Friday, December 7, 2012

The Whiff of Charlatan: A Review of "The Little Green God of Agony" (web comic)

Greetings, programs!

Today saw the release of the final installment of The Little Green God of Agony, the free web-comic adaptation of the King short story of the same name.  Adapted and drawn by Dennis Calero, whose work in print comics has included Legion of Superheroes, X-Men Noir, and Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom.  I may as well tell you, I'm not familiar with Calero's work outside of the very comic we will be discussing today.
 
Before we dive into that discussion, let me get a few things out of the way first administratively.  First of all, let me note that the comic can be found at this link on StephenKing.com, so if you haven't already done so, please head over there and click the links and give 'em your traffic.

Secondly, let me note that I am going to do something in this review that I have wanted to do many, many times before (with Dark Tower comics and with the adaptation of The Stand, amongst others): I am going to put each page up here and offer page-by-page commentary as we go.  I've never done that before for a simple reason: copyright violation.  I can't imagine Marvel Comics would be too pleased by the idea that somebody could come here and, with a judicious amount of right-clicking, have their very own digital copy of an issue of The Stand.

However, since The Little Green God of Agony was posted online 100% gratis, and since nobody could get anything from this blog post that they wouldn't be able to get at the page I linked to earlier, well ... I don't see the harm.

That said, in the unlikely event someone in camps King or Calero should see this post and feel differently about it, all you need do is contact me and ask me to take the pictures down, and take them down I shall.


"cover" image



So, let's dive in, shall we?


page 1



I'm a fan of the short story this comic is based on, as evidenced by my cursory-but-positive review from last year.  However, I'm just not at all convinced that it works when converted into the graphic medium.  So much of the story consists of Kat's thoughts that -- as well will see -- the comic was bound to end up as a collection of panels in which the main character stands there with a blank look on her face and thought bubbles above her head.

That doesn't exactly make for gripping comics reading.

Or will it?  We'll render a final verdict on that closer to the end of the review.  For now, though, let me do what I do and be critical.

See the third panel, where the caption reads "but it was the man standing next to Jensen who interested her--"?  Here's a question for you: based on the single page presented above, which of those two men is Jensen?

There is, of course, no way to know without descending to guesswork, and that is a problem.

Other than that, is there much to say about this page?  I suppose I could comment on the color scheme, which I find to be offputting.  All that purple...  It's very unnatural "lighting," and I find that it immediately puts me at a remove from the story.  Since I know the story, I know where it is headed, and we obviously go into some realms of the unnatural.  So why start there?  Why not present me with ... you know, just a normal room, with normal light and color?

I already fear that the tone of this review is going to end up being hyper-critical, so I apologize for that in advance.

(By the way, I suppose I should mention that I did not read these installments as they were posted; I've been waiting for the whole thing to be complete.  I read the first page when it went up, and quickly made the determination that the story simply would not work when presented as a page every other day, with a weekend break following each third page.  That's no way to read a story.  So, my comments from here on out will reflect my attitudes toward the adaptation as I encounter each successive page.)


page 2

I still don't know which one is Rideout.  I think he's the fellow with the glasses, but I'm not positive of it.  Wouldn't the top panel have been better-served to focus on Rideout in isolation, and not worry about Kat and Jensen also being in the frame?

That panel of fiery orange is definitely a welcome break from all the purple/blue.

I'll say this for the final panel: Calero does at least seem to be aware of the need to try and end each installment on a cliffhanger.  Not sure how that'll read when taking the whole story in a single go, though, which is surely the way 99.9% of people will read it now that it has all been posted.


page 3



The first two panels here are, excepting the dialogue, exactly the same.  Not sure why a rectangular chunk is missing out of the bottom-right-hand corner of the first panel, though; printing / publishing error of some sort, perhaps?

