Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
October 2009

Of course I'm a billionaire playboy during the day. Would I lie to you, baby?

The Escapists (Dark Horse, 2007), Fables: Legends in Exile (Vertigo, 2002)

I loved Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, that Pulitzer-winning epic about comics. If you haven't read it, put down this internet, hit your local library or bookstore, and immerse yourself.

Go on. Git.

Well, I guess you can finish reading the column. But you have to promise to read it afterwards.

In the book, Sam Clay and his cousin Josef Kavalier, outcasts and misfits in 1939, create the comic-book hero the Escapist, a little bit superhero and a little bit super-spy. The Escapist can, true to his name, escape from any prison, open any lock, and turn any high-stakes danger into opportunity. (Minor spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs.)

His creators are not quite so blessed. In reality the Escapist is confined to the wheedlings of the comic-book magnates, Kavalier's mercurial temperament and penchant for danger, and Sam Clay's secret life. In the beginning of the book, Kavalier escapes Prague just ahead of the oncoming Nazi invasion. His Jewish family is left behind to the evil regime. Kavalier spends the rest of his life obsessed by the Nazis, and once the war hits -- ah, that's a bit too many spoilers. Sam Clay spent most of his childhood recovering from polio, and much of his adulthood covering up his homosexuality and his relationship with the actor who plays the Escapist on radio. Rosa Saks, Kavalier's girlfriend and the daughter of a Surrealist pal of Dalí's, becomes attached to both men through -- ah, more spoilers. Just read the book.

When Kavalier & Clay came out in 2000, garnering hyperbolic praise that would do Stan Lee proud, it drew attention to comics, adding to the suspicion in erudite minds that the funnies might actually be High Art. Chabon has gone on to kick more genre walls down, writing alternate history-mystery in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, the young adult fantasy Summerland, and a script for Spider-Man 2.

So it wasn't even a question whether or not there would be comics about the Escapist. The only question left is whether they are good.

Well, The Escapists is awesome, so that answers that question. It's about a trio of modern day would-be comic-creators who, through persistence and genius on a level with Kavalier and Clay, gain the rights to the character and navigate the ensuing madness as they sell their homemade comic.

The comic starts with a story written by Chabon, in which an aging and near-blind Sam Clay accidentally locks himself in a closet he believes to be a restroom. He is let out by one Brian K. Vaughan, author of The Escapists. (Also the creator of the breathtakingly good Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and Runaways series.)

The prologue gave me a good chuckle. Sam Clay is just as crotchety as I thought he would be as an old man. He advises Vaughan to check out the comic book convention downstairs. We are all the better for this imaginary advice.

As for the innards of the comic, Maxwell Roth, our hero, has seen both parents die recently. His mom left a sizeable life insurance policy, but Max, instead of using it to pay the rent, buys the rights to his father's all-time favorite comic character from the remnant of a 1940s conglomerate.

Max's best friend, Denny Jones, is a calligrapher, so they've got the lettering, but Max still needs an artist. He finds one in Case Weaver, a cute punked-out girl who drops an art sample after Max, in his day job, frees her from a broken elevator.

The comic switches between Eduardo Barreto's art in "real life," portraying Case, Denny and Max with humor and flair, and Jason Shawn Alexander's dark, dizzying art in the Escapist comic, supposedly representing Case's art in the made-up comic. Alexander's art is all shadows and speed, with looming iron chains and cages and the dark, sexy Luna Moth, another character from the Kavalier & Clay days, teasing the Escapist across rooftops and through secret lairs.

As if that wasn't enough life imitating art, the three virally market their comic by dressing Denny up in an Escapist costume. He is supposed to open the locks on a Wal-Martish chain where the union-busting executives lock their graveyard shift employees in overnight. A nice bit of justice and escapism, right? Only once they arrive, the locks are already open. Denny sees a couple of meth-heads robbing the store, holding the employees hostage at gunpoint. Denny, a burly guy, grabs one meth-head and gets the gun away from him. With a few well-placed punches, he does justice Escapist-style.

The scene shows up on national news and gives Case, Max and Denny more fame than they ever expected, as their book rockets into the top ten. It also sets up all the legal trouble they will have fighting a conglomerate that wants to acquire the rights to the Escapist. One call from a sleazy executive and the trouble begins, as the exec rightly surmises that this comic had something to do with the stunt.

