Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fables: Animal Farm

Hmm, it strikes me that Animal Farm, although quite a nice bookend to Rose Red, is rather superfluous in the scheme of things—I don’t feel like I actually learned that much that I didn’t know, or that I couldn’t extrapolate when I jumped on board at volume 7 or 8.  Such is life when you read Fables out of order.  In any case, I think the complex heights that the series reaches several years down the line are necessarily more impressive than this second volume, the first with Mark Buckingham on board, and character design is still trying to be ironed out.

Rose Red begins her reform, Snow White escapes from Shere Khan, I finally find out why Colin the pig’s head is on a stick, Goldilocks makes her first (annoying) appearance, and people start to wonder if something isn’t going on between Snow and Bigby Wolf.  I have to say that Buckingham’s anthropomorphic animals here are incredibly well done, especially the pigs and the bears.  Reynard the Fox—who had a small throwaway moment in Rose Red—has quite a heroic turn here.  Other things that bear fruit later are sown:  the Forsworn Knight, for one. 

Isaac the Pirate vol. 1

This is another delightful French graphic novel.  Christophe Blain’s somewhat rustic drawing style works very well with his world of 18th century pirates, artists and aristocrats.  It’s nice to have a nod to French-speaking pirates; after all the world buccaneer comes from boucanier, something I think they even reference in this volume.  Isaac the artist who is lured aboard ship by an idiosyncratic doctor is a great character, and as he gets further and further from France’s shores, the way he’s drawn speaks volumes about his mental state.  (A similar technique, I think, to that employed by George O’Connor in Journey into Mohawk Country.)
Equally memorable is his fiancée Alice who reminds me of Agnes in Fate, an educated woman of a certain class (ie, not an aristocrat).  You have to root wholeheartedly for the straightforward love and cohabitation of Isaac and Alice, wanting them to remain true to each other despite the temptation thrown in the path of each (such as the lovely and sympathetic ladies of Port Royal).  Alice, forced by economic necessity once the money Isaac has left her runs out, to become a charwoman and then a clerk to a handsome and rather charming (though highly sexed as all these 18th century people seem to be) aristocrat wrestles with loyalty and abiding love and the gratifications and gratefulness of the present.

Issac the Pirate has some beautiful moments, and given that I like pirates, the Age of Sail, artists, and the 18th century, there is very little negative I could say about it.  Blain clearly has a strong narrative sense and excellent storyboarding skills which supplant any necessity for photo-perfect draftsmanship.  I definitely want to find out what happens in part 2.    

Glacial Period

I really enjoyed Nicholas de Crécy’s bande desinée, translated by NBM Publishing, though I hope I won’t be saying too much in suggesting that only a male French writer could have come up with a genetically altered talking dog/pig chatting up a (human) woman.  As a post-apocalyptic science fiction piece set thousands of years in Earth’s future, Glacial Period could have taken the earnest (and interesting) tack of Xtinct; instead, no doubt influenced by its subject matter, its satire was directed with more humor and less earnestness.    By this, I mean its explorers—clueless though they are, as we all are, with the cultural practices of their predecessors—though faced with dangerous situations and even death, do not seem to exhibit despair and desolation in their Arctic landscape.  

The graphic novel, commissioned by the Louvre, comes delightfully alive when the explorers find their way into the Louvre, and Hulk, the aforementioned dog, comes into contact with the animal/anthropomorphic objects within.  This is when the story starts to shine, and the gorgeous, intuitive, and affectionate quality with which the artifacts are drawn makes the heart soar.  I appreciated that list of all the artworks depicted in the story were detailed at the back of the book.

I was left thinking about Glacial Period for days and wanting very much to go visit the British Museum again. 

The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty

This was an interesting reworking of Sleeping Beauty, shifting the story to the Wild West, with mixed results.  The creativity behind the shift is not in doubt, and some of the cinematic artwork by Mike Hawthorne and Michael Atiyeh was quite impressive.  However, it is a bit worrying when someone billed as a comic press’ managing editor produces a story that needs some serious editorial attention itself.  I feel certain a second pair of eyes upon the original concepts of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty would have worked out the kinks (and typos) and rendered and impressive but problematic serial that much more arresting.  I see, however, that Beckett Comics have been, in any case, absorbed into another comics press.

Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls

As the back of the book tells you, it’s 117 AD, and Medicus Ruso would rather be anywhere other than the cold, dilapidated fort at Deva (that’s Chester to you and me).  R.S. Downie’s first Ruso mystery unwinds slowly, setting up its universe with plenty of time to draw one into the central whodunit.  As Downie admits later and as I now know to be true, depicting Britain in the 2nd century is a task done with creativity and conjecture founded in what little hard evidence (both literary and archaeological) that we have.  Still, I find Downie’s Deva to be written with both confidence and expertise.  For example, the Aesculpian Thanksgiving Fund which she invents had the ring of truth to it, especially given it was such a central element of the plot.  Ruso’s relationship with the medical god feels authentic; poor Ruso is a man with a conscious in a wicked world, which is immediately endearing and gives him a sense of everyman quality.  He grouses endlessly about his troubles (to both his friends and to us, his unseen audience) but he (almost) always does the right thing.  

Ruso’s waiting for payday, trying to support his struggling farming family back in Gaul (see book 3) and maintain a decent lifestyle at his posting while striving for the coveted role of Chief Medical Officer.  He is thrust—much against his will—into befriending and medically treating a British slave (we eventually know her as Tilla) as well as investigating the suspicious deaths of some barmaids.  Downie’s writing is often very funny. 
The grey light of dawn was making its way around the shutters of a house that contained three people.  Two were asleep.  The third was grappling with the problem of women’s underwear.  Where could a man get hold of some?  Discreetly?  As if that were not bad enough, there would be the monthly business to deal with at any moment.

There’s a reason this series is (sometimes) billed as the Ruso and Till Investigations, as Tilla quickly becomes an incorrigible part of Ruso’s life.  She is at least as lively a character as he is (still true in the third book).  She is a bad cook, stares boldly at men unlike a demure Roman woman, and “makes medicine” at a sacred grove.  It seems almost a foregone conclusion, post-Eagle of the Ninth, that for a Roman story in Britain to work, it has to have the participation (and view point) of a Briton; reconciling their differing viewpoints (especially given Tilla is a slave in the first book) is challenging.  Ruso is a Roman and thinks and acts like one; Tilla never forgets that she is being oppressed, yet, like Esca, her relationship with her Roman is strong enough to allow them to operate in some workable fashion.  This book is all about the similarities between our age and the Roman one, but of course there are issues that just have to be presented in black-and-white.  “The Druids are all gone . . . the Army kill them all,” she tells Ruso when he accuses her of colluding with Druids.  However, Ruso has his humanity; he has taken the Hippocratic oath, after all.  “The idea that Saufeia had been killed because the locals were jealous of the Army’s suave sophistication was not something he had considered.”

The plot here is quite exciting, with building accidents, fires, sinister plots, bouncers, prostitutes, and puppies galore.  Moreover, although I’m not quite sure I 100% understood the conclusion, it seemed more complex than the one in The Root of All Evils.  Valens, Ruso’s housemate, who appeared only briefly in the third book, comes off here as something between Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill and the archetypal gay best friend (though his apparent love of the ladies belies this latter interpretation), is very funny and yet sometimes Ruso’s antagonist.  There are some other good characters, like Decimus the overfond hospital porter and Merula’s bar-girls.  There are some very amusing conversations that Tilla has with some other Britons:  “Your Roman,” says the girl Sabrann.  “[He’s] not such a shortarse as most of them.”  Furthermore, Tilla overhears one of her extended clan say to another, “He said ancilla.  Ancilla means slave.”  “Never mind what ancilla means.  She’s not his slave.  She’s his woman.”

I do confess to going quite gooey-eyed at the eventual romance between Ruso and Tilla (echoing the one between Fidelma and Eadulf in Tremayne, perhaps?).  Their sort of double act involves a lot of headbutting: 
“The person who tell—who told you is Chloe, isn’t it?”
“Whatever you say, my lord.”
“You are a very stubborn woman.”
“Yes, my lord.  Whatever you say.”   

The ending, though simple, is also intensely romantic. 

I’ll definitely continue reading this series.