Let's consider whether duplicating the same panel works.  My first impulse is to say that it doesn't, but I'm not so sure that's the correct impulse.  What I think I'd prefer is to see some close-up character work on Newsome as he delivers the "Not so goddam tight" lines.  However, keeping both panels the same emphasizes the tedium Kat is feeling; this story is decidedly told from her point of view, and she's been party to Newsome's story -- and to his pain -- so many times that neither really has much of an impact on her.

From that perspective, the repetition of the panels is actually quite effective; it supports the story.

We get a second panel here that consists of fiery orange, depicting Newsome's plane crash.  Clearly, the color scheme is being used to depict character; Newsome's accident is still very much an active thing, so we get fiery and passionate color to depict it.  Kat's mood, on the other hand, is glum and emotionless (except for the disdain she feels); the blues and purples, then, are appropriate for her mood.  I don't find them to be particularly pleasant to look at, so I wonder if perhaps some more appealing method might have been employed.  But the colors are certainly not irrelevantly chosen, it seems.

The final panel, obviously puts to rest the question of which of the two men is Rideout.  I like that shadowy, almost silhouette-esque, depiction of him; I think the story would have benefited from him being presented that way initially, rather than semi-anonymously.


page 4


Ugh ... all that purple, man.  I mean, look, I love me some Purple Rain and all, but unless "When Doves Cry" or "Darling Nikki" is playing in the background, this just isn't working for me.  I'll do my best to grin and bear it, though, as it definitely is serving its purpose, storywise.

That first panel ... it both works and doesn't work.  From a purely visual sense, it is effective, and I like the reflection of the lightningbolts on the window with Kat behind them, looking out at them.  However, it works in opposition to the actual prose on the page; shouldn't we be seeing Newsome's "shaggy eyebrows working on muscle memory," that supposedly-feigned lechery?  Instead, we are seeing her disinterest in them; but since she is, after all, thinking about her boss's lechery, the depiction of her disinterest in it seems a bit off to me.  It's a nice image; I'm just not sure it accomplishes what ought to be accomplished visually in combination with that dialogue.

See that reference to the TENS unit?  It's the second one so far, and if you saw the first one and had no idea what was being referred to, it's understandable.  It's not at all uncommon for a comic to employ the all-caps method of lettering, and in many cases, that works fine.  However, it breaks down totally any time an all-caps acronym is presented.  A reader can hardly be blamed for seeing "TENS" in all caps, within an all-caps sentence, and mentally reading it as "tens."  If that leads to momentary confusion as to what in the hell is being said, can the reader be held at fault?  Or, instead, has the lettering failed the reader?

Clearly, the lettering has failed.  For the record, a TENS unit is a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation unit.  If you did not know that, I don't blame you; I had to Google it.  Thanks, Google!

As for the rest of the page, what we're getting is mostly a description of the sort of pain Newsome has been in, which sounds fairly horrifying.  The short story really plays up Kat's skepticism over whether he is being disingenuous in describing that pain; whether this adaptation will play that angle up as much, I do not yet know.  My gut impulse is to want to see panels that include flashbacks to Newsome's broken, crumpled, agonized body, preferably with the warmer and more passionate color scheme we've gotten during other Newsome-POV flashbacks.  The lack of it, though, continues to play up Kat's relative lack of concern; so, again, while Calero is making choices here that I probably wouldn't make, they do certainly seem to be pointed, focused choices that work for the story.


page 5

Another two-panel repetition of sorts up top, there.  Obviously the second is a bit different; the "camera" has pushed in on Kat's face, which has remained blank and expressionless.

One of the things I got from the short story itself was that it was King's way of saying, "Hey, you might think you know what pain is, but unless you've been run over by a van and had the entire lower half of your body shattered beyond description, you ain't got no fuckin' clue, pal."

It's true; I really ain't got no fuckin' clue, and at the risk of seeming selfish, BOY do I hope it stays that way.  I'd also like to think that I could manage to retain my sympathy for anyone in a similar situation, and that I could manage to not devalue the pain they were in.  Imagined pain may as well be real pain, after all.  It's like how you can't imagine you're in love, you can only be in love; no such thing as imagining it, since the imagining of it and the feeling of it are kinda one and the same.  Same goes for pain, as far as I can tell.

