Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review of The Avengers #4, featuring The War of the Worlds

If anyone can explain in 500 words or less what is going on in this comic, you’re a better person than me. Even the normally reliable Wikipedia made my head spin, but to summarise as best I can, this issue of The Avengers occupies a place in a story arc known as The Heroic Age. The Heroic Age is set in the aftermath of a prior story arc known as The Siege, which itself followed on from a story arc called The Secret Invasion, and that’s how we end up here in Avengers issue 4, with the bizarre sight of Thor, the Norse God of thunder, knocking over Martian Tripods with his hammer. It’s certainly one of the weirdest crossovers you could ever hope to see, but unfortunately, it’s not very good.

I’ve read a lot of American comic books, thousands in fact, most from the 1970s and 1980s, and while I’m occasionally drawn into a comic shop to try and rekindle the love, I increasingly find the modern style of comic book story telling incredibly off-putting. What I am about to say may seem like an odd complaint about a comic book, a medium that is after all visual, but as a fairly average example of a modern day comic book, The Avengers feels as if the art is leading the story, rather than the story leading the art. It’s all presented in a very linear and undemanding manner, and crucially there just doesn’t seem to be much of substance going on in the meat of the story.

Where I remember taking ages to read a comic book, savouring the dialogue, noticing the way pages were artfully composed with panels bleeding into each other, overlapping and just generally presenting the reader with a challenge, here I just seemed to rocket through the mundanely panelled story and big soulless splash pages, so a $4 cover price comic is done in 5 minutes! That can’t be right can it? Am I just not getting it any more, am I too old to appreciate this stuff? Have I lost my comic reading Mojo? I don’t think so, I still dip into old comic books and it takes me right back. I read them exactly as I did the first time, so it can’t be that I am looking through rose tinted spectacles. Something has changed and I don’t like it.

Of course I’m reading this comic because of the War of the Worlds connection, and as mentioned at the beginning of this review, I am dropping myself in the deep end. I had a similar issue getting to grips with the story arc of the recently reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy, but returning to my beef above, and taking the opportunity to re-examine Guardians of the Galaxy, I find the same problem. It’s unimaginative in composition and you don’t feel any need to invest any kind of effort into reading the story. Guardians of the Galaxy was better for sure, but I’m struggling to put my finger on the basic problem. I guess it all feels very corporate, perhaps not helped by the adverts. There do seem to be more of them compared to earlier decades, but these are charmless compared to the kind you used to get, no Charles Atlas or X-Ray specs here, just remorseless corporate exultations to buy Marvel branded bed sheets and sneakers.

Anyway, I’ve not done much to review this comic in terms of story or its connection to The War of the Worlds, but frankly there’s not much you can say in that regard. Killraven pops up, as do the Martian Tripods, which do look great, but that’s about it. The aforementioned scene with Thor taking on the Martian War machines is fantastic, but really, for all they contribute to the story, they could just as easily have been the giant Sentinel robots from the Marvel universe or for that matter the Pillsbury Doughboy. I think if I had to sum up this comic and my feelings in a single word, that word would be indifferent.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Are we all a twitter about nothing, or should we be worrying?

The most remarkable thing to be learnt from the Mexican Twitter panic (presently attracting comparisons with the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast) is the apparent readiness of Twitter users to believe what they were reading. Prevailing wisdom is that most people should have a sufficiently well attuned bullshit filter that they would attempt some form of verification before leaping into their cars and causing mayhem, but it seems that’s simply not the case.

To briefly summarise what happened, a school teacher (Gilberto Martinez Vera) and a radio presenter (Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola) stand accused of spreading false reports that gunmen were attacking schools in Veracruz. Gerardo Buganza, the interior secretary for Veracruz state, likened the trouble caused to Welles’s 1938 broadcast. Not quite, but apparently cars were crashed in the mad stampede by parents to reach the schools.

This is quite disturbing. Much the same thing did happen in 1938, when people heard only a few minutes of the show, but then rushed off to tell friends, neighbours and outright strangers that the end of the world was coming. Of course in 1938 there were fewer means of double checking a news report, though even then you could have twiddled the dials to check if other stations were also in apocalyptic mode. You would think perhaps that in this day and age, people would have so many additional conduits of information that it would become apparent very quickly that they were subject to a joke, but it looks like you just have to hit the right buttons with people and common sense doesn’t so much as go out the window, as dive headlong from the 30th floor.

Clearly intimating that your children are in imminent danger is a particularly cruel and effective way of doing this, but it seems to me that we need to be thinking of some way of applying the breaks to dangerous twitter trends. I don’t actually like to suggest this, as with anything like this, those breaks can just as easily be applied to information unfavourable to governments and organisations. There’s a valid argument that any attempt at censorship is to be frowned upon, and better to have a few Orson Welles moments than risk the freedoms of the internet, but perhaps we can find some way to crowd source the censorship, self censorship if you like that would naturally resist attempts by governments and vested interests from halting the spread of unwelcome news.

How about hash tags #true and #false? Twitter could monitor these in conjunction with trending topics, and if a topic begins to trend, Twitter could provide statistics showing how many people believed it true and how many false. My assumption is that enough people would be sufficiently detached from events to be able to go off and do independent research and retweet with the #true or #false tags, hence tipping the balance in favour of sanity and thus helping to take the edge off dangerously out of control trends. Equally of course, if it appears the event is being reported accurately, people could react as matters dictate. My worry is that some idiot will do something like start a Tsunami warning which will go viral, and then god knows how many people will be hurt or worse in the panic. What do you think, is there a way of controlling this, or am I all in a twitter?

