanding that the film has a much bigger share of how people conceptualize the narrative than the novel and there’s a willingness to manipulate that to their advantage while maintaining the integrity of the new work. The truth of the matter is that while it’s an absolutely stunning visual sequence, Angelface’s return would have maybe half the impact without the sequence of Edward Norton beating the paste out of Jared Leto and the grotesque prosthetics he wore for the rest of the movie.
Cameron Stewart does, and occasionally, has been doing what I described Annie Wu doing on the last issue of Black Canary. But while Wu draws on a deep reservoir of films and specific shots to play on in order to get the reader’s imagination to go to a specific place and produce a specific kinetic feeling, Stewart reproduces just enough of the setting, the holds, and move progressions from the film’s choreography that the reader fills it in naturally. It’s leveraging a shared memory to create a more intimate experience. I said that Wu raised the bar for Stewart with her work on Black Canary #3 last week, and at the time I couldn’t really think of what he could do on this title to match that, but good luck finding anyone who thought this was going to happen, much less in the way it did.
I opened my Black Canary #3 review with an anecdote about Fell and how Ben Templesmith specifically leveraged the colouring to create a stunningly visceral depiction of violence, which, as it turns out is a bit more specifically relevant to what the Stewarts do here. It sounds a bit crass to sum it up this way, but the basic truth of it is that he hit Sebastian so hard that the colours, inks, and pencils separated. The overall design of the pages is far more complex, but that’s the idea at it’s core and it’s delivered so phenomenally. What’s incredibly important to note here is that that this effectively completes a campaign to engage with comics as a medium in the same hostile metafictional way that the film did.
They slipped subliminal single frames of Tyler into the movie before he appears. When we’re introduced to Tyler’s night job as a projectionist, he points to the upper corner of the frame and a “cigarette burn” appears. When he presents his manifesto and the camera closes in on him, the film appears to speed up and nearly jump the reel, and of course at the very end of the film, it does jump the reel and briefly ends up on one of the single frames of pornography that Tyler used to splice into family films at his projectionist’s job.
There’s so much swimming around in an issue where the writer feels compelled to write himself into the story to intervene and the violence is so intense that the page itself can’t contain it. This sequence makes good on a lot of my early hyperbole about what it means for this narrative to come to comics. There’s no self consciousness or ennui about being in a comic, but the narrative and the team don’t want to have a complacent, comfortable relationship with the medium. They want to push the comic page to it’s breaking point, which is, again, literally what’s depicted.
It’s a delicate sequence to do right, as was the scene in the film it follows up on. David Fincher laid bare the construction of the original and how reception of it changed according to how it was edited as per the above quote, which Palahniuk and the Stewarts clearly understood in constructing this one. We do see the crowd react along with the fight, but this is ultimately less of an issue as the voice of the narrative isn’t the aggressor, it’s the victim. We understand better than ever that there’s no glory here. There’s more of a complication this time around given that Sebastian is, effectively, getting his comeuppance for what he did to Angelface, that he’s a monster of Sebastian’s own creation, but this is also a man who’s walked into Hell to get his son back and perhaps earn redemption for setting all this in motion to begin with.
The sequence, and the issue ends with Sebastian’s ruined face covered by the old Comics Code Authority logo which is a somewhat odd choice since that old lion was shown to be toothless back in the 1980s. It does certainly put the final stamp on the motif of taking the comic page to it’s limit though and there’s no real contemporary analogue if you want to keep it native to the medium.
What’s probably most interesting about this turn of events is that it utterly incapacitates both Tyler and Sebastian in the short term while Marla and her companion from the progeria group continue their tour of African war zones. A shift in focus to her for an issue would definitely be welcome, as she’s really been the breakout star of the series so far. I wouldn’t really say that Marla’s smaller role in the novel or even the film was ever a weak point because the narrative was, and still is, primarily an interrogation of masculinity.
The fact that Marla has risen from having been intended to be morally adjacent to Tyler and Sebastian to being the closest thing the series has to a hero is certainly noteworthy though. It was Marla, at the close of the novel, who pulled Sebastian back from the brink with the help of the support groups they’d been exploiting, so to a certain extent, Marla’s collaboration with the children in the progeria group is a return to form, but in this case we actually get to see it develop and her take an active role in the comic.
Which we seem to see acknowledged in David Mack’s cover this month, depicting Marla in a wedding dress and the signature chemical burn kiss on the back of her hand. It is, of course, also representative of the wider gender scope we see this issue with “Quilt Club” as a front for a female driven aspect of Tyler’s movement. It’s definitely one of Mack’s best covers so far as it returns to the subtler, more quietly unnerving work of his first couple and the lace he uses in the mixed media aspect is perfect at keeping the cover within a narrow colour range while keeping the textures dynamic.
Marla being presented as her own person with her own motivations, whether it was initially cutting Sebastian’s meds in order to have sex with Tyler, or now embarking on an international journey to get her son back, is a big deal and not just within Palahniuk’s work. If there were ever a case for Palahniuk underrepresenting women in his work, it probably should have died at Invisible Monsters, but as it stands now he’s written four novels with female protagonists. The fact is that middle aged women and those approaching it are severely underrepresented in most media, and comics in general have an exceptionally poor track record, especially when considering how aggressively the medium still pursues middle aged men and their concerns. It’s kind of a dark, Palahniuk style joke in and of itself to point out that pretty much every issue of the series so far passes the Bechdel Test.
Fight Club, in every iteration, has always been about a lot more than guys hitting each other, but Fight Club 2 is proving just how much life there is in the story beyond it.
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