Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
September 2009

Oddly Enough, I Do Have A Magical Kumkwat In My Bag. You Need It?

Disney Buys Marvel, Oddly Normal Vol. 1 (Viper Comics), Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails: The Adventures of Big Johnson Bone (Cartoon Books)

Fellow travelers, come in, have a seat, have an ale, and ignore the guy in woolly briefs in the corner. We have bards to sing you tales, fine dancing girls, and many a legend of lass or lad with lots of gumption. Yes, once again we visit the world of fantasy comics, an undernourished genre that nonetheless manages to produce some of the most innovative work around.

Jeff Smith has never let me down. First he wrote and drew the brilliant cartoon epic Bone, which followed three cartoon cousins through an epic fantasy quest complete with racing cows, prophetic giant balloons and quiche-eating monsters. Then he wrote and drew the glorious Golden Age-y Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil. Now he's working his way through the more adult and dangerous RASL, where a tiki-masked dimensional traveler seeks to evade a mysterious weasel-faced pursuer. Each comic is written and drawn with a razor-sharp sense of visual gags, vivid characters and twisted villains.

So imagine my shock when my very favorite Jeff Smith book turns out to have been . . . gasp . . . written by someone else!

I didn't actually realize that Tom Sniegoski wrote Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails until my third or fourth time through. I just thought, "Jeez, this is even funnier than the actual Bone series! Jeff Smith must really be on his game."

(Yes, I know it's written on the cover, but sometimes when you really want to read something you don't look at the cover, or anything else, and then people honk at you for reading while you are crossing the street on the way home from the comic shop, the jerks).

Sniegoski is a prolific author who I had actually never heard of, despite his many novels and comics, most recently the A Kiss Before The Apocalypse series, about a fallen angel who has become a private detective. I'm going to have to read everything he's touched now.

There is another prequel to Bone -- the gorgeous Charles Vess-painted Rose book that chronicles the adventures of a young Grandma Ben. Rose is a rather somber book, though, while Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails is the funniest comic I've ever read.

I'm serious. It's even funnier than the hilarious Great Cow Race segment of Bone, which was, until now, the funniest thing I've ever seen in sequential art. The ending of Rat-Tails, a raucous rip-roaring battle which explains how the rat creatures lost their tails, might put you in the hospital with a busted gut.

The story revolves around Big Johnson Bone (you have to love a character with that name), a fur-trapping raconteur who will later go on to found Boneville, home of the Bone cousins in the series of that name.

When we first meet Big Johnson, he is pontificating about his many adventures to a monkey he recently won in a card game. The monkey, Mister Pip, questions the authenticity of Big Johnson's claim to being a famous explorer who has discovered many an unknown land. That gets his ire up. "Excuse me? Crudonia? Sandwich Land? Valley of the Full-Figured Gals? Any of those ring a bell, Mister Poop?" The monkey mutters, "I cannot believe a crazy person now owns me."

Upset when the monkey doubts him yet again, Big Johnson says, "If I ain't telling the truth, may a big old twister drop down on top of me!" Immediately a wind springs up and hail beats at our heroes. Johnson says, "Oh, I hate it when the powers that be listen to me."

As the tornado sweeps them up, Big Johnson lassoes together a handful of trees and rides them, bronco-style, through the tornado. "She's fighting, boys!" he yells. "She's fighting!" Eventually they fall off the side of the tornado. "Yah, git along, I was done with you anyway!"

The twister drops them onto two of the famously stupid rat creatures -- you know, the ones who spent the better part of Bone arguing over how to cook up Fone Bone for dinner. When Big Johnson and his monkey skeedaddle away from the monsters, the rat creatures decide, "All we have to do is go back to where we were resting and wait for more mammals to fall from the sky."

And so on, in hilarious, insane Smith style. Big Johnson, Mister Pip and Blossom the donkey run into a group of little woodland creature children who have lost their parents to the attacks of the rat creatures, who seek delectable snacks for their self-pitying, vain queen and her immense son Tyson. The woodland creatures have a guardian dragon, Stillman, who is supposed to use his fire-breathing to protect them, but who can't breathe fire without throwing up.

