Archive for May, 2012
When the first issue of 27: Second Set came out, I wrote about how much I’d loved the triumphant ending of the first limited series and how disappointed I was that the continuation of the series necessarily had to begin by robbing our hero Will Garland of his triumph. Now that we’ve come to the end of this second series, Garland has achieved another triumph, but even though I liked his journey to it, this one feels hollower.
In the first series author Charles Soule dealt with the concept of the flameout musical genius, the creator who burns so bright he burns himself to death: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse, Elliott Smith. Will Garland is such a talent, but he’s lost the use of his playing hand to a repetitive stress injury, and makes a deal with the god of artistic creativity trying to get it back. Instead of his playing hand, though, he gets a console embedded in his chest; each time he presses its buttons, he gets a different superpower for three hours, but after the 27th time he uses it he will die.
The first series ended with an extended monologue on the nature of artistic creation. Yes, some people are given the gift of aptitude, Garland says, but they make real sacrifices of time and effort to turn that gift into greatness. Art is earned through hard work, and great artists don’t merely love the products of their genius, they love the work. Garland flips his guitar over and plays with his left hand.
Sounds awful. But I’ll get better. And the music I make—it’ll be mine. And it’ll be loud.
Second Set starts a year later. Garland has grown frustrated trying to play wrong-handed. He can’t make the music he hears in his head, and audiences aren’t responding to the music he can make. Moreover, he’s playing soft, not loud.
He picks a fight with his girlfriend/manager and sleeps with a groupie, who accidentally triggers his console. Garland runs outside shooting lights from his hands and is captured on video, which makes him famous again. A washed-up, one-hit-wonder singer from the 1980s sees him on TV and sets in motion a plan to steal from him the fame she’s lost.
As with the spirit of creativity in the first book, Fame is personified and demands sacrifices for his gifts. A series of plot twists ends with Garland and the one-hit-wonder playing before an audience of all the people in the world, in a competition for Garland’s power.
For a while as I read Second Set, I thought maybe I was less engaged than I had been with the first book because the question of how one becomes or remains famous is less interesting to me than the question of where great art comes from. That is part of it, but I think Soule did raise interesting sub-questions about fame that should have held my attention: What happens when you have talent, and you do the work, and the world refuses to listen? Fame is fickle and doesn’t always touch the most deserving.
But that gets to the greater problem I had with Second Set: Will Garland is acted upon by others rather than initiating action himself. In First Set, he sets in motion everything that happens, from his first attempt to make a deal for his hand to the final confrontation he forces with the creative spirit. Often he doesn’t understand what he’s causing, and the repercussions of his actions may spiral out of his control, but everything arises from his desires.
In Second Set Garland is much more reactive. The groupie triggers his console. The one-hit-wonder tries to kill him. The personification of Fame forces him to play for his life. He can and does reclaim agency within these situations, but he does not create them and isn’t really driving the story.
I don’t think this is an accident. I think Soule has quite cleverly matched his storytelling to his theme—the arbitrariness of fame. The trouble is, a hero thrown around by caprice is simply less compelling than a hero who makes things happen. When at the end Garland vows to do something big with the fame he’s been given, in a final page that deliberately echoes the final page of First Set, his conviction doesn’t grow out of a struggle we’ve been watching up to then. His triumph this time is vague to the point that he has no idea what what that “something” might be, and neither do we.
I still think Second Set has interesting things to say, and Renzo Podesta’s art is still gorgeous. It’s still a very good book, even if I didn’t love it the way I did the first.
P.S. A complaint about distribution: these issues obviously take a long time to write and draw, so there have been long gaps between them. I’m fine with that. I’m not fine with Image’s decision to put out the trade paperback in lieu of issue #4 of 4, presumably because #4 has been delayed a long time and everyone’s waiting for the trade anyway. The exact same thing happened with First Set (and it looks like the same is going to happen again with Mondo, another Image title). When you do this, Image, you tell all of us who have been buying the issues that we are suckers, because now we have to shell out for the trade to see how things end. If you’re going to expect everyone to just buy the trade, then just put out the trade. I might buy issues for Third Set to review them (I assume it is coming), but no one who isn’t writing reviews and who has half a brain is going to continue buying Image issues. Be aware of that, Image, and don’t cancel Soule’s deal when your sales figures go tits up. You’re forcing fans not to buy titles they like; make sure it isn’t the creator who suffers from your shortsightedness.
I have been fairly reliably informed that this is all probably my local comic book store’s fault. My bad.
