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Saints be praised?
Broken Saints by Brooke Burgess, Andrew West and Ian Kirby
DVD version (4 discs) $39.98 from http://bs.brokensaints.com/dvd/
Online version from http://bs.brokensaints.com/
discussed by Edward Picot
Broken Saints is an animated comic of epic proportions, devised, directed, written and produced by Ian Burgess, drawn by Andrew West and with Flash effects by Ian Kirby. It appeared online in January 2001, and having built up a cult following it has now spawned two DVD versions, the latest of which is distributed by Fox. It comes in twenty-four episodes, which get longer as the story builds to its climax, many of the later ones being subdivided into three or more chapters. There are also accompanying Flash games. The amount of sheer hard work which must have gone into creating the story is mind-boggling, and as Burgess confesses, the episodes came out further and further apart as the series went along:
it began as every 2-3 weeks... then stretched to 4, then 6, then 8, then 10, then 12, and finally 16 WEEKS for the 90 minute/7-part series finale. All in all, it was three years of work...
Broken Saints tells the story of four characters from different corners of the world, whose paths converge in the USA, where they uncover a vast world-domination conspiracy organised by a bio-technology company called BioCom. The total running-time is about twelve hours - longer than Wagner's Ring cycle - and as a matter of fact Broken Saints resembles Wagnerian opera in a number of other respects too: the slowness with which the story progresses, the persistent use of religious language and symbolism, the prolonged and virtually-static confrontational setpieces or tableaux, and the highly-mannered style in which the characters address one another, often making long and poetic speeches which are tantamount to arias. One of them actually starts to talk in rhyme towards the end of the story.
Realistic it isn't, but then again its artificiality places it squarely within the comic-book tradition, which is often surprisingly wordy for what is supposed to be a lowbrow and sensationalist form. In comic books it is commonplace, for example, for the protagonists to make long speeches, either to each other or themselves, whilst engaged in combat, and Broken Saints is true to this aspect of the genre - here is Raimi, one of the four main characters, talking to himself as he rushes forwards to smash a piece of glass over somebody's head:
"Oh God, I think I understand. But is it worth the risk? Is it worth my life? She said that everybody needs to believe in something. So, at this moment, with a burning chest and bleeding gums, with eyes failing and feet possessed, with a light shining on the mystery's edge, and with the fuel of true friendship - at this moment - I believe in myself!"
In a graphic novel a soliloquy of this kind, odd and misplaced as it may seem to anyone unused to the form, often serves the important structural purpose of slowing down the action at a crucial moment. The artificiality of this technique is not without parallels in other genres - opera (as I have already mentioned), spaghetti Western, gothic writing (such as Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy), and tragedy of the Shakespearean/Senecan type. All of these forms, rather than attempt to reproduce our real-life experiences of extreme tension or frantic action - a welter of simultaneous occurrences, a confusion of the thoughts and senses - prefer to stretch them out, formalise them and embellish them, in order to extract their maximum impact and significance; and Broken Saints does the same. Senecan tragedy is also a useful point of reference for Broken Saints because it shares the same preoccupation with bloody violence, particularly violence within the family. At the end of Broken Saints a deranged father pulls out one of his daughter's eyes, wires up her brain to the Internet and hangs her on a crucifix made out of computer monitors as part of his attempt to achieve world-domination: a climax so lurid and grotesque that even Seneca might have found it hard to outdo.
The above quotation from Raimi illustrates some other points about the style in which Broken Saints is written. For one thing, rather than being syntactically incoherent, as we might expect from someone involved in a fight, it is actually a highly-structured piece of rhetoric. This is most evident in its use of repetition: "is it worth... is it worth..."; "at this moment... at this moment..."; and "with a burning chest... with eyes failing... with a light shining... with the fuel of true friendship..." For another thing, the language used within that syntactical structure is metaphorical and literary rather than colloquial in tone ("with eyes failing and feet possessed", for example). Raimi, the character speaking here, is a young computer expert, and in some scenes he comes relatively close to talking like an ordinary everyday person: but at moments of high tension he, like all of the other characters in Broken Saints, inclines more and more towards the lofty and elaborate, even the Biblical, in his outpourings. Thirdly, the passage suggests both that some kind of mystery is being uncovered ("I think I undestand... a light [is] shining on the mystery's edge") and that Raimi is achieving some kind of spiritual breakthrough ("I believe in myself!"). In this respect it typifies Broken Saints as a whole, because the whole narrative is constantly suggesting that a huge mystery is being unfolded, and that this mystery is more than just a political or technological conspiracy: it is religious and metaphysical too, and the main characters in the story are all seeking not only to find out what is going on, but to achieve spiritual redemption in one way or another.
