Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
August 2010

Sequential Art and Wenches For You, Traveler.

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories (Dark Horse 2005), Joker (DC 2008)


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Some of the worst prose I've ever read was written by one of my favorite writers. It wasn't Shakespeare, though Pericles reads like the Bard penned it during a hangover with the creditors banging on the door.

The prose in question was by Robert Jordan, the now-legendary fantasist who penned the grandiose Wheel of Time series. This was not prose from The Wheel of Time, a magnificent work despite its flaws. This was instead in the Conan spinoffs Jordan wrote when he was younger. And let me tell you. Such prose, traveler. It was bad.

Conan's typical come-on was to dismember a group of raiders, save an underdressed wench, remove his ever-present loincloth (I guarantee you he never washed the thing) and declare that he would have her right then and there. Her usual response? "Okay." Occasionally: "How dare you?"

Conan would respond with something like "I dare" and she would melt. And they would get it on, and I remember this phrase distinctly -- "for she was a woman, and Conan knew something of women." There was some drinking and decapitating once the loincloths went back on. Just the basics, really.

Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories were a landmark in fantasy. George R.R. Martin, my favorite fantasy writer and a guy who really can write on a Shakespearian plane, cites Howard as one of his early influences. It's hard to find anyone who hasn't read Conan in the fantasy genre, or even worse, the knock-off Gor novels.

What do people see in this guy? He makes Megatron look like MacBeth.

Post-birthday, I now own a Conan comic, due to my friend Sam, who not only reads these columns each month (he might even read them sober) but also checked them to make sure I didn't own the comic. Thanks, Sam.

Le verdict? I kind of get the appeal. I certainly enjoyed Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord's The Frost Giant's Daughter. Heroism in the Conan stories is not our anachronistic notion of heroism so often seen in fantasy characters. Conan, like Gilgamesh, Beowulf and Odysseus, is not an anti-hero, nor a thug, but he ain't a nice guy.

Conan is searching for a mystical paradise, Hyperborea, when he happens across the Aesir, presumably the mystical ancestors of the Northmen (as this is an age before "the sons of Aryas spread across the world"). With the Aesir, Conan battles his way through frost giants before he is tricked and sold into slavery to the Hyperboreans, who turn out to be lizardlike decadent immortals who have lionized suicide.

Naturally, Conan teams and shacks up with the diaphanously-clad Iasminy, servant to the chief Hyperborean, in a plot to spring his Aesir buddies and himself before the Hyperboreans take everyone with them in their ritual suicide.

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The ending has much of the tragedy inherent in the previously mentioned ancient epics, proving once again that Conan is closer to a fur-clad Saxon's hero than he is to Aragorn or Kvothe.

Just as he got the arrogant, hot-tempered but tightly-knit Avengers, writer Kurt Busiek gets the purple, high sounding dialect of Conan. When Conan describes Hyperborea, the utopia he seeks, he sounds like a low-rent Dante. "A land of eternal summer, where feathers fall from the sky in the place of snow, and where elegant spires of basalt and marble tower over pleasant lands, rich with precious stones and minerals."

Cary Nord's art is like Andy Kubrick's dynamic, big-as-life art in Wolverine: Origin, but I like it a little better. He makes Conan distinct, a short but thickly muscled dude who looks the part of the semi-thug he is. He draws the requisite babes, brutes and battles with aplomb, making each action distinct while keeping his pencils a little ambiguous in their detail as if to keep us peering through a distant mirror to the past.


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Busiek gets that on some level Conan is a real bastard, and he also gets that he can use the comic medium to the benefit of that trait. When I can watch Conan from the outside, instead of going along in his head, I don't feel as though I have to condone his actions like I would in print. This is good, since his "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth" include the pursuit of a vicious but sexy, mostly-nude frost-woman. After she nearly tricks him into his death, he seizes her against her wishes and announces his intent to "warm you with the fire in my own blood." Attempted rape from our protagonist. I could have seen Conan hacked to pieces at the end of this tale and not given a crap for him, but I will miss the romanticized barbarism that Busiek and Nord permeated this world with.