Naturally, Big Johnson decided that he is going to kick some rat creature tail and get the parents of the woodland creatures back. When the collective group looks at him skeptically, he says, "What, do you have a better idea? And let me tell you right now, if it involves twenty pounds of bacon fat and a hot air balloon, it ain't gonna work."

The best part of the comic is Big Johnson's constant storytelling. When Mister Pip questions his sanity, he says, "I'd say you lost your sanity long ago, but you probably have a story about how you found it again climbing one of the tallest peaks in the world --" Big Johnson replies, "Actually, I lost it prospecting for gold in the frozen north, and found it again with the help of a kindly Sherpa named Benny, but that's a story for another day."

When the rat creatures attack, Big Johnson grabs three by the tails and swings them overhead like a triple set of bullroarers. "I'm not sure you're aware," he says, "but the tail was added to the creatures of the wild during creation so I'd have something to grab onto. It's a fact! The powers that be themselves filled me in on that one."

At one point, trying to reassure his friends, Big Johnson says, "You may find this hard to swallow, but even Big Johnson Bone was afraid once. It's true. It happened when I was a young explorer -- no, wait . . . I'd just turned the age of -- no, no -- uh, well, I can't rightly recall the incident, but I'm sure I was scared once!" It's the only time his raconteurism fails him.

I don't want to ruin any more of the jokes from this incredible, incredible comic. Suffice it to say that by the end, the entire tale has been tied together within the context of one of Big Johnson's own tall tales. This comic is not just consistently funny. By the end, it's proven itself brilliant.

Right now, as far as I know, Rat-Tails is only available in the black-and-white edition from Cartoon Books. No word on whether or not Scholastic will produce a color edition as they have with Rose and the other Bone books, but if they do, I'll take it as an excuse to buy the book again.

Oddly Normal is not quite as wacky as Big Johnson Bone, but it's funny, charming and poignant in a different way. Oddly Normal is a young half-witch girl, the daughter of an emissary from the magical land of Fignation, which, as far as Oddly is concerned could be a crazy delusion since no one has ever been to Fignation. Oddly's mother was sent to our Earth years ago to study humans, and looked for the most normal humans she could find. Naturally, she married one who was named Normal.

On her eleventh birthday, after a round of taunts at school, Oddly goes home through the stinging rain (being half-witch, she doesn't have the full Wicked reaction to water, but it does irritate her skin) to her parents, waiting with a birthday cake and presuming that Oddly has brought a host of friends home with her. Angry at her parents' obliviousness ("Are your friends outside?" "Are they late?" "Are they upstairs?" "Oh, that reminds me, Auntie is coming") Oddly mutters, "I wish you would both disappear."

And that's exactly what happens. Leaving Oddly alone, without parents or a house.

She's never manifested any witchy powers before, so this is right out of nowhere, a spell far too powerful to explain. Oddly's aunt, a traveling witch from Fignation, investigates the mystery of where her parents went, and brings Oddly to live with her in Fignation.

In the first scene in Fignation, Oddly answers the door in what she thinks is her own house, having woken up with her surroundings back to normal. Standing there in the open doorway, a four-legged, many-eyed octopus-head traveling salesman with a bowler hat says, "Today I'm selling portable multi-spectral octothon regenerators. Do you think perhaps your family would be in need of one at this time?"

Otis Frampton, whose name is almost as cool as Oddly Normal, draws with a great clean sense of space, allowing room for some great visual gags. The first shot of Fignation is beautifully imaginative, complete with a monster climbing one of the skyscrapers and a castle in the air above the city. Oddly's teachers include a tiny little flying-seahorse-looking-thing that yells sports slogans into her teeny megaphone and a shaggy green high-heels wearing flamingo. In class, she sits next to a zombie who brings a brain to school with him every day, presumably to help him think in class, though by the end of the day it's become his lunch.

