Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
November 2008

Your Momma Kicked My Spandex-Clad Buttocks Across the Roofs of Metropolis Last Night

Rapunzel's Revenge, Chicken With Plums

It has come to my attention that our webmaster (who is kept chained up in a dungeon under chateau Card and constantly screams "I'm the real Orson! Let me out!") is rushed to get all these columns out to a screaming public that constantly demands more, more and more InterGalactic Medicinary. So in order to help the noble soul out (he actually does look a lot like the real Scott Card, now that I think about it, and there is all that leftover cloning machinery in their garage…) I won't be reviewing monthly comics as they come out anymore. The webmaster just has too much to do, and the next issue of the comic I'm reviewing comes out in the comic stores about when my column about the last issue appears. Futile. (Much like the webmaster's escape attempts.)

So I'll finish vivisecting Final Crisis and Secret Invasion when they're good and published. Until then, if you want my up-to-the-minute updates, you can check out my comics blog at fobcomics.blogspot.com, where the overflow of my opinions rolls out into the gutter.

It occurs to me that my column has erred, thus far, on the stereotypical side of sweating obese fanboys drooling over 88-24-36 depictions of Wonder Woman. The lack of female creators in comics used to be a byword -- you know, "Girls don't read comics and guys don't read romance novels."

Stereotypes are only good when they say "You can't get a bad milkshake in this town." This particular stereotype, about girls and comics, is a dirty lie. Do you know how I found out? Listen, dear reader. 'Tis a tale of hard-won love and raging passion.

My wife was a closet comics fanatic when I met her. (She cleverly directed attention away from this fact by being smoking hot.) So I didn't realize she was secretly testing my knowledge of comics at first.

Observing her wall, I said, "Nice Iron Man poster." Most guys can recognize Iron Man, but she was looking for someone a little more hardcore. She turned to the cover painting of Wolverine: Origin on her calendar and said, "Do you know what comic this is from?" Apparently, all her potential suitors had failed this test before. Not knowing the peril I was in, a brave knight about to gain or lose a princess with only my nerdhood as my armor, I said, "Oh yeah, Marvel decided to finally reveal Wolverine's origin, and that's the cover."

After that, we went to a comic store together for our first date, and the rest is pow bang boom history.

I'm serious. This is why I write a graphic novel column. It's my way of giving back.

This long introduction leads me to the first of a sadly short list of comics by female creators, Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, with art by Nathan Hale. (No relation. Isn't that weird?) Shannon Hale is the author of a pile of young adult books like The Goose Girl and Princess Academy. I haven't read them, but if they're half as good as Rapunzel's Revenge, I'm going to devour them.

Rapunzel's Revenge starts out more or less following the traditional story of Rapunzel. Punzie is being raised by the odd old witch Mother Gothel within a huge villa. When she climbs over the wall and discovers that Gothel is actually enslaving all the people around for her dirty mines, she meets her real mother and attempts to escape. Failing, she is locked in a tall tower by Gothel. Stuck in the tower with nothing to do, Rapunzel waits and waits, furiously plotting how to get back at Mother Gothel. Eventually her hair gets really long and . . . she lassoes a nearby trees branch and swings out of the tower.

Not quite the same old story anymore.

She does run into a dashing man trying to save a princess from a tower, but since he's kind of obnoxious, she just points him in the direction of the tower and says, "The princess is really hard of hearing . . . you might have to shout for a while."

After that, Rapunzel walks to a town in the middle of a desert, with an old dirty saloon where the mention of Mother Gothel turns the already surly inhabitants ornery. She is soon caught in a barfight, dodging chairs, bottles and bullets, and escaping with Jack, a fellow rogue and wanderer who has had some trouble with giants, and made off with a goose that should be laying a golden egg any day now, which would theoretically end his troubles. From there the story freewheels through a fantasy Old West, where the only thing Rapunzel has to defend herself is her wit and her command of her whipping, lassoing braids.

I'm not sure how they thought of this, but it's brilliant. I imagine some kind of Scattergories-type writing game where the moderator said, "Fairy tales and the Old West! In a comic book!" Rapunzel and Jack stew and scheme over how to get Rapunzel's real mother away and bring down the witch Gothel, while trying to stay alive in the face of outlaws, coyotes, rabid jackalopes and the many Gothel-controlled lawmen out to get her for "using her hair in a manner other than nature intended." Eventually they confront Mother Gothel, in a hair-whipping, magic-beaning, mind-control-breaking climax.

