Monday, December 20, 2010

Something something webcomics part II - An interview with Josh Greathouse, creator of Scotty Odyssey

You know how some of your friends are more attractive, talented, and smart than you? (Well, I honestly don't often have this problem, but I hear some people do). Josh Greathouse happens to be one of those friends. He was lucky/awesome enough to go to Savannah, Georgia to major in sequential art, aka comics drawing/writing. He has been pumping out comics since he started school and his latest is Scotty Odyssey. From my own interpretation, it seems Scotty Odyssey is a family-friendly adventure webcomic that feels a little James Bond crossed with a Saturday morning cartoon crossed with Jeff Smith's Bone. In other words, it's totally awesome. Here are some questions from a recent interview with the comics creator.

ALD Graphic Novels: Is it best to start at the beginning to read Scotty Odyssey? If not, where is a good place to start? Is there anything the reader should know from the outset?

Josh Greathouse: I try to do all my comics so anyone can pick it up and enjoy it, for the joke or the art. All you really need to know is, it’s about a boy and his pet having adventures around the world with his family. I feel that most comics are too complex and need to know a million things before you can enjoy the first page. My goal is you can read the entire comic or just one and still have an idea of what it’s about.

ALDGN: What inspired you to write Scotty Odyssey? Any particular comics artists or writers?

JG: Actually a couple of artists did inspire Scotty. I just got my copy of Chris Sanders’ Kiskaloo in the mail and was reading it. I love his style and storytelling. I have missed doing more playful and fun like I use to enjoy as a kid. Well, I decided to just doodle a cat close to Chris Sanders style however not drawing his character. I own a print of Brian Stelfreeze called King Cheetah. So why not draw a cheetah? I did a couple and after drawing him playing with a laser I decided to maybe try and come up with a story for this little guy. I just saw or was looking at Skotty Young’s blog a couple days earlier and saw a picture of him. I figured out later I based my character Scotty off of him, with the same hat and increased his ears and noise, then added some freckles. I like the two kids but what kind of story would they have. Also, why would a kid have a pet cheetah? Then I thought of the Venture Brothers, which made me think of a childhood favorite...Johnny Quest. After watching the entire original cartoon, I decided to do a story that had Johnny Quest adventures with these kids, then have some random normal kid stuff between. Like bully at school, homework and just a normal life. That in a nutshell is how this comic was born.

ALDGN: What comics are you reading now? What are some of your favorites?

JG: Um let’s see, I’m reading Invincible by image, The Marvelous World of Oz by Marvel, Usagi YoJimbo by DarkHorse, Xenozoic (love that book) by Mark Schultz, Skull Kickers by Image and rereading Calvin and Hobbes. I kind jump around things. Oh I forgot, Akira and One Piece as well.

ALDGN: Are you a trade graphic novel man or do you collect single issues? Neither?

JG: I do everything. I read from the apps, single issues and graphic novels. The main thing depends on timing and coast. I’ve been trying to save money, so I’ll try and buy more things in graphic novel. One is saving money and two you get to enjoy more at once of that story. However, there are some comics I want to support and see more of, so have to buy the monthlies. Also, there are artist I know and love their work, so there are times you have to pick up a single issue they worked on. I just got into the reading off the apps for the companies and find it’s some of the most entertaining way to read comics. They do panel-to-panel and cheaper and easier to find older issues. So for Oz, Usagi Yojimbo, Invisible and any Manga I do graphic novel. Hellboy, mini series’ from artist I like or know personally, the Goon, Skull Kickers. For the apps, Elephantmen and some old marvel stuff.

ALDGN: What kind of weird questions do you get at conventions?

JG: I’ve gotten a couple but the worst was. I did a print of Scott Pilgrim, my version of the comic. At DragonCon in Atlanta, a lot of people would ask me if I did the comic and movie? Some would just congratulate me on the movie. Then there was the awkward moment of telling them… that wasn’t me.

ALDGN: You went to school for sequential art in Savannah, one of the only places that it's available. How was the experience? Did the classes help or do you think just spending all of that time drawing and not going to school would have been better?

JG: The experience is too hard to some up into words. Going to Scad, I went from liking comics to creating and understanding comics. Scad Seqa program is amazing and also trying to improve on itself. However that said, you still need to work on your art outside of class, trying to improve it any way. If it weren’t for Scad I wouldn’t be living in Atlanta and knowing the professionals I know, going to cons or doing a webcomics. I had the opportunity to go to Tokyo with Dexter Vines, Sanford Greene and Mark Schultz. There is so many great experiences cause I went to Scad.

That said, my art has improved so much more out of college since I now know where my weakness are. Scad helped me with understanding comics, the basics of creating comics and contacts in the professional world. So yes, every class helped since they opened up a world of knowledge and help me understand this medium. Then I had to take what I learn and push it farther for my own needs. Art college isn’t for everyone but it was what I needed. Also, getting advice from pros is something every artist should be doing, that helps a lot more then one thinks.

I don’t know if I did that argument justice but I recommended reading this if you are thinking of art school.

ALDGN: Is there an end in mind for Scotty Odyssey? Have you had a general outline of what's going to happen throughout the series?

JG: I’m hoping to make Scotty something I do for a long long time. I do try to think of major story ideas that will lead the comic along. I then like to do a couple short and sweet ones in between the major ones. Just to lighten the mood and keep it easy to read. It’s a balancing act really.

ALDGN: What are some of your favorite webcomics?

JG: Abominable Charles is on the top of the list. Then Kiskaloo, I believe that comic is over but it is an amazing short run. I hope he makes more. Girls with Slingshots is some of the best writing and acting I have ever seen. Sinfest is a fun and just enjoyable comic. Oglaf is not at all safe for work but some of the funniest I’ve seen. Pvp is one I’ve looked up to and have read every one. Sheldon and Drive just are good clean fun. For the rest just look under my links.

ALDGN: Are there any other projects you're working on that we should keep an eye out for?

JG: Nothing really right now I can talk about. I’m hoping to have some news about it in the next couple of months.

ALDGN: Anything else on your mind?

JG: Just want to thank you for taking the time to ask me. I’m also glad to hear a library is doing this and more with comics. We are really in a great time to be with comics. Things are growing and the medium is always changing. I’m curious to see the next twenty years with comics. Also check out the site, Monday, Wednesday and Friday for updates at Thanks again!

There you have it, folks. Make sure and check out Scotty Odyssey, keep updated with it, and keep your eye out for whatever other comic awesomeness Mr. Greathouse pumps out next.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Graphic novel book club selections May-August 2011

Yes, graphic novel aficionados, the library plans just this far ahead. It's time to choose some graphic novels for the upcoming trimester of 2011. Feel free to suggest some yourself or weigh in on these options.

Revolver by Matt Kindt
A story involving duality, a young journalist lives in two universes at once. One is a violent dystopia where he is a hero and the other is a dull place where his job is awful and his life's activities are suddenly mundane.

Creature Tech by Doug TenNapel
A story of a young scientist whose father was a pastor, Creature Tech very tastefully explores the age-long argument of religion versus science. The protagonist is attacked by a parasite that gives him super powers and a new philosophy. Also, there are space eels.