Four books this week, all of which I liked to varying degrees. None I have very deep feelings about. So I’ll run through all four real quick because I think they’re worth checking out, and anyway they kind of remind me of each other.
The Girl Who Owned a City is a graphic adaptation of the classic YA novel from the 1970s by O.T. Nelson, adapted here by Dan Jolley, Joelle Jones, and Jenn Manley Lee. It’s set in a near-future apocalypse following a worldwide pandemic that killed everyone over age 12. The kids left behind try to organize themselves to survive, and predictably they do a pretty bad job of it.
Our hero is a girl of around 11 who bands together all of the kids in her neighborhood to create a self-sufficient, defensible community in an abandoned school. Jones and Lee’s art is excellent and the story moves along snappily enough, but honestly a lot of the amusement comes from the fact that this is supposed to be Atlas Shrugged for kids, and therefore the heroine can’t just run her little community, she has to own it, and make moving speeches about moochers coming to steal what she built. There’s weird comedy in the fact that O.T. Nelson made a junior Jane Galt who’s going to run straight into a virus in about a year and die, and that doesn’t seem to bother him.
In fact, if everyone dies before they reach childbearing age, our junior Jane Galt owns the last city that will ever exist, since humanity will be extinct within a decade. Top that, Jamie Dimon.
Breathers, self-published by Justin Madson, takes place in a world living under the shadow of a pandemic considerably further along. Everyone knows that the air is poison, will kill you within minutes if you breathe it, so everyone has to wear a gas mask when he or she goes outside. Within that world Madson tells what the jacket copy calls “Short Cuts-style intersecting stories.”
I liked Breathers a lot—the most out of these four books—and there were moments of real intrigue as the various plot threads eventually came together. Only two things held it back from being truly great: 1) Madson’s drawing style is ethereal, stylized black and white that doesn’t convey facial expressions or body language well, especially with masks often covering most of his characters’ faces. The characters all look similar, which makes reading harder than it should be.
2) I would have liked his sci-fi world to have clearer real-world parallels. I thought Madson was going there with his description of a society ruled by fear of an invisible threat no individual can dare to confirm for himself. And he does begin to push in that direction with the Breathe Free movement, a forbidden ideology that claims the virus is a hoax. But I didn’t feel like he really paid that idea off as well as he might have. This might be a bit of a SPOILER, but the final message ends up being something like, “Trust scientists and the government,” which would be a sentiment I could actually get behind and a counterintuitive way to go. Unfortunately, the scientists in question were also conducting highly unethical experiments on children, which muddles the thematic message.
In Deadenders the end of the world came not through a virus but through an unexplained Cataclysm, almost as if Ed Brubaker didn’t care how the world ended, he just wanted to get it over with so he could play in the rubble. It’s funny, I thought that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had come up with something totally fresh last year with their noir reimagining of Archie comics The Last of the Innocent. I didn’t realize that Ed Brubaker already did a post-apocalyptic Archie ten years ago. It’s a fun shaggy dog story, but I imagine if it were launched now they’d do it as a limited-run series and have much tighter plotting.
Picket Line concerns another kind of crisis: the destruction of a beloved ancient forest by a rapacious developer. Not an apocalypse, quite, but to the insular community near it, it does feel like the end of the world, and for much of the book volcanic annihilation also threatens. And it’s also self-published book by author Breena Wiederhoeft.
The story is told through the eyes of a young woman who drifts into town trying to find herself and gets hired by a landscaping company. But its central and most interesting character is her boss, Rex. He takes a contract with the developer to maintain the grounds of a hunting lodge in the forest, but he does so hoping to find a way to convince the man to change his plans. His wife cheats on him with the developer and meanwhile he’s trying to broker a reconciliation between his daughter and her estranged husband, both of whom work for his business.
The trouble is, I’m fairly sure Wiederhoeft doesn’t quite realize that Rex is her central character, the one with the most interesting conflict to explore. We drift around the action with our point-of-view character, whose own motivations are comparatively very weak.
Unsurprisingly, that character’s biography closely mirrors Wiederhoeft’s, and I wonder whether she fell into a trap I have fallen into too often myself: writing a character based on me and then assuming his motivations would be obvious to the reader because they were obvious to me. I knew why the character was acting that way.
Anyway, just as an interesting contrast, Wiederhoeft’s art is in many ways far cruder than Madson’s, generally close to the web comics she usually draws. But she handles those crude figures much more adroitly. Their simple faces are alive with expression, and she tags each character with recognizable features (sometimes something as simple as a hat) so that the reader knows who’s who before having to think about it.
