by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "L" page 2

The Long Haul

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
see my review here

coverThe Losers: Trifecta 2005 (SC TPB) 176 pages

Written by Andy Diggle. Illustrated by Jock, Nick Dragotta, Ale Garza.
Colours: Lee Loughbridge. Letters: Clem Robbins.

Reprinting: The Losers #13-19 (2004) - with covers

Recommended for Mature Readers

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

Comics used to be a medium encompassing a multitude of genres, but by the mid-1960s, super heroes had pretty much overwhelmed everything else, save for the occasional western, or fantasy series (excepting those aimed at younger readers). Although many were frustrated by this rather narrow focus, I often wondered if it was partly because super heroes were the one genre that didn't really seem to have another outlet...whereas westerns and crime dramas were readily available in books and movies and TV. Anyway, in the last couple of decades, comics have once more seen a broadening of genres -- though with super heroes still pretty much the Alpha Dog

Anyway...this brings us to The Losers, an example of one of those non-super hero series. Or at least, non super hero in terms of no fancy powers or costumes...though it' s still a larger than life action series. But it owes more to Arnold Schwarzenegger films or John Woo movies or testosterone-dripping paperback novels. It's the "A-Team" with a bloodier body count. The series concerns a core group of American ex-special forces operatives who are believed dead and have gone rogue after uncovering conspiracy and corruption among the ranks of their erstwhile bosses. Now they travel the globe, sometimes acting as mercenaries, while trying to get to Max -- the enigmatic mastermind responsible for all the villainy they've uncovered (the whole 30-plus issue series forming an epic story arc). .

It's such an obvious action movie -- it was even turned into an action movie in 2010!

And given comics' penchant for resurrecting and re-imagining old properties, I don't know if this is supposed to be an updating of an old DC Comics war comic called, The Losers...or whether the title is just a coincidence.

This is the third TPB collection and it features basically three tales (I guess inspiring the collection's title). Two relatively inconsequential action pieces in the Middle East, and then a 4-part flashback detailing the long ago "origin" mission in the hills of Afghanistan where everything went wrong and set the team on their current path of revenge.

Though in a way, it's kind of inconsequential, too. I mean, in the sense that for all it's filling in the back story...I'm not sure it especially changes our understanding of events.

The thing is, it's hard for me to review The Losers because normally I think my tastes are broad enough that I can read a variety of stories in a variety of genres, and form an opinion as to whether it's a successful realization of its concepts. But in the case of The Losers...well, it kind of is doing what it sets out to do. It just didn't interest me much.

As I say: it's an action movie. Period. And owes a tip of the hat to FPS video games. So there's a bit of talk -- then long, violent shoot outs and explosions and fights. Then a bit more talk, followed by more action.

Ideologically, I suppose you could see the series as stemming from a Right Wing liberalism...or maybe that's Left Wing conservatism. By that I mean the whole point of the series is that its steeped in a kind of cynical ambiguity, where the heroes discover the American government and agencies aren't always doing the right things for the right reasons -- which might annoy right wing readers, who would dismiss it as Liberal claptrap defaming American glory. Yet it's equally a mindless action series of guns and violence and explosions, about good ol' boy Americans mowing down their enemies and proving not so much that the sword is mightier than the pen, but that heavy artillery trumps everything! Essentially, a genre more geared towards right wingers than lefties.

The plotting tends to be fairly minimalist...just there to string together the action. The stated missions tend to be simple and vaguely explained...usually to then be revealed as a cover for the real mission...which is equally simple and vaguely explained. It's simple and murky all at the same time! Max, the evil mastermind they are hunting, supposedly is embarked upon a mission to "remake the world", with little sense (even nineteen issues into the series) what that means. Particularly as this isn't technically supposed to be fantasy (despite all the larger than life action) so I'm guessing the solution won't involve hidden Volcano bases and plans to bring about a new ice age or anything.

Likewise, the characters are kind of, well, there just to pad out the panels. I'm guessing to a hardcore fan of the series, they would wax on about every little nuance and subtlety of the personalities (and I'm sure in the movie, with actors bringing them to life, they'd work better). But for me, just a guy picking up this TPB to be read by itself...I found the main characters for the most part just kind vague, stock, not really that interesting...and in some cases hard to even distinguish from each other.