Almost Silent by Jason
A collection of Jason's early work, I'll let Amazon describe each story, as I have not read this particular graphic novel. "You Can’t Get There From Here...tells the tale of a love triangle involving Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Monster’s Bride...Tell Me Something is a brisk (271 panels), near-totally-silent (just a few intertitles) graphic novelette about love lost and found again, told with a tricky mixture of forward- and back-flashing narrative...The Living and the Dead is a hilariously deadpan (and gory) take on the traditional Romero-style zombie thriller."

Transmetropolitan series by Warren Ellis
A 90s series that follows Spider Jerusalem, a vulgar journalist who lives in an overpopulated and dirty futuristic city. Over the course of the series, he uncovers a government plot involving aliens. Or does he?

Blankets by Craig Thompson
Blankets is an autobiographical black and white epic of Craig Thompson's first love. This graphic novel is chock full of humor and is truly compelling and critically acclaimed.

American Vampire by Snyder and Stephen King
We're always talking about Stephen King in the book club anyway, why not read a Stephen King graphic novel? This original story involves vampires and the wild west, how could you go wrong?

Tricked by Alex Robertson
I have not read this graphic novel, either. Go Amazon! "A creatively blocked rock star, a signature--forging memorabilia-shop clerk, a teenager seeking the father she has never known, a functional schizophrenic not taking his meds, a waitress suffering from her latest breakup, and a pretty Latina doing temp work eventually converge for a violent climax...Inspired plotwise, it seems, by The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Lennon's murder, Robinson excels at less-than-transparent personae whose adventures he skips among in chapters presented in a countdown, 49 to 1, that bolsters the story's inherent suspense."

Traditionally, the graphic novel book club has taken a break in July for recuperating and reading things that are not comic-related, so let me know if you all would like a break. Either is fine with me. I also acknowledge that the superhero and manga side of the graphic novel world is a bit under-represented here due to a lack of knowledge on my part. If you have any suggestions or recommendations for these genres (preferably a 80+ page standalone or short series that was recently published) let me know. In any case, I'd like some feedback on what you all would like to read and/or what you would NOT like to read. Thanks!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Something something webcomics: Achewood!

Deadlines are for chumps. Nick and I arrived at this conclusion independently, and decided that the Webcomics column here needed a better name. And by "better" I mean "one flexible enough to accommodate long periods of slacking and forgetting to update it."

We've been hard at work trying to come up with a hilarious and boldly original new name for this column, but in the meantime I'm calling it "Webcomics Whenever."

So this week we're talking about Achewood. The best webcomic.

Achewood is a comic about some anthropomorphic animals. They're pretty normal dudes, which means that their conversations range from yuppie erudite to truck stop vulgar. (remember how last week I was like, "if you're easily offended, don't go clicking things on the internet?" Same thing applies here).

Achewood's creator Chris Onstad is a Stanford graduate with a passion for gourmet cooking, and like South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Onstad understands that the best humor works the corner of Evil Intelligent and Endearingly Dumb:

Achewood's two central characters are Ray and his childhood friend Roast Beef. Ray is an impossibly wealthy media mogul, who does things like buying the helicopter from "Airwolf" and the jarred head of The Who drummer Keith Moon on eBay:

Roast Beef is a down-on-his-luck computer guy, whose insecurities manifest themselves in his actions and the fact that his dialog is 2 points smaller than everyone else's:

I love this comic. If you're not going to get mad at me about some occasional bad language and some vague drawings of male parts (I mean, it's got nothing on Watchmen), you should read it from the beginning.

And then buy an Achewood t-shirt and wear it to a senior-level "Mass Media and Politics" class, which is totally how I met my wife.

Next Whenever: Law Enforcement and Sharp Objects!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Flight Volume One - Sunday December 19th

Flight is a graphic novel anthology edited by Kazu Kibuishi, who went on to create the successful Amulet series. The anthology is meant as a vehicle to promote young and upcoming talented artists. Each artist was given only "flight" as a theme, and as a result we get a story about a young girl who grows wings, a dirigible, a boy and his dog who build an airplane, and a short story about jet lag, among others. Like many anthologies, some stories are hit and some are miss. Questions for this one were a little difficult, so if anyone has any they'd like to submit, feel free.

1. What was your favorite story? Least favorite? Best and worst art?

It was a solid consensus that the scrapbook-feeling free-association story "Dummy Brother" was intolerable both visually and story-wise. We all thoroughly enjoyed "The Bowl" by Chiang for its clever storytelling and vivid art. We also enjoyed the cuteness of "Outside My Window."

2. The theme of the book is only flight. Did this restrict the graphic artists too much? Too little?

It seemed that "write something about flight" was the prompt for each of the artists. Since this theme is pretty nebulous and even romantic, it provided a good clear canvas for artists to work with.

3. As any anthology, Flight is schizophrenic age wise and content-wise. What demographic is it marketed to? What demographic is it meant for?

We did discuss this a bit. Especially since Flight: Explorer was specifically aimed towards children, stories like Copper seemed kid-like and out of place when compared to some of the uninterpretable and strange adult-oriented stories later in this book. I think this can serve as an example that comics creators really don't know who their primary audience consists of. Perhaps its mostly male twenty somethings, maybe they are all twelve year olds, or a mix of many populations.

4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of telling a story in just a few pages and panels?

Part of the problem with many of these stories is they seemed to just be teasers for a more fully realized story. Or, they abruptly or ambiguously ended in an unsatisfying manner. A few of the stories, like "The Bowl," managed to tell an interesting and satisfying story in just a few panels, but it proved a challenge to many of the other authors. Part of the problem/solution could be that some stories are continued in Flight: Volume Two.

5. In "I Wish" by Vera Bergosol, what happens at the end? (p. 48). What was her decision?

In the final panels, we see two figures, then one, then none. It could be argued that the girl went for a casual flight and took her friend along, but then why would only one figure remain after she supposedly took flight? It could also be interpreted that she took flight, then he left to go back home. In a macabre person's point of view (like mine), then it's possible that she couldn't fly at all with those wings, and both of them jumped to their deaths.

6. How did the anime drawing style come through in a few of these works?

I especially found it strange in the third story, "Hugo Earheart," in which Hugo looks suspiciously like Astro Boy and befriends a very anime-looking elf girl. Many of the authors were Asian in origin, so perhaps they are simply drawing upon Eastern influences. Or, judging from Scott McCloud's afterword, perhaps manga and japanese style art is the wave of the future.

7. What are your thoughts on the current "steampunk" trend in comics and fiction? (As seen in "Hugo Earhart," "Formidable," and Appelhans' story?)

Steampunk is an interesting trend that consists of an alternate universe in which steam power is the only means of technology. As a result, goggles, top hats, and flying machines are prevalent. Steampunk was interesting in these stories, but it seems a medium can only go so far with a certain trend. (Hear that, zombies?!)

8. What commentary is "The Bowl" (p. 179) making on historians and museums? What happened to the man/god inside of it?

Perhaps none, but the message that I was getting was the misinterpretation of history. This man's entire life was changed by a bowl, but the museum writing only speaks of calcium left over and what the bowl could have been used for. It shows that we really know nothing about the past or history, we can only blindly draw conclusions from fleeting evidence.

