Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review: On the Odd Hours

On the Odd Hours, by Eric Liberge, 2010, NBM, 72 pages, $14.95

This is the third in a series of comic books that NBM has co-published with the Louvre museum (the first was Nicolas De Crecy's Glacial Period; the second was Marc-Antoine Mathieu's Museum Vaults, which I thought was fantastic and reviewed here; forthcoming books include Bernard Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carrière's The Sky Over the Louvre and a book by Hirohiko Araki). After Museum Vaults, I was really looking forward to reading On the Odd Hours. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations. It's not terrible or anything -- there are actually two very neat ideas in here, and Liberge surely gets points for trying something different -- but problems with the story, the storytelling and the coloring seriously hampered my enjoyment of the book.

The story is about a young deaf punk named Bastien who stumbles into the role of being the night guard at the Louvre.  The first neat idea in the book is that the art comes to life during the "odd hours" of the night, and only Bastien and his mentor-predecessor know how to communicate with it and treat it properly.

For the most part, the plot follows a fairly standard trajectory:  Bastien is asked by the current "guardian of the odd hours" to become his apprentice, Bastien sees some of the art come to life and (sort of) rejects his new calling, Bastien's life falls apart, Bastien accepts his position as the new guardian, and the artwork accepts him and all appears to be well.  Add in that Bastien starts out an angry person who can't control his temper, but grows to become a better person as he finds his place in the world, and you could have a tidy little story.

But Bastien's personality issues are not actually resolved at the same time that he accepts his position; he ends up lashing out, hitting a patron of the museum, and getting fired.  Bastien then uses (abuses?) his new powers to let all of the spirits of the artwork out of the museum so that they fill Paris with strangeness, startling everyone and forcing his boss at the museum to re-hire him and give him room and board at the museum so that Bastien will bring the spirits back inside.  It's an awkward fourth act that takes up a significant chunk of the book, and it makes it seem as though Bastien hasn't actually grown at all -- he's still kind of an ass, but now he's a more powerful ass.

Aside from the plot, I had other problems with the book. The coloring somehow manages to be both psychedelic and unrelentingly dull. It's as though the comic has been placed at the bottom of a puddle that has a sheen of oil coating it, so that every page has weird rainbow colors floating on top of a dim gray-green color. I could understand if this technique was only used during the scenes when the artwork came to life -- it would accentuate the fantastical events and set them off from the rest of the book. Unfortunately, the entire book is colored this way, which both diminishes the impact of those scenes AND doesn't help with the somewhat confusing storytelling.  Here's one example:

Now that you've looked at the coloring, take a second look at the placement of the captions on that page.  Notice how several of the captions intrude on other panels?  If used properly, this lettering technique can connect a sequence of panels, so that a reader's eye looks at Panel A, sees the caption from Panel B breaking the borders of Panel A, read the caption, and then looks at Panel B.  Unfortunately, in this book many captions connect two panels that are not meant to be read one after the other (Panels A and C, for instance).

Below, I've added green arrows that show you the correct way to read the page, while the red arrows show you an incorrect sequence that at first appears to be correct because of the placement of the text boxes (click to enlarge):

On a single page, there are at least four places where the eye could be led astray by the text boxes.  The layout is already fairly complex, and this problem really makes it difficult to follow.  This occurs throughout the book, and hurts the storytelling.

I did say that there were two neat ideas here, however.  The second neat idea in the book is how it shows deaf characters using sign language:

This is a technique that I have never seen before, and it is really quite cool.

The idea that art comes to life during those dead times of the night when most people are asleep, that art needs to be listened to -- I like that idea. Unfortunately, this book flunks the execution. I'll still look forward to any future books in this series, but I'll try to keep my expectations a little lower.

READ MORE: Here is a three-page excerpt.

BUY IT: From Amazon here: On the Odd Hours

RELATED: My reviews of other comic books published by NBM:

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Odds and Ends

Two things today:

I contributed to Flashlight Worthy's list of graphic novels about women and written by women, done in honor of Women's History Month.  Other contributors include Matthew Brady, Jog, Katherine Dacey, David Welsh, and Noah Berlatsky.  Check it out here.

I also wanted to point out that Kevin Church and the crew at Agreeable Comics have been turning out some excellent web comics, including The Loneliest Astronauts, She Died in Terrebone, and (my favorite) The Rack.  If you haven't read them before, go give them all a shot.

I'll be back soon with another post about in my series about Louis Riel.  Stay tuned!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Reading Riel #2: One Cover and Two Maps

This is the second in a series of posts about Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.  Click here to see all of the posts in this series.

Now that I've gotten the introduction to this series of posts out of the way, let's dig in to the real meat of this book: the cover!