Vaughan writes his own trio if characters with the same warmth and real drama that saturated Kavalier & Clay. Denny is good-natured and quiet, Max is neurotic, and Case is daring, pushing the others on to new heights. When the characters decide to pull their stunt with Wal-Mart, Max protests that Denny's appearance will lead the cops right back to their comic. "No," Case says to Max, "they'll track you down, and instead of finding the strapping young Aryan behind the protests, they'll find a geeky Jewish kid." Max protests, "I'm not a geek!" Case, the dare plain in her sexy smile, says "Prove it."

Vaughan's writing is warm and human, so that even the most unlikely events are easily accepted as part of this rollercoaster ride. There's something right about life imitating art in a story about comic books. It's an echo in spirit and plot of Kavalier & Clay without being derivative.

Go read the comic too, as soon as you're finished with the novel that inspired it. Go!

Fables actually imitates art imitating, or reasonably appearing as, life. Confused? I don't know why you would be. That sentence is perfectly clear.

In the first scene, Beauty and the Beast sit before Deputy Mayor of Fabletown Snow White, discussing their marital problems, the Beast trying to talk around a set of newly grown fangs. Since their enchanted marriage encountered enchanted marital problems, Beast appears more beastly to the extent that his wife is mad at him.

A few pages later, a handsome man tells his waitress, "I'm tempted to ask you for your phone number." The waitress answers, "I'm tempted to give it. Actually, I'm about to go off shift and I'm tempted to ask you to come home with me right now." He readily agrees, but not before he talks the waitress into paying his tab. When she asks him his name, he says, "I'm Prince Charming, of course."

And so on. The inhabitants of Fable have been driven from their homeland into the human world by a Sauron figure called the Adversary and his goblin hordes. The nonhuman Fables live on an upstate farm (including a cranky pig who keeps showing up in B. Wolf's apartment) while the human Fables live in an extensive apartment complex in the city. An amnesty has been declared on order to keep the community together, so the likes of the Big Bad Wolf and Bluebeard can hobnob with Snow White.

The first issue introduce us to Bigby Wolf, the cranky werewolf sheriff of Fabletown and his sometimes-partner Snow White, the deputy mayor. Snow White's wild child sister Rose Red has gone missing, her apartment left a bloody mess as reported by her boyfriend Jack, of the beanstalk. Bigby Wolf investigates, in the process plumbing the dark heart of Fabletown.

Willingham has plucked the best characters he could from fairy tales and made them into a community full of deceit, jealousy and gallows humor. This murder mystery is more HBO than Disney. In one scene Pinocchio vents about his real-boy status: "That ditzy bitch of a fairy interpreted my wish too literally. I'm over three centuries old, and I still haven't gone through puberty. I want to grow up, I want my balls to drop, and I want to get laid."

Lan Medina's pencils stay generally pedestrian, telling the job with a flair for backgrounds and settings but with an awkward stiffness at times. He does a good job of making each character unique -- Bluebeard especially has a nice upper-class rich guy creepiness, and Prince Charming looks just as swanky and insufferable as you might imagine. Medina's pencils seem to get more magical as the plot gets more magical, as in the flashback scenes recalling the Adversary's invasion, where immense giants and hordes of beastly goblins tower over the hamlets of the fable world. I found myself wishing that he could draw some more fantasy. Most of the magical events in Fables happen briefly or off-screen.

That's kind of the problem with Fables It's a fun ride, with a killer concept and a lot of grown-up ribbing about kid's stories, but for the promise of its premise, Willingham is too bleak and too real. There's little of the spirit of the fairy tale in Fables. Nothing happens in lyrical rounds of threes, and there's no riddle built into what is a straightforward murder mystery. Bigby Wolf is the same character as every hard-boiled detective.

The concept of Fables recalls Neil Gaiman's masterwork American Gods. And like American Gods, Fables makes reality a nasty, brutal thing that doesn't mesh well with the grandeur of fairy-story. But Fables deals with a lesser level of mythology, and I can't help feeling that it could take itself a little less seriously than American Gods did.

I did want to read the ending and find out who or what the Adversary is. And after reading, I had a strong tendency to look at the people around me for magical origins. My neighbor, who sits on his porch, smokes, pays his guitar and sings Jack Johnson songs, is clearly some variant of lazy Jack, waiting for someone to make him to go to work and have an adventure. The chubby guy sitting across from me in the coffee shop is obviously Old King Cole, and would go for a pipe and fiddlers three with his mocha.

And you, dear reader, are in need of some seven-league boots to get to the bookstore or library as quick as possible and pick up the fine works of Chabon, Vaughan and Willingham. You didn't think I'd forgotten, did you? Tally-ho!

Next issue: We begin a holiday celebration of mutant FILTH! The Twelve Days of X-Men begin counting down, in thirty.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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