9. Why was flight of all themes chosen for this anthology? What makes it important or special to so many people?

As previously mentioned, flight is just universal and romantic enough that it can be an inspiration to many different types of people. From the first poem in this anthology that romanticized the act of taking off itself to the mundane problems like jet lag, the authors in Flight found their own way to interpret the theme.

10. How did "Outside My Window" (p. 79) fit in with the theme and the rest of the stories?

I have no idea. Any takers?

11. Many of these stories had no POWs or SMACKs to illustrate sounds and all of them completely lack thought or narration bubbles. Is this the new trend in comics? Why is this important?

Hearkening back to last month's selection, V for Vendetta, I think the lack of illustrated onomatopoeias is the indicator of a "grown up" or "serious" graphic novel, aka no superheroes. While these stories were by no means all serious, these sounds have been parodied and overused to the extent that they've fallen out of popularity along with thought balloons.

12. In his afterword, Scott McCloud predicts that manga and anime will become more serious, abandoning the guys with giant swords and Japanese schoolgirls. What do you think?

There have already been a few serious manga series', including McCloud's own Zot! and a favorite of mine, Planetes. However, the less classy school girls and dudes with giant swords are still selling by the pile, so I wouldn't count them out yet. Maybe we can count on awful Shakespeare and James Patterson adaptations of manga being on their way out, though.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Webcomics Wednesdays!

So Nick came up with the idea of linking to a different webcomic each Wednesday as a way of promoting an aspect of graphic literature that libraries tend to overlook. (It's not so much that we don't like them, it's that we can't really take credit for people reading comics on the internet. Dirty library secret!)

Anyways, when I heard the word "webcomics," I was like, "oh! Me! Got it! I'm writing that!"

So now that's what I'm doing I guess.

For this inaugural edition, here's a classic. It pretty well captures the creative freedom of webcomics. Freedom, that is, to use the exact same drawings every time.

That's right, it's Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics:

The obvious beauty of Dinosaur Comics is that the drawings are awesome. Microsoft Paint dinosaurs have never looked better (unless the girl who writes Hyperbole and a Half did a drawing of dinosaurs at some point.)

So if you're a guy who just happened to make the best MS Paint drawings of dinosaurs ever, what do you do? Well first of all you never draw anything else ever again. And then you keep re-using those images until the internet has memorized every pixel.

Basically, these are the only characters. T-Rex shouts things in declarative sentences, Dromiceiomimus kind of plays along, and Utahraptor points out the flaws in T-Rex's aforementioned declarative sentences. Sometimes God talks to them (as indicated by boldfaced text and a word bubble leading off-panel). The predictability of the format forces North to script these things pretty creatively, though.

Basically, it's one of the best things on the internet.

(Quick Warning: as with most things on the internet, there's some content that's inappropriate for younger audiences. View at your own risk!)

Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North

Next week: other best things on the internet!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

V for Vendetta was brought into most people's consciousness, including mine, from the 2006 film adaptation done by the Wachowski brothers. It seems to be a reactionary and angry graphic novel inspired by the extreme conservatism of Thatcherian politics of the 1980s. V for Vendetta features our hero V who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and has a penchant for theatrics. He meets a young lady named Evey who has experienced dystopian Britain's oppressive government for too long. V takes her under his wing and explosions, murder, and anarchy ensue.

Here are the discussion questions and answers. SPOILERS BELOW!

1. Alan Moore is all about his superhero deconstruction. Is V a "superhero" in the comic sense?

V is in some ways a superhero. He is only an idea, it doesn't matter who is behind the mask, only his ideals. So in this way he is much like say Spider-Man or Batman. Their identities are secret, but it is known that they stand for honor and goodness and such. He is also like other superheroes in that his morals are questioned. In some of the better Batman stories, the writer asks the reader if his actions are truly justifiable. Many of these moral dilemmas are peppered throughout V for Vendetta as well.

2. V for Vendetta is set in a post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian future. Is this a believable setting given the circumstances of the 1980s England that Alan Moore lived in?

George Orwell, Alan Moore, and a host of 1950s science fiction authors always make the mistake of setting a dystopian future in the very near future. Sure Margaret Thatcher said some scary things, not discluding what she apparently jokingly said about putting homosexuals in concentration camps. However, V for Vendetta is a worst-case scenario kind of paranoid theory that could only come out of Alan Moore's crazy hermit head.

3. David Lloyd draws Evey differently in each book of V for Vendetta. Why? What do each of these physical likenesses represent?

There are a few Eveys. The innocent and naive Evey, the grotesque and wrinkly bald Evey, the inexplicably 50s styled Evey with short curly hair, and Evey as V. David Lloyd drew Evey very grotesquely during her transformation to show that she was suffering and that her transformation did not come easily. The other likenesses, I'm not sure if they had any significance. Thoughts?

4. What is the significance of the smile on V's mask and the resulting unchanging exterior?

V always has that coy smile no matter what he says or feels. This mask shows confidence all the time; it adds to the mystique that V uses to become more than a man, to become an idea. There's the great panel near the end where Evey has a very V-like smile when she finally understands V's point of view and has become "freed."

5. What is the importance of flowers? Dominoes?

The flowers represent a better time, before the nuclear war and fascism caused rationing and extinction. If you want to get really high school English on the subject, flowers bloom and it could be said that V wants England to bloom, to rise above the totalitarian leadership they are currently under. The dominoes reminded me of the Domino Effect, a term used to describe the spread of communism. If one country fell to communism, then so would the rest. Perhaps the dominoes were like a backwards version of that. If V's carefully placed plans went through, he could knock the totalitarian government down all at once.

6. V for Vendetta is heavily based on British politics. Does the political message still make it through despite cultural and generational differences?

The Wachowski brothers film tried to address this issue, making V for Vendetta a Bush-era political satire. Personally, it didn't come through for me. I think Moore's political message makes it through the comic, it is just not as personal here in the United States. For example, there are not nearly as many security cameras on the streets here in the U.S. as there are in England.

7. What are the similarities and differences between V and Rorschach from Watchmen?

V's mask and Rorschach's mask both represent their worldviews. Rorschach's black and white mask represents absolutes; in his mind a person is either good (on his side) or evil (preparing to die by his hands). V's mask represents Guy Fawkes and has a coy little smile all the time. This represents his aversion to the British government, his love for theatrics, and the smile is his feeling towards it all: happy but destructive. The difference? Rorschach is driven by darker forces, his awful upbringing, his masochistic need to kill while V is driven by hope, he truly wants his actions to bring forth a better England.

8. In the technical sense, V is a terrorist. Is terrorism a legitimate way to overthrow an oppressive government? Is it the only way? Were the fatalities likely caused by V's explosions worth the ultimate result?

This is quite a debate here. V's plan to overthrow the government was essentially to take down each part of the regime (ear, eye, nose, mouth, fingers) to instill fear and uncertainty both in the general public and in the government. However, he also caused quite a few explosions that could very well have caused some innocent casualties. Were these innocent deaths worth the end result? Were the citizens of dystopian Britain really "living" in the totalitarian regime? I'm just raising more questions here. I'd love to hear some feedback on this one.