That's the cover to the 2006 softcover collection over there.  I've got a few thoughts about it.  First, it's a nice, striking image, simple yet dynamic.  Second, it's the first time we see Riel, and it presents him in a somewhat ambiguous light: is he defiantly facing the oncoming storm, or do I detect a bit of fear or concern in his posture?  And his cloak and scarf are swept back behind him by the wind, looking almost like the cape of a superhero.  Third, this might be a preview of the setting for this story.  It's going to be outdoors in the wilderness, and cold.  Canada, baby.  Fourth, there is some heavy symbolism going on here.  A storm's a-brewin', and Riel has nowhere to hide from it. Trouble is on its way, and although he sees it coming, he might not be completely prepared for it.  He's also alone on a rocky mountaintop.  This does not bode well for our hero.  One final thought: the hardcover version is black-and-white, while my softcover version adds that nice golden color.  I like the color (especially the very subtle difference in shade between Riel and the mountain-top), which really makes the image pop.  The color is also used on the spine for the title and author, set against that dark gray background, which really helps the book catch the eye when it's on your shelf.  Smart design choice.

All right, I think I'm ready to open the book.  And in case I didn't know that this book was a critical darling, the first thing I see are five pages chock-full of glowing quotes from various publications, along with the following statements: NOMINATED FOR EISNER, IGNATZ, AND LIBRIS AWARDS.  WINNER OF TWO HARVEY AWARDS: BEST WRITER AND BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM OF PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED WORK.  Yup, I can say now that I have HIGH expectations for this book.

We also get a page listing Brown's other books: Ed the Happy Clown (1989), The Playboy (1992), I Never Liked You (1994), and The Little Man (1998).  If you've read any of these, I'd be happy to hear your opinion of them in the comments.  Also, since Louis Riel ended its serialization back in 2003, I wonder what Brown has been working on recently.  Anyone know?

Next comes a foreword, written and hand-lettered by Chester Brown.  I like the decision to hand letter the foreword.  Nice move for a book that is both a serious literary work AND a comic.  Brown notes that the book includes both an index and a bibliography (again: serious work here, don't you forget it).

He also gives us two keys to the book, one about the story and one about the art.  First, he tells us that he isn't going to deal with Riel's entire life, but has instead "mostly concentrated on Riel's antagonistic relationship with the Canadian government . . . ."  Sounds like a smart decision, since trying to construct a dramatic narrative out of a person's life is always a difficult task.  Focusing on a particularly important conflict will give a nice arc to the story.  The second key is that while he loves Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin), his "main visual inspiration" was Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie:

(click to enlarge)

Interesting, and certainly something to keep in mind as I write about the book.  Maybe I'll spend a future post going into how the art in Louis Riel draws from Little Orphan Annie.

And after the forward comes two maps!  I admit it, I'm a sucker for maps.  If you asked me to choose between two books that I had never heard of, and one had maps in the front and one didn't, the one with the maps has a definite edge.

The first map is of Northern North America in 1869, and shows how the land was divided up into "Land that Britain claims to own," "Rupert's Land -- which the Hudson's Bay Company claims to own," "Canada," and "The United States of America."  It also includes a caption that gives a little history of Rupert's Land.  It's nuts to realize that a fur-trading company used to control a huge swath of what is now Canada.  What, doesn't Canada have spices or particularly nice silk?  Finally, the map points out that the location of the "Red River Settlement," the U.S. city of Pembina, and the Canadian cities of Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.

What's particularly interesting about this map is that it helps to set up what I expect are some of the conflicts in the story.  First, it's clear that who controls the land is going to be important.  There is a lot of land here that is not listed as "Britain's land" or "Hudson's Bay land," but only land that those two entities claim to own.  My guess is that those claims will be disputed.  It also shows us the distance between the main Canadian cities and the Red River Settlement.  Since I already know Riel was out on the western frontier of Canada and rebelled against the Canadian government, it's neat to see this issue depicted spatially.  Of course he's going to  rebel -- he's way out there on the frontier!  How could they hope to control that area back in 1869?  And don't they know that "he who controls the furs controls the universe"?

Here's map 2:

(click to enlarge)

This map isn't as detailed as I would normally like, but, like the first map, it's helping to set up a major conflict in the book: there are English parishes and French parishes in the Red River Settlement, and I'm thinking that those two groups didn't get along so well.  There also the little line of a river winding down to the U.S.A. and Pembria, and a "Stone Fort."  Perhaps, significant?  Just maybe...

Thus, in addition to orienting us by showing us where the action is going to happen, Brown has already given us a lot of information about the sort of political and social problems that the book will be dealing with, and in the space of only two pages, simply by using hand-drawn maps and captions.  These two pages are a nice example of the power of the comic book medium to effectively and efficiently communicate ideas.

NEXT: Onward to Part One of the book!

FURTHER READING: Here is the Wikipedia entry for Chester Brown.  Did you know that "in September 2008, Brown entered politics as the Libertarian Party of Canada's candidate for the riding of Trinity-Spadina in the 2008 federal election."  What's a "riding," you ask?  A Canadian electoral district, silly!  (No, I didn't know either.)

BUY IT: From Drawn & Quarterly here or from Amazon here: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reading Riel #1

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, by Chester Brown, softcover collection published in 2006, Drawn & Quarterly, 280 pages, $17.95

Let's try something a little different here: I'm going to read Chester Brown's Louis Riel and write a series of posts as I read it.  My goal is to dig deeper into: (1) the story; (2) the art; and (3) why I am or am not enjoying it.