PDF preview here.
Something a little different this week: I could use advice from all of you. As we authors do, I am always sending out query letters to agents, and a recent one got me back the usual request to see the first 50 pages plus the request to send “an annotated list of the competition you see for your book and why you think yours is unique.” As far as competition goes, my guess is that Soap and Water is most like literary visions of a fallen America like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, J.G. Ballard’s The Drought, or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, but really this is a hard question to answer for oneself, so I thought I would put it to you all. Any ideas for what my competition might be or how I might beat ‘em?
Also audio thru chapter 39 is now up on the Soap and Water page.
The last book of Guy Delisle’s I reviewed was about his time in Burma, and when I wrote about it I had mixed feelings about his customary form, which is to string together four- to eight-page travel vignettes almost exclusively focused on his day-to-day experiences, using what he sees or hears as an opening to discuss some broader phenomenon about the culture he’s visiting. His stance is always that of a sincerely interested, naive tourist rather than a journalist, and I felt that it simultaneously showed too much humility (in that he declined to speak for Burma) and not enough (in that he also gave space to things like his problems with air conditioning).
On the whole, though, I liked Burma Chronicles. I just wanted even more about the country. It was a closed, mysterious society and I was curious.
I came to his new book Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City with exactly the opposite predisposition. Few countries on earth receive as much consistent media attention as Israel, and its history and conflicts have already been the subject of countless books, including graphic works by some of my favorite (Joe Sacco) and least favorite (Sarah Glidden) comic book authors. I had no curiosity left about it.
As it turns out, that makes it the perfect subject for Delisle’s interested tourist routine, in part because he is a keen observer of details it turned out I had never seen before. Rather than dramatize big injustices, like Sacco, or grapple with the whole arc of modern Israeli history, like Glidden, he focuses on small ironies and oddities.
When he visits Hebron, for example, he does discuss the ongoing conflict between settlers and Palestinian residents, but does so by remarking that there are certain streets Palestinians cannot use, and that the one they can use that runs next to settlers’ homes has been roofed with netting to catch the garbage settlers try to throw down from their windows. He visits a settlement near where he’s living in East Jerusalem and notes that many Arab Christians are living there, attracted by the cheap rent. “It’s like we’re resettling the settlements!” laughs his host.
Overall, then, he presents a picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of its effect on daily life, both in Israel and in the West Bank, which turns out to be fascinating and darkly funny. (He is never able to get permission to visit Gaza, and he guesses that the Israeli official who denies that permission does so because he thinks Delisle is Sacco.)
Three elements stuck out for me in particular.
First, his year in Israel overlapped with Operation Cast Lead, and he does an incredible job of describing the surreality of going about his daily routine while a war takes place just a short drive away. One striking sequence has him and a friend at the beach, watching fighter jets go past en route to Gaza.
Second, the wall encircling Palestinians in the West Bank. He talks about it only occasionally, but is always trying to sketch it, and it shows up constantly in his descriptions of other events. It hangs over everything else silently, just as he must have experienced it.
Third, Delisle is fair-minded, and makes a point to present what he sees as the best aspects of Israeli society. Specifically he points out that the Israelis can be more critical of their government or of Israeli extremists than any American media outlet would ever dare to be.
On December 4, settlers occupying a building in central Hebron were evacuated by the Israeli army. The settlers put up a fierce fight, and six soldiers were injured during the operation. Other settlers responded with violent attacks on Arab families, all under the eyes of journalists. The story made the front page of the papers. The vast majority of Israelis vigorously disapprove of the extreme behavior of the Hebron settlers. In a statement following these incidents, Ehud Olmert spoke of “pogroms” perpetrated by Jews against Arabs. Harsh words, deliberately used by the prime minister to make an impression.
Elsewhere you might think twice before accusing Jews of carrying out pogroms… In Israel, it’s not an issue.
Delisle is interested in Israel in all its diversity. He visits the Samaritans, the Armenian Church, a Bedouin village, the Dome of the Rock. He tours an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. He even goes on a propaganda bus tour organized by a pro-settler group. In the end it is clear where his sympathies lie, and above all who he sees as villains. But the personal travelogue format allows him to be fair about all he does experience without having to throw in a lot of caveats about all he doesn’t, and I felt like he showed me a great many new things about a subject I’d thought I was sick of.
PDF preview here.