Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
January 2009

Where Mice Have Opposable Thumbs

Mice Templar: The Prophecy (Image 2008), Spider-Man: Brand New Day Volume One (Marvel 2008)

A few months ago I did a review on Tellos and Bone, two prominent fantasy comics. In both comics' cases, they tended toward redecorating the wheel rather than reinventing it.

Tellos used characters and situations straight out of the George Lucas mold -- heroic adventurer, strong Zenlike trainer, gorgeous and feisty girlfriend, and talking animal sidekick.

Bone was better, not only because it outdid its funny animal fantasy predecessors for laughs, but also because it wasn't afraid to poke fun at its own use of convention. "Our little Thorn is a princess? A beautiful girl living out in the woods, on a farm with her grandmother? Who would have guessed?"

As such, Mice Templar, which features a bunch of anthropromorphized mice running around with swords and fighting rats, immediately put me in mind of the Redwall books, and made me cautious about how they would deal with the inevitable baggage. But I love the Redwall books, so at the same time, these were mice with swords, and that's just cool.

I read the first Redwall when I was twelve, sitting on an electric box outside my house. I was always divided on which was my favorite part -- when the badger throws the rat into the treetrunk and bashes his brains out, or when Matthias drops a giant metal bell on Cluny, leaving only a limp protruding tail. (Moving stuff, I tell you. Could you decide?) I read Watership Down because of Redwall, and Deptford Mice, and about a dozen others where the little mice raised their blades high to the heavens and swore to fight evil forever.

But I gave up on the series when Brian Jacques established in The Outcast of Redwall that his "vermin," the rats, weasels and foxes that form the villainous crew, are born bad and will always be bad, and there's no reforming someone born with "bad blood." Little woodland race theory for you there.

So by being what it is, Mice Templar comes with some serious baggage. I don't want it to be Redwall, cuz too many fantasy comics are too much like the source material anyway, and I don't want it to go teaching kids about how genes determine morality, but I do want it to be Redwall, because mice and rats should kill each other with swords, which everyone knows.

The land on "the other side of the dusk," a night realm separated from the day realm forever by the Great Dimmed Eye of Wotan (fancy name for the moon), was once protected by the ancient order of Templar Mice until the day they turned against each other under the order of the Mad King Icarus. Since the Templars disappeared, evil rat hordes have been wreaking havoc across the land at the King's behest.

Also, there are evil death-bats, good death-owls, Maeven archers (basically girl Templars), and singing fish spirits.

Within the village of Cricket's Glen, the legends of the Templars still circulate, despite the general public knowledge that such things are bad mojo. At the beginning of the comic, the blacksmith Deishun's apprentice holds forth with a collection of Templar tales, especially hypnotizing the young Karic. Naturally, Karic's mom and the fellow villagers are none too happy with Deishun for passing these tales along.

It turns out the tales aren't so far from the surface, though, when a group of rats employed by the mad king raid the village, forcing the blacksmith Deishun to unmask and show himself as the Templar he once was -- but even a Templar cannot fight off fifty rats, and in one spectacular shot, Deishun is pierced by dozens of blades at once and lifted up into the air, a hideous trophy. (Yes, that was my favorite part. Why do you ask?)

Karic runs back into the burning village to save his family and is left for dead when he falls from a burning tree into the creek. But Bradán Feasa, the Salmon of Wisdom, swallows him and vomits him back up on the shore, but not before telling Karic that he is destined to liberate the Dark Lands. Karic seeks out another former Templar, Pilot the Tall, who leads him through training and adventure against rats, giant ants, an evil witch, and to the tree of the prophetic Readers of the Wheat, priests to the Templars and predictors of the future.

Mice Templar is drawn and co-created by Michael Avon Oeming, who does half of the superhero detective series Powers every month with Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Secret Invasion and Ultimate Spider-Man. Oeming's artwork is beautifully simple and animated without being too clean, which is good, since Mice Templar is a dark and bloody story, and needs a little grit in the artwork. (Oeming also wrote my favorite Thor arc, the "Disassembled" story in which he held a Ragnarok party so nasty, Thor tore his own eyes out to avoid seeing it. What?)

Will Quintana paints the best colors I've ever seen in any comic. Ever. They are so deep and rich and beautiful, whether in the scenes where they're obviously done with Photoshop or the scenes where he has whipped out a watercolor set and a brush, in one of the flashbacks revealing the origins of the battle between owls and bats.

The world they build is beautifully familiar in its syncretism. As the "Templar" part of the name implies, Glass and Oeming are consciously taking from various fantastical and mythic traditions. The moon is "The Great Dimmed Eye of Wotan," and the Salmon of Knowledge saves Karic. The Readers of the Wheat reside in a Great Ash Tree, and the evil god Nathair is a snake preparing to swallow the world.

But though the setting is original, the actual plot and characters are entirely archetypal without any dressing to set them apart. There is little to distinguish Karic from all the other young apprentices save a little more grief over his village than Luke had over his conveniently disposable aunt and uncle. Karic wants to be a Templar, dispense justice, fulfill a prophecy, and pay back those who killed his loved ones. I found myself in love with the art and the world Glass and Oeming had built but with no real interest in whether or not the characters achieved their goals. Normally I'd keep reading anyway for the art, but I found with this one I actually had a hard time. I kept putting the book down.

Still, it's so very pretty that I'm going to keep going just for the sake of the art -- especially the colors -- though I'm also apprehensive at one comment from a slave being sold to King Icarus's palace who sees sycophantic evil mice mixing with the thuggish rats. "But why would our kind live together with rats and weasels?" Please, no more woodland race theory.