And yet, I can also see how for someone in Kat's position, distancing yourself emotionally would be difficult to not do.  Her training is telling her that by all rights, Newsome's pain ought to be abated, or at least abating; so she's skeptical of his claims that that isn't the case.  Ultimately, though, there is no way to measure it; it can't be quantified, or bottled, or extracted, it can only be endured in the hopes that it eventually goes away.

"Or so she thought."

Remember: Stephen King story, so the rational approach might not be on the table for long...


page 6

Is that our first splash of green?  I believe so, and I suppose here it is meant to represent Newsome's ongoing agony.

From there, we transition to Kat's thoughts about Melissa, prompted by Newsome's dismissal of her.  Does it seem like a panel is missing somehow?  Newsome tells Melissa that nobody wants baked goods, but hey, correct me if I'm wrong., but ... Melissa doesn't offer anybody any baked goods.  She offered coffee back on page 2; baked goods are not mentioned.  Am I missing something?

I'm not a fan of the third panel on this page.  It seems like, given how Kat's thoughts are focused squarely on speculating on men's thoughts about Melissa, Melissa herself ought to be the sole focus of the art.  Having her only in profile, with Kat dominating the foreground of the panel, really doesn't work; the panel needs to be squarely from Kat's POV, and since Kat isn't even looking at Melissa, the art is not supporting the story here.

The next panel is better.  It's a purely subjective one, obviously depicting Kat's thoughts (or, more accurately, her thoughts on the thoughts men must have about Melissa).  The shift in art style and in color is effective.

Also effective: the downbeat depiction of Kat in the fifth panel, reflective of her feelings about her own attractiveness.


page 7


"She waited for him to scream at her to stop," reads the beginning of the first panel, and yet, she isn't doing anything.  She wasn't doing anything in the final panel of the last page, either.  There seems to be a tendency on Calero's part to stick closely to King's story, but to not necessarily be all that tidy about making sure his art is actually depicting what is being described in the prose.  That's undoubtedly part of the problem in adapting a story from one medium to the next, of course; I doubt anybody ever gets it 100% right, and yet I feel like there were mistakes -- small ones, maybe, but mistakes nonetheless -- made here that could, and should, have been avoided.

I like the second panel, but can't quite verbalize why.  Something about the angle; something about the way the angle plays with the power dynamic between Kat and Newsome.  I'm not sure, but it works for me.

Less so in the case of the final panel, which confuses me a bit.  It's basically a stylized version of the same posture from the first panel, but closer in, and with Rideout omitted. I am tempted to interpet it as a close-up on the reflection of Kat and Newsome in one of the lenses on Rideout's glasses, but there is no real evidence to support that interpretation.  It's an odd image; I'm not even sure I dislike it, because I can't quite figure out what it even means.  Perhaps it's a visualization of the starkness of Newsome's un-PC comments?


page 8

Now, here's an interesting fact: Rideout here has had no opportunity to respond to Newsome's comments about the queer Paki doctor.  Reading the episodes as they were posted, you'd be forgiven for forgetting this fact between episodes 7 and 8.  Reading the whole thing at once, though, the absence of a response from Rideout seems like a serious oversight.

Consulting the short story, I see that as written by King, there is a response: "Rideout rotated his head side-to-side in a negative gesture.  Twice.  Very slowly."

One of two things should have happened here: either Rideout's response needed to be depicted, or Newsome's asking him if he was offended needed to be omitted on the previous page.  One or the other, take your pick.  Failing to do either, though, creates an expectation that is then not met; it's the simple matter of a question that goes unanswered, granted ... but why not eliminate the expectation altogether instead of failing to meet it?

In the second panel, I really like the way Newsome's three-part dialogue balloon is "interrupted" by the blocks of prose that represent Kat's thoughts about what Newsome is saying.  Lettering is a thankless art, in a lot of ways; I mentioned it negatively earlier, but here, it works quite nicely, and makes a good example of how lettering can be employed dramatically to help tell the story not merely by presenting the words, but also in the sense of the visual ways in which the words are depicted.

