Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Me and Edith Head

My opinion of this mini-comic increased exponentially when I discovered that I was not the intended audience. The story, by childrens’ author Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber, was initially published in Cicada magazine in 2001. Cicada, according to their website, is dedicated to teenagers and young adults. That seems like a perfect fit.

One of the weird facts of life in youth publishing is that children and teens always want to read what they think the age group above them is reading. Hence, Seventeen magazine is bought by girls who are not yet seventeen, as the actual seventeen year-olds have moved on to Vogue. I think that this story would best appeal to pre-and-early teens, who maybe haven’t yet experienced the kind of rigid social stratification encountered herein.

The story is fairly straightforward. Katrina is your average high-school girl – full of insecurities and surrounded by difficulty at home. She’s not conventionally pretty and maybe even a little bit plump, so she dresses to cover up her perceived shortcomings. Like a lot of undernourished high-school girls, she gravitates towards drama. But the role of Titania in the school production of "A Midsummer’s Night Dream" goes to a wispy blonde, and she is stuck in the role of costume designer.

This doesn’t necessarily jibe with my own experiences. For one, important jobs like lighting, sets and costumes would only go to people who both expressed an interest and had some expertise in the area – not simply to people who failed the auditions, because the people who failed the auditions were usually not very bright. For another, the best rolls never go to the prettiest actresses, they go to the best actresses. Perhaps Katrina had a horrible audition, but I have a hard time seeing that with her obvious intelligence she wouldn’t have grabbed at least a supporting roll.

But, those are small qualms. The story unfolds in a fairly predictable - albeit satisfying - manner. Despite the initial disappointment of not having won the role she wanted, eventually Katrina sees the value of her part, and gains a degree of confidence and self-assurance from learning about the world of fashion, which is where Edith Head comes in. This coincides with the disintegration of her family life following her parents’ divorce. This narrative arc has been intelligently structured to appeal specifically to things that kids understand and relate to on an everyday basis.

Comics aimed specifically at pre-teens and adolescents are in woefully short supply. While its very true that many mainstream comics are definitely written from a perpetually adolescent perspective, the actual stories themselves are not something that would appeal to the average teen. While this short book does a wonderful job, it also points to a glaring omission in the output of many large publishers. Of course, now that Scholastic, the proverbial 800-lb gorilla of the kids publishing world, has entered the graphic novel arena, perhaps this will change.

I don’t know if I would recommend this mini-comic to someone who wasn’t already a fan of Lieber’s work. It’s a good story well-told, but again, I haven’t seen the inside of a high-school in many a year. Looking back on high-school like this doesn’t present a lot of challenges to older readers such as myself, but I can easily imagine how this might be a revelatory comics experience to someone just facing their teenage years. I wish there were hundreds of cartoonists working in this vein for that specific demographic.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons manga is so damn popular?

Family Reunion

This is an excerpt, illustrated by Lieber, of Sean Stewart’s new novel Perfect Circle. I’d be interested to know what Stewart’s actual prose voice reads like, because the unfortunate fact is that any distinctive style he may have is sublimated by the graphic adaptation process. This has long been the bane of all but the most virtuoso adaptations, and in the space of a mere eight pages Family Reunion is not well-served.

When books are adapted to film or television, the directors and associated crew try – if they try at all, that is – to find some sort of visual style that will allow them to visually replicate the mental sensation of reading a particular writer’s voice. Hence, Jane Austen adaptations are often crisp and dry, with a hint of biting wit and subtle sarcasm. Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas attempted to replicate Thompson’s signature style by creating a film that was spry and rambling, with a vivid and garish visual vocabulary to match the overheated accent of Thompson’s prose.

Of course, when you’re discussing comics, the first literary adaptations that spring to mind are the Classics Illustrated ones. There were actually a few good CI adaptations done during the series’ resurrection in the early 90s – I have fond memories of Kyle Baker’s work on Alice in Wonderland, as well as Gary Gianni’s O’Henry omnibus. More recently, David Mazzuccheli adapted Paul Auster’s City of Glass to universal acclaim, and P. Craig Russell has made a cottage industry of adapting the world’s most famous operas, starting with his multi-volume adaptation of Wagner’s imposing Ring of the Nibelung saga.

So it’s not as if powerful and evocative literary adaptations are an impossibility. But if there is one lesson to learn from Faimly Reunion, it is that comics are by nature a far more decompressed art form than prose. In order to successfully adapt prose, you need to learn how to adapt mood and tone as well. Unfortunately, in the space of a mere eight pages there’s not much mood or tone on display here.

The vignette follows William Kennedy on an afternoon family picnic. Kennedey has the ability to see the dead, and he is being haunted by the ghost of an uncle who died in Vietnam. Over the course of the story it is revealed that, rather than having died and honorable death in combat, the uncle actually died of a drug overdose brought on by the traumas of war. It’s an interesting story, but unfortunately the brief context of this short mini doesn’t allow for much besides the bare facts of the narrative.

Perhaps if they had presented a longer adaptation of the same material, or merely chosen to tell the same story in more pages, it would have read better. But as it is, I find myself unimpressed with the story. Lieber’s art, as usual, is technically impressive, but again, in the space of eight pages there’s not enough room for him to stretch.

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