The art by Nathan Hale is constantly alive, expressive alive characters stalking through a brightly-colored fantasy landscape. When Hale pulls out to reveal things like Rapunzel's tower, the vast desert landscape, and the wonderful, original epic destruction at the end, the fantasy world looks as deep and stunning as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, but crossed with the beautifully animated paintings by Mary Grandpré for the American editions of Harry Potter.

Rapunzel's Revenge shows the potential that comics hold to spread throughout every genre in fiction. Comics are constantly diversifying, filtering out among genres and infiltrating them, and now we have young adult fantasy comics like Rapunzel's Revenge that are as pioneering as adult comics like IncogNegro. Even a few years ago "respectable" comics were limited to autobiographical works like Blankets, leaving everything else to the superheroes. I think we've all realized by now that "pushing the boundaries" is a misnomer for comics. The boundaries can't even be seen yet.

If you haven't heard of Marjane Satrapi, stop reading this column (I know, it's tough to tear yourself away) and go out and buy a copy of Persepolis. One of the most acclaimed comics of all time and one of the few worth reading of the wave of previously mentioned autobiographical comics, Persepolis tells the story of Marjane's life as a young girl during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and what followed it. Satrapi's art is deservedly famous for creating a world of quirky, cute, flattened yet dynamic faces and bodies, and her writing for portraying the day-to-day typicality of life mixed in with the political unrest that has haunted her home country of Iran.

Chicken With Plums is Satrapi's story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali's suicide before she was born. Told in the same beautifully simple and cute style as Persepolis, Chicken With Plums takes a different tactic from the straight-ahead narrative of Persepolis, leaking out bits of information to create a slowly emerging picture of a narrative.

Nasser Ali is on his way to replace his favorite instrument, a tar (a stringed instrument descended from the lute and not too far from sitars and guitars) and he stops to ask a woman on the street what her name is, thinking she is someone he knew in the past. She says no. It's an apparently inconsequential act we will learn later is the most important event in the story.

We learn that his favorite tar, an apparent work of art, has been broken in a fight with his wife. Nasser Ali cannot find a suitable replacement tar, even when he travels for three days to the other end of the country to buy one.

So he decides to die. And, eight days later, he does.

The life of Nasser Ali leaks out in bits of information throughout the story, filling in gaps piecemeal. As it goes with most depressed people, his family tries to help him and show support, but his twisted emotions keep him turned inward, wanting help yet unable to accept it. It keeps him a biting, angry character. It's hard to sympathize with Nasser, and that almost defeated me as a reader.

It would have been a real shame if so, because at the end of the novel, when more and more of Nasser's life is revealed and the significance of the broken tar and the woman on the street are revealed, the true tragedy of this man's life is revealed, a whole life sidetracked down a path he never foresaw, clinging to the sanity of his music when everything else vanished.

Like Persepolis and its wonderfully bizarre scenes of little Marjane's talks with God or each part of Marjane's body growing separately during puberty, Chicken With Plums has some great moments -- like when Nasser's favorite meal, the titled chicken with plums, turns into the giant breasts of Sophia Loren. Between them, he curls up and goes to sleep. Nasser's conversations with the looming shadow of Azrael, the angel of death, have a wonderfully water quality as Azrael wobbles all over the page.

Using Nasser's depression to motivate the story is a big artistic gambit -- Satrapi has Nasser acting like a jerk to his child, his mother and his wife for the middle of the book before she gives us any reason to like him in the end, as the truth comes out in his conversation with Azrael. Even after some sympathy has been established, it's difficult to say at the end whether Nasser's behavior was ever justified. One can almost feel toward the end of the book Satrapi's difficulty at conceptualizing her great-uncle's life within any kind of context at all. While it makes the story a little rough, I can't blame her. It goes beyond the question of how to make an interesting story and an appealing character. Who can make a story out of something as senseless as suicide? People find things to blame it on -- death of a loved one or trauma in war, abuse, loss of a career -- but the truth is that each of us sees things in life that are too big for stories. Wrestling with them, trying to fit them into a shape that will give them meaning and sense, is a futile exercise but one that everyone tries in their own way.

Chicken With Plums is the best of attempts, and another example of a comic book that proves there are no limits in sight for the form.

Next issue: Santa Claus is coming to town, and he's bringing X-Men. Gather your family around the yuletide fire, have some eggnog, and try to figure out whether or not anyone can kill Wolverine.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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