Words Without Borders is showcasing international graphic novels this month. Excellent stuff.
A Small Killing surprised me. I thought I had this thing figured out about halfway through the book, and lo and behold, the end adds whole new levels. Alan Moore called this a “deeply personal” story. If you are looking for people in tights, conspiracies, and social commentary, this isn’t the book for you. There are no explosions. It is a relatively quiet book. The story is built around introspection and is one of the more literary graphic novels I’ve read. Younger readers tend to translate that to mean “boring,” but it was nice to read a graphic novel that didn’t rely on pure action to drive the story.
The story follows ad-man Timothy Hole (pronounced “Holly”) as he returns to his childhood home in midland England. He is working on an ad for a huge account selling a diet soda in Cold War-era Russia, but he is struggling. Tim’s mind wanders through his past and the mistakes he has made. He once wanted to be an artist, but he is now middle-aged and a part of the system he once hated. On top of everything else, he thinks a young boy is following him, and perhaps, trying to kill him.
There is a disorienting tension that builds throughout the book, and parts of Tim’s inner dialogue are in a stream-of-consciousness style, which adds to the sense that Tim is losing his mind. Oscar Zarate’s dream-like artwork also adds to the overall tension. The other characters often have a Rocky Horror Picture Show look to them. Several panels depict passersby with dummy heads with no faces. In scenes with large crowds, I was reminded of the scene in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where the people at the bar turn into blood drinking lizards. And this all hinges on Tim’s inner crisis.
As Tim gets closer to his childhood home, his memories also return to his childhood. Overall, the book is about the loss of innocence and the compromises we make. And I’m sure this will sound politically incorrect, but I think the reader would have to be at least thirty-years-old to really feel what Moore is getting at with Timothy Hole. The book is about regret and guilt and how we end up places we never wanted to be. I’m sure younger readers will understand the concept, but they might shrug their shoulders and say, “So what.” Reading it as a thirty-something, I get why Moore said this was a personal book.
I recently read Marvels by Kurt Busiek and was impressed with the originality of the story and the art. I was asked if I had read Ruins by Warren Ellis, which is evidently the sequel but in an alternate universe. Ruins is comprised of two books: “Men On Fire” and “Women In Flight.” Like Marvels, Ruins follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who is again trying to write a book about super heroes. In this alternate timeline, instead of documenting super heroes being super, he is trying to make sense of a nightmare world. The book opens:
For every kiss, a bullet in the face.
For every action, a reaction.
For every event, there exists in potential,
A mirror event, an exactly opposite possibility.
If the world you know is one of Marvels,
Where heroic women walk invisibly through horror,
And men of fire ride the upper reaches of the air…
…Then only a misstep or a stopped heartbeat away,
Is a world of Ruins.
Ominous stuff. And for good reason, I guess. This book is very, very dark. How things get to this point is not quite clear. Phil Sheldon has a premonition that something good could have come of all these “paranormal” stories, but instead it has gone terribly wrong. He is dying and racing against the clock to make sense of it all and finish his book.
The story is very fragmented and abstract, jumping from place to place as Sheldon visits the surviving heroes and witnesses. We know there has been a war, that the national guard has killed at least most, if not all, of The Avengers. Professor X has somehow become President (I’m assuming by using his mental powers) and has become evil and reclusive. A lot of the X-Men are mutilated and imprisoned. the Fantastic Four never survived their trip into space. Ellis systematically goes through the list of heroes and shows their bizarre and horrific fates with little to know explanation. Things just didn’t work out. It’s not a nice world.
Cliff and Terese Nielsen handle the art in book one, and Chris Moeller joins them in book 2. The watercolors are well done and give the books a dreamy feel to compliment the nightmare quality of the story. The images are often shocking and gruesome. It is definitely not one for the kiddies. I guess Moeller takes over about halfway through book two, because the style changes. I find that a little annoying. His colors are brighter, which I think changes the feel that has been established up to that point.
There is a strange two page sequence in book two where Phil is all of a sudden beside a lake. It seems like a dream sequence, but again, there is no explanation given. The grass is green; the colors are bright. It is a drastic change from the grays and browns that permeate the books. Phil muses, “These people, these paranormal ruins of men– They were dropped on the world like a stone. Their shockwaves have touched all edges of my world.” He compares this to dropping a stone in the lake and waves slowly making their way to all the shores to make sure we understand the metaphor and theme. A little girl walks up and asks if he is lonely and invites him to a picnic.
That scene sums up the major differences between Ruins and Marvels for me. Busiek’s story was very structured. It flowed through different historical periods, illustrating people’s varying responses to the heroes. The themes were subtly woven throughout narrative. It stood on its own. Ruins, like the previously mentioned scene by the lake, is very scattered and random. The structure emulates the confusion and panic Sheldon feels, but without any background or orienting narrative, it can’t stand on its own. And in order to link it all together with a theme, Ellis has to be heavy-handed (ie- stone thrown in lake metaphor). It was okay because I had already read Marvels and understood what point Ellis has making, but without that reference I’m not sure it would make much sense. I felt the writing just wasn’t on par with Marvels.
My goal was to read 50 books in 2009. I was about twelve books short in December, so I started to scarf down graphic novels. I can knock those out in a day or two usually. I don’t care what anyone says; they count towards my total. My final for the year was 44 books (about 6 graphic novels). I’ll do better this year. I promise.
In that last desperate sprint of reading, I read Marvels written by Kurt Busiek and painted by Alex Ross. I was too cool to be seen reading comics in 1994. My loss. This is a phenomenal series, and one of the most original concepts in comics I’ve seen.
The series covers some of Marvels classic stories, but the events are told from the street-level perspective of a common man- photojournalist Phil Sheldon. It examines how real people might act and feel in a world full of superheroes. Busiek’s writing captures some pretty interesting themes. The philosophical and theological implications the series brings up are interesting. When the masses need saving, they love the marvels like idols. When the masses are bored, they fall into celebrity worship and consumerism. When the masses feel small in comparison to the marvels, the masses want them dead. What’s also interesting is that the marvels continue to “save” the masses, even though they know how fickle the masses’ devotion is.
Alex Ross’s artwork is exceptional. The series covers the 1940s to the 1970s, and Ross captures each time period perfectly. His street-level views are cinematic and completely original. The story combined with the art puts this one near the top of my graphic novels list.
After playing the Indiana Jones Legos game on the Wii and seeing the triology box set of the movies, my eldest son has become interested in WWII and the Nazis as bad guys. That reminded me of the seminal graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Since the Nazis portrayed the Jews as vermin to be exterminated, Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. This cat and mouse metaphor makes the reader comfortable with the very serious material using seemingly harmless animal comic characters, but it also creates many levels of meaning dealing with racial stereotypes, nationalistic identities, and the commonality of humanity.