9. V seems to have an obsession with theatrics. Why? How does this play into his persona or philosophy?

V's obsession with theatrics is what makes him such a great "character." (Only a character in the technical sense. Yes, he's an idea.) V is constantly quoting Shakespeare and popular songs while he gleefully murders members of the government. This is never really explained and I never got an idea as to why V chooses to act this way. Perhaps it plays into the coy smile that is plastered on his face? He happily conducts while the Parliament building explodes, perhaps this is just his way.

10. The citizens of dystopian England were under constant watch by cameras. How does this effect people? How do people act when they are on camera? How did this voyeurism effect the men and women who watched the monitors?

Clearly, the population of England in this graphic novel have been beaten down into lives that constantly feel the burden of an oppressive government. People cannot do anything "illegal" as decided by the government, so these people are shells. As soon as the cameras turn off, a school girl graffitis a nearby wall. People need to act on instinct and sometimes do deviant things, it is a part of human nature. The voyeurism on the other side deeply effected the leader, who fell in love with Fate the computer perhaps because it was the only thing in the world that could tell him what to do or had more power than him.

11. What is the importance of V's mask? Could he have done the same things to England if he had been unmasked?

V's mask is important obviously in hiding his identity since he's an enemy of the state, but it is also so he can become more than a man. The mask represents V's ideals, if he had just been a man people would have been less likely to listen.

12. What's the significance of the motto "strength through purity, purity through faith?"

Elena helped us work backwards on this one. Faith is believing in something, and purity is cleansing one's self to in theory become a better person. So this statement says having the strength to believe in something that may not make sense(fascist government) makes you a better person. Totalitarianism personified.

13. Why did V kick Evey out of the Shadow Gallery initially?

Evey was not ready; she was questioning who V was, thinking that he was her father. V needed to kick her out so she could experience the real world again and realize that it does not matter who V is, the only thing that matters is what he represents, what he stands for.

14. Why does V let Finch shoot him in the subway tunnel?

V had finished his work. He set up the dominoes and let them fall; every dangerous member of the government had been killed. He needed to allow Evey to carry the torch.

15. What are the differences between old V and the new V? What are each of their responsibilities?

Old V was destructive, he tore fascist England's government apart so new V could rebuild and create a new England.

16. Was Evey brainwashed by V or did she truly embrace V's ideals?

This was a big debate at the book club. Part of the problem is Evey's lack of characterization. It seemed to me that after her "cleansing" by V's hands, she just all of a sudden took on his ideas and ideals without much explanation or thinking for herself. Her speech at the end as V seems robotic and planned. On the other hand, V inspired Finch to become a different person and view England in a different way, so perhaps the same happened to Evey.

17. In the end, is England better off for what V did for them? Will the people be able to run their own government?

Questionable. Governments often run in cycles, so it's possible that England could go from the oppressive regime to a more democratic and freeing government. However, I do not have confidence in Evey's skills of "creating" and showing England how to live. It could be argued that her work is done with her rejuvinating speech at the end, but I think her help would be much more needed in the future.

EXTRA CREDIT from Josh: Why is Natalie Portman in so many comic book/fantasy roles (in Star Wars, in "V for Vendetta," in the upcoming "Thor" movie, in the upcoming "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"), and yet she's still cool and not typecast yet? What makes her so fitting to be in these roles?

Jeremiah says she has a good agent. Zing! I always assumed that Natalie Portman was just a secret nerd who enjoyed all of these non-traditional film roles. Being in pompous queen and British poppycock films like The Duchess and Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies provide an interesting and stark contrast to upcoming film roles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Thor.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Walking Dead pilot

For the uninitiated, AMC premiered The Walking Dead last night, a new TV series based off of Robert Kirkman's graphic novels of the same name. We did a book club back in August of 2009 for The Walking Dead, so I figured this is kind of appropriate. One of our gracious book clubbers offered to have a viewing party at her house, but sickness, scheduling problems, and children unfortunately got in the way. However, I'm willing to bet more than a few of us watched it last night, so I'd like to hear some of your thoughts.

Here are some of mine, spoiler-free:

-It feels slow-paced, or methodical you could call it. The first five pages of the first Walking Dead trade is covered in a half hour. I read in an interview with director Frank Darabont that he prefers this approach, and making a TV show allows for this. Judging from other AMC shows such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, it seems this slow methodical approach is their m. o. I think of all TV shows, The Walking Dead could have benefited from a no-frills, fast-paced, this-dude-is-now-dead-even-though-we-just-met-him approach.

-The zombie effects are great. Maybe some of the other effects, like blood and the pretty obviously computer generated car-filled highway during Rick's lone horseman scene are TV-quality, but the zombies look amazing. The "I'm sorry this happened to you" legless zombie especially was horrifying in the best possible way.

-The dialogue isn't terribly clever. This is a problem in Kirkman's graphic novels, too, but whenever characters have to converse casually, it's painful. Shane and Rick's conversation about durn women who can't turn off the lights would make masters of conversational dialogue like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith cringe.

-Will it follow the graphic novel exactly? The pilot felt pretty safe while Kirkman's graphic novel pulled no punches in any way, which was much of its appeal. Especially in later story arcs like with the Hunters or the Governor, I'm not seeing how AMC could pull those off in the same vein as the graphic novel. According to the previously mentioned interview, Darabont plans to use Kirkman's ideas as a framework, then go in a different direction, but the pilot's strict adherence to the first Walking Dead trade makes me wonder.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

Pride of Baghdad is a one-shot graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan, one of my favorite comics authors partially due to his fine work on Y the Last Man. The graphic novel is based on a true story of a pride of lions who escaped a Baghdad zoo in 2003. Vaughan takes on the challenge of depicting animals like humans while still trying to convey animal thought with varying degrees of success. Pride of Baghdad seems to be a love it or hate it type of graphic novel judging from reviews I've read, so I will most likely be fielding some complaints at this upcoming book club at Koelbel Library on Sunday the 24th at 2:00 p.m. Here are some questions to chew on until then.

1. Many of the one-shot graphic novels we've read lately such as Orbiter, Eternals, and now Pride of Baghdad have ambiguous or abrupt endings. Is this tendency unavoidable due to the nature of a one-shot graphic novel?

Personally, I think this could be the case. As Gaiman mentioned in the afterword for Eternals, he had to add a few issues to the end to get the whole story in and even then the graphic novel felt rushed in my opinion. I'm sure there are some one-shot graphic novels out there that do not have ambiguous or abrupt endings, but this is a hurdle that many authors face.

1a. As Jeremiah has noted in past meetings, Vaughan tends to write abrupt,
ambiguous, or even "gearshift" endings in which he leads one direction then ends on a completely different note. Is this a weakness as a writer or could it be construed as a purposeful style?

Vaughan knows that his m. o. is writing abrupt and striking endings. He clearly has an anti-war stance and it seems likely that wanted to use his style of endings to have one with maximum impact. As Jeremiah noted, Brian K. Vaughan has said himself that he hates happy endings, so this is clearly a purposeful style. I would argue, however, that if he continues to write every story with predictable "unhappy" endings, this could be interpreted as a weakness.

