Caped crusaders, parasitic costumes, and the Baroque fold of comic book artist Todd McFarlane.
Where and how can we identify the fold? Deleuze writes that “the fold can be recognized first of all in the textile model of the kind implied by garments: fabric or clothing has to free its own folds from its usual subordination to the finite body it covers. If there is an inherently Baroque costume, it is broad, in distending waves, billowing and flaring, surrounding the body with its independent folds, ever-multiplying, never betraying those of the body beneath … vested doublets, flowing cloaks, enormous flaps, overflowing shirts, everything that forms the great Baroque contribution to clothing of the seventeenth century.” (D 121)
Todd McFarlane is a comic book artist who rose to prominence in the early 1990’s while drawing for the Spider-Man series, but is probably most widely known for creating the character Spawn, pictured above. McFarlane cultivated an idiosyncratic visual style with distinctly Baroque aspects: incredible amounts of detail are always paid to the pleats and folds of the capes and cloaks of elaborate costumes. Like most traditional comic book artists, McFarlane expends more than enough time emphasizing the exaggerated physique and musculature of the comic book hero, but in a break from other artists, he often focuses as much if not more visual detail on these sartorial adornments, often to the point where they obscure or deemphasize the typical superhero body.
In McFarlane’s worlds, characters are defined not simply by their bodies and abilities but by the way they are framed and enveloped by costumes that create an interiority around the character, a point of inflection between the hero and the outside world, a kind of second skin that often imbues the hero with their special powers.
Describing Johann Joseph Christian’s Saint Jerome, Deleuze writes “A supernatural breeze … turns the cloak into a billowing and sinuous ribbon that ends by forming a high crest over the saint.” (D 122) In a way he could almost be describing this McFarlane rendering of Spawn:
But McFarlane’s Baroque pleated costumes are not simply superfluous visuals. Deleuze: “in every instance folds of clothing acquire an autonomy and a fullness that are not simply decorative effects.” (D 122) Indeed, Spawn’s costume is not simply decoration but is in fact the source of his superpowers: capable of shape-shifting and providing him with inhuman strength. The costume is in fact autonomous: a semi-sentient being with a will of it’s own. “Spawn had become aware that his costume was not merely clothing, but a living symbiote with a life of its own. He was able to control it to an extent, but it often acted without his will.” (Spawnworld.com)
An even more poignant example of the autonomy of the fold in the comic world of McFarlane is Venom: an arch-enemy of Spider-Man co-created by McFarlane and first introduced in the mid-1990’s. Venom is essentially a costume, but is also a full character with its own individuality. It is a parasite from another planet that cannot live on its own and seeks out hosts with which it merges, taking on and enhancing the properties of the host. Venom is drawn to Spider-Man because of all the hero’s well-known powers.
The Venom suit literally enfolds Spider-Man, creating an interiority for itself that is nevertheless still outside of the host – a new soul that the host’s inner soul must struggle to resist, as Spider-Man fights to assert himself and free himself from the parasite. How many monads should we count in this schema? Spider-Man, Venom, Spider-Man-as-Venom, perhaps also Venom-post-Spider-Man given that the costume acquires some of the hero’s powers, others? Deleuze writes that even elements like water can themselves be creased: “skintight fabric will still be a watery fold that reveals the body far better than nudity … the spiderweb of the whole body, including the face.” (D 122) In the drama that transpires, the risk was that our hero could have failed. As Venom took over it made itself seem more and more appealing to the interior soul. For a moment the two souls were in accord. Ultimately of course Spider-Man frees himself from his enemy, causing the parasite to go in search of other hosts, which he finds and overtakes in turn, and the comic book drama continues. As Deleuze writes, they “do not allow the differences of inside and outside, of public and private, to survive. They identify variation and trajectory, and overtake monadology with a ‘nomadology’.”
But why this obsession with the living costume in Todd McFarlane’s work? Perhaps he is expressing a certain monadology. The world exists, populated with individuals, pleated souls that express and are expressed in their world; but McFarlane then folds all of this into another – aliens from other planets (Venom) or other dimensions (the Spawn suit is said to be from hell itself) are costumes with their own individuated interiority that they then enfold around our protagonists. The heroes draw their power by being selected and enwrapped in this way, by becoming enfolded into a second higher world. But where have we seen this before? Aren’t nearly all superheroes already pleated in this way? Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker, Superman is Clark Kent. Perhaps the most common trope in the comic book universe is that the hero is the alternate identity – the caped avenger and the mild mannered regular guy – the superhero already stands in for this pleat in the individual. McFarlane is simply doing it again – a kind of higher order repetition of this pattern that enfolds the fold in another, and suggests a repeating of the monadological folding to infinity.
Deleuze writes: “if we want to test the definition of the Baroque – the fold to infinity … we must dig into the everyday recipes or modes of fashion that change a genre.” (D 122) And indeed, the wildly creative and innovative visual and narrative experiments of Todd McFarlane were in many ways genre-changing comic book worlds that succeed at demonstrating precisely that.
– Rory Solomon
“Al Simmons | Spawn Encyclopedia | SpawnWorld”, n.d. http://www.spawnworld.com/encyclopedia/alsimmons.htm.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold : Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Koulish, Robert. “Spiderman’s Web and the Governmentality of Electronic Immigrant Detention.” Law, Culture and the Humanities (2012). http://lch.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/02/02/1743872111433376.abstract