Of course, it could be the story from Mexico is #false, in which case there'll be egg on my face.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Review of The War of the Worlds graphic novel by Stone Arch books

This is a fast paced retelling of The War of the Worlds aimed squarely at the younger reader, though I’m not sure that entirely excuses the somewhat odd tinkering with the story by husband and wife team Davis Worth Miller and Katherine McLean Brevar. As a case in point, and quite unusually for this medium, they retain some of the story pertaining to the narrator’s brother, so the clash at sea between the Thunderchild and Martian Tripods survives onto the page, which would be great, if not for the rather strange decision to omit the sinking of the Thunderchild! What you say, the Thunderchild survives? But that’s just what happens, and indeed, the encounter is reframed into a rather one sided encounter, with the Martians well and truly seen off by the warship.

I’m not sure what Miller and Brevar were thinking here. There certainly seems to be a degree of sanitisation at work which might go so way toward explaining it. The blood drinking of the Martians is cropped from the story for instance, and the narrator (here renamed George) is not shown bashing the curate over the head with a meat cleaver, but equally people are shown bursting into flame as they are struck by the heat ray, so there doesn’t seem to be any great consistency there. A journalist character is also introduced who seems a little superfluous and is gone after a few pages (I think zapped but his fate is not entirely clear.)

Artist Jose Alfonso Ocampo Ruiz is based in Mexico, but his work has a pleasing Manga style look to it, imbuing his characters with very expressive faces and gestures and saturating the page with rich bold colours. Having read a lot of comic book versions of The War of the Worlds, I’m certainly impressed with his work, though there’s a real problem of scale with his Martian Cylinders. Given they are meant to pack in several Martians and their War Machines, they look far too small for the purpose. His Tripods are also not the best I have seen, lacking any great distinguishing features, but this aside, there’s little to fault with his work, and as previously mentioned, his figure work is very dynamic and positively leaps off the page.

It’s a shame the artist were not so restrained by the junior audience, as I suspect he could really take things up a gear on the story if given the chance, so in conclusion, it’s a frustrating little book that takes some curious liberties and in a fairly crowded field, does not alas particularly stand out.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Review of La Guerre des Mondes (The War of the Worlds) adapted by Philippe Chanoinat & Alain Zibel. (Adonis, 2007)

As a long time fan of French comic book art I was thrilled to discover that the publisher Adonis had produced a graphic novel version of The War of the Worlds. Comic book art is perfectly respectable in France, with vast numbers of titles produced to extremely high standards, and this beautifully printed hardback is no exception, boasting 45 pages of well executed and colourful art in a very sturdy feeling A4 format. I should make clear at this stage that my French extends not much further than Bonjour and Au Revoir, so in terms of the script, I have relied for this review on my knowledge of the story and a very handy app called Google Goggles, which appears to do a reasonably good job of translation.

So let’s start with the art by Alain Zibel, which without fear of error, I can say is amongst the best I have ever seen in service of the subject.  Zibel really seems to get the story, evoking the sense of calm before the storm that so strongly figures in the original H.G. Wells novel, and keeping things clean and simple, most notably in his depiction of the Martian cylinders. Faced with Wells’ description of the Martian spacecraft as “cylinders”, artists in this situation often can’t resist some embellishment;  pods and engines and other such paraphernalia, but Zibel has held his nerve and his cylinder is exactly that, plain and unadorned, and all the more effective for it. He gets the sense of scale right as well, so in our first view of the cylinder crashed to earth and in a panel depicting the sightseeing crowds thronging Horshell Common, the sheer size and raw power of the object is clear to behold.

You may recall that I recently reviewed another War of the Worlds graphic novel, that time from the Indian publisher Campfire, and took issue with the apparent lack of accuracy in the depiction of uniforms and period clothing in general. Clearly I have made a rod for my back, because prior to starting this review, I found myself once again researching British Army uniforms, but here at least I believe I can state that the artist has acquitted himself well. I won’t swear to it, but this looks and feels like an authentic late 19th century English world. In my review of the Campfire version of the story, I struggled to find a word to describe my misgivings, but I think it’s ambience, and in this case Zibel has delivered it with aplomb. The only thing I’m not entirely keen about are the Tripods, which are perhaps a little too plain and whose legs look oddly articulated.

So what can I say about the script. It seems, bearing in mind the limitations admitted above, that Philippe Chanoinat deserves credit for a job well done. The story appears to have been followed reasonably faithfully.  There is, as is often the case with these adaptations, the usual irritating erasure of the narrator’s brother and the Thunderchild sequence, (understandable I must concede for space and pacing considerations) though we are also missing the narrator’s second encounter with the artillery man, which is a shame.  Chanoinat does however give substantive prominence to the portion of the story detailing the burial of the narrator and a clergyman beneath a Martian cylinder, which appears here to work well.

What is also impressive about this volume is the quantity and apparent quality of the supplemental material. The book boasts more than a dozen pages of biographical and historical context to the story, which (language deficiencies again acknowledged) look to be far better than equivalent efforts in other publications. There are extracts from the original novel, in both French and English, plus a glossary in French and a translation table of commonly used words in 6 different languages!  Add to this a CD with the entire novel in English and French, and an audio book of The War of the Worlds in French, and it all adds up to a very useful looking package of material. Alas my daughter has just dropped French in favour of German at school, but I would certainly highly recommend this book to any parent whose children are studying French. On that note, you should also bear in mind that this book is one of a great many from the same publisher, adapting any number of famous novels, all of which I assume fit the same excellent general template.

So in summary, this is a very handsome volume, certainly scoring highly when compared to other graphic adaptations of The War of the Worlds, and even if like me, your French is an embarrassment, I would not necessarily say you should discount it as a purchase. The art alone is worth the cover price and for aficionados of The War of the Worlds, I have no hesitation in saying this would make a very worthwhile addition to your collection.