Joker seems to have been written for one reason: to put the Heath Ledger Joker into the comics. To a longtime comic fan this will seem a little silly; Ledger's sociopathic crimelord was created, by necessity, because of Jack Nicholson's portrayal. Ledger had to get as far as he could from an already legendary performance.


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The comic-book Joker has always existed happily between Ledger and Nicholson's interpretations. In The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker was at his best, giggling as Batman jumped through his deadly hoops as if he were a spurned lover taking mind-game revenge. Ledger got that, but he merged it with the thug-punk of Clockwork Orange, removing the bombast of the purple-suited comic figure.

In Joker, writer Brian Azzarello deliberately tried for Ledger's punk Joker, but got it wrong when he killed any and all mirth in the character. This guy is supposedly "cured," self-confessedly "not crazy anymore," and not prone to giggles and elaborate tricks. He's a crimelord with a self-destructive streak, trying to take back what is his.

Ledger Joker was, on some level, understandable. His little speech about "I'm a dog chasing a car" tapped into that universal desire to monkey with things the way they are purely for the sense of seeing what will happen. Batman is somewhat plausible, at least to a point, that point being the inevitable slug that will blow his head off. The Joker isn't. He can't be. That's why The Dark Knight was such a mess of plotholes after the airtight Batman Begins. Ledger and Nolan performed a fantastic sleight of hand, making the character so ridiculously larger-than-life and descending so far into madness that no one questioned how he could get a bomb anywhere or survive flipping big rigs.

This Joker has no such mirth, nor any taste for twisted social experiments. He skins a man alive who has let his crime empire go down. He rapes his own bodyguard's ex-wife. He pops pills and cries into the belly of his girlfriend Harley Quinn, now a silent gun-toting, stripping bad girl rather than the endearing nut Bruce Timm created. But he doesn't encounter Batman, his obsession, until the very end, having built up a crime empire and waited for the Dark Knight to notice.

Joker isn't a cool comic, nor is it original, not like Azzarello's 100 Bullets series. Our point of view character, Johnny Frost, is straight out of the Goodfellas mode. He's a goombah who wants "respect," with all the clichéd concepts therein. Nice suits, a booth at his own table in a fancy restaurant, and an ex-wife on her knees. I didn't care one way or the other about him when the Joker blew his head off in the end. He was that much of a stock character, and I had spent one hundred pages with him. Lee Bermejo's art is unique but hard to stomach in this hideous of a story, and it's deliberately dirty even if it is wonderfully detailed.

This comic just doesn't get what Heath Ledger and Frank Miller got. We have to like this scary freak a little.

In fact, after reading this, I actually realized that the Joker bugs me. Ledger's or Nicholson's Joker started to seem equally irrelevant. How evil are they really? Even the little Jokers around us have no more sphere of influence than a school shooter. They can play on others' fears and watch people destroy themselves. They might shoot up a restaurant, but they can't start a war and murder millions. They are just mad dogs, chasing their cars.

If you want to see a fictional character who embodies real evil, the kind of evil that will always steep parts of this world in blood, watch the film Serenity. The Operative, that nameless villain, is so utterly convinced that what he does is right that he is able to tell our hero Captain Reynolds that he kills children "when it is necessary."

In this sense, Ra's A Ghul in Batman Begins is a far more frightening villain than the Joker, though Liam Neeson unfortunately didn't play his role with the same convincing faith that Chiwetal Ejiofor did in Serenity. Ra's believed that Gotham had to be "purged" whether through recession, plague or poison. Remember the Operative's crucial lines: "I'm a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done."

When reading Joker, it becomes even clearer that his evil is petty -- dangerous but petty. I can't help wondering if the widespread admiration for Ledger's Joker is really a distraction, a fascination with the safe hometown psycho that keeps us from questioning the means of true evil. I'm not saying we shouldn't lock up our Jokers, and keep a watch on the unhinged. But methinks the masses doth question too little.

So the next time you get a hankering for Dark Knight, reach for Serenity instead. You might come away more frightened than Ledger could make you.

Next issue: The Battle of the 90s! Back in one-double-nine-seven, two history-making creative teams on Avengers and Justice League brought superhero comics out of a Dark Age. We set them up to battle for ultimate supremacy over the Tickle Me Elmo decade, in thirty!

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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