Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bryant Has Issues #38

First, a guarantease: after we discuss a few new comics I bought this week, we're going to have us a look-see at Alan Moore's first prose novel, Voice of the Fire, which I found to be just flat-out awesome.  What's it got to do with Stephen King?  Jack shit, buddy, but take a look at the blog's banner; this week, I'm putting that "...mostly" addendum to use.

One more brief bit of business before we get to the reviews: nominees for the 2013 Harvey Awards -- which is like the comics equivalent of the Oscars, or maybe the Golden Globes or something -- were recently announced, and several Bryant Has Issues favorites picked up nominations.  The category Best Writer has, among others, Joe Hill for Locke & Key, Scott Snyder for Batman, and Brian K. Vaughan for SagaBatman and Saga also appear under Best Artist (for Greg Capullo and Fiona Staples, respectively); no nod for Locke & Key's Gabriel Rodriguez seems like a crime to me, but what do I know?

Saga is also in there for Best New Series -- although it's been going for over a year at this point, so I'm not sure how it counts as "new" -- and Locke & Key got a Best Single Issue or Story nom for the "Grindhouse" issue. Saga #1 (!) is also on that list, as is Batman #12.

I'm guessing that the awards must cover a somewhat irregular period of time; the fact that The Private Eye is absent from both the Best Colorist and Best Online Comics Work categories is only thus explicable.  Muntsa Vicente's colors on that comic are perhaps the best colors I've ever seen on ANY comic, so it not being eligible until the 2014 awards had better be the reason she didn't get recognized here.

Anyways, that's the industry scoop.  Let's move on to the reviews, beginning with the final issue of IDW's adaptation of Joe Hill's short story "Thumbprint."  There will be massive spoilers for both the comic and the short story, because I just can't avoid them.  So if you want to remain virginal in that regard, skip to the next comic, which will be the American Vampire Anthology.




Joe Hill's "Thumbprint" -- the short story, that is, not this comic adaptation -- is an odd case.  It's a compelling, well-written story in which a female war vet is stalked and, finally, confronted by a former associate, who wants her to confess that she is part of a vast conspiracy of spies who are looking in on every second of his life.  He seems prepared to torture her to get the info he needs, and prepared to kill her if necessary.



In Sopranos-finale fashion, the story ends before we find out what happens.  I'm going to just insert a screencap of the Kindle version's final page, so as to clue you in to what I mean:



So, like, what happens?!?  Does she get to that bayonet in time?  Does he torture her?  Kill her?

We'll never know.

I was initially off-put by this when I read the story, but two minutes after that, I'd accepted it and decided that I liked it.  A little ambiguity -- or lack of resolution, if you prefer (technically, here, there's nothing to refer to as "ambiguous") -- can be fun on occasion.  I wouldn't want every story to end that way, but for whatever reason, I didn't mind that this one did.

It was this aspect of the story that caused me to raise a skeptical eyebrow when I heard that IDW was adapting it for comics.  I couldn't see how that ending could possibly translate to a graphic medium.

Well, as it turns out, the solution was simple: writer Jason Ciaramella simply finished the story.  I'd love to know what, if any, input Hill had into that ending.  (I've just tweeted him in an unthinkable-ten-years-ago attempt to find out; we'll see if that bears fruit or not.)  But either way, it works for the comic, and it works really well.  The ending is changed a bit from what the story implies -- it's a gun, not a bayonet, that Mallory gets ahold of -- but that's fine.  Essentially, what happens is this: Mallory gets her thumb cut off, is able to get out of the handcuffs thanks to her hand suddenly being quite a bit smaller, gets the gun, and offs Anshaw.  It's grim, satisfying, and troubling all at once.

And there is a moment in the middle of it that is so profoundly strange that I sat and laughed about it for a good, solid minute before continuing.  I'm not going to ruin the specifics, though lord knows I am tempted to do so.  All I'll say is that it is a double-splash page that occurs precisely in the middle of the book (on the staples, in other words) and consists of advice/training from one of the issue's two main characters.  It is a moment of levity -- parody, even -- that comes smack-dab in the middle of a scene of high dramatic tension.  It is, in some ways, an incredibly bad decision.  Intellectually, everything in me is screaming that it does not, and did not, and will not, work.

