GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Media Tie-In Stories - page 4


Graphic Classics: Rafael Sabatini
see review here


Red Prophet: Tales of Alvin Maker, vol. 1 2007 (HC & SC TPB) 160 pages

Red Prophet: Tales of Alvin Maker, vol. 2 2008 (HC & SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Roland Bernard Brown. Illustrated by Renato Arlem, Rodney Buchemi, Miguel Montenegro.
colours/letters: various. Editor: Matt Hansen, Mark Paniccia.

Based on the books by Orson Scott Card.

Reprinting: Red Prophet: The Tales of Alvin Maker #1-12 (over two volumes)

Rating: (vol. 1) * * * (out of 5)

Rating: (vol. 2) * * (out of 5)

Published by Marvel Comics

I'm reviewing both volumes together, since the 12 issues form one arc, and each volume isn't meant to stand on its own.

Although Hollywood relies heavily on adaptations, American comics tend not to go for literary adaptations as much (comics based on movies and TV -- that's another issue). Whether it's because a literary provenance is just not seen as that marketable to their target audience, or whether it's hard to option the rights, or simply a desire to be original, I don't know. Maybe it's simply that success has been limited -- arguably the only bona fide literature-to-comics success was Conan the Barbarian. With most other attempts being problematic (think of all the Tarzan comics started, and cancelled, over the years) or carefully partitioned off in their own little ghetto of "Classics Illustrated".

Still, it's not unheard of.

Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card has had a few of his works translated into four colour life, including this series set in an alternate reality post-Revolutionary America. Set on the frontier, and dealing with tensions between Native Indians and white settlers, the story is both a familiar "boy's own" adventure of frontier life...and, as mentioned, an alternate reality, where real historical figures crop up (including lead figures Ta-kumsaw and The Prophet)...but not always as history depicted them. And where magic and mysticism is an accepted fact of life.

The trick to doing adaptations -- as Hollywood has often discovered -- is that sometimes what works in one medium, doesn't work in another. Hence why the story must be "adapted" to the new presentation. Yet if you play too fast and lose with the source, you can both alienate the fans...and lose the essence of what made the source material so compelling. Hollywood is full of lame-brained movies where the filmmakers thought -- wrongly -- that they were smarter, more talented, than the authors they were adapting.

Because comics utilize text as well as a visuals, it's easier to stay true to the source material, by literally reproducing the same text. Roy Thomas' old Conan comics were often much more verbose than his super hero writings, because he was trying to preserve as much of the source prose as he could.

All of that is both the strength, and the weakness, of Red Prophet.

I'm not familiar with the source novels, but my guess is adapter Roland Bernard Brown is trying to stay faithful to the original writings, so fans will have little to grumble about. Yet he maybe stays too true. The comic is rather densely written, with reams and reams of text captions, and dialogue balloons that fill up the panels -- much, I'm guessing, lifted directly from Card's original. And, to be fair, there's a lot that has to be crammed in, establishing the reality, the surrounding social politics and history.

But the problem with such a text heavy presentation, is it can kind of push you out of the immediacy of the scene. We're so busy reading about what's happening...we're not necessarily just experiencing it viscerally. Sometimes less can be more, and Brown might've been better to prune some of that, to settle on what is the key info we need, and give that to us in a few tight scenes.

The things is, though I found the characters and what was happening moderately interesting at first...I didn't necessarily find it involving or find myself caring about the characters.

The narrative is, itself, kind of idiosyncratically structured, initially following different characters in different chapters, so that you have trouble even deciding who the main character is supposed to be. The Red Prophet -- a Native Indian shaman -- of the title is introduced in the first chapter (though, cleverly, we don't realize who he will evolve into) is featured in the next two...then doesn't reappear until the final chapter of the first volume. While Alvin Maker -- the other title character -- is a white boy who doesn't appear until the second chapter...and doesn't really take centre stage until the fifth!

And, as I say, despite the heavy use of text, of reams of paragraph describing these characters, and explaining their thinking...it felt a bit stand offish.

Obviously, some of this is purely subjective. Another reader might tell you how they wept and cried and laughed with the characters' every changing mood. But for me, it just felt like I was looking in on the scenes through a window.

Yet, with that being said, even looking in can have its appeal. The setting and milieu is a little bit off beat for a comic book series.

But, frankly, as the series went along, and continued into the second collected volume, I just felt these problems increased. The density of the text became less something I was reading...and more something I was wading through, struggling to get to the other side. And despite the fidelity to the source material, shoe horned as it is into a comic stuff gets lost. I'm assuming in a novel, there'd be a greater ability to involve us in the characters emotionally, to really delve into who they are. The problem here is that we have too much text to make it flow as a comic book...but not enough to actually satisfy as a novel. As well, stuff feels truncated, abrupt, and even disjointed. Admittedly, maybe these were problems with the novels, but characters and plot turns seem to come out of nowhere, as opposed to arising naturally out of the narrative, and I'm guessing it's because Brown had to cut scenes that might have foreshadowed them better. In the second volume a character named Taleswapper plays a prominent part -- but I had no idea who he was! Flipping back through volume one, I realize he did make a -- brief -- appearance, but even in that earlier scene his presence seemed ill-explained!

As well, a lot of the story -- a lot! -- is concerned with a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo that means the story, in a way, takes on aspects of being a religious parable...and as about as exciting as an atheist sitting in at a Sunday sermon (even a back cover description refers to the story as a "meditation" on certain themes). That relates to my point about characters. Maybe if I was more involved in the characters, these scenes would be more interesting. But instead they took on aspects of rather dry, abstract dissertation as characters I didn't care that much about held multi-page debates about existential concepts that, frankly, kind of blurred the line between philosophy and just make-believe mysticism. A lot of these conversations just ramble on and then, after we cut away to some other scene...we cut back and just get a repeat of the previous conversation! Ironically, given that I suggest Brown may have been cutting stuff for space reasons...there are plenty of other scenes that could've been trimmed or even cut for repetition.

And because of this -- scenes where Brown is trying to cram so much in half the page is taken up with text captions, and other scenes concerned with mystical and surreal aspects -- there's often a feeling the artists are struggling to depict the scenes, sometimes with the pictures not really gelling with the captions.

Throughout these dozen issues, the art is supplied by three artists. It's decent enough (particularly given, as I say, the problematic nature of the text) without being great, though all affect a fairly straightforward, realist style so there is no jarring switch in tones between issues. Inaugural artist Renato Arlem is my favourite, evoking a little someone like Brent Anderson. Miguel Montenegro has a simpler, stiffer style that I find less effective, the figures a bit awkward in poses, the faces less defined. Rodney Buchemi is in the middle, still with a bit of stiffness to the figures, but generally good, particularly with his detailed and well drawn faces. Though none maybe find any particularly good way of conveying the mystical aspects.

But given the nature of the scripting, the artists don't do much more than support the script, as opposed to enhancing it.

Another issue about adapting and reinterpreting material for another medium, is to ask: does the comic really bring anything to the story? I mean, since this is, I believe, based on the published novels (as opposed to telling new, untold stories about the same characters) is there anything here that you can get that you couldn't get reading the novels -- either making it better than the novels, or simply different enough that both versions can sit comfortably on your shelf, side-by-side?

Now, I realize that's the question with any adaptation...and, indeed, goes to the very bases of doing an adaptation. Why is it being done? One argument is, there are readers who might pick up the comic, who wouldn't read the novel (much as one might go to a movie rather than read the source novel). Fair enough. And the argument is, that then can lead fans to the source material -- much as it has been suggested a lot of Conan readers discovered him in the comics, or the 1982 movie, then went to the original prose stories.

But in the end, Red Prophet is maybe a victim of its own good intentions. In trying to stay too true to the novels, it never fully makes the leap to being a comic book. The story itself seems to ramble along, the characters too often being reduced to ciphers, mouthpieces to express philosophical ideas, and even as a narrative it builds to a kind of anti-climactic ending (despite having a big battle). It doesn't end "to be continued", but does feel as though the story isn't over yet -- I'm assuming the novels kept going. But whether the intention was to do follow up comics, or whether these 12 was all that was ever intended, I don't know.

Cover price: __


Savage Red Sonja: Queen of the Frozen Wastes 2008 (TPB) 88 pages

coverWritten by Doug Murray, Frank Cho. Illustrated by Homs.
Colours: Will Murai. Letters: Simon Bowland.

Reprinting: the four issue mini-series

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dynamite Comics

Red Sonja is basically a female Conan the Barbarian, literally spun out of the Conan stories and supposedly inhabiting the same ancient world (though since Sonja's current comics adventures are published by Dynamite and Conan's by Dark Horse, I don't suppose there'll be much overlap between the two). She is generally credited to Conan author, Robert E. Howard, but I think her genesis may be a bit less straight forward than that, with comics scribe Roy Thomas having taken some basic concepts by Howard and turning them into the character we know today.

Anyhoo...after various runs in various (short-lived) Marvel Comics series in the 1970s/1980s, a minor motion picture, and a series of paperback novels commissioned in the 1980s, Sonja has been given a new lease on four colour life by Dynamite Comics, which has produced both a regular series, various one shots and specials, TPB collections of her old Marvel comics...and the occasional mini-series. Like this one.

Queen of the Frozen Wastes has Sonja in the northern wilderness (where, apparently, a cloak over her traditional bikini chain mail is all that's needed to ward off frost bite) leading a bunch of warriors after some marauders. The battle goes poorly for both sides and Sonja finds herself in a subterranean land ruled over by an evil sorceress and her sub-human minions, who capture wayward humans for food, sport, and for some (ill-defined) breeding experiments as the Queen desires to fashion a hybrid race.

This is one of those stories which is hard to assess, because it's not particularly awful...even as it's not particularly good. If you're just looking for a self-contained Red Sonja tale to kill and hour...I suppose this can do that. But if you want more...it ain't here.

As I've complained about more than a few modern comics, the problem here is it really doesn't warrant a mini-series. They could probably have told the same tale in one regular issue. It's not like there are a lot of twists and turns or anything. Howard's original Conan stories, for all that they were action tales, were often as interested in machinations, as Conan would become caught up in political intrigue. But a lot of Conan -- and Conan-esque -- comics tend to just present very simple stories that are excuses for a lot of fight scenes.

And even in that sense, the fight scenes are pretty repetitive (two of three end-of-chapter cliff hangers are almost identical to each other!). In the final issue, the Queen's dialogue seems to consist of basically repeating "Kill her!" and "Don't let her escape!" for 22 pages.

This is written by Doug Murray and Frank Cho. Neither of whom are writers on the regular Red Sonja monthly comic, so, admittedly, this maybe isn't reflective of the regular comic. However I did read the equally tepid one-shot, Red Sonja: Monster Isle, and Dynamite has to be aware that projects like this, by their very self-containedness, are liable to attract casual readers and so could very well be the make-or-break story deciding whether a reader picks up any more issues. But in addition to the thin plot, there's little here to make one interested in Sonja as a character. She's kind of bland and ill-defined. Cho is one of those curious figures in comics who gained great acclaim (and fans) as an artist, particularly for his shamelessly voluptuous, cheesecake women. Yet then somehow parleyed that into getting prominent billing for series like this, where he doesn't actually draw the thing (save some of the covers).

The art is by Homs, who delivers decent if mixed art. Some of the stuff is good...some leans a little toward cartoony which I have mixed feelings about in general, and in a barbarian-fantasy comic, where evoking an atmosphere is paramount, can seem a bit ill-suited. Actually, I remain curious about who does what in modern comics. Because a lot of the shape and contours of the figures, muscle curves and cheekbones, are portrayed in the colours, rather than inked lines. But is that still a reflection of Homs (perhaps the colourist is simply following pencil shadings that aren't reproduced in the finished work)...or is the colourist as responsible for the finished art as the penciller/inker?

While talking about "plot", and "character", I've been dancing around whether that's even the point. A lot of the point is the cheesecake/sexploitation. This was always the case with Sonja, and with modern comics no longer constrained by a "Comics Code Authority", and left to their own ideas of self-censorship, that's even more explicit here. Yet this isn't being marketed as a "mature readers" comic, so it ends up this odd little mix.

The violence is pretty gory in spots, with hacked off heads and limbs. The lascivious undercurrents are pretty overt, with the Queen herself lusting after Sonja, letting her hands brush Sonja's contours -- even kissing her (in one panel). And there's lots of scenes with a Bondage undercurrent of Sonja being bound, or dragged around by a leash.

Visually, Sonja's in her traditional skimpy metal bikini, and the Queen is equally underdressed (though the eroticism is muted a bit 'cause the Queen has a rather ugly, fang-filled face!) And though there's not necessarily nudity, per se, the nature of Sonja's chain mail loin cloth as she leaps about is that Homs depicts the undercurves of her buttocks a lot (in the curious mores of fashion, if Sonja was supposed to be wearing some sort of under garment or thong -- as some artists depict her -- it might not be considered "nudity", but if she's not, as seems the case with Homs, than it would probably be counted as nudity).

Now I'm the last person to be complaining about sexploitation, but for some reason it just feels a bit...awkward. Maybe it's because it seems so in-between. It's not really an interesting, cleverly plotted tale...with merely an added "plus" of raciness, yet because it pulls back from being an "R" rated comic, it can't really be regarded as just an erotic romp.

And when I say I'm the last person who has a right to complain, I mean it, 'cause I've written my own saucy Sword & Sorcery tales about a wardrobe challenged heroine. In fact, Queen of the Frozen Wastes actually reminds me of a story I wrote a few years ago. So why am I criticising? Well, maybe that's the point. Mine was a short story...Murray's and Cho's is a four part, 88 page saga originally serialized over months. And it just doesn't seem to justify it.

Or maybe I'm a hypocrite.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: __


The Ring of the Nibelung  1991 (SC TPB) 200 pgs.

Written by Roy Thomas. Illustrated by Gil Kane.
Colours: Jim Woodring. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Andrew Helfer.

Reprinting all four issues of the 1989 prestige mini-series. Based on the four operas by Richard Wagner forming Der Ring Des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Valkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

Mature Readers

An adaptation of the classic opera cycle by Richard Wagner (which, in turn, was based on Teutonic myth) chronicling a tale of Gods, men and monsters revolving around a ring of great power and the tragedies that befall those who would possess it.

The bitter dwarf, Alberich, forges a ring of power, setting in motion a chain of events. Wotan, the king of the Gods, and others covet the ring, both for its power and because it is warned that if the ring is not returned from whence Alberich stole it, the gods themselves might fall. This leads to various triumphs and tragedies involving two generations of a mortal family who are pawns in the schemes of Gods and dwarves and to the ultimate fate of the gods.

Roy Thomas has spent many years, off and on, adapting to comics the writings of fantasists like Robert E. Howard and others, and the stylistically dynamic Kane was a longtime advocate of Sword & Sorcery in comics. With these two guys, you know if anyone can pull off such an audacious enterprise, it'll probably be them. Although P. Craig Russell has also produced adaptations of Wagner's Ring Cycle, which I haven't read so I can't make a comparison.

It's divided into four books (based on the four operas), each sort of self-contained but leading to the next. The first book is the strongest. Here, playing with the more acutely mythological aspects of the story, we are treated to some wildly imaginative imagery from Kane with Thomas crafting dialogue that has a convoluted, Old English feel, while still being perfectly comprehensible. As the saga progresses and the focus shifts more toward the mortal characters it begins to resemble more conventional tales of quests and dragons and betrayal, mirroring a play at times with lengthy scenes set in single locations.

Being largely unfamiliar with the operas, or the myths upon which they were based, the saga works well simply as a story, with clever machinations and surprising turns. One can see its influence in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, among others, and echoes of King Arthur and other myths.

A couple of reviews I've come across of this imply (condescendingly) it is a simplified version of the operas. I'm no expert myself, but having read an elaborate synopsis of the operas, Thomas and Kane seem to have stuck remarkably close to the material -- an advantage to adapting lyrics to dialogue is that you can cover the same ground in less time. This fidelity is both a plus and a minus. A plus because that's part of why one reads it (at least why I read it), to get a genuine sense of the operas' plot. And there are some effective narrative quirks meant to evoke a play -- like having characters whisper out-loud their inner machinations as opposed to presenting them in thought balloons.

Because of that, though, there's a feeling the story's weaknesses stem from Wagner's original. The gods are often more interesting than the mortal heroes who are shallow, hyper-macho, A-type personalities. You don't entirely care about them. Thomas could've softened them, fleshed out their motivation, given them a late-20th Century Liberal-Humanist spin (such as TV's "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys")...but perhaps he was wise not to, instead portraying Wagner's work in all its grandeur...and all its flaws. For that matter, the nature of the ring's power remains completely vague (not unlike in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings").

There are also bits where the story seems a bit abrupt as if we've missed something -- particularly with the fire God, Loge -- which may be because Thomas had to cut to fit it into the pages he had, or maybe because the original legends and myths were, themselves, a bit shaky in the logic department (as often happens).

There are some bits that give one pause. A brother and sister, separated at birth, fall in love. A-ha, we think, it's laying the ground work for an Oedipus-like revelation of dismay. Instead, the two, on realizing their common blood, actually think it's pretty cool, allowing their line to be pure. From their union comes Siegfried, the star of the final two books. Given that Wagner's work was later embraced by the Nazis, a movement obsessed with the nutty idea of "racial purity", one can be forgiven for getting just a touch of the willies reading that. It doesn't help that Kane (and colourist Jim Woodring) portray the characters in a stereotypically blonde and blue-eyed manner. It's not that I object to the narrative concept of incest, or that from this, ah, unusual union might spring a character with a great destiny. It's the way the characters warm to the idea that is uncomfortable (though at least one of the gods is non-plussed).

The late Gil Kane was one of the most dynamic, kinetic artists in comics and there is a tremendous robustness to his work -- supposedly self-taught, he understood more about the human figure and movement than a dozen other artists. Admittedly, he could be a bit scratchy and rushed in spots and tended to favour certain costume designs no matter the place or period. And there's always a certain coldness to his work. There are cold artists and warm ones, or hard and soft, inorganic and organic. Still, I'm hard pressed to imagine an artist more suited to the work (maybe John Buscema -- a "warm" artist).

The story garners a "mature readers" label because of some nudity. Curiously, in "serious" comics that employ sex or nudity, it's usually in ways involving rape and mayhem, while comics that throw in nudity just for the fun of it are usually dismissed by critics as peurile and even perverted. Go figure. But this is an exception, with some gratuitous nudity lacking any of that puritan condemnation. The first book contains a lengthy sequence involving naked water nymphs, though it's definitely the pinnacle of Thomas and Kane's flesh-peddling -- latter books contain no more than a panel or two of skin.

Whether a theatre/opera student who snoozed through class, or just looking for some escapist, fantasy entertainment, Thomas and Kane's version of Wagner's saga is vibrant. Admittedly, at times the characters and the story beg fleshing out, but that's as much Wagner's fault as theirs and it remains a grand, intriguing read.

This is a review of the story serialized in the mini-series

Cover price: $__ CDN./$24.95 USA.


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