Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review - League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Kevin O'Neill , Ben Dimagmaliw, and Bill Oakley
2000, 2001 Eisner Award Winner for Best Writer

I hadn't planned on making this "Alan Moore week" but I did want the comics I was talking about to have a connected theme. I scanned the list of winners for anything Victorian, about serial killers, or public reaction to violence and the only thing that I could pull off my shelves was this.

In 1999 Alan Moore, who is British, started his own line of comics ironically called America's Best Comics. He wrote the majority of the line and consequently the quality suffered. While there is little of it I would consider bad, Moore wallowed in simplified stories and homages. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is where this comes to a head: it takes a rich texture from nineteenth century adventure stories but the story he tells with them initially doesn't match the strength of the premise.

When something threatens the stability of the British Empire her majesty's government recruits a team special operatives. When a Chinese criminal mastermind steals the anti-gravity material cavorite from a planned moon mission to mark the start of the twentieth century Campion Bond and M recruit Mina Murray nee Harker, Captain Nemo, Alan Quartermain, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and Hawley Griffin to get it back.

The best thing about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is it's immersion in nineteenth century literature. From the first page's introduction of major characters with literary connections to the last page where a new threat straight from a turn of the century novel arrives the book is packed with references. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of the books from that period will pick up on a lot and there's definitely entertainment to be found in spotting them.

As part of this Moore does a great job in integrating his cast. He extends the cast's history logically. Murray becomes a scandalized Victorian woman due to the sexual connotations of Dracula. Quartermain has lost himself him opium. Nemo finds himself standing against the British treatment of India. As Jekyll's sins have grown Hyde has grown as well. And Griffin has abandoned any concept of morality along with visibility. It's a terrific set of characters with built in tensions.

The problem is that references are not a story and that's where League falls down. I couldn't bring myself to care about the conflict between the unnamed Fu Manchu (who is still protected by copyright and so can only be referenced) and other forces. It's a story straight out of the early days pulp fiction and I don't mean that in a good, entertainingly campy kind of way. The conflicts are anticlimactic because the focus was on the characters and their pitched battles aren't interesting. They're quick flashes of big moments rather than a smoothly told tale.

That sums up the plot nicely. It jumps from big moment to big moment with little in the way of bridge between them and that's a shame because the quieter moments are far more interesting than action. I'm more interested in Quartermain and Nemo's tense but polite conversation over the treatment of Africa than I am at Hyde tearing through an army of mooks. I find the contrast between Griffin's embracing amorality and Jekyll struggling to retain it more intriguing than an aerial battle over London. There's too little of those explorations in between the action sequences and literary references.

Kevin O'Neill does some interesting work in this series by using an impressionistic style that distorts many of the figures. The women in particular are twisted out of shape thanks to Victorian fashions and his rendition of Edward Hyde as an animalistic mockery of humanity is great.

I enjoyed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on the level of "Victorian literature filtered through superheroes" but beyond that there wasn't much there. If you like the works of Verne and Wells then you'll probably get a kick out this. I can't call it brilliant, though, since it never rises above the level of an homage.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review - From Hell

From Hell
Written by Alan Moore

Art by Eddie Campbell
1993 Eisner winner for Best Serialized Story

1995, 1996, 1997 Eisner winner for Best Writer

2000 Eisner Award winner for Best Graphic Alblum (Reprint)

I wanted to lead off reviewing Eisner winners with one of the big winners and who better for that than twenty-five time Eisner winner Alan Moore. Moore's best known for writing Watchmen but in my view From Hell is far and away his best work.

It's hard to say exactly why a madman cutting up five prostitutes over a century ago has held people's attention for so long. Jack the Ripper wasn't the only celebrated killer of the time and he wasn't even the only person stabbing prostitutes in Whitechapel at that time. From Hell isn't a book about the killer; it's a book about the effect the killer had.

From Hell isn't even a mystery: it's quickly established that Dr. William Gull murders the prostitutes on behalf of Queen Victoria because they are attempting to blackmail the royal family over the sexual misadventures of a prince. The real story is in how Gull is using the slayings in a work of magic to change the course of the world and what happens to it. The book offers a reasonable explanation for the behavior (a recent stroke left Gull with some hallucinations of divine visitation) but the impact that he has over the course of the story cannot be denied. Once the killings begin the public becomes obsessed with them and myth overtakes facts.

The narrative jumps around quite a bit since the story is dedicated to capturing the atmosphere of London in 1888. As a result the daily lives of prostitutes is shared with the details of the police investigation. The schemes of journalists to manage the story (who says that's a modern invention?) are interwoven with panicked concern of those who know the truth. And behind them all Gull continues his work.

One of the things you'll find in the collected edition that brings into focus how different From Hell is from most works is forty-two pages worth of tightly printed historical annotations. The story is built on a mixture of conspiracy theory, historical facts, and outright fiction used to spackle over the spaces between the two. Moore explains his sources, the actual history, and what he had to fabricate. From Hell is in the running for the best researched peice of Ripper fiction ever written.