On the bottom row, I quite like the first panel, that depiction of Rideout with the strange explosion of light all around him.  However, Calero has made a poor decision is terms of adapting the story here.  The panel leads with "He had charisma, of that there could be no doubt."  What evidence have we been given to support this?  So far, Rideout has done literally nothing.  
 
In King's story, here is what happens at the same point: "Rideout stood up.  Kat hadn't realized how tall he was.  His shadow scared up behind him on the wall even higher.  Almost to the ceiling.  His eyes, sunken deep in their sockets, regarded Newsome solemnly.  He had charisma, of that there could be no doubt."

King's description is masterful: he shows us Rideout, and then tells us what we already know, i.e., that Rideout has charisma.  Calero shows us none of that, except to depict the Reverend in an odd -- if admittedly effective -- burst of light.  Worse, he jumbles the presentation of the information, telling us he is charismatic first, and only then telling us why Kat sees him as being so.

It does not work.

Another odd choice: Newsome's dialogue in the final panel, which ends in a period in the graphic version, whereas King -- correctly -- ends it with a question mark in the short story.  Why change a question mark to a period?  Does our culture not already have enough trouble grammatically without changing something that is correct to something that is incorrect in an adaptation like this one?  You might be saying, "Oh, brother, grammar Nazi alert" right about now, and I get that people find it tedious when a grammarian starts droning on about things like that.  My point, though, is: why break what was previously unbroken? It might -- or might not, depending on your vantage point -- be a small thing, but the question is a valid one for all of that.


page 9

This page is obviously mostly exposition; as such, I don't have a heck of a lot to say about it.  I will, however, note that Newsome's position and posture in the fourth and sixth panels seems ... odd.

There are certain panels in the comic when all sense of place seems to disappear.  I assume this is a deliberate thing, done to try to enhance the mood and tone of the piece.  I'm not sure I think it works; I'm also not sure I think it doesn't work.  It's just ... odd.


page 10

King spells the words as "curveball."  Why does Calero spell it as "curve ball"?

What is Kat looking at in the final panel?  Not Rideout, that's for sure.

One thing I like on this page is that we appear to be transitioning to a greener tint, and away from the blues and purples.  We'll see where that goes next page...


page 11

Still somewhat greenish here.  The lack of walls and whatnot is still bothering me a bit, although on this page, we're mostly given over to King's dialogue, so it bothers me less than it has on other pages.


page 12

There have been hints of green before, but on the panel following Newsome saying "Green.  My pain is green," we outright transition away from purple and all the way to green.  Whether it stays that way or not, I cannot be sure.

One question I would have: if the blues and purples did, indeed, represent Kat's mood (an assumption I'm making, but might be wrong about), then does it make sense to make a full-blown transition to a greenish color scheme before Kat's mood changes from one of disbelief to one of belief?  After all, we're still ostensibly in her point of view on this page, despite the fact that she scarcely appears on it.


page 13


The back-and-forth between the purples and greens ... doesn't really work.  I'm not sure what the colors are cueing me to, dramatically speaking.  If we are still in Kat's point of view, it seems like the colors need to stay consistent until such time as her opinions begin to change.

Which they have decidedly not done here.


page 14

Whoo-wee, is there a ton of dialogue on this page!

Calero here does the best possible thing: he just gets out of the dialogue's way, and lets King do all the work for him.


page 15

More dialogue.

For some reason, I really like the stance Calero has given Kat in the second panel.  It's kind of a fuck-you stance, I guess.

There are some hints of green here, and am I crazy, or does the green appear to be actually emenating from Newsome?  If so, that's a hella-intriguing use of color.  Intriguing enough that I wish it had been used that way consistently on the previous pages.  It wasn't; it's cool on this one, though.


page 16

I've been critical of Calero on a couple of instances for not following King's story to the letter in certain trivial ways.  So, turnabout is fair play, and time to give credit where it's due: Rideout's little bow to Kat, upon that backhanded compliment she gives him, is straight out of the story.

