Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Seven Sons
by Alexander Grecian & Riley Rossmo

I should preface this review by pointing out that I have essentially no interest in repurposed fables or fairy tales. For some people, I know, finding historical lineages and modern parallels for ancient stories is simply an irresistible pastime. I don't have a lot of patience for allegory, period, and the layer of metaphor and legend that accumulates around fairy stories is, for myself and I suspect to most, simply an obfuscating fog of historical detritus - as opposed to some romantic historical-literary saga*.

So I am perhaps the last person who should be reviewing Seven Sons . . . but, I am willing to put aside my personal prejudices in the name of criticism. As the text piece at the back of the book makes abundantly clear, Seven Sons is something of a labor of love for writer Grecian: a retelling of a favorite story from his childhood, built from extensive study of the tale's history and varying incarnations. In choosing to place the Chinese fable in a western context, and specifically that of an actual western (as in, horses and guns and such), Grecian is consciously placing the facts of the country's racist history into the foreground of his story. The seven Chinese brothers are here presented as expatriates, living abroad during the time of the Taiping Rebellion, having fled the Asian turmoil for the quieter but no less dangerous shores of California during the mid-century Gold Rush (an event that all California children must learn about extensively**).

The problem is that the western historical subtext really doesn't add anything to the story itself. As presented, the miners and settlers during the California Gold Rush are very racist, yes, but selectively so, according to the needs of the story. This pinpoints one of the basic problems with the book: as is often the case with retellings or "updatings" of classic fables, the story itself becomes little more than an elaborate pageant, less a logical series or events or character-defined actions than a procession of things which occur for no reason other than that they must occur. So we've got seven brothers who each possess a different fantastic power, and in a certain situation each power is presented as exactly the antidote to the problem at hand at that specific moment - the man who can stretch is unsuccessfully hung, the man who cannot burn is trapped within a burning house, etc. Perhaps this would work in a straight fable or a childrens' book (apparently it has for hundreds of years), but by stretching the core concept to fit into a novel historical setting, the authors strain credibility - the specificity of the historic setting works to directly contradict the supposed "mythic" connotations of the repurposed fairy story. By combining different approaches, the actual finished product possesses all of the weaknesses inherent in the approach, but none of the strengths.

Riley Rossmo's art is interesting, but he is still struggling under the weight of a number of influences. The most obvious of these would be Ashley Wood (himself influenced by Sienkiewicz***). But the kind of stories Ashley Wood draws are very specifically suited to his extravagant style. Here, Rossmo's elaborate presentation - mixing what appears to be uninked pencils with bold swathes of black and various muted graytones - seems too ostentatious for the actual story on display. This kind of presentation is best for design-heavy, more laconic storytelling, not necessarily concise action storytelling. The heavily-stylized design work overwhelms the story, to the point where often it is difficult to follow the progression of events. That is not to say there aren't some striking setpieces - but you can't tell a story simply by leapfrogging from setpiece to setpiece.

I could go on****, but ultimately it will suffice to say I am not the intended audience for this book. I supposed there is a large audience who will probably be able to accept the trappings of the genre with a lot more ease than myself - I just don't care for fairy tales.

*I have so far escaped entirely unscathed from the Fables phenomenon, save for a free copy of a recent overprinting of the first issue slipped into my bag by a friendly comic shop owner - not impressed.

**When I was a kid I had to participate in this massive historical pageant in fourth grade. It paid a little bit of lip service to all the mountains of dead indians killed in the 19th century by western encroachment; little or no mention of the thousands of abused Chinese workers who built the railroads, except to give them credit for participating in the grand experiment of American nationalism - yay Manifest Destiny! And boy, what few crumbs they did throw to the Indians - "paleface is coming with iron horse!" Jeezum Crow.

***Who was in turn influenced by Adams, who had been influenced by Kirby - it all comes back to Kirby in the end.

****Why, for instance, are they shown in kung-fu poses on the cover? None of them do any kung-fu at any point within the story! And the "surprise" next-to-last page twist - if you didn't see it coming on page eight I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you . . .

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