That partly relates to the art. A few artists are on display here, all working in a scratchy, craggy style -- some quite cartoony. The four part flashback story is the best illustrated, but it's still a deliberately raw, jagged style, kind of putting me in mind a bit of Charles Adlard...though with a better sense of figures and movement (necessary for an action series!). But it's also pretty dark, faces and figures often swathed in shadow (or with the colourist employing an odd technique of using geometric blocks as shading) so that I did sometimes find it hard to tell the characters apart...particularly team leader, Clay, and Roque.

I keep likening this to an action movie -- and it's a decidedly violent, R-rated action movie, with plenty of four letter words (though no skin, at least not here). Fans are paying not just to see things blown up and knocked down, but knives going into throats, brains bursting out of skulls and, on occasion, ears literally blasting off heads! But, funnily, you could argue the gore is muted a bit by the art style. It's sufficiently cartoony, or stylized, that it's more an outrageous cartoon than a graphic depiction of battlefield carnage.

So as I say: I'm finding this hard to review. I can certainly understand why the series has its fans: Diggle and his artists deliver what they set out to deliver. I just found myself flipping pages more than drawn into the drama. Partly the art just didn't enthral me. Partly I'm just not that big on action for the sake of action. And though there is supposed to be undercurrents of characterization, and twists and double crosses -- it's all pretty straight forward and stock, with few true surprises, evoking any of a zillion other similar stories you might have read or watched on TV.

For what it is, it's well enough put together. But it is what it is.

Cover price: ___

coverLouis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography 2003 (HC) 272 pages

Written and illustrated by Chester Brown.
Black & white.

Originally serialized in periodical format between 1999-2003

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Drawn & Quarterly Publications

Chester Brown has made a rather respectable name for himself in the independent comics field, often with low-key slice of life comics. So, in that, sense, his mammoth, black and white Louis Riel saga -- a dramatized historical biography -- is a bit of a departure for him. The comic begins in 1869, skipping over Riel's early life.

What's interesting is that Brown is Canadian, and Riel one of the most famous -- and arguably more controversial -- figures in Canadian history (his life already examined in books and plays, and at least one movie, the fine TV epic, Riel). What makes that interesting is that all too often, Canadians in the entertainment field are reluctant to acknowledge their Canadianess in a public way, so Brown gets top marks for even tackling the topic...and for doing something as off beat (though not unprecedented) as a historical biography in comics form. Who knows? It might even have inspired fellow Canadian Scott Chantler to undertake his recent critically well-regarded (and arguably more commercial) Canadian historical adventure series, Northwest Passage from American Oni Press.

Anyway, Louis Riel was so many things to so many people -- prophet, madman, hero, villain, rebel, revolutionary, founding father of Canada, and, ultimately, martyr. Western Canada in the mid-1800s was not technically part of Canada as a political entity, still mainly a territory of business interests. The population was a mix of English and French settlers, Native Indians, and the metis (part white, part Indian, mostly French-speaking). Riel, an idealistic metis with an eastern education, became a leader for the metis, French, and Indians, who felt disenfranchised by the controlling English-speaking population. Eventually, he led a rebellion, which was squashed, but nonetheless led to some token reforms and Manitoba becoming a full fledge province, even as Riel himself fled to the United States. A few years later, he returned, to lead another rebellion, this time in Saskatchewan, one that was more violent, but also more ill-fated, and Riel himself was captured, tried, and executed.

It's stuff of grand historical drama, made moreso by Riel himself who may well have been a little bit insane, full of big ideas-- and ideals -- and seeming to believe he was in touch with God himself.

Canadians often bemoan their "boring" history when compared with the "exciting" American history, but I think what most fail to realize is that history often becomes exciting more in the telling, than the happening. Americans have populaized their history -- in books , movies and comics -- more than Canadians have, but I don't know if read in a dry text book whether American history is really anymore exciting (well, events tended to be more protracted in the U.S., the civil war lasting a number of years, for instance, allowing greater scope for fictional embellishment than either of the Riel rebellions which are measured more in terms of months). But, the point is, and speaking facetiously, Americans can only dream about having a figure as colourful and dynamic as Louis Riel.