Also, I'm not going to presume anything, but if anyone feels like reading along with me (whether you've read this before or not), go for it.  Weigh in with a comment.  Maybe we can get a little book club-type discussion going.  I'll bring the stinky cheese plate if you bring the margarita mix.

But before I get into the book proper, I thought I should tell you what I know about it, so that you have a sense of what sort of baggage I am carrying with me as I embark on this project.

First, I'm embarrassed to admit that I know next-to-nothing about Chester Brown.  He's the author of the long-running series Yummy Fur, which I have not read.  And he's Canadian.  That's all I know, unfortunately.  But hey, that's one reason why I sought this book out.  Gotta start somewhere.

Next, here is what I know about Louis Riel: zip.  I'd never heard of him before hearing about this book.  From the back of the book, I know that he helped to lead a rebellion on the western frontier of Canada back in the 1800s.  It sounds like he is a pretty important figure in Canada's history, and as with Chester Brown, I feel like I should know more about him.  Sadly, my history classes here in the United States never covered him, to the extent that they acknowledged the existence of Canada at all.

As for the book, I know that it's considered one of the best comics of the 00s by many critics and reviewers.  It was originally serialized from the late 90s through the early 00s, and collected into hardcover in 2004.  (That's why  I completely missed it and only learned about it recently: like many people, I quit reading comics for the most part from around 1996 through 2006.)  It was published by art/literary comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, which is pretty much a surefire stamp of quality.  Note: D&Q is a Canadian publisher.  I would guess that D&Q considers this acclaimed book, by a Canadian about a famous Canadian historical figure, as the jewel in its crown.

So that's what I know.  Unless you have already read this book, you are probably in the same boat as I am.  Let's all LEARN together.

NEXT: I talk about the cover and the introductory material in the book.  Exciting, right?  You will be able to find all my posts on Louis Riel here.  (Thanks to Tom Spurgeon for that idea.)

READ MORE: Here are the first six pages, and here is an interview with Brown about the book.  Also, a lot has been written about this book, but after I'm done with it the first place I'm going is over here, where comic critics Jeet Heer and Tom Spurgeon discuss the book.

BUY IT: From Drawn & Quarterly here or from Amazon here: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: Crogan's March

Crogan's March, by Chris Schweizer, 2010, Oni Press, 168 pages, $14.95

This is the second in a series of books about the daring deeds and derring-do of the ancestors of the Crogan family. The first, Crogan's Vengeance, was about "Catfoot" Crogan, a pirate back in the early 1700s. This one features Peter Crogan, a member of the French Foreign Legion serving in Africa in 1912.  Peter, a former boxer, appears to have joined the Legion for the same reason many others did: to run away from his problems.  Now he's stuck in a desert in Africa, ferrying rich locals from one town to the next, and trying to fight off bandits, sandstorms, and a mysterious cave-dwelling creature that might or might not be a djinn.

It's a solid adventure story, appropriate for young teenagers but enjoyable for adult  readers too. The characters are well-developed; the "good guys" have flaws and the "bad guys" aren't just evil but have reasons of their own for opposing the Legion.  Peter is a fun character to root for, as he isn't just some hapless guy in over his head -- as I said, he's a former boxer, and also a crack shot and a natural leader.  And he's not blind to the fact that many of the locals don't want the Legion around.  He's just trying to do his best and keep people safe.

One nice aspect of the book is that Schweizer has clearly done his research. I learned a lot about the Foreign Legion without feeling like I was sitting in history class. He loads it up with information about the sort of people who joined the Legion, its goals, the relationship between the Legion and the standard French army, the locals it protected, the locals it fought against, and lots of other little details: How do you survive a sandstorm? What kind of pets did wealthy Africans like to keep? Why is it a good idea to wear underpants?

I also like Schweizer's art, which seems to have loosened up some more since the first book.  Characters are a little more cartoony-looking (I'm particularly thinking of the brash, short commander of Peter's unit -- the man has a jutting, pointy chin that looks caricature-ish) and the storytelling is excellent.

I do have one problem with the book, however, and this was also something that bothered me with Crogan's Vengeance: everything feels a little cramped.  From a photo in the back, it looks like Schweizer works in a bigger size, and then the art gets shrunken down to fit the 9" x 6.3" inch dimensions of the book.  Perhaps as a result, there isn't a lot of room for the images to breathe, and every panel is packed.  There isn't a single full-page image in the book, which is a shame because the story and setting lends itself to a least a few glorious drawings of sweeping vistas -- the African city! the fort being attacked by thousands of rebels! etc. -- I want some full page spreads of these things.  It feels like Schweizer has so much that he wants to say that he can't spare a page or two to show us a big awesome drawing.

I have a strong interest in wanting this series of books to succeed (both as good stories, and financially, so that Schweizer continues to make them), since I have two young boys and I'm hoping to have a nice collection of age-appropriate comics for them to read as they grow up.  This series is already lot of fun, and it has the potential to be really great.  I hope that Schweizer continues to up his game with each successive book.

READ MORE: Here's a 26-page excerpt and an interview with Schweizer.  (And here's an older interview with Schweizer.)

BUY IT: From the publisher here or from Amazon here: Crogan's March