The weakest portion of From Hell is Eddie Campbell's art. It's not because the art is bad; most of the art is a scratchy pen and ink which gives the work a distinctive textured look using long, slashing strokes of the pen. Campbell also draws the vast cast of characters with distinct appearances and he integrates photographic references of locations long gone. In fact I'd say that Campbell does a terrific job with what he is given. The problem is that Moore tightly holds the reins on any artist he works with and Moore arranged for a standard nine panel layout on every page. It's extremely rare when the artwork splits from that format and in this case I think that's a flaw in the storytelling; Campbell's art is crying out for a more dynamic page layout.

From Hell is an impressively atmospheric story of Jack the Ripper in a perfect blend of history and fiction. By concentrating on the impact of the murders Moore gives himself more leeway to integrate all of the famous people who have been connected to the killings. In a final appendix Moore comments on how From Hell itself has just added to the muddy swirl that makes it impossible to ever know the truth but I can't complain when it is also the most compelling account of the story I have ever found.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Damn it

This copy is going back too...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review - "Story of Your Life", "Mars is No Place for Children", and "The Cost of Doing Business"

I've had a really strange week with online retailers. The worst of it was an omnibus comic that I ordered from Amazon had an RFID tracking tag permanently affixed over the artwork in the middle of the book and set so that it was pushing against the spine. I don't know if Amazon or the original distributor did it but I've never seen a new book treated worse.

Another retailer that I ordered a used book from offered a "free gift" with every purchase. Since I'm not a complete fool I knew that "free gift" from a used bookstore actually meant "a copy of some piece of garbage that we can't get rid of". Still it was the cheapest copy I could find in decent condition so I ordered it. Here's my free book:

For those keeping score at home that's a novelization (-1 point) of Harmony Gold's (-1 point) worst show (-1 point). And that's without reading a single word. I suspect actually trying to read the novel might prove fatal.

So let's get to some good things:

"Story of Your Life"
by Ted Chiang

1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I really enjoy Ted Chiang's stories and that's why I had been saving this one. I wanted there to be one last story of his that I had not read as I was working my way through these award winners. So with "Story of Your Life" done I have read everything that Chiang has published. It's not the best story that he ever wrote in my view but it's close. It demonstrates exactly what I love reading his stories so much: he took a used up SF concept and carefully constructed a beautiful story around it about how it affected the people involved.

Aliens have come to Earth and they don't speak any local language. So a team of linguists work to grasp their language while teaching them enough of ours so that communication is possible. At the same time physicists and mathematicians try to connect through universal concepts. The story is told by a woman on one of these linguists who spaces the discussions of the aliens with her daughter's life story from conception to early death. Her daughter's story, however, is told in the future tense.

Chiang is not the first person to tell a story about how language affects thinking. What he does is bring those concepts down to a personal level. This isn't a story about aliens, it's about the connection between parent and child and all of the triumphs and tragedies that accompany it. The aliens are there to lend perspective to the whole thing. Chiang draws the focus of his story to just three characters and they're all human. The aliens may talk but they're off stage for the most part so that they can act as mysterious plot devices.

The whole effect is an exceptional story about a family where tragedy is inevitable. It's terrific and not even overly sentimental. I highly recommend checking this story out.

"Mars is No Place for Children"
by Mary A. Turzillo
1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Here is another story about parents losing children. The Nebula voters must have been pretty bitter that year.

Colonists on Mars have to deal with harsh conditions including a high amount of radiation exposure. While the adults who immigrate manage to survive the rate of leukemia in their children makes it nearly impossible for any to survive through their teen years. One smart child develops cancer as her brother did and her parents prepare to send her away for a treatment that is not likely to work. A far better treatment is available but it costs too much money so the child runs away from home hoping to find the Mars Pathfinder.

I found that the child in this story was a bit too smart and precocious to be reasonable; the adult sensibilities of the author resulted in a schizophrenic view of the character whose understanding of adult things depends on if it's convenient for that scene. Her awareness depends on what is necessary for the plot and her willingness to harm her family makes her unsympathetic.

Though I might not have been fond of the main character there is quite a bit to recommend in the story. Turzillo did a better job when the child didn't understand something since she used that as a device to slowly expand the scope of loss that Martian parents endure. The story that Turzillo was telling was far more interesting than her lead character and for that reason I think it's something worth reading.

"The Cost of Doing Business"
by Leslie What
1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I have to say that What's story is the weakest of the three Nebula winners in 1999. It's also pretty good which makes this into an exceptional year for the awards.

A woman sells her services as a "professional victim": if someone is going to harm you then you call her up and she stands in for the treatment. "The Cost of Doing Business" is all about what kind of person could do this how people would react to someone selling themselves like that.

I can't say that I believe for a moment that a professional victim would work. It doesn't work for victims targetted for personal reasons since there's no motovation to take out their frustrations on a third party. And it doesn't work in situations like the carjacking that's in the story since if they're kidnapping the person then the criminals won't get as much for a substitute victim.

Still allowing for the story's premise it is about masochism and society's reaction to it. I liked the professional victim in the story since she dealt with the conflict between having to actively choose to be passive. In fact I'd say there was too little to this story; I want to see how What would handle a broader exploration of the premise. It might not hold together over the course of the novel but I think there's more that could be done.