Thursday, October 2, 2008

fabled gothic

With a title like Batman Gothic, you’d follow my logic and expect it to be a story I would really like. Sadly I found it rather a disappointing volume both art-wise and writing-wise. The art does seem of its era, 1990, and it has the strangest coloring scheme I think I’ve ever seen. I imagine, due to the subject matter, it’s supposed to be unsettling, but it just ends up looking garish. It does have all the trappings of Gothic—a Matthew Lewis-like Monk named Manfred who’s sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for three hundred years of prolonged life (certainly Faustian although the Plague connection also suggests Narcissus and Goldmund by Hesse); debauched German monks who hold satanic rites and torture nuns, one of which becomes a ghost who haunts the old monastery, now underwater; nightmares for Batman that include his father’s mouth being sewn up; a time capsule from the 1760s in Gotham Cathedral; the Devil sending Batman the present of a disembodied heart. However, what’s not there is Batman’s character. I’m on my 20th volume of Batman comics by now, and Grant Morrison’s version of the caped crusader doesn’t seem quite right: “You and your kind have turned Gotham city into a hell. Now rot in it.” What is entertaining about this story are Alfred’s quips, the best being when the heart appears on Bruce’s doorstep: “Shall I alert the Tin Man, sir?” Artist Klaus Janson does a nice job with Gotham Cathedral and some of the more horror-type aspects of the story, but all in all, it just didn’t seem to fit the Batman universe.
As the winner of 7 Eisner Awards and the claim, on the cover, by Publishers Weekly that Fables is “the smartest mainstream comic going,” it wasn’t difficult to pick up Wolves, volume 7 of this DC-published comic from 2006. For obvious reasons I don’t usually like jumping into comic series with heavy continuity when I don’t know the characters or plot. There’s helpfully a “Who’s Who/The Story So Far” at the beginning to help me ground myself in the world of Fabletown, the Farm, and the Mundyworld (read Muggle-world). To be honest, I’m drawn at once into the story because it reminds me of The 10th Kingdom with its mix of hip modernism, humor, action, romance, and inventive reworking of cherished myths (though I suspect Bill Willingham’s more immediate source may be Shrek). Some of the characters are even similar to T10K—for example, the shape-shifting tough-guy Bigby Wolf is a rougher, more macho version of Wolf as played by Scott Cohen in the TV mini-series. Snow White fulfils Virginia’s role in T10K to an extent, and Fabletown looks like the Manhattan so memorably linked up to the 9 Kingdoms. There’s also the matter of war with the giants and their beanstalks. Instead of the Evil Queen and her Huntsman, however (played by Diane Weiss and Rutger Hauer), the villain is Geppetto (!).

However, like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Willingham seems determined to pick and choose from which fandoms to populate Fabletown, obviously choosing Pinocchio but also, strangely, The Jungle Book. Is Rudyard Kipling rolling over in his grave
[1]? Somehow I think not. I’d better confess that when I was very young, I used to make my mom read the beginning of The Jungle Book, where Mowgli gets adopted by the Wolf Tribe, over and over and that I wanted to act it out! Why, I really can’t say—I was a strange child. In any case, it’s thus hard for me to resist the charm of a grown-up Mowgli who’s a secret agent for Fabletown (and good-looking as comic book characters go). There’s also a touch of Greek myth in that Mr. North, “the living North Wind,” is Bigby’s supernatural estranged father.

The title story, “Wolves,” is the most attractive artistically, drawn by Mark Buckingham, inked by Steve Leialoha, and colored by Daniel Vozzo. It concerns Mowgli tracking Bigby to Russia and having to do all kinds of wolf-ie things to find him. There’s a very well-drawn sequence where Mowgli has to fight the pack leader of Siberian wolves (kudos to the artists for managing to censor Mowgli’s nudity in every single panel and make it not look like censoring). “Happily Ever After” is an epic that ends in a wedding. It brings in the Real World as well, including “the Israel Analogy” (which makes Fabletown a bit too political in my opinion, but maybe I’m just too squeamish). (Speaking of squeamish, Snow White doesn’t seem very alarmed when a pig head on a pike, named Colin, talks to her. WTF?)

Big and Small” is a fun enough adventure starring Cindy (Cinderella) in a diplomatic/espionage thriller of, er, epic proportions (further dabbling in the fandoms by bringing in Gulliver’s Travels) but I have to hand it to Shawn McManus, the artist—he can do very convincing cartoon animals! I’m not too thrilled with Cindy’s character here. Has anyone ever gotten it right? I can’t bear to watch the second act of Into the Woods because of all the death and carnage and what becomes of Cinderella; Cinderella in T10K is wonderfully camp although I would like to see her in her younger years.

Quite charmingly, at the end of the volume is the full script to “Happily Ever After” which you can believe I will study. I’m eager to find the previous volumes of this series and start at the beginning—it’s an easily accessible, appealing series. I just wish someone had turned T10K into a graphic novel series—it’s crying out to be adapted, not least because Simon Moore has written much, er, more than actually ever appeared on TV. I, of course, would be willing to help . . . (The fan fiction that eventually became “J’ai vu le loup” which I submitted to the Big Finish Short Trips contest was originally a chapter in a T10K spin-off I had in mind, which was suitably epic, but never quite made it off the ground. I’d love to try again.)

[1] Freudian slip. I almost typed “cave.”

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