2. There's no avoiding noticing the visual similarities between Hendrichson's art and Disney's The Lion King. Should Hendrichson have avoided the cartoony style? Does the style work for this story?

Some of us were instantly reminded of The Lion King, others like Richard were not at all. It was argued that the style could have purposely been used, again for maximum impact. The comparison between a peaceful life in the wild depicted in the Disney feature versus Vaughan's war-torn desert environment would pull on the old heart strings for sure.

3. Why were the faces of the U.S. soldiers obscured?

Throughout the whole story, there were no human faces. Perhaps this was because it was supposed to be an animal-focused story. The faces of the soldiers were also not important, they are almost a faceless malevolent force to the pride of lions instead of individual humans. Finally, the focus seemed to be on the American flags on their uniforms rather than their faces, so it seemed more important to depict their American origins.

4. Let's say the lions did not come across the herd of white horses in the streets of Baghdad. Should the lions have eaten the dead "keeper" despite the fact that humans were the ones who fed them?

We didn't get to this one during the club. Any thoughts on this? Perhaps eating the "keeper" would have been a turning point. When the lions enter the wild, their previous misconceptions, tendencies, and survival instincts should be completely changed. However, Noor still did not eat the gazelle back in the zoo, so perhaps the pride would have held on to their domesticated survival tendencies.

5. What do the white horses represent?

Nature in a war torn environment. Going the cliche route, they could represent hope. In context, the pride saw that food was indeed available outside of their zoo cages even though they did not end up eating the horses.

6. What is the significance of the horizon? Why haven't the lions seen the horizon?

The horizon was something that the older lions saw when they grew up in the savannah, but haven't seen since in their cages since they are in a cove in the ground. The horizon could have abstractly represented the freedom that the lions were seeking in the first place. The male lion never gets to answer whether it was "worth it" or not, but perhaps escaping the zoo and experiencing the wild and the beauty of nature made the tragedy it led to worth it.

7. The pride of lions opted to leave the zoo once their cage was destroyed. Should they have left despite the fact that leaving caused their eventual end? Would they have met a similar end if they'd stayed?

Clearly can’t continue to live there, they can stay and hope that another bomb doesn’t fall in the same place or travel elsewhere to potential safety. They had no way of knowing that leaving would have caused their deaths, the logical choice was to leave.

8. Noor tries to convince the antelope that predator and prey can live and work together in safety. Is this plausible for animals held in captivity?

The lion’s word was good, they did not eat the antelope. Perhaps this could represent various warring groups in Iraq such as the Kurds and the possibility of living in peace and uniting. Animals held in captivity do likely forget their survival instincts since they do not have to hunt for food. Predator and prey living in peace could happen.

9. The back of the book calls Pride of Baghdad "provocative" and "politically nuanced." Do you agree? What, if any, political message did you take away from the graphic novel?

There was a pretty hamfisted political message in Pride of Baghdad. It clearly has an anti-war and anti-violence agenda. I would not go so far as to say it was nuanced, but some of the underlying messages and symbols were thought provoking.

10. Pride of Baghdad's detractors cite overt sexism between the male and female lions. Did you sense this? If it is accurate in the wild, should anthropomorphized lions be depicted this way?

It could be interpreted as symbolism of a culture, Iraq is a male-dominated culture. Lion prides also have strict gender roles, with males as the leaders and females as hunters. Pride of Baghdad was heavy on portraying female lions as sex-starved, but otherwise most of the gender roles were accurate.

11. Has Disney ruined the possibility of media ever depicting "serious" talking animals? Should animals be depicted with the ability to show human thought and reasoning? Were the animals in Pride of Baghdad too human? What could be done to combat this?

I would argue that the story almost could have been pulled off without any dialogue whatsoever. The dialogue did not serve much at all in the story. One of my biggest criticisms of the book was that the characters did not develop throughout, so what is the point of having dialogue? The tragic ending and some of the symbolism could have been much more interesting and nuanced. Animal Farm was the only film in recent history to be able to pull off talking animals with any seriousness, but in most other situations, it's impossible.

12. The palace in which the bear is found is likely supposed to be Saddam Hussein's. Why is this included?

The bear represents the hopeless and nihilistic thought that would occur in such a bad situation. Bear shows just how awful you can be in this situation. Main male lion was complacent, so this fight forced him to get up and fight. The horses, palace, everything represents the decadence and money. Perhaps because the huge gap between poor and rich caused the problems in the society that we have seen in the story.

13. Some forms of media are criticized for being praised just because of having a tragic ending. Is this the case in Pride of Baghdad?

Considering the love it or hate it nature of the book, I think this is possible. When someone is emotionally touched by a form of media, this may inflate their overall opinion of it. This is similar to critics giving ambiguous or confusing works of art high praise because they do not understand it, so it must be good.

14. Could Pride of Baghdad have ended any other way? To paraphrase the back of the book, can freedom be given or does it have to be earned?

The death of the lions was pretty inevitable. In a best case scenario, the lions could have been rescued and shipped off to another zoo, but this seems unlikely considering the disaster that's was going on in Iraq at the time. Venturing off from the cage represented freedom that they had not experienced at all or in a very long time, but led to their eventual demise. Freedom cannot be given or earned, it must be appreciated. As mentioned in question six, freedom is an abstract concept for everyone. No one can truly feel "free" until their parameters for freedom have been filled. In this case, I think the lions did earn freedom. They endured many hardships to witness the beauty of nature in a manmade war-torn environment.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New ALD graphic novels, September 2010

Here are some recently ordered graphic novels at ALD. Click on the links below and put them on hold so you can get them when they come in! In the case of Doom Patrol and Planetary, the district ordered the entire series.

Creature Tech was written by Doug TenNapel, the author of the quite awesome and previously featured Ghostopolis and the creator of the Earthworm Jim video game series. It involves mad scientists, giant space eels, and a bit of science versus religion philosophy. What else do you need to know?

Warren Ellis' Planetary series follows a band of superhero "architects" who are tasked with uncovering ancient artifacts of the world. Planetary does a better job than most comics exploring who and what superheroes really are.

Doom Patrol is another unconventional graphic novel series that features a strange ragtag group of superheroes in the vein of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman. A human brain in a robot body and Negative Man are only a smattering of Morrison's creative use of superheroes in the series.

Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love is an offshoot of Willingham's popular Fables series. As we know from the Fables series, *minor spoilers* Cinderella is a spy for the Adversary. This graphic novel follows Cinderella's days as a spy a bit more closely.

Batman: The Killing Joke is another one of Alan Moore's critically acclaimed graphic novels. Hailed as one of the best Joker stories of all time and the main inspiration for Joker's appearance and demeanor in The Dark Knight, this is one Batman story that should not be missed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eternals by Neil Gaiman - September 26th

Eternals is a reboot of a 1970s Jack Kirby series of the same name. The Eternals are a small group of gods whose job is to protect the Earth. In classic Gaiman fashion, he takes an obscure superhero and puts his own mythological spin on it. Gaiman introduces the reader to the Eternals universe by putting you in the shoes of Mark Curry, a harried medical student. When Curry meets a man who claims to be an ancient superhero named Ikaris who has known him for thousands of years by the name of Makkari, the saga has only begun.