Riel remains a bit of a controversial figure -- was he a hooligan and rebel and murderer...or a passionate defender of the defenceless...or was he simply a well-intentioned madman? But the "controversy" around Riel is as much a part of the myth as anything, with some claiming he still divides French and English in Canada -- but that's not really true. I think history has generally come down in favour of Riel, with most people in Canada -- French, English and Native Indian -- seeing him at least as a nominal hero.

Ironically, Chester Brown claimed some Americans he spoke to were surprised that he had received a government grant to do the comic, given that it is highly critical of the Canadian government. I don't know if the fact that they are a surprised -- that in a democracy like Canada, Brown could receive government support for a project that might be deemed critical of the government (an administration more than a century in the past) -- is a reflection of their view of the Canadian government...or of their own. Anyhoo...

All this is giving background on Riel -- so what of the book itself?

Coming from the independent comics field, Brown's style is somewhat cartoony and simplistic at the best of times, and by his own admission, he was attempting here to ape the styles of early cartoonists like Herbert Gray (Little Orphan Annie). In fact, his style apparently evolved so much as the comic was first serialized that, when collected in hardcover, he actually redrew some of the early pages to make the style more uniform. There's a deliberate cartooniness to the art -- big hands, stiff shoulders, pupil-less eyes -- and a lack of dynanism to the panels, as conversations are carried out between poker faced characters depicted in medium long shots.

The appeal is that it does reduce the events to a digestible cartoonines, almost "legitimizing" presenting the story in this format by making it evocative of newspaper comic strips. And I read it as I might a collection of daily strips, by reading a few pages at a time, rather than sitting down and consuming huge sections in one sitting. Brown also creates (presumably intentional) humour, in scenes where dramatic things might be ensuing, or a character says something outrageous, and we cut to a mute panel of a character's deadpan reaction. Particularly for younger readers, Brown's approach might make the story a little more accessible. As well, the length and scope of the thing allows him to dramatize a lot of small incidents, to really let the saga unfold in all its minutia. And he plays around with the comic book medium itself -- having text captions identifying people without stopping the story, for instance.

At the same time, one can kind of long for a more mainstream treatment of the story, with a more dynamic, realist artist on pencils, and a narrative more conventionally presented as a narrative. After all, one doesn't go to see a movie biopic and expect it to be done in an arty, self-conscious way. Brown's approach, though making it accessible on one hand, also makes it less mainstream. Granted, Brown was working with what he could. He's not, say, Stuart Immonen, or George Freeman, or David Ross (just to name some mainstream Canadian comic artists), and had to work with what his talents allowed.

Brown also takes liberties with the story. He freely admits that there are spots where he has fictionalized a scene, or re-arranged events, or merged multiple characters into one. Sadly, there's nothing unusual about a dramatization fictionalizing history to make the story "better", the drama more exciting. But in this case, as noted, the style and technique Brown employs works against this just being a good ol' comic book drama. As such, you forgive the occasional staticness of the story, the lack of passion to the proceedings, because you assume it's more documentary than drama. So it's a shock to realize Brown has taken license with the truth for "dramatic effect". In fact, at one point, he admits even he doesn't believe in a motive he attributes to a character, but he did it anyway, just to make the story more interesting!

At the same time, Brown does something unusual. As noted, many dramatized biographies make things up, and, well...lie. But then pass it off as the truth. Brown, though, to his credit, provides extensive footnotes at the back, detailing what he changed, and what the history really is. In other words, I can't fully criticize Brown because, assuming the reader reads the footnotes, he does provide the unembellished history -- something no movie's ever done. Even more, Brown cites his various sources (most popular history books) and points out the discrepancies between them. We all like to think that history is history and facts are facts, but as anyone who has read more than one book on a topic knows, even in straight non-fiction, there's a lot of room for distortion and embellishment. So, in that sense, Brown also reminds us that the "truth" is often vague. And good for him!

The bottom line is that Brown's Louis Riel is an interesting, audacious undertaking, and it's decidedly cool to see Canadian history tackled in a comic book format. And, as it is a comic, the information is perhaps easier to digest, and more entertaining, than it might be if read just in a book. But it's still not quite a great drama, as the very cartoony techniques that make it quite readable, prevent it from being entirely involving.

Cover price: ___

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