(Yes, I know they're animals, but they walk like humans and talk like humans and have politics and love and vengeance like humans, and so it's a really stupid kid who wouldn't see the implications "our kind" might have for humanity.)

Keeping with the wayback theme of this column, ne year ago I wiped angry tears and reviewed Spider-Man: One More Day, the story that had Peter Parker sell his marriage to the devil to save his Aunt May's life, thereby clearing the way for Marvel to write stories about a single Spidey till doomsday. (Yes, in case you haven't been following Spider-Man, you heard that right: he sold his marriage to the devil.) I thought I would take the little room in my heart for Spider-Man and lock it up forever.

But no. I am not that guy who just throws stuff away or makes deals with the devil to fix it. So I finally read Spider-Man: Brand New Day Volume One, the follow up to One More Day. After all, it was an editorial mandate that broke up the marriage, leading to a really ridiculous story, and the creators are now doing the best they can with what they were handed. Some really great writers and artists are handling the book, including Dan Slott, who writes the best comic at Marvel right now, Avengers: Initiative, and one arc recently sported the dream team of Mark Waid and John Romita Jr.

So I gave Volume One a chance. Only one problem. It's terrible.

Oh, they got the ingredients right. There's intrigue and supporting cast and all the things that are needed for a good Spider-Man story. There is Daily Bugle drama, with J. Jonah Jameson's health allowing his rival Dexter Bennett to buy out the paper. There is a mysterious new villain -- Mr. Negative (I don't need to say anything more).

Aunt May is, thank God, a strong and assertive character as previous writer J. Michael Straczynski established her. And Peter's best friend Harry Osborne, son of the original Green Goblin, is back from the dead, as a globe-trotting playboy boozehound who makes Pete's life much more interesting. There are some pretty funny recurring gags, even, like opening Part One with a random girl in a club kissing Peter to get Peter's friend's attention, then opening Part Two with a near-identical shot of Peter giving mouth-to-mouth to Jonah.

But Spider-Man himself is an absolute idiot.

Marvel wasn't kidding when they said Spidey shouldn't mature. Years and years of character development have been shunted to make Spidey into a vapid immature jerk who bums around his Aunt May's house, and when urged to get out of bed and find a job, says, "What, no wheatcakes?" How heroic. He complains about money around Harry Osborne and Harry hands him a fat wad of bills. "Will this cover it?" How responsible. And when all of the Daily Bugle offices are allowing their checks to be delayed so Jonah can stop a buyout of the paper, Peter walks in and, having just received a giant handful of free money from his best friend, demands that Jonah give him his check -- and causes Jonah, already in one of the most stressful situations of his life, to have a heart attack. How selfless.

At the end of the first part, while Jonah is lying on the floor and Peter thinks, "It's all my fault," I'm sure we're supposed to recognize good old neurotic Peter Parker, with the world against him, blaming himself for everything that he can't control. Except -- wait -- this one really is his fault, on top of a lot of other selfish behavior, and there's no reason to empathize with him.

It can't just be the creators. This initial arc is written by the aforementioned Dan Slott and the art by Steve McNiven is spectacularly epic with beautifully detailed, crystalline faces and features, at its height in an epic scene of dozens of mob boss bodies shriveling around Spidey in a cloud of red dust. McNiven is one of Marvel's top artists, which is why he was picked for this, having already depicted the infighting of dozens of Marvel characters in Civil War.

Dream teams don't just produce turds for no reason. Marvel really must be courting the selfish jerk demographic. Only they don't call them selfish jerks--this is what they think their target audience's lives are like. And that's really insulting. Someone is convinced that Spidey has to act like the majority of 25-year-olds, which means he has to be unattached and hard up for money -- normal enough -- but he also has to be whiny and overdramatic about his problems and his bad luck even though he's got things pretty easy. Does Marvel's editorial staff really think that single people are this self-centered?

I suppose when you've been laboring under the mental weight of children and a career, it can be tempting to look at the childless and unattached and see them as little worlds unto themselves. But even if that stereotype were true in some cases, Spider-Man is supposed to be a hero. Someone to emulate. Someone to relate to. He is not the kind of person, married or unmarried, who could live only to promote his own well-being. If he weren't Spider-Man, he'd be spending the Spidey time doing volunteer work and promoting humanitarian causes -- as a whole lot of single people do before their time gets crunched by family. In fact, any heroic character would do that. That's what makes them heroic. People identify with heroes who have problems and can never catch a break -- but only when they act as heroes and remain unselfishly committed to the right thing.

Marvel has not only misunderstood the nature of Spider-Man, they have no idea how the rest of the world actually works. Wow. I never liked it when people suggested that comic fans and creators were totally clueless nerds living out of a collective mental basement, but this kind of proves that point.

Then again . . . maybe it's me. Reading this comic -- it felt a lot like the first attempt at friendship with a significant other you have just broken up with, especially one you were crazy about who was not so crazy about you.

You know, you decide that you're okay with the whole thing. You'll just try to stay in contact -- and maybe, just maybe, one day they'll know what they lost.

So, in the spirit of staying in contact and maybe one day having another chance, you go to a party where said significant other will be.

And they're drunk, dancing on the table and hitting on anything that moves except you.

I'm going to go write some angry emo songs about you, Spider-Man.

Ahem.

Next ish: You've seen book-to-comic and movie-to-comic adaptations. Forget about them. Forget it. No. Seriously. Forget.

Because P. Craig Russell is in the house, and The Ring of the Nibelung is OPERA-TO-COMIC.

Fig-a-ro, fig-a-ro, fig-a-ro KAPOW!

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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