In Fignation, Oddly is considered, again, a freak. This time it's for being too human. She does make a few friends: Reggie, Misty and Ragnar, respectively a Frankenstein monster, a ghost, and the hunchbacked kid who created the monster.

She also makes an enemy -- Mister Gooseberry, the English teacher to whom her mother was once a protégé, and who is secretly encouraging the other kids to torment her. Together with her friends she challenges the tormentors at school while trying to discover Gooseberry's secrets that might lead her to her mother. The end takes a rather sad and poignant turn, and leaves Oddly determined to understand her witchy heritage and get her parents back.

Frampton's got the same vivid animated sensibility for odd characters that Jeff Smith has. You can practically hear Gooseberry's silken, smooth voice coming from his oh-so-composed expression, or Ragnar's nasal nerditude as he explains how he made Reggie. He's got a great sense of action as well, as he proves in the sequence where Oddly is tricked into racing another witch on their brooms, over a ravine full of monsters who are constantly shouting, "Gimme! Gimme!"

The only thing that put me off a bit was the page after page of juxtaposed sequences in which Oddly has a conversation with Ragnar in the left panel while the teachers talk in the right panel. There had to be a less confusing way to get that information out.

Like Harry Potter, Oddly Normal is a figure trapped in another world who clearly doesn't quite belong there or here, surrounded by vivid, larger-than-life characters. It's like an animated movie waiting to happen, only it's better than most animated movies. This comic is fun. Go forth and sojourn for fun, traveler.

According to the terms of my contract as a comics geek, I have to say something about Disney buying Marvel. Okay. I'm actually surprised this took as long as it did. Marvel should have gotten in bed with a major entertainment corporation years ago.

DC Comics has been a subsidiary of Time Warner for years, packed in with a billion other franchises under the Warner Brothers label. Marvel may have recently produced theme-park rides for Universal Studios, but they were aping the twenty-year-old Batman rides at various Six Flags parks, developed through the Time Warner license. Marvel's sorry animated series have never had anything on the Warner Brothers juggernaut cartoons of Batman, Superman, Justice League, and Teen Titans, produced from the same animation clout as the Looney Tunes and Animaniacs series. The mid-90s X-Men cartoon had a brilliant set of stories, adapted almost straight from the comic, but the animation looked like a set of rejected samples from a mom-and-pop comics company.

But now any multimedia effort by Marvel will be accompanied by the steamrolling House of Mouse. Imagine what X-Men could have done with a stable of Disney animators.

Don't be fooled by the way Time Warner is just now forming "DC Entertainment." Marvel has been lagging behind for years in trying to access the amount of resources available to DC.

And yes, this means more corporate control over the beloved characters at Marvel. But I have a hard time imagining how any more corporate coverage at Disney could damage the books more than the editors and execs already can. Recently, Captain America died and was replaced in a long, powerful story, and then came back from the dead to sell more comics. Wolverine, it turns out, survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil.

Are you seriously worried that Disney can make this worse?

I'm somewhat relieved that there might be another level of bean counters for the stories to go through. What's more, if Marvel can rely on the Mighty Disney Machine to roll out awesome cartoons, movies, games, toys, etc, maybe they'll quit shouting "New Readers!" so darn loud all the time.

The way the editors at Marvel act, longtime fans who've bought every issue since 1962 are a burden rather than a blessing, since they want to hit the reset button every few months to keep the comics user-friendly. You see, us old guys remember the last time they tried to get rid of Spider-Man's wife and how it didn't work that time. We remember the fact that Wolverine used to actually be a little harder to kill. We like the idea of Captain America staying dead, because we've never seen a major comics character actually stay dead.

It might be that with Disney's power, Marvel's movies, cartoons and other stuff will bring in enough money and attention that they will relax a little on their comics. Maybe.

And maybe . . . just maybe . . . Brad Bird will direct that Fantastic Four movie he was born to do.

But that's another article.

Next issue: One time a guy wrote a book about comics. It won the Pulitzer. Weird. Now there are comics about his book about comics. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapists, based on Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, in thirty.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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