Didja notice the green has completely vanished on this page?


page 17

The first panel causes a question to come to mind: has Calero effectively communicated Rideout's supposed height?

I'm not sure he has.


page 18

I like that final panel a lot; it makes for a good cliffhanger, and the use of a shadowed half-face is a good choice of how to depict Rideout's tenuous position.

Given that this is a Stephen King story, it stands to reason that most people who read it -- in either its prose version or this graphic one -- will bring assumptions about his work, and will therefore assume that whereas in real life a Rideout might be a charlatan, in a Stephen King story he's probably on the level about the fact that Newsome is possessed.

Calero's art mostly hasn't leaned too hard in one direction or the other in terms of telling us which way to feel.  This final panel, though, cues us to realize that at the very least, Rideout seems to believe what he's saying; he looks genuinely worried for his own life.


page 19

I have two questions:

Question the first: should all Stephen King stories skip from page 18 straight to page 20, the way hotels and buildings tend to have no thirteenth floor?

Yeah, probably not; you're right, silly idea.

Question the second: in that second panel, why is Rideout's dialogue balloon pointing at Jensen?


page 20

I really like that second panel.  Something about the lack of dialogue works really well; it may be the sheer relief to not have to read something, or maybe it's related to the way a dialogue-free panel in a dialogue-heavy comic serves as a weirdly effective slowdown to the pace -- or a speed-up, depending on how you read comics.

Either way, I like it here.


page 21

Man, it's like we're in the Emerald City all of a sudden.

The final panel is a striking one, but my favorite on this page is the second one; I like Rideout's posture, almost like he's about to slug Newsome, or as if he's trying to keep some part of himself as far away from Newsome as he possibly can.


page 22

I love the first two panels here, especially the shocked look on Rideout's face (presumably as he has his fatal heart attack).

The rest, though, I'm really not sure why Calero made the choices he made in those final four panels.  I don't know what the black indicates; I don't know why we relapse into purple when we see Newsome; and I don't know why Calero doesn't give us a cleaner look at the LGG itself in that final panel.  The first time I looked at it, I thought it was still emerging from Newsome's mouth; that isn't the case, but is it sitting on his chest?  Sitting on the bed?  Sitting on the floor?  The geography here is just nonexistent, and that's a real problem for me.

Also, that final panel caused me to do this:







That's just ... a very awkward pose for Kat.  Or for anyone, really.


page 23


Lucky for me, as each of these pages -- "episodes," they called 'em on the website -- were posted, I right-clicked and saved them into a folder.  See, I just don't trust not having things, because who knows when one day I might go to the website, and it's not there anymore.

Case in point: I've been reading the comic on King's website as I wrote this post, clicking from one page to the next.  And then suddenly, page 23 simply will not load.  Oh, the page is loading, all right; but where the page of the comic should be, it's just a big old black space.

But we need not worry about that too much, I guess, because hey, looky there; it's posted right here for all to see!

Some of the action of this page is confused, and confusing.  For example, shouldn't we see the LGG leaping for Jensen, then see him, panicked, spray the pepper spray into his own face accidentally?  I feel as if that should have been broken into two panels, rather than crammed into one.

In the next panel, what's going on?  I know from consulting the short story that Kat swings for it and misses; the panel does not convey that at all.  It doesn't really convey much of anything.

However, I like the fierce look on Kat's face two panels later, and the final two panels of the LGG leaping onto Melissa are quite effective.


page 24

I've obliged the original numbering here and referred to this as page 24, but in reality, in a print comic, it would be a two-page spread.  So really, this is pages 24-25.  Just sayin'.

The art on these pages is very effective, and the final two panels make it clear that the two black panels on page 22 represent the generator blinking off and on.  Okay, cool; that works.