It has to be said that there are times when the writing in Broken Saints goes beyond the lofty and artificial into the downright laughable: "My brain floats like a dumpling swollen in a sea of adrenaline", for example, or the following description of city buildings: "They thrust into the gaping womb of twilight and copulate with the stars". The plot structure is also open to question, incorporating numerous incidents which either have very little to do with the central plot (the Oriental priest, Kamimura, being glimpsed naked in the bathroom of an airoplane by a female fellow-passenger) or which simply beggar belief (the main female character, Shandala, causing her adopted brother Lui to fall backwards over a boat-rail into the sea, where he is promptly devoured by sharks).
Most of these questionable moments appear early in the story, however: in the later episodes the plot-development becomes more coherent and gripping. Brooke Burgess does have certain powerful literary techniques at his disposal, and he applies them more and more assiduously as the story progresses: cliffhanger chapter-endings, dark hints of secrets yet to be disclosed, and a relentless racking-up of atmosphere and tension. Other aspects of Broken Saints seem to follow the same developmental curve, from the amateurish to the accomplished. Much of the drawing early on is scribbly and flimsy, with people sprouting muscles and bones in unlikely places, faces looking completely different from one panel to the next, and a cat like a malformed monkey; whereas the artwork in the later episodes is much more solid, consistent and selfconfident, a trend which is carried even further in the DVD version of the story, as the DVD excerpts available on the Broken Saints website show. The Flash effects are reasonably proficient throughout, but towards the end they become noticeably bolder and more cinematic: images are projected onto multiple computer screens, we zoom inside a three-dimensional map of the BioCom building, we watch communication satellites orbiting the earth, helicopters fly in silhouette towards a desert camp, and so on. The work as a whole, in other words, seems to show the three main members of the Broken Saints team learning their craft as they go along, and it ends much more strongly than it begins. This is really no surprize, since Andrew West was 19 when the series started and Ian Kirby was 18. Burgess himself was 30, but had no previous experience of writing a story/screenplay on anything like this scale.
But although certain stylistic aspects of Broken Saints developed as the series progressed, other elements were in place from the beginning: for example the development of onscreen games to accompany the story; the use of a different "signature" piece of background music for each of the four main characters (most of the music, incidentally, is by Brooke Burgess' cousin Tobias Tinker); the dark and brooding look of the Broken Saints website; the fragmented-metal lettering; and the literary quotations which appear at the beginning and end of every episode. Most important of all was the decision to think big: to tell a long, complex and ambitious mystery story in multiple instalments, building to a climax over a period of months or years, and to sell it as a blockbuster, complete with its own tagline - "What would you give to know the truth?". The way Brooke Burgess talks about Broken Saints makes it clear that from the beginning he thought of the project not only in terms of telling a story, but of establishing a brand image and building an audience. When it came to publicising the series, he explains, he was working to a predefined plan:
a clear, 'unified brand' (specific logos, tagline, imagery, and no ads to clutter the message or confuse readers); a unique style that fused videogames, comics, anime, and film...all the types of entertainment that fell within our potential demographic... a wide media strategy... a comic book, game, and live-action experience that would expand the universe or 'bible' of the series, and appeal not only to our core audience, but also attract new viewers.
Burgess submitted the series for numerous awards, and it carried off a good number of them, including the 2003 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Online Animation. The three main members of the Broken Saints team have assiduously attended conventions, communicated with fans and made themselves available for interviews in order to build and retain their audience.
