Tag Archives: comic books

Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: OvertureThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was the Dream of the first created things: those that sleep in the sleep beneath space.

Neil Gaiman is the Sandman, can we all agree on that? In as much as the character has created him and he has created the character, Morpheus—he of the brooding visage and the black shirts—is in some sense certainly Gaiman’s idealization of aspects of himself. And it’s also true that Gaiman gets to create the world of Dreaming, gets to guard and define it, just as the Sandman does. It’s a narrative artistry that works here. On the canvas of a comic embellished with incredible artistry, Gaiman’s strength in creating idealizations of form and dialogue is untouchable. Lines like the one above float on pages of color and wonder. They are, I think, much harder to carry off in a novel.

They say every story must be told at least once, before the final nightfall.

As a kid I loved Marvel’s Infinity War, in which cosmic forces like Order, Chaos, and Infinity went to war in full color spreads across the panels. This is more or less what we get in Sandman: Overture, a six-issue collection that is faster and more epic but with less subtly and texture than was developed in the full seventy-five issues of the Sandman series itself. Of course, this prequel lacks the scope of the entire series, but it also plays for higher stakes. Gaiman was relatively unknown at the start of his run in Sandman; now he’s a legend returning to his homeland.

These stakes are reflected in the narrative: Dream has to save reality itself. Yet the collection of powers at play here teeters on the baroque: the enigmatic First Circle (should I know who they are?), Dream’s parents, the Endless themselves, and the potential death of the universe. I read the original Sandman series years ago, so this straightforward read was more for the epic wonder and beauty of the thing; a closer reading would probably bring to light all the nooks and crannies Gaiman has filled into the texture of the original Sandman. Even the lapsed fan though can appreciate finally learning how Dream came to be captured at the very beginning of the series.

Dream attempts to save the universe, with the help of a little girl named Hope. Trite? A bit, if it wasn’t so gorgeous. Only Gaiman, aided and abetted by the overwhelming artistic genius of J. H. Williams III, can get away with lines like this, Dream explaining his situation to his mother:

I was expelled from the universe, by stars caught up with rhetoric and infection. I’m currently inside a black hole.

Does it work? Of course it does; it’s Gaiman. But it works because Gaiman gets to make his own rules. In a story that deals with embodiments of psychic principles projected on a cosmic scale, you don’t have to worry about self-consistency. Not matter what finality with which Dream is cast into a black hole at the end of one chapter, his mother can stop by for a chat and his brother can tug him out with relative ease a few pages later. How did the ship get into Destiny’s garden? The simple answer is magic, and it’s the magic bleeding off the pages of this work that makes it all right.

There is (of course) a dreamlike quality to the whole thing. It hangs together while you’re reading it but upon waking the logic starts to unravel and—like a dream—you’re left with only memories and images of beauty.

Which is probably the point.

The Incal

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a good Christmas this year. Among other things, I found beneath the tree a book sometimes said to be the greatest comic ever written, The Incal. I don’t know about that, but it does seem a sort of Citizen Kane of science fiction graphic novels. It’s written by Jodorowsky with art by Moebius, both of whom are names that loom large in the background of lots of science fiction whether or not you’ve actually heard of them. The comic was originally published in the 1980s in French and is supposed to have been pivotal in defining the scope and possibility of the medium for doing epic, genre-bending science fiction. Jodorowsky was at one point working on an screen adaptation of Dune (late 1970s, prior to the David Lynch version) and though abandoned you can see the influences here. Moebius went on to do art and storyboards for things like Tron, Aliens, and The Fifth Element, which is why much of The Incal seems eerily familiar. It was a test bed for much of what defined scifi for the next decade.

As far as narrative goes though, the bones are bare. We’re abruptly dropped into the life and mishaps of John DiFool, a rumpled, selfish, slovenly private investigator, who stumbles upon a powerful conscious entity/artifact called the Incal and who quickly becomes the target of random groups and forces angling to get their hands on it. Characters are introduced just as abruptly as well, without any real backgrounding or development: evil swamp queen, superhuman bounty hunter, dog-headed marauder, and topless animistic love interest. Dialog is clunky, with characters frequently explaining themselves, their feelings, and their motivations. Like Citizen Kane, looking back on it now it seems pretty wooden.