However, I think Calero bungles the ending quite badly here.  Let's consult King's story, and see how he wraps things up:


       The generator went out.
     "Fuck," Newsome said, still sounding cheery.  "I paid seventy thousand dollars for that Jap piece of shit."
       "I need someone to flush my eyes!" Jensen bellowed.  "Kat!"
     Kat opened her mouth to reply, then didn't.  In the new darkness, something had crawled onto the back of her hand.


That's a nicely creepy ending, and you might be asking yourself right now why, exactly, I think Calero bungled the ending.  "Isn't it the same?" you might be wondering.

It isn't the same at all.  Calero gives us the information that the LGG has jumped onto Kat's hand as dialogue delivered by Kat herself.  And she delivers it in calm, straightforward fashion; there's not even an exclamation mark on the end of her sentence.

In other words, as presented, Kat is not freaked out.  Let's examine King's ending again.  What does it mean that Kat opens her mouth to reply, then doesn't?  The way I read it, it's that the words are shocked right out of her, possibly by pain, possibly by fear; King doesn't tell us exactly, but instead allows the implications to just sit there, creepy and undefined.  We go out of the story not quite knowing what will happen next, but personally, I tend to assume that whatever happens, it'll be for the worse.

Calero's ending might technically convey the same information, but the particulars of how he conveys it are what matter, and I think he gets them dead wrong.  We end on a note not of creepy vagueness, but on a note of unintentionally humorous acceptance.  That's how it plays for me, at least.

It may be that I'm being overly critical, and to be fair, I don't immediately know how I would have done it differently.  I think maybe I'd've just replicated King's final two lines.

Turns out I do immediately know how I would have done it differently.

Perhaps that is just my bias toward the story coming through, though; I'd be curious to hear what someone whose first experience of the story was in this format had to say on the matter.

*****

So, final thoughts: obviously, I have issues with certain aspects of the comic, both in terms of the art and in terms of the adaptation itself.  On the whole, however, I think more of it works than doesn't, and Calero has mostly settled for presenting the story, as opposed to taking the opportunity to go ape in terms of his art at the expense of the story itself.

Whether that makes for a satisfying comic or not, I leave to each individual to decide.  But I think that overall, it made for a good, solid adaptation.  I certainly wouldn't mind seeing other King short stories get the same treatment.

2 comments:

  1. Okay, now for a very inadequate take on something I haven't finished reading. I admit I've only looked at the comic.

    Right now I'm waiting for the inevitable short story collection to be released so I can get the story in full, also just 'cause I'm a lazy s.o.b.

    As for the drawings, I think they're serviceable, I'm willing to go with the pictures for Newsome yet I admit it's just as easy to see Kathy Bates in the role...well, "Kat", now how's that coming full circle?

    I think it's interesting that Rideout, whether consciously or not, looks modeled after Sigmund Freud, though I refuse to read anything into it.

    Kev Quigly has a great review of the short story over at charnel house:

    http://charnelhouse.tripod.com/littlegreengod.html

    And it's got me thinking about the accident and what sort of scars it might have left, and how King said it slowed down his writing somewhat, and that got me wondering how he might be taking it.

    ChrisC

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  2. It hadn't occurred to me that Rideout looks like Freud, but he kinda does, doesn't he?

    Yeah, I agree, the art is serviceable. I'm not sure I'd say much more for it than that, though. The whole thing just kinda lays there on the page, visually-speaking. I feel bad to be carping about a free webcomic, but them's the perils of writing with a critical mind, I suppose.

    Sometimes, I worry about the possibility that someone I'm critical of -- be it Denis Calero, or Mick Garris, or Michael Bay or whoever -- might eventually read one of these things and be angered and / or bummed out by it. I don't let that worry go very far, though, because realistically, it's unlikely to ever happen. And also, if someone who is a professional entertainer or artist of some sort hasn't developed a thick enough skin to ignore comments made by a doofus amateur blogger like me, then ... well, they need to develop thicker skin STAT.

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