Friday, March 14, 2008

A Graphic Discussion

I received the final installment of the Umbrella Academy: the Apocalypse Suite and savored every moment of it. So I figured it was time to write another Book Bite about the two graphic novels I have read recently. (As an aside, do you call them "comic books" or "graphic novels"? Perhaps that is a debate for another post...)

The Umbrella Academy starts out with a strange worldwide event where 47 women simultaneously give birth. The catch? None of the women were pregnant before that moment. The children are "extraordinary" and a strange millionaire adopts seven of the children, saying they are key to saving the world. He raises them to be superheroes, and shows favoritism to those that have more skill or superhero powers. The story then moves forward to the present day. The children have grown up, and apart, as we are shown the dysfunctional results of their strange upbringing. A funeral brings them back together, and this forced reunion sets events in motion that causes them to reluctantly step into their old superhero roles and the world. I feel like I cannot describe more without giving it all away and I know some of you who are reading this will want to check the series out. I wouldn't dare take the fun away from you.

The story is so very imaginative and unlike anything I've ever read. The writing was tight and unexpectedly witty while other times it was very touching. The artwork is vibrant and perfectly matches the wild creativity of the story, which is filled with alien monsters, talking monkeys, a murderous robotic Eiffel tower, androids, time travel, and classical music. Sounds crazy, but it totally works. I am completely hooked. The story arc of this six-part series was satisfying all on its own, but it's also obvious it is an introduction to a much bigger story and much larger universe. Many things were alluded to or hinted at, in regards to backstory, that I am already desperate to know. I would dare to say it has re-imagined the whole comic book superhero idea and story, but I must confess I am not completely immersed into the comic book world enough in order to be able to confidently make that statement. Either way, I enjoyed it so thoroughly, that I went ahead and bought the bound version of the complete series, even though I own all six comics.

The other graphic novel that I read was Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born, which is based on the characters and stories from the Dark Tower books by Stephen King. King is overseeing the creation of this series, so the quality is top-notch and the comic really does seem to capture the feel or vibe of the strange, post-apocalyptic, Old West meets King Arthur, sci-fi/fantasy world King created in his novels. The story follows the pre-teen Roland and his two friends, as they go through the rite of passage to become "gunslingers." Things don't go exactly as planned and as a result, Roland and his crew are sent to the East colonies as a type of ostracizing punishment. Yet, with a little redeeming grace, they are given a task: to spy on the evil men in that land, who are planning a civil war with the help of a witch. Again, I know there are some of you reading this who have the Dark Tower novels on your reading list, so I will refrain from revealing much more about the story.

The long-term intent of this comic book venture, is to explore areas of the Dark Tower world that aren't covered in the novels (a great idea, since it is such an imaginative and expansive world). However, this particular six-part series covers exactly events that are told in the fourth Dark Tower book, Wizard and Glass. This makes it hard for me to be unbiased when writing this review, since I've already read the story in novel form. Having said all that, when it comes to the graphic novel, I think I enjoyed the artwork, more than I did the actual story. The plot seemed to move by too quickly and a lot of the emotion I felt when I read the original novel just wasn't there with the comic. The artwork is dark and fits the mood of the story but I felt like it was lacking in really expressing the specific emotions of the various scenes. The artist made some weird choices in regards to the expressions of the faces, the stylizing of the clothes, etc. It was distracting, in a way.

Both of these graphic novels, as much as I enjoyed them, also left me very frustrated. I don't know if it's because I've been reading so many novels lately, that I failed at shifting mental gears and engaging the part of my brain necessary to interpret and enjoy the comic book way of telling stories, or that I'm used to getting a lot of details when reading novels, but I felt like they were not adequately telling the story. It seems with both Umbrella Academy and Dark Tower, they were heavy on the visual style and sparse on the text and that was very frustrating to me. Don't get me wrong, I love telling stories through art and line and color. I am an illustrator at heart. However, they weren't telling me enough visually, and the text was so sparse, I kept feeling like I wanted them to flesh it out more.

One last thought...I enjoyed Umbrella Academy better than I did Gunslinger Born, and I can't help but wonder if the delivery/reading time was a factor. For the Umbrella Academy, I read one comic book a month, for six months, until the whole series was complete. As I waited for the next issue to arrive, I found myself re-reading the comics, pausing to really study some of the artwork, and contemplating the characters and wondering what the next issue would hold. The Gunslinger Born, on the other hand, I bought in a graphic novel form, where all six comic books had already been released and were bound together into one complete hardback novel. I blazed through it in one sitting. I wonder if this has anything to do with my level of enjoyment or appreciation? Did my imagination have more time to "click" with the Umbrella Academy and really appreciate it? I wonder...

Do you have any good comics to recommend? What are your thoughts on the medium? Drop me a comment and let me know.


raven said...

I am really behind in my comic book reading I guess. Someday I'll have to catch up.

Anonymous said...

I have read the Dark Tower book, and while I liked it, I feel your critique of the genre is warranted. Is it any wonder that most movies based on comics seem to have characters that are more two dimensional than three. I mean, I love me some spiderman, but please, that character is not by any means deep. - Chad

D.L. White said...

Whew! Glad to hear you felt the same way. I was worried it was just me...