Some general thoughts on Gaiman's Eternals from our book clubbers:

-Wasn’t very good because Gaiman was too enamoured with Kirby’s original series. Limited himself too much.

-We liked the mystery and grandeur of the story, but were disappointed by the fact that immortal gods still have miniscule emotional problems

-Eternals needed to be independent of the universe, don’t have to deal with Marvel characters or crossovers

-Seems like the motivation for this comic could have been a capitalistic gain, with the huge Gaiman letters on the cover

1. Gaiman tends to reuse ideas and themes in his work. Are there any similarities or differences between Eternals and Sandman or American Gods or Neverwhere?

Gaiman's modus operandi is reviving obscure superheroes (possibly to keep Marvel/DC's copyright recent?) and making them relevant for a new generation. He also loves mythology and talking about gods, as evidenced in American Gods and Sandman. It seems in Eternals, Gaiman was limited to Kirby's mythology, arguably too much, speaking of the "space gods" that are the Eternals. Taking a page from Neverwhere, Gaiman takes an everyman in Mark Curry and throws him into a strange world not unlike our own. The difference here, as mentioned before, is that Gaiman is held back; either by Marvel's rules or by his own allegiance to Kirby's original story.

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing a reboot of an older comic (like Sandman for example), such as this one adapted from Kirby's work?

Jeremiah argues that this is not a reboot and more of a retconned sequel. (Retcon meaning retroactively fitting the story and characters into an already existing storyline). Rather than a reimagining the Eternals, Gaiman is continuing the characters from Kirby's story; it’s more like a sequel. The advantage to doing a reboot, obviously, is that the writer doesn't as creative since a framework is already built an audience is already built in.

3. How did you feel about the origin and purpose of the Eternals, being ancient ones who protect the Earth?

The story has it that the Eternals are wired to protect the Earth, as boring as that sounds. So the purpose of the Eternals is not terribly interesting. The origin, in the Antarctica-esque earth coffins, is a bit more interesting, but too convoluted for this reader to fully understand.

4. Is there any deeper commentary or meaning on Gaiman's satire of reality television with It's Just So Sprite and America's Newest Superheroes?

It's Just So Sprite is significant only to introduce the reader to Sprite, and later find out that he is an Eternal and used his power to become famous. America's Newest Superheroes seems to be a vehicle just for Gaiman to poke fun at reality television and superheroes in general.

5. What are your thoughts on using amnesia as a plot device, especially in Sprite's plan and with the character Mark Curry?

This isn't any amnesia, this is God-induced amnesia. Super amnesia if you will. However, that doesn't make it any better a plot device. Amnesia is a decent way to introduce us to Mark Curry and his transition into becoming an Eternal, but Sprite's amnesia-induced hypnotism on the rest of the Eternals was lame retconning at its finest.

6. One of the challenges of being a non-independent comics writer is writing recent universe plot developments into the story. How does Gaiman tackle this? Do you think universe continuity is important in comics?

Unfortunately, Gaiman wrote Marvel's Civil War storyline into Eternals, so there's bare bones talk about registering as a hero from Iron Man. However, this inclusion enriches neither this graphic novel or Marvel's series. In the case of Eternals, I think it would have been better all around if Gaiman was able to ignore the Marvel Universe all together and have free creative reign to do what he wants. Keeping with continuity in comics is an art that few writers have, all too often storylines end up being ridiculous, retconned, and/or convoluted like One More Day.

7. Kirby's original Eternals series was originally not supposed to be a part of the Marvel Universe and was later brought into continuity. Would the Eternals be better off in their own world?

See previous question.

8. Graphic novels such as Watchmen, Eternals, and Kingdom Come are superhero deconstructionist graphic novels, meaning they redefine or question the superhero archetype. How does Eternals deconstruct what superheroes are currently made out to be? Are superheroes gods?

As Jeremiah so eloquently pointed out, Eternals is not quite a deconstruction. Superhero deconstructionist stories ask why superheroes do what they do and why society allows it. In this case, it is clear what the Eternals have to do. Protecting the Earth is their job. It is almost the opposite the Eternals can’t change. They are like robots, or a system. “We MUST protect.”

9. Why did Sprite do what he did? Would you have done the same thing if put in his situation?

In this book club's opinion, there was very little reason given. Just being eleven for eternity doesn’t seem to be the major factor. Sprite didn’t know the consequences of his actions. He’s been alive for so long, he doesn’t think any bad things were going to happen.

10. What is the purpose of having the Eternals in the Marvel Universe? Is there any significance to the timing of this comic, since it was set during the Civil War storyline?

See # 6. The short answer: little to no purpose and none, other than capitalistic gain.

11. Why are the Eternals compelled to protect the human race if they are not human themselves?

The Celestials told them to do so, the Eternals are hardwired to protect Earth. The book club made a comparison to Greek gods on Olympus - the lives of the humans are insignificant to them, but watching their existence, however meager, is all the gods have have to entertain themselves or keep busy. It could be argued that the Eternals are not involved in human struggles they are more motivated to save the Earth. Earth's inhabitants are only secondarily served.

12. Are the Eternals too powerful to be a part of an interesting storyline? Is this perhaps why they've never had a long-running series?

Yes, as far as a traditional comic story goes, which it is limited to in the Marvel universe. Again, gods are difficult to relate to. A better story would be less about them, more about internal struggle. Readers need something relatable to care about what is going on.

13. How did you feel about the ending of Eternals? Some criticize the graphic novel and its ending for feeling like a set up to simply put the Eternal heroes into the Marvel Universe.

The ending seemed unfinished and a start to a miniseries that never got enough attention to go anywhere. So, as it stands, with no continuation of the Eternals in the Marvel Universe, it could be argued that it was a standalone with an ambiguous ending or a failed launch of a new superhero series.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Future graphic novel selections January - April

Hey all, we need to narrow this list down to four that we want to read for the January, February, March, and April book clubs. Here are some that I came up with, feel free to suggest others and/or weigh in on which of these you would like to read or not read.

Kingdom Come by Waid

A Watchmen-esque post apocalypse story that dissects and analyzes the role and the importance of superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

Ghostopolis by TenNapel

Garth Hale has traveled into the spirit world and must enlist the help of a few apparitions to escape.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Vasquez

Invader Zim creator Jhonen Vasquez gives us a comic look into the world of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, who gleefully tortures his victims and terrifies a young boy named Squee.

Stitches by Small

A memoir on children's author David Small that chronicles his troubled life with his parents and the partial loss of his vocal cords.

Planetes vol. 1 by Yukimura

A hard science fiction comic that follows a spaceship crew whose job it is to collect space junk.

Akira vol. 1 by Otomo

The work that inspired the anime, Akira is a six part epic that involves psychic children being used as weapons of mass destruction.

Swamp Thing vol. 1: Saga of Swamp Thing by Moore

A famous 1980s run of Swamp Thing that brought horror comics and mature comics to the forefront.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Thompson's semi-autobiographical sometimes tragic, sometimes comic tale of first love.