And yet, I was so utterly delighted by it that I almost can't even stand to be around myself right now.  Others may find themselves having precisely the opposite reaction; most probably will just shrug at it.

Either way, I think this is a very strong conclusion to the miniseries.  The art by Vic Malhotra is really good; I like the conclusion to the story; and there's a bonus round of chuckles in the middle that came as a complete surprise.  Nothing not to like here.




Ah, American Vampire.  Come back, won't you?

Scott Snyder has been doing great work on his various comics this year, but it's come at a price: American Vampire has been on a long hiatus.  It happened at a natural pause-point, so it's not like the delays that some books can be prone to experience.  It'll come back.  I just wish it'd come back a little quicker.

In any case, a salve for the wound arrived this week in the form of American Vampire Anthology, an 80-page -- hence the actually-quite-reasonable $7.99 cover price -- collection of tales set in the universe Snyder created.  Snyder himself wrote a Skinner Sweet-centric framing device, which has some cool moments, but the bulk of the book is given over to contributions from the various luminaries whose names you see on the cover.  A few of them are names that have popped up in this column on occasion, but many of them have not, and some are people whose work I have no familiarity with.

We begin (and end) with "The Man Comes Around," story by Snyder and art by Rafael Albuquerque.  This is simply a delivery method for Skinner Sweet dialogue and narration, and I'm always cool with that.  There's a cool splash page, too, and I'm always cool with those as well.

"Lost Colony" (story by Jason Aaron, art by Declan Shalvey) is a tale of sixteenth-century Native Americans who find themselves confronted by some really nasty settlers.  I liked this story a lot; in fact, if someone announced there would be a spinoff featuring these conceits and this creative team, I'd be in.

"Bleeding Kansas" features a story by Albuquerque and art by Ivo Milazzo.  The watercolor art is not really my cup of tea, although it's certainly not bad.  The story is brief, and has its moments, but doesn't really go anywhere.  It's more a vignette than anything else.

"Canadian Vampire" features a story by Jeff Lemire (whose name will pop up later in our reviews) and art by Ray Fawkes.  I didn't get much out of this one, to be honest.  I'm not sure if I'm supposed to literally think that a Canadian vampire shows up -- by which I mean a different strain of vampire than the ones we've seen before -- or if the title is a simply a pun based around the idea that the story takes place in Canada.  And the art...I don't get the art at all.




If a friend of mine had drawn that, I'd probably be polite and lie and say that I liked it.  Otherwise, though, I don't care for this style at all, whatever it is.  But, then, I've been known to be a judgmental prick when it comes to art, and I've also been known to change my mind.  If that happens with this, I'll be sure to let you know about it.

"Greed" (story and art by Becky Cloonan) is essentially just another vignette, one that tells the tale of how Skinner got the idea to go to Hollywood.  I like Cloonan's art; the story is decent, but not really expansive enough to be much more than that.

"The Producers" features art and a story by Francesco Francavilla.  It's pretty great, and has some especially great colors.




See?

It also features a motion picture with on-screen dialogue in 1925, and that, friends, is a good two years too early.  Maybe this is set in a parallel universe where The Jazz Singer (or its equivalent) came out earlier.  Either way, solid story.  And it, like several others, is a bit of a prequel to certain plot points found in the main series.

"Essence of Life" is written by Gail Simone with art by Tula Lotay, and it is hands-down my favorite story in the anthology.  This is another semi-prequel, this one telling the story of how Hattie got her start in the movie biz.  It's a degrading, depressing, disheartening, and thoroughly plausible one, too.

I'd heard of Simone before, and I know that she's a big deal, but I've never actually read anything by her.  This short certainly increases the odds of my doing so in the future.

Tula Lotay, on the other hand, is someone I've never even heard of.  She doesn't seem to have a Wikipedia page yet, so I'm going to guess that she must be a relative newcomer.  But I'll tell you this: her work is really, really good.  I'm not going to share my favorite panel with you, or my second-favorite; they'd ruin the story.  But I can share a couple of others that won't (not totally, at least):




That second panel there...whoo-boy...God almighty, those green eyes...

