Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
March 2010

I can feel the Force, Master -- oh, wait, that's just gas.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Commencement (Dark Horse 2006), P. Craig Russell - Isolation and Illusion: Collected Short Stories 1977-1997 (Dark Horse 2003)

Certain things on this earth make me stupid. Stupid like only miniskirts or tequila should make a grown man.

First among them are Transformers, with Spider-Man a close second. In my unconscious mind, I think I am convinced that the secret to eternal salvation lies in a car that can turn into a robot and back into a car again. When a new Transformer comic comes out, I will ignore my screaming two-year-old and possibly call in sick to work so that I can discuss its merits or lack thereof online. And when I say "merits," I mean 30% plot and art quality and 70% "whether or not Omega Supreme could really beat Devastator." (If you know who I'm talking about, put this computer away and take your significant other out on a real date. Remember to shower.)

Anyway, my point, as to the extent I have one, is this:

Star Wars does not put me in such a state.

It did once. I got to the theater at 4:30 in the morning for my Phantom Menace tickets, and I saw the movie at midnight and then twice again the next day. I had been reading the tie-ins, collecting the action figures, and waiting for that prequel with such fervor that I actually couldn't sleep for the week before the premier.

And then, after the third time I saw it, without the adrenaline and the tiredness . . . the movie sucked. I didn't care about Star Wars anymore.

(A few years later, a very special person named Peter Jackson healed that hole in my heart. But I digress.)

So I thought, "Why not try a Star Wars comic? I could see what it's like from the other side. I'm not obsessed, but I know the line this comic is trying to straddle between longtime fan and new reader."

So I grabbed the first thing I found at the library, Knights of the Old Republic, which is set a good thousand years before Mister Skywalker. I remember liking the original Tales of the Jedi comics that told stories of the Jedi thousands of years before Luke. It was nicely removed from any dancing around the movie characters, able to tell a grand narrative of its own instead of fill in the holes of Lucas's story.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

John Jackson Miller's story had some flaws and Brian Ching's art had its weaknesses, but Knights of the Old Republic: Commencement was a lot of fun. Best of all, it had a sense of self-awareness that George Lucas utterly lacks. Early on in the story, two young Jedi discuss the traditionalist politics of their elders versus the secular conflicts within the Republic. "To get them to notice any threat to the Republic, we'd have to paint our heads and babble about the Dark Side." When one comments "that's not a very Jedi thought," the other retorts, "It's not always a very Jedi galaxy."

Main character Zayne Carrick is a bumbling bad-luck apprentice, proof, he says "that the Force has a sense of humor." He manages to bungle the arrest of a skeezy swindler in full view of his Jedi masters, and is quite certain that while his fellow trainees are to be knighted, he is about to be sent home as a Force washout.

But on the night of said knighting, something horrific happens. Without too many spoilers, let's just say that Zayne is accused of the murder of his fellow trainees, while the real killers go very much unaccused. Also without giving too many spoilers, let's say that the earlier conversation gave a nice foreshadowing to the horrific murder.

Zayne is forced to turn to the skeezy con artist he was previously hunting for help in hiding from his Jedi Masters, a trip which takes him through a seedy underbelly of the galaxy far, far away.

Miller occasionally crowds the page with too much dialogue, especially in the middle of the story. Jarael, a mechanic of questionable morals and Zayne's love interest, is supposed to come off as feisty, but from her many word balloons, she gets shrill.

Brian Ching draws great figures with a power and detail reminiscent of Billy Tan, the superstar X-Men and Avengers artist. The gizmos in Commencement aren't as cool as Cam Kennedy's in Star Wars: Dark Empire, but Ching pulls off some great lightsaber fight sequences, and fill-in artist Travel Foreman draws a great prophetic sequence in which the Jedi Masters foretell the fall of the Republic.

I'm looking forward to the next one, and I'm also checking out Star Wars: Legacy, a comic that takes the Lucas universe two hundred years in the other direction from Luke Skywalker's story.

But if I hop online and cyber-yell, "Force lightning is overused!" please stage an intervention.

I love P. Craig Russell's stuff. He has the most aesthetically perfected style in all of comics these days, with clean lines, powerful figures, and a beautiful sense of composition. His Ring of the Nibelung was a truly transformative adaptation, and pulled from opera, a medium that is notoriously difficult to adapt. His writing, usually done as an adaptation, is always perfectly suited to the story he is drawing.

So I was giddy when I found Isolation and Illusion, a collection of his short stories collected over the decades he's been working in comics. Each one is a little self-contained story, sometimes an adaptation of something that is often quite respectably literary. Cyrano de Bergerac is in there, as is O'Henry and H.P. Lovecraft. But Russell's image-laden original works are just as fantastic.

The title piece, rendered all in simple gray shades of pencil, follows an angel who awakens bound in a post-apocalyptic nightmarish city of the dead. He is surrounded by the rotting corpses of warriors, and tormented by the memory of a woman he has left behind.

Flying beyond the thorny reaches, he comes to a beautiful city in a watery kingdom, populated only by swans. He kisses one, and she transforms into his love, only to transform back into a bird. Trying to fly after her, he awakens, back in hell.

My favorite story is de Bergerac's Voyage to the Moon. Here, Russell ditches his realistic figures for a quirky cartoon style, following our large-nosed hero as he is "caught in the circle of lunar influence which exerts a sucking motion upon the fat of the body." Right.

Once upon the moon, he meets the goofy V-shaped inhabitants, blue and naked and muscular with eyebrows like loaves of French bread. Upon learning their language, he is forced to retract his statement that this world is a moon and our world is not, at pain of their worst penalty, dying of old age.

They put him through a number of other tests, and expose him to their very queer ways of eating (by smelling) and reading (by listening to a queer device that reads the book aloud. This appears to be an invention de Bergerac brought back from the moon).

All these goofy things are in de Bergerac's story, but Russell brings them brilliantly to life, like the demonstration of a "natural death" for the people of the moon, in which a best friend stabs his buddy in the heart during a big party for said stabbee. The goofy smile, the kiss, the tears from under French-bread eyebrows and the little thunking dagger on these funny blue people makes the story so much more memorable.

From the vast landscapes of Heaven to the claustrophobic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, from the cartoony de Bergerac to the shifting violent dreamscape of "The Insomniac," Russell makes each of these stories into its own visual world. I only hope now I can track down his adaptations of Mozart's operas and of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales.

One last thing: In case you are wondering, Omega Supreme could definitely beat Devastator.

I need to shower.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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