Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
January 2013

Walk 'Round Middle-Earth, To Work Thy Middle Girth.

The Hobbit: Illustrated By David Wenzel, Adapted By Chuck Dixon (Del Rey 1990), The Martian Chronicles

If you've seen The Hobbit, which you all have, your next step is a good pee, because man that was a long movie.

The next step after that is to complain on the Internet that holy crap that was padded out.

The next step after that is to reread the book, or check out the graphic novel adaptation. And such an adaptation it is, blessed with gorgeous, rich watercolors by David Wenzel, a fantasy artist without compare.

It's hard to detach Middle-Earth visually from the world created by John Howe and Alan Lee, the artists who inspired and supervised Peter Jackson's design. But if you can, perhaps, put yourself in the mindset of one first visualizing the world of The Hobbit, Wenzel's art is a dream come true.

Bilbo's world is alive with washes of red and green and blue; hobbit-cheeks are rosy and little hairy feet trod the rocks of Middle-Earth. Gandalf's bushy eyebrows bristle from under his voluminous blue hat, and his beard seems alive. Grotesquely faced goblins, their lips hanging like Dali's clocks, babble about the evil of dwarves. Beorn is a roaring beast towering out of the madness of the Battle of Five Armies.

I personally loved Bilbo in the comic. He's rounder, homelier and hairier than Martin Freeman, and though I wouldn't replace Freeman, it is nice to have the little fat Hobbit tummy Tolkien described.

At other times one wishes Wenzel had Jackson's visual resources -- the Elves look like a bunch of generic medieval townspeople, indistinguishable from the men and women of Lake-town. But there's very little to complain about with the art.

Except for one more thing: you can't see enough of it, because there are too many words on each page!

It's a peculiar fact of life that The Hobbit's comic-book adaptation suffers from the exact opposite problem that the film has. Peter Jackson made the mistake of padding out a well-paced story without really adding in well-paced action sequences of his own. An hour for Bilbo to decide to leave his house. Another hour to get to Goblin-Town. This when the Council of Elrond sequence in Fellowship was a measly four minutes! Jackson has shown that he knows how to pace a story.

This comic, in contrast, squeezes absolutely everything into its meager page count. Chuck Dixon, the writer, festoons each page with Tolkien's admittedly flowery prose. So much so that this isn't so much a graphic novel adaptation as it is another illustrated edition of The Hobbit. That's fine -- I own and like both illustrated editions by Michael Hague and Alan Lee, respectively, and could always use more -- but the text here, typical comic-book text, is tiny! And everywhere!

We can get Bilbo decompressed on film or squeezed into a tiny comic, but we can't get the pacing right from Tolkien's simple, straightforward quest!

Too many words on a page makes for a difficult comic for kids, in this case, the target audience of The Hobbit, to read. Comic books are good for young readers because they often have high vocabulary levels (notice how Calvin and Hobbes used words like "anthropomorphize" and "oblique aspersions") with a low level of words on the page, and an easy-to-contextualize visual layout.

But with a ton of words on the page, crammed into tiny panels, with things happening in said tiny panels, which compare to about 9 point font . . . it makes The Hobbit actually harder to read.

Don't let it stop you, folks. But perhaps you might reflect, with me, that the adaptation of The Hobbit which best nailed pacing and characterization was the creepily fun Rankin-Bass animated adaptation.

(One cannot help wondering, after seeing this adaptation of The Hobbit, if a Lord of the Rings comic series might be in the works. Longtime Pictographers know this is on my wish list. It would have to be given lots of room -- you can't cover more than two Tolkien chapters, really, per 48-page issue. I've always thought that P. Craig Russell was born for this project. Carlos Pacheco could probably nail it as well, going by his work on the series Arrowsmith. There are a lot of artists who could go very wrong on it, so we would need a careful, thoughtful artist willing to put in the same obsessive detail Jackson did. We would also need a writer like Peter David on The Dark Tower comics, able to bring humanity to the original language.

To whomever in the industry may be listening: do it! And get it right!)

On the other hand, The Martian Chronicles almost captures Bradbury's vision perfectly. We all read The Martian Chronicles in junior high. I suspect that if you didn't, you are a Martian yourself.

The book is lyrical, deep, a poetic ode to all that is unknown and alien in the human spirit: infidelity, madness, grief, time's tricks and the disconnect between modern life, built over indigenous people's tragedies and ghosts.

Dennis Calero's art is almost a perfect match. It takes a photorealistic style and drenches it in deep, dark contrast, making the world one of half-light, a red wash, and deep black. A particular effective sequence is in the story "The Off-Season" where a Martian swims out of the air, white bits of hair trailing behind its head, to confront an arrogant human.

The only issue is that Calero's art is often claustrophobic. There are a lot of claustrophobic, paranoid moments in Bradbury's book, so this is often good. "The Martian" takes us to the house of a couple who have lost their son and have him replaced by a Martian, whose latent telepathy causes him to appear as a different lost loved one to each human. This story, full of facial close-ups, ending on a horrendous moment when the Martian collapses in a puddle of faces, is perfectly suited to the art.

In other places, though, we need a lot more room. ". . . And The Moon Be Still As Bright" follows the steadily deteriorating madness of a crew member on an exploratory ship, as he explores the Martian ruins and becomes convinced he must kill his crewmates to keep the place sanctified.

The comic is mostly head shots, even though there is a great deal of talk about the Martian vistas and Martian cities, and Bradbury's prose relies on the Martian landscape being a character. This particular story needs more vistas.

It's a minor complaint, though. This is really a great adaptation of Bradbury's work. The art has its own poetry.

Next issue: The Incredible Changing Robots are back! Yes, it's time to take the pulse of Transformers comics, and see if anything can redeem us from the curse of Michael Bay.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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