I also found an interview with Lotay in which she has this to say when asked what her dream illustration job would be: "Daredevil.  But I kind of wouldn't want to do it either, it's too special for me.  It's been the only comic I've read constantly since childhood. The Elektra stuff had me hooked at about the age of 10 I think. I'd also love to illustrate a volume of Stephen King's The Dark Tower.  I remember the Phil Hale volume, I'd look at those paintings for hours."

You're talking my language now.

"Last Night" features a story and art by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon.  It's got a forties-jazz atmosphere, and it's okay; nothing revolutionary, though, and you will definitely see the end coming.

"Portland, 1940" is by Greg Rucka with art by JP Leon, and will make you think twice about Shanghaiing a vampire.  Or even trying.  Good stuff.

And then "The Man Comes Around" concludes, offering a tease of where the series might be heading whenever it makes its eagerly awaited return.  If you've been holding off on reading the series, this interim might be a good time to get caught up.




What, you might ask, is a "director's cut" of a comic book?  It's a fair question.  In the case of The Wake #1, it is this: a black-and-white version of the issue, plus character-design sketches, a couple (literally) of script pages, some process pages on the layouts and inks and whatnot, and a page showing off a few variant covers.

The whole thing seems to have put together by series editor Mark Doyle, who has this to say at one point:
The truth is, nobody directs a comic.  It's a comic.  Not a film.  But, "Director's Cut" implies this is a behind-the-scenes look and that's what this is.  It also implies this is the "director's" vision for The Wake #1.  But it's not.
Maybe I'm being needlessly critical, but goddamn, is that stupid.  First of all, no, "Director's Cut" does not imply a behind-the-scenes look.  "Special features" or "bonus features" or the like implies a behind-the-scenes look.

Second point of contention: if you admit that the title of something implies something that the product isn't, you're probably doing yourself a disservice.  It might be better to simply call no attention to the fact that what a "Director's Cut" in comics really is is a way for the publisher to scam a few books out of the people who still buy comics.  This is the first one of these things I've bought, and it's apt to be the last.  Especially at $5 a pop.

Thing is, I did enjoy looking through this, and so far I've loved The Wake enough that I feel okay about supporting it.  But I don't have a huge number of five dollarses to spend, and this probably wasn't a great use of one of them.



  
The Scott Snyder-palooza continues now with the third issue of Superman Unchained.  I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about this series.  On the one hand, there is some very interesting stuff in this issue (including what seems to be a potentially awesome new Superman / DC villain named Wraith), but on the other hand, I'm not sure that I think Snyder has picked a wise direction.

Let's briefly consider the good.  The issue begins with this dialogue: "In 1938, with the world on the brink of war, America sent a prayer into space.  Eleven seconds later...that prayer was answered."  What this means, we find out, is that a team of scientists sent an equation in outer space, sort of like SETI does.  This alien called Wraith -- which stands for "William Rudolph's Ace in the Hole" (nice) -- showed up, and he's been an American secret weapon ever since.  He's powerful enough that he whoops Superman's ass in this issue.  And when I say "whoops his ass," I mean that Wraith kicks him across half a state with one blow.  This dude is a serious badass.

Now, the bad news.  We are told that in this version of American history, our nation actually only had one nuclear bomb.  So it was dropped on Hiroshima, and Wraith was dropped on Nagasaki in an attempt to convince Japan and the rest of the world that there was a larger arsenal.

It's an interesting story, and if this was some other superhero comic -- an original one -- I'd think it was cool.  But it doesn't sit well with me in the guise of a Superman comic.  Not well at all, to be honest.  Neither does General Lane, who gives Superman some hard feedback:
Deep down you want to do it, don't you?  Take down that dictator in Sudan, or that warlord in Makran.  You want to make the world better.  Well, we do.  And every minute you don't, you're deciding to let people live their lives in misery, and die suffering.  You're killing them.  Painfully.

I've got so many problems with all of this that I scarcely know where to begin.  The first thing that comes to mind is to point out that if our nation actually had a super-soldier like Wraith, there would be no problems.  No perceived problems to us, at least (our enemies might beg to differ that there were no problems, if any of them were left to do any begging).  The idea behind Wraith seems to be that he is five times as capable as Superman, and entirely willing to do literally whatever America wants him to do.  Now, