Monday, August 17, 2009

Three comics

George Sprott (1894-1975)

By Seth

The latest book from the unique pen of Canadian cartoonist Seth is, as expected, a gorgeous piece of work. Designed to perfection, with art blown up to a size the eye can get totally lost in, while still packed with incidental and touching detail. It is smart, funny and incredibly depressing.

But it’s not just depressing, it’s wonderfully, gloriously depressing. This is misery on a metaphysical scale, melancholy that really moves.

It’s a story of regrets and wasted lives, of accepting our place in the world and all that it brings, of a boring fat man who did something interesting once, and never let the world forget about it.

The story flits back and forth around the life of the unfortunate Mr Sprott, from his terrified adolescence, to cheating on his wife, to dying alone in his dressing home, and even to the place beyond birth and death. The impact of his life is painfully small in the grand scheme of things, despite Mr Sprott’s best intentions.

Outside of a glorious gatefold, there is no attempt to get inside the mind of the title character, leaving character revelations to tiny snippets of information picked up from the rest of the cast. Vital slices of revelation are tucked away in the smooth flow of mood that keeps the book moving and nobody does this better than Seth.

There are heartbreakingly tiny hints of the man’s recognition of his own shallowness and the hollow nature of his inflated reputation, but they never overwhelm the story. They are just another part of the man’s life, along with his regrets over the way he has treated his loved ones and the friendships he still managed to cultivate and nurture over the years.

But beyond the snapshots of George’s life, the book reminds us all of what it means to be human, of the bumbling paths we take through life and the mess we leave behind. It’s about death and passing on, it’s about the little slices of love we give during our short lives, when we’ve got so much more to share.

The narrator of the tale offers us the surface of George Sprott, a mediocre man who made some small achievements in his life, but never goes much deeper, allowing the reader to draw own conclusions. George might be the impossible iceberg that crops up right at the start, top-heavy and lacking in any depth whatsoever. Or it might just be a neat design.

The nostalgia for a bygone area saturates Seth’s work and George Sprott is no exception, enamoured with love for institutions and places that faded away with time.

Everything passes and nothing lasts, so if George is telling you anything in his boring lectures, it’s that you should love it while you can. Even the solid buildings that housed performances and warm dinners are falling apart and replaced by discount computer stores.

It all goes and George goes along with it, with all his personal touches. The tragedy of a top hat that has fallen to the ground, that lost child, the last record snapping in the Arctic chill.

George Sprott goes back to the same place we all came from, but lived a life that just as messy and oddly fulfilling as our own. He’s gone forever, but it’s so nice to see somebody still cares.

* * *

Wolverine Saga

By lots of people who didn’t have anything better to do

I just found this buried in a pile of comics I brought a few weeks back, as if it was trying to hide its shame. It’s one of those horrible comic history lessons, with lots and lots of text and selected panels, showing the history and life of Wolverine, Marvel’s biggest character for the past two decades.

It’s irredeemably awful, but it’s not writer Ronald Byrd’s fault. Poor Ron had to deal with nearly four decades of mess and try to make it all readable. He relies a bit too much on foreshadowing, ending many segments with promises that Logan would meet his enemy again, but he deserves recognition for diving into this ocean of discontinuity.

And despite this, along with some occasionally terrible art choices, I read this sucker cover to cover as soon as I found it, because it’s a fascinating document which says more about the publishing history of Marvel since the 1980s than it does about the old canuklehead.

It’s a 32-page advertisement for Wolverine, with some dodgy recommendations for further reading stapled on to the back, but it also shows Marvel’s fascination for sticking the character anywhere it might make a buck, shoving him into situations, crossovers and superteams that don’t always fit.

It’s also interesting to note the massive rise in backstory over the past few years. It’s not until exactly halfway through the book that Wolverine makes his appearance fighting the Hulk and Wendigo, before joining the X-Men on the very next page.

That means that by this standard, half of the interesting things that have happened in Logan’s life have been told in flashback, filling in a history that was immeasurably stronger as mystery.

When the Wolverine Saga was somehow packaged as a prestige miniseries sometime in the late eighties, it was a still a convoluted mess, but it had more room to breathe than this latest thing, while also skipping over most of his past as ‘unknown’.

It goes on and on in this latest version, and the most disappointing thing is that it’s all plot. Logan meets up with this guy who betrays him but then they meet up 20 years later and somebody wants vengeance but Logan has been brainwashed into working for the bad guys and is this really more interesting that a man with a shadowy, unknown past?

Another thing that the eighties version had over its most recent counterpart is that while it was a clumsy beast of a read, it still found room for that time Wolverine taught Kitty that smoking was bad, or the first time he told everybody his name, along with many other minor pieces along the way.

It’s all gone now, replaced by conspiracies and vast over-reaching story arcs with important ramifications. Romulus gets more mentions in this book than any of Wolverine’s friends and allies.

And that’s a shame, since it’s not Wolverine’s massive plotbelly that makes the character so interesting, it’s the character himself. The way Logan lives, the way he tries to be a good person, even if he’s not always capable of it.

It’s his fierce determination, sense of honour and wild animal passion that makes Wolverine such an interesting character, not some lame conspiracy saga that never ends. But with Marvel’s fascination with wringing every last drop of life out of the character and the concept behind him, it’s the things that are most likeable about him that frequently get ignored, and all the reader is left with is a bunch of boring stuff that doesn’t matter.

* * *

The Hunter

By Darwyn Cooke, based on the book by Richard Stark

There’s one, brief two page sequence in Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of The Hunter that sold me on the book, and it’s one sequence I keep thinking about whenever I dwell on it.

It’s the part where Parker accidentally kills an innocent woman as part of his plan to get his money back. It’s about halfway through the book and is a pretty shocking moment, even by the standards of the story.

Parker has already done some truly horrible things and will do more, but he lives by a code that doesn’t like seeing innocent people die. His anger at discovering that he has killed the asthmatic woman by gagging her is really quite scary, not because he’s angry about the loss of life, but because he has made a mistake that could upset his precious plan.

A page later and he is already using his mistake to his advantage, using it to stealthily gain entrance to an enemy fortress. He made the mistake, but he’s adapted and moved on. The dead woman is not mentioned again.

If there are any doubts that Parker’s cold path of vengeance is a horrible and bleak road, this sequence dispels it. He leaves a trail of collateral damage that he accepts as a necessary price, one that he is willing to pay. Parker doesn’t really care, he just wants his money back.

It’s a nasty little section in a tale that is full of them and could certainly have been cut. It’s the sort of moment most editors would be happy to see go, but Cooke’s decision to keep it shows the determination to stay true to the character, even if it makes him a hell of a lot less likable.

Some of Parker’s traits are almost admirable, but this section reminds the reader that Parker is a monster. An unstoppable force that tramples everything in its path, even those who don’t deserve it.

It’s one great little sequence that speaks multitudes and sums up everything I like about the whole story – its honesty, its determination and its horror.

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