Weird Stuff–Graphic Novels   1 comment

Death in the desert.

In my last blog, I mentioned that I’d probably be reading a lot more graphic novels. I won’t be limiting myself to superhero stuff, although I love superhero stuff.  There are many talented artists getting things produced today, and I’m open-minded enough to read all of it.  Well, not all. That’s impossible.  I’ll be limited to what I can find at the Phoenix Public Library.

Don’t expect long detailed reviews. There are plenty of comix reviewing sites on the internet.  This blog is about what entertains me, so I’ll mostly be commenting on whether I liked things or not, and why.  That being said, I have two more rather elaborate graphic novels to comment on before I go hunting for more.

Considering that the superhero publishers turn out graphic novels that are just a bunch of comic books stuck together in a single publication, it amazes me that so many publishers make the effort to make their comics look like books.  Dark Wraith of Shannara looked like a book–you’d never know it was a comic unless you picked it up and glanced inside.  The two I’m talking about in this review also look like books.

Crogan’s March by Chris Schweizer is a French Foreign Legion tale set in 1912 North Africa.  Pete Crogan is an American boxer on the lam from the mob who winds up in the Foreign Legion.  It is a miserable life, and then he falls under the command of a dashing captain who bears the reputation of being the only survivor of several major battles.  Captain Roitelet is daring and funny, gallant and stupid, arrogant and prejudiced.  Serving under him cannot possibly end well, especially when Tuareg natives are on the warpath.

Captain Roitelet, Pete Crogan, and the Kid.

This isn’t just a story of high adventure in the Sahara Desert.  It’s a tale of imperialism in action.  Back in 1912 France hadn’t given up on the idea of having a vast worldwide colonial empire, and having lost the battle to the British in North America, India, and China, the French were doing all they could to build up their influence and possessions in Africa.  Empire doesn’t mean much to a tired soldier slogging through the sand, fighting off ambushes from the savage tribesmen of the desert.  It kinda makes one think of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn’t it?.  What are our soldiers doing there?  The people who live there don’t really want them.  The Berbers and Tuaregs of old Morocco didn’t want the French either.

One thing that needs to be talked about when discussing comix is the art.  Independent cartoonists like Chris Schweizer are much freer to develop their own idiosyncratic style.  They aren’t bound by superhero conventions.  The characters don’t have to be superhumanly beautiful and muscular.  They can have weird mustaches, bulging bellies, and eyes the size of baseballs.  The art can be flat and 2-dimensional. Realism doesn’t matter, but consistency does. When the art has no pretension of being anything other than art, it allows the reader to concentrate on the story.  That’s a good thing, I think. Schweizer tells a damn good story in Crogan’s March.

(There’s a nifty discussion of Crogan’s March here:  These guys go into far more detail and make a lot of valid points that I never would have thought of. It sounds like they’ve met Schweizer and know him a bit, which certainly isn’t true for me.)

My second book is called Salem Brownstone by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh.  By comparson Crogan’s March isn’t really weird at all–ungainly perhaps, but not really weird. For all its talk of djinns and desert spirits there was no truly supernatural elements in the foreign legion tale. Salem, on the other hand is a book about demons, and the artwork is straight out of a drug-induced hallucination.  The book is oversize and bound in purple velour.  The feel is incredibly rich for a book. The paper inside is thick, white, and high quality.   The endpapers have bizarre pictures on them–different from front to back.  Candlewick Press has really pulled out all the stops for a book selling for a mere $18.99.  Considered just as an artifact of bookmaking, the book is totally worth the price.

If you stare at the purple background of the cover long enough, you will go insane.

If I had to use a single word to sum up Salem Brownstone, it would be DISTORTION.  Everything in this comic is twisted.  Everything is grotesque.  Nikhil Singh must have had a great deal of fun drawing all this stuff. By contrast, the story itself is curiously bland–generic.  An ordinary person gets sucked into world-shattering plots. He meets bizarre allies and hideous enemies. He shows determination and courage and saves the world.  It’s the same old story. I’ve seen it a thousand times.  I’m not impressed by the story.  I am impressed by the art.  Singh is very talented–much more talented than author Dunning.  If you can read this book, do so, just to experience the journey into Nikhil Singh’s strange and distorted reality.  Others have reviewed this book and compared the art to the black and white inked brilliance of Aubrey Beardsley.  If Beardsley had become a comics artist, he might have become something like Nikhil Singh.  The two artists have a lot in common.

These pictures are included as a sample of Singh’s art.  Notice how twisted everything is. Excellent! I would like to live in a world where circus masters actually lived in dragon-shaped caravans.

I enjoyed Salem Brownstone, despite the weakness of the story. It was not original, but perhaps it was necessary. If there is no threat from outside forces of evil, then why would there be a story of a Magician’s Son and his very strange allies? I have a few quibbles with how the book was produced. For example, the chapter breaks in the story are indicated by framing an empty page.  I know that empty space is important in artistic compositions, but in this case it just seemed like a waste of paper.  There were 8 pages of empty white space, and 2 pages that were nothing but black–that’s ten wasted page that could have been filled with art–ten pages that could have built to a better climax than the rather weak and hurried ending that is in the book.  Who faltered? Was Dunning’s  story, so filled with bizarre and enigmatic characters, cut short so that we never got to see them develop?  Or did Singh say something like, “Arrgh! I can’t draw much more of this stuff. Let’s wrap it up”?  Did the project just run out of funding?  After so much prologue and hard work in establishing the setting and the characters, why was Salem Brownstone rushed to its conclusion?

Then again, who am I to question someone else’s artistic vision?  At any rate, the book is a gorgeous example of weirdness.  And as such, it deserves our support.


Posted September 14, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

One response to “Weird Stuff–Graphic Novels

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  1. The people in Afghanistan definitely prefer us to the Taliban. Those are their choices right now. It’s a shame we don’t use overwhelming force to end this pathetic farce. We are much too gentle for our own good – and the good of Afghanistan.

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