Superman: Red Son by Millar

A highly acclaimed alternate universe tale in which Superman was not born in Smallville, Kansas, but in Soviet Russia.

Demo: The Collected Edition by Wood

A collection of stories chronicling the various occurrences in the lives of teenagers.

So, you have the power! Let me know what sounds interesting or what I picked that sounds totally lame in the comments. Thanks, all!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Black Hole by Charles Burns - Questions & Answers

Have you ever flipped through a graphic novel and said, "WHOOOAAA, what's going on in that panel?" Every other page or so of Black Hole is a "WHOOOAAA" page. Burns' beautifully illustrated work took him ten years to complete and it shows. The drawing style is almost instantly recognizable to the point that he has regular gigs drawing covers for magazines and advertisements.

Black Hole is set in Seattle in the 1970s and chronicles the lives of four teenagers. Sex, drugs, STDs, sex, and drugs are abound. This is the most adult graphic novel we've read so far, at least from a surface viewpoint. It's also a great book club choice if I do say so myself because some plot elements are ambiguous and there are symbols and motifs on every page. Burns is much like the other author/illustrators we've read (Mike Mignola, Jeff Smith); their graphic novel(s) took years to complete, but turned out to be a critically acclaimed work of art.

Here are the questions and answers that were discussed at the graphic novel book club at Koelbel on August 29th. Thanks to everyone for contributing.

1. What is the significance of the woods?

Those who are infected with Bug are sent to the woods where they can hide in peace and be independent and isolated. It is where they felt they should be, the woods are a representation of their choice to banish themselves from society. Trashing the house later in the book means the infected are recreating an atmosphere more like their home into the woods.

2. What is the importance of yearbooks?

The front and back cover feature before (normal) and after (infected) pictures, a representation that nothing is simple and these aren’t just happy teenagers. Even the kids who don’t have the Bug still have things going on behind the scenes. The pictures are frozen, posed, and superficial, only representing the surface of who these kids are. Yearbooks are not representative of who people are/were inside and what they do.

3. Why was Black Hole set in the 1970s? What commentary is made on the generation?

Parents are more involved this generation and there's arguably more societal pressure to go to college and get a job. It’s less relatable to people of Generation Y. The 1970s culture was full of drugs and sex, the perfect atmosphere for Burns to use to comment on what was going on with teenagers then.

3a. What if these events had occurred to teenagers now? How would they react?

Arguably, kids have more awareness about STDs and more access to information on the Internet, so a widespread STD such as Bug would be less likely to occur. This generation also does not have the "free love" attitude that carried from the sixties into the seventies, so perhaps the STD would be less widespread.

4. How did you feel when you were reading Black Hole? Was this the author's intent?

Confused, grossed out, concerned. Depressed. Infected or dirty, it gets under your skin. The combination of Burns' super realistic drawings and surreal creepy drawings made for an uneasy feeling.

5. How does Burns distort fantasy and reality? What role did dreams play?

Jeremiah says dreams are surprisingly well portrayed, he feels that dreams run into reality much like how Burns illustrates them. Dreams were used to inject important symbols and ideas into the story. The reader is never quite aware what events are fact or fiction while reading Black Hole.

5a. Compare the way dreams are portrayed in graphic novels to other mediums.

Dreams are much more effective in graphic novels, the authors don’t have to spend all kinds of time explaining the scene as they would in a book. Unlike other comics or mediums, Black Hole's artistic style is the same in dreams and reality, the content is just different. They don’t change colors or lines like they do in other mediums so the transition feels more natural.

6. What is the significance of water? Why do the infected seem drawn to it?

Traditionally, water represents birth and purification. Swimming makes Chris feel better, perhaps its the only place she can truly feel clean. Erika suggests that puddles and diffusion can change and distort an image, so perhaps Burns is playing with the parallel of the distorted physical manifestations that are found on the infected.

7. Describe Burns' art style. Why did he choose to illustrate Black Hole this way? Is there any feel he was trying to evoke?

Burns' style is instantly recognizable and consistent. In this book, he chooses to draw quite realistic people with unsightly features such as unibrows, pimples, and partial mustaches. This provides a stark contrast between the science fiction-esque imagery and the realistically drawn characters.

8. Would Black Hole be better/worse in color? Why or why not?

I think drawing Black Hole in color would take an already disturbing and grotesque graphic novel over the top in terms of tolerance. Burns' style is already so emotive and impressive that color is not needed.

9. How is Black Hole different from other critically acclaimed "hipster" comics such as Jimmy Corrigan?

Other "hip" graphic novels such as Ghost World and Jimmy Corrigan, which are essentially non plot driven studies in human tragedy, are different from Black Hole. Elena argues that the characters in Burns' work have some chance at redemption and both character and plot progress are made. We also wonder if this and other graphic novels are so critically acclaimed because they are esoteric so a critic gives it a good score to keep from looking stupid.

10. Is there any significance to the absence of parents in this graphic novel?

It represents that nobody cares about anyone else. In this generation, parents are more involved and kids are pushed more towards success. In the 70s, it was more hands off parenting. It seems at least in Black Hole that parents are willing to overlook, don’t want to get involved.

11. What is the importance of Eliza and Keith escaping to the desert at the end?

A desert is the complete opposite of a wet and tree-filled Seattle. Perhaps such a dramatic physical change of environment can help these two forget the horrific occurences back in Seattle.

12. What is the significance of the conversation between Rob and Chris before they first have sex?

The conversation is a play on the embarrassment of being a virgin versus the embarrassment of having an STD. Rob wants to tell Chris he's infected, but she thinks he's talking about being a virgin, so she tells him not to worry about it. This is representative of the lack of responsibility and communication teenagers have and how easily an epidemic like this could spread.

13. What do the mutations caused by Bug represent? Each mutation seems to vary depending on the person (tail, mouth, face, etc.). Why?

We didn't really get to this one in club, I'm hoping to hear some of your thoughts on it. Jeremiah argues that Rob's neck mouth says his unconscious thoughts and fears, but what does the tail or any other deformations represent?

14. What is the difference between the "normal" kids and the infected kids? What does this represent?

The "normal" kids are mostly burnouts and drug users while the infected tend to be a bit more inclusive. However, there's a complete lack of any truly "normal" characters in Black Hole. Where is the football team, the cheerleaders? Burns chose to represent a few factions, both of whom could be argued to be equally deviant.

15. Neil Gaiman was writing the screenplay for a movie adaptation, but he left the project in 2008. David Fincher (Fight Club, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is still set to direct. What do you think of Hollywood's tendency to adapt every popular graphic novel into film? Would Black Hole adapt well?

The combination of Gaiman and Fincher could have been perfect, but now the future of the project looks uncertain. The current tendency towards superhero movies also makes the project a rough start. If the director was not careful, the film could be ridiculously campy and not purposely funny. It could detract from the real message.

16. Black Hole offers little plot resolution in the end. Is there any reason for this? Is there emotional resolution?

We didn't get to this one, either. Thoughts?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Orbiter by Warren Ellis - Questions & Answers

The graphic novel book club selection for August 1st was Orbiter by Warren Ellis. Orbiter is Ellis' love letter to astronauts and the space program. He was inspired by the 2003 Columbia disaster. It is a very quick hard sci-fi read. Technical jargon is dropped throughout the graphic novel. Apparently, understanding said jargon helps the reader comprehend some elements of the book, but is not totally necessary.

Much of the intrigue of the graphic novel revolves around the mystery of astronaut John Cost, who returns to Earth from a previously thought doomed shuttle launch. Cost is catatonic through most of the book and the ending both raises and answers questions. Since I have not previously read any Warren Ellis graphic novels, I can't compare. However, judging from various reviews, this is not standard Ellis fare. All in all, an enjoyable read.

Here are the somewhat *SPOILERY* discussion questions and answers. Thanks to our book clubbers, including Erika, Richard, Jeremiah, Elena, Jan, Josh, Vrlina, and Nick (me!) for the answers and discussion.

1. Warren Ellis seems to be interested, maybe obsessed with astronauts and space. How does this show in his writing? How does it affect the story?

The entire book is indeed a love letter to space, this is especially clear in the foreword to Orbiter in which Ellis laments the uncertain future of the space program since the 2003 Columbia disaster. In fact, Orbiter was apparently on the back burner and Ellis and Doran decided to unleash it on the world after the Columbia disaster, so perhaps this affected the storytelling and message behind the book.

2. What recent political occurrences could have influenced Orbiter? What if the graphic novel was written now?

Most likely due to the recession, Obama has deemphasized the space program. Rumor has it, the current space project could be the last for a while. Elena posits that Ellis could be working on Orbiter 2 as we speak. (Which she would not be very happy about).

3. Why did Ellis choose to set Orbiter in a post-apocalyptic world? Is the post-apocalypse setting used too often in graphic novels?

Orbiter isn't necessarily post-apocalyptic. The beginning of the book would have you think so with the tent city and the state of the Kennedy Space Center, but news casts and current technology are available. That said, though, the post-apocalypse theme is getting a bit worn.

4. Orbiter is a rare occurrence in comics - a hard science fiction tale. Are there other graphic novels that fit into this genre? Why aren't there more hard science fiction comics?

It could be argued that Y the Last Man is hard science fiction. The only other series I can think of is a nice little manga called Planetes. I think the market for hard sci-fi graphic novels hasn't been found yet. As Richard and Jeremiah discussed with us, graphic novels are often used for crazy ideas, like a real world full of fairy tale characters. Maybe authors have not found the hard science fiction graphic novel niche yet.

5. Why does John (the returned astronaut) keep having violent reactions to the psychiatrist and conversations about his experience?

It is mentioned briefly at the end that the aliens showed John some things he was not ready to see, so this could have resulted in such shock. The man was also alone on a space ship with nothing to think about but these aliens and the unbelievable things he'd seen. The violent reactions remain a mystery, anyone care to weigh in there? John also gets off scot free at the end of the book when he leaves again, everyone seems to ignore the violence and death he caused.

6. Did the technical jargon used throughout Orbiter detract from the story? Add?

It added an element of realism and believability. Although we did not understand everything being said, we felt the jargon added.

7. What is your opinion on Terry and Ali's romance at the end of the book?

Tacked on, cheesy. In fact, the entire end of the book with everyone being gung-ho about leaving everything behind including their loved ones and life on Earth to go visit some aliens who have magic purple goo. Jack of Fables lookalike Terry and Ali's romance just seemed to be reaching for the unnecessarily mega-happy ending, Wayne's World style.

8. Orbiter is dedicated to the astronauts who lost their lives in the 2003 Columbia disaster. After the disaster, the shuttle program was suspended. Is space exploration worth the risk to human life and spending of government money? How do the themes of Orbiter play into this?

Warren Ellis obviously thinks that space exploration is worth it. This was a big point in our book club. Jeremiah argues that unmanned technology such as the Hubble and Mars rovers can help us learn as much if not more about space than the much more dangerous manned spaceflight. It seems that manned spaceflight hearkens back to the days of Magellan and Christopher Columbus, man just wants to conquer the unknown and call it his own. Clearly, Orbiter illustrates that space exploration has tangible mental and physical effects on astronauts. If Ellis was not so biased and one-sided in his view on space (SPACE IS GOOD!), perhaps the argument could be made that Cost is used as a commentary on the negative effects on returned astronauts.

9. What is Anna's motivation in being a therapist for astronauts? Why is this important?

We felt Anna was a bit of an unnecesary character, it seems she was only used so that she could finally get John Cost to talk again. She was also a weak plot device to have each character describe their love/motivations for space. Anna wants to hear the stories of astronauts and live vicariously through them, etc.

10. Why is John Cost catatonic upon his arrival to Earth?

See #5. I sometimes write redundant questions.

11. Why did the other astronauts send only John back to Earth on a ten year journey?

Elena believes John was a martyr. His job was to go back to Earth and tell the world of the beneficial aliens who want to "play" aka travel in space. Elena also argues that John could be lying about the whole thing. Do we believe one (formerly bloodthirsy and crazy) astronaut? Would you jump on a ten year old ship with an unstable astronaut and a Jack of Fables lookalike to visit some aliens who want to "play?"

12. What are the implications of alien technology on human spaceflight? Alien technology allowed the Venture astronauts to truly explore space. What will happen to the space program now? Will humans somehow adopt the alien technology?

No one but the army general is skeptical about the alien technology. How does anyone know it is worth the risk? Maybe the aliens do mean humans harm. Everyone seems completely willing to take this risk for the chance to travel space. The alien technology also makes future space programs pointless. If we've already seen the purple goo technology that allows for unlimited spaceflight, why would we go back to our faulty shuttle screws and missed calculations?

13. What is the importance of Dave Stewart's color palette? How does Colleen Doran's style fit with the story?

The color palette is brown and earthy. Maybe this is a contrast, to show the bright and radiant purples and blacks of outer space? Doran takes a very realistic art style for the story, to fit with the science and logical aspects of the plot.

14. Warren Ellis says in his foreword, "It's a book about glory. About going back to space, because it's waiting for us, and it's where we're meant to be." Do you agree with this statement? Are we meant to be in space? Is Ellis' agenda pushing through an otherwise honest message?

Elena's answer was too good not to quote, "His agenda IS his message, completely transparent and not very much fun. If we were meant to be in space, we would have wings and rocket feet and space gills. The message is honest and heartfelt, but lost on the likes of me." I agree to an extent. As previously mentioned, Ellis' message/agenda is clear and unchanging. We were not meant to be in space, but I do think we're meant to explore the unknown and I think humanity finds something fascinating in that.

15. Many reviewers criticize Orbiter for its sudden ending. What is your opinion on the ending?

Many of us thought it was abrupt. I remember getting to the last few pages and wondering, "how is Ellis going to wrap all of this up with so little space left?" Despite the abruptness, I felt it tied up what needed to be tied up and I believe that the ambiguity was interesting.

That's it! Thanks for coming to the book club, everyone. Let's keep the discussion going in the comments section.