Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review of The War of the Worlds graphic novel, by Campfire

Let me voice one irritation right at the beginning of this review. If you’re going to draw a period piece set in circa 1900, then you should pay attention to the historical details. This book boasts a stunning and dramatic wrap-around cover, (it really is an attention grabber) but the people fleeing the Martians do not look as if they belong in the closing years of the Victorian era. I can be even more precise with one of the interior illustrations, since I’m pretty certain that British Soldiers did not start wearing berets as a matter of course until the early 1940s, and the first were only worn in 1924. (Thanks Google.) I’m also not entirely convinced by the accuracy of the curate’s costume, though I’m going to leave that as a nagging doubt as I draw the line at spending my evening researching the intricacies of religious habits.

OK, so what’s good? Well, script writer Ryan Foley has stuck close to the original spirit of the novel, which might sound an obvious approach, but if you’re going to adapt a novel rather than go down the equally valid reboot route, it requires consideration and respect for the source, especially as the temptation will always be there to tinker. To his credit, Foley ticks all the boxes for a successful adaptation, while artist Bhupendra Ahluwlia turns in a little under 70 pages of consistently vivid art. His figure-work can be a little stiff at times, but the action scenes are generally impressive and the story flows well from panel to panel.

Those 70 pages allow Foley and Ahluwlia to get to grips with the story in gratifyingly expansive detail, though as has understandably happened before in comic book adaptations of The War of the Worlds, the account of the narrator’s brother has been excised, which means we lose the iconic battle between the dreadnaught Thunderchild and the Martian Tripods. That disappointment aside, the Tripods are nicely done, if derivative of others that have gone before, especially those from the Spielberg War of the Worlds movie. Though that’s probably a bit uncharitable, as there’s only so many ways you can draw 3 legged Martian war machines.

This version of War of the Worlds is just one of the newer entries in a long list of classic adaptations from publisher Campfire, including Wells’ The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. Judging from The War of the Worlds, their production values are commendably high and the company promotes a clear sense of mission to broaden the appeal of classic stories. There’s nothing to criticise there either, and going by their back catalogue, you could build a pretty impressive library from their output.

Rather unusually, Campfire is based in India, and I must say this gave me grounds to anticipate receipt of something with an unusual visual perspective, but Campfire is clearly in the business of producing work with a worldwide English language appeal. Hence the Indian origin of the work is well camouflaged. Fair enough, you can hardly begrudge Campfire going for the widest possible demographic, and of course, if you think a about it, a straight up adaptation of The War of the Worlds can hardly have the metaphorical equivalent of the Taj Mahal dropped into the middle of Woking.

However, as regards the overall success of their version of The War of the Worlds, it does seem that being separated from the script writer by many thousands of miles and from the original source material by over 100 years was a wide cultural gulf for the artist to satisfactorily bridge, though in this day and age of Internet research, there’s little excuse for getting the uniforms wrong or indeed geography. I am reasonably sure that Putney Hill in 1900 did not consist of a hill with one house on it! Yet based on the script, this is how Ahluwlia has chosen, rather too literally I fear, to portray it. Of course this will largely bypass juvenile readers to whom this is pitched, but if you’re going to promote your books as educational, you are letting your readers down if you skimp on your research.

I fully concede that if I were to go back over some of the other War of the Worlds comic books I have reviewed on this site, I could likely find any number of similar problems, but in this instance the inconsistencies seem somehow harder to ignore. At bottom line, you get a sense that the artist is not really in his comfort zone and has worked too closely from a muddled set of reference materials. Hence things that you would normally happily dismiss as artistic license here prove far more jarring. It’s a shame as Ahluwlia clearly has talent. It makes me think that a War of the Worlds set during the British Raj, written and illustrated from an unrestricted Indian perspective could be fantastic and open up all sorts of interesting lines of investigation as to how Indian culture at the time would have reacted to a Martian attack, but as far as this adaptation is concerned, I am going to conclude that it’s a respectable piece of work, fun to read, technically well drawn and adapted by Foley with care, but that it feels somewhat hobbled in execution, as if something has indeed been lost in translation.