Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sequential Art

I've been reading some comics and graphic novels lately, and I have more to go over the next few weeks. Here's what I've read:

:: Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.

I liked this quite a bit, but I wanted to like it more. The conceit here is an encapsulation of the first few decades of the Marvel Comics universe, starting with the debut of the Human Torch and ending shortly after the death of Gwen Stacy. The tale is told, however, from the viewpoint of a normal person witnessing all this: news photographer Phil Sheldon, who documents the adventures and battles of all the superheroes who would fill out the Marvel universe.

The best thing about this work is the art. Alex Ross's paintings are often stunning, and it turns out (via a series of appendices) that he includes a lot of visual in-jokes along the way. The images are cinematic in the things they focus upon, how the characters move, and in how the action plays out.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Marvel series without a nice-sized helping of angst, and we get that a lot here. Sheldon's feelings about the sudden oncoming of superpowered beings tracks the general feeling that the Marvel Universe always posited, right down to the hatred and mistrust of mutants, and -- well, frankly, a little of that goes a long way. Our narrator, Phil Sheldon, stews constantly over the public treatment the heroes receive from the public, so much so that about halfway through the four-episode set I was thinking, "OK, we get it. People suck even in the presence of superheroes."

But the panoramic view of a large segment of the Marvel history is often amazing in a way that I, as a comics fan, often failed to notice when buying my titles each month. I enjoy the attempt to portray just what the effect on the populace would be -- not just that heroes exist, but also because superheroes have enemies who like to destroy large whacks of large cities at a time.

As noted, I loved the artwork. (Gwen Stacy, as pictured here, is utterly beautiful.) I just wish the story had invested itself more in the sense of wonder than in the constant Marvel angst.

:: The Death of Superman.

Somehow, when this massive stunt by DC in 1991 (or thereabouts) took place, I never read it. Now I have.

And it sucked.

There's a way to kill a major comic book character, and there's a way not to do it. The right way is to make their death dramatically important. Superman's...wasn't.

The story? While Superman is going about his daily business, a horrible being named Doomsday bursts free from...somewhere, and makes his way to Metropolis, destroying everything he touches on his way. The tale ends with a fistfight between Superman and Doomsday, at the end of which both characters are dead.

Then there's a follow-up storyline called World Without a Superman which fares a bit better; there's some sense of real emotion there that was absent in the whole Death storyline. All the Metropolis stuff is still fairly dull, though; the only really interesting stuff is to be found in the reactions of Jonathan and Martha Kent to the passing of their adoptive son.

I started reading The Return of Superman, but I haven't made a lot of progress and I'm not sure I care enough to finish it.

As much as I love comics, I have to admit that I may be losing my taste for superhero tales.

:: The Yellow Jar and Silk Tapestry (volumes one and two of Songs of our Ancestors), by Patrick Atangan.

Now here is some beautiful work. These two very small books -- I read them both, taking my time on the words and savoring the art in their 96 total pages, in about ninety minutes -- each tell a couple of short folk tales. The Yellow Jar is from the Japanese tradition, while Silk Tapestry's stories come from China. (There's a third book, Tree of Love, which tells tales from India that I haven't read yet.)

I don't really want to say anything about these more than that. It's just that after all the heavy superhero stuff where the Fate of the Earth/Universe/Multiverse hangs in the balance, turning back to lovingly illustrated folk tales is a pleasure not unlike a bit of lemon sorbet after a heavy meal.

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