But in the midst this Jodorowsky spins out a dizzying, fractal-like story that spans multiple galaxies and ranges from slum planets (with loads of social satire) to the gold-encrusted galactic capital to watery prison worlds and beyond. Even though the first half of the book is basically one long chase scene and the second a lot of random things happening in quick succession, each thing is brilliantly new, fusing fantasy, science fiction, and mysticism (the main characters are supposed to each embody characters or aspects from the Tarot), making it a worthy read.

It’s the art of Moebius though that marks this a classic. Jodorowsky’s writing is haphazard and exuberant, but he doesn’t provide any depth of character or real explanations of plot. The only revelations that come in the book are in the shattering, full-page vistas by Moebius. What could in prose be a run-of-the-mill deus ex machina, for instance, becomes in this medium a gorgeous and sublime epiphany.

Moebius’s art is multi-form and morphic. It’s gritty when necessary, cartoonish when appropriate, and epic, sweeping, or detailed as needed. Packed crowd scenes feel almost Where’s Waldo-esque, aspects of the Great Darkness foreshadow the segmented horrors of Aliens, and the detailed techno panels feel familiar from classic Star Wars story boards or concept sketches. Overlaid with this all, the colors are sharp and vivid, making the whole sweeping dream-like tableau electric and lively. It’s easy to see why this was groundbreaking at the time (and scandalous, considering some scenes made it originally censored in its first US release) .

The edition of the work I found under the Christmas tree is packaged in hardcover with high-quality printing that I can only imagine helps recapture what it must have originally felt like reading it. With that and the added touch of a ribbon bookmark, the outside of The Incal feels as weighty and significant and the interior is trippy and avante garde, like you’re holding a piece of visual and literary science fiction history (as you are).

More Than Meets the Eye: Volume 5

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 5 (Transformers (Numbered))Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 5

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do you take an 80s toy franchise and make legitimate science fiction storytelling out of it? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with Michael Bay.

The Transformers are an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, they represent the point in time when the boundary between making cartoons and selling toys finally broke down completely, and they were the opening salvo in what for many of us was a childhood filled with half-hour toy advertisements thinly disguised as entertainment. On the other hand, in the hands of the right writers they had the makings of truly epic science fiction: sentient robots who had been fighting a war for six million years and whose very bodies were shaped into vehicles and weapons. (The original animated movie was somewhere in the middle: a feature length toy advertisement with a plot only a seven-year-old could–and did–love, it was for many of us the first introduction to gorgeous Japanese animation and its potential for bringing giant robots to life.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it is in the comic book medium– which seems especially suited for walking the line between outright commercialization and original storytelling– that the Transformers as credible science fiction have best found their niche. This happened originally in the final arch of the original Marvel run back in the 90s, written by Simon Furman and pencilled by Andy Wildman. Furman and Wildman together created an interpretation of the Autobots and Decepticons in which the corrosion of millennia of war was evident, and they gave an additional space operatic depth by a mythological explanation of the Transformers’ origins and position as guardians against the embodiment of Chaos. It worked (for too short a time), and I’ve dutifully passed on the Titan Book reprints of these runs on to my own kids.

Since then I’ve obligingly checked out the various reincarnations of the franchise, most often with the waste of time and money. (Come on, they’re giant transforming robots? How much depth do you really expect?) When I learned that IDW had split their Transformers run into two separate ongoing series a couple years ago, I figured the first collected volume of each might make appropriate Christmas gifts for my twin sons. I’d have to read them first, of course, so I flipped a coin and ordered volume one of More Than Meets the Eye. I quickly realized that a) this wasn’t a series for kids (or at least not for kids as young as my kids are), and b) this was what I had been waiting for since Furman and Wildman.

I’ve waxed eloquent on the merit of this series in my reviews of the previous four volumes, so I’ll try to keep my comments here constrained to the fifth and latest installment. All along, Roberts has been laying track to some epic conclusions but more importantly taking the time to build characters and backstory along the way. Milne’s artwork and eye for detail takes it up another notch. (Have you ever considered how difficult it must be to convey emotions on a robotic visage lacking nose, mouth, and other characteristic facial features?) My major (and really only) complaint with the series so far was the fact that Milne left the helm for the artwork of a few issues in volume four. It’s not that I don’t mind a different artist, but some of those who were drawing for issues in that volume simply weren’t up to the task of communicating the scenes and moods Roberts was creating.

I’ve tried to express the shear delight of this series before: imagine all your childhood friends getting together on a spaceship and going off to have adventures. In some sense, that’s all there is to it. On another level though, Roberts is writing science fiction in the best tradition, and doing it well. Remember, these are nearly-immortal robots who have known nothing but millennia of warfare. Exploring issues like what peace means to lifeforms whose very bodies are weapons, answering questions about mortality and origins, looking at what relationships might develop among a species that lacks gender– and doing it all with pathos and humor. This is what you can expect with this series.

Volume five in no way disappoints and even more encouragingly avoids two of the greatest dangers that often begin to afflict a series once it’s been going on for a while. The first danger with any continuing series is that subsequent issues will simply continue to string the reader along by adding mystery to mystery and refusing to provide any real resolutions. (Think the first few volumes of The Unwritten, or, from what I understand, the entire series of Lost.) Enough of this and you start to suspect that maybe the writer isn’t actually planning on resolving anything or maybe doesn’t have a plan at all. Maybe (horror!) they’re more interested in you purchasing the next issue than telling a great story. I started to get that dreaded feeling with the end of volume four, especially related to the fate of Ultra Magnus. An additional twist? And there was still so much that hadn’t yet been explained!

But in volume five there are answers, and we go places. The quest takes a major step forward. The fate of Ultra Magnus is explained, but more importantly the mystery of Skids’ immediate past, which had been lingering since the first volume, is resolved. New characters are introduced and some old ones are dispatched. The volume consists of a five-issue story arch in which our heroes discover a lost moon of Cybertron and defeat a character we’ve only heard alluded to in the past plus an additional one-shot character piece that gives nice breathing space before the series goes off to play in a big IDW crossover for a while. The writing and the art is as solid as I’ve come to expect.

The second danger of a continuing series is that certain (i.e. main) characters become more or less untouchable by default, so there’s eventually a lack of tension. You know the main characters are going to make it, no matter how grim things look. The redshirts are not. The best writers of course push this convention as far as the franchise (and it is, after all, a franchise) will allow, at times even turning it on its head. They make you care about redshirts, and then kill them (which happens in this volume). Or they “kill” a main character, but in a way you don’t expect (which is what happens to Ultra Magnus but doesn’t feel like a throwaway because it fundamentally alters the way you think about the character).

There’s a lot to love here (especially if you love giant transforming robots), but one of my favorite things about this series is the depth it brings to the character of Rodimus. I was never an Optimus Prime kid. Prime always seemed to me rather flat and over-idealized as a character. There’s not a lot to him besides 100% leadership and responsibility and seriousness all the time. Rodimus was different. If Optimus Prime was your dad, Rodimus was your cool older brother. He was the guy who stumbled into greatness and was never comfortable with the responsibility but craved the fame and glory. Roberts does great things with his character in this volume, balancing his headstrong immaturity with his responsibility to his crew. And all the while you know– or you know if your Tranformers mythos was highly influenced by the animated movie– that something is building. Rodimus is going to be central to something big, more than simply playing at being Captain Awesome (which he does quite well).

I’ve heard a rumor that this volume wraps up the first “season” of More than Meets the Eye and that Roberts has at total of five plotted out. I hope this is true, and I hope indeed that IDW knows what they have going on here and allow Roberts and Milne to keep up the good work. Because, come on? Making art and literature out of giant transforming space robots? That were originally toys cobbled together from two disparate Japanese toy lines and given a thin veneer of backstory to help them sell better? We need more of that kind of crazy.