Brooke Burgess himself was working in the video-game industry prior to Broken Saints, and even though he eventually gave up the job because he felt that it was stifling his creativity, his experience of such a highly-commercialised environment undoubtedly influenced the development of the series. For one thing there was never any question of trying to develop it on a spare-time basis. Burgess, West and Kirby managed to get some sponsorship from a local firm, Switch Interactive, which covered their website costs and helped them through the first six episodes. After that, they put their own money into the project and scrounged extra finance off friends and family. Eventually all their efforts paid off: "The site has been visited by over 5 million people since launching in January 2001," writes Brooke Burgess. Broken Saints has also picked up a good deal of attention from the mainstream media (Wired magazine, Village Voice and ITV-UK's "Web Review", amongst others). The independent DVD version which came out at the end of 2004 sold nearly 10,000 units, and now that the new DVD version is out, "with another revamp and mainstream studio backing (FOX)", Burgess says "we're hoping to sell as many as 50-100K worldwide." Fox, he explains "was one of three distributors that approached us at last year's Comicon, and after several months of negotiations, they made the best offer... We received a licensing royalty from [them], as well as a small amount to assist them with remastering. But we still own the rights to the property - Fox is only distributing the DVD, and perhaps getting involved with the mobile side of things."
Whether Broken Saints is your cup of tea artistically or not, everyone who is interested in hyperliterature, or in the Web as a crucible for independent art, will be intrigued by this story. It demonstrates that self-published work in an experimental format - and all animated comics are still experimental at this stage - can build a really big audience if it is presented and promoted in the right way. It also demonstrates that once those audience numbers are in place, the big corporations will soon start to take an interest.
Undoubtedly, part of Broken Saints' appeal is the fact that it first appeared as a long-running serial, a format which, as Burgess acknowledges, allowed the audience to build from episode to episode: "If you make a serial with a gripping enough mystery... people will flock to it religiously. And they'll also evangelize during the downtime between chapters..." But Broken Saints is also packaged in a way which makes it very appealing to a certain audience - young, comic-loving, video-game-playing fans of big, mysterious, violent, dark-toned stories like Twin Peaks or Lord of the Rings. The design of the original Broken Saints website - complete with tagline, logos, a clever Flash inteface and doomy sound-effects - hits all the right buttons, to the effect that people from that target audience will be half-sold on the product before they even start to read the story. It is worth re-examining the figures Burgess quotes: over five million visitors and 10,000 DVD sales. The figure of five million is substantial but not huge - five million people in five years works out at approximately 100,000 per month - but the conversion-rate is startling. 10,000 sales from five million visitors equates to one in every 500. It seems clear, from this evidence alone, that Broken Saints not only reached its target audience but hooked them.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude from all this talk about core demographics and effective packaging that Broken Saints is just a shrewd exercise in niche audience manipulation. On the contrary, it clearly expresses some deeply-rooted feelings on the part of its creators. Thematically it references everything but the kitchen sink - nuclear war, the invasion of Iraq, world politics, global business, third world poverty, environmentalism, bio-engineering, digital technology, Buddhism and Islam - but the world-vision which comes across in the end is predominantly Catholic. Raimi, the computer expert, clearly the most autobiographical figure in the story, has a crucifix on the wall of his flat: and sin, redemption and suffering are all central to the story. As a matter of fact the insistence on redemption through suffering verges on sado-masochism towards the end. Shandala, the main female character, turns into a combination of Christ and the Madonna: maimed, crucified, wired up to the collective emotions of the world and redeeming everyone through her pain. The baroque lavishness with which Broken Saints is made, its religiosity, the way it oscillates between violence and sentimentality and its lachrymose undertones all have a Catholic flavour to them. But the most personal section of Broken Saints seems to be the one in which Raimi flashes back to his childhood, and remembers himself wanting to go on playing his video-games rather than visit his mother, who is dying of cancer. By comparison with the big set-pieces elsewhere, this section has a stripped-down psychological authenticity which is almost shocking; it encapsulates a painful experience of introspection and shame; and the insistence on the importance of suffering which comes through at the end of the story could certainly be interpreted as an attempt to compensate for Raimi's refusal or failure to confront his mother's suffering when he was young. There also seem to be some interesting themes about family struggling to make themselves heard: saintly, sorrowful mothers; ambivalent,sexually-jealous or sexually-predatory siblings; and destructive, egomaniacal fathers.
One thing is for sure: Broken Saints may be wildly overblown at times, but it is never soulless; and although the manner in which it has been packaged and marketed may have been what brought it to the attention of a large audience, it is the no-holds-barred gusto with which it is made that has given it its stickability.
© Edward Picot, August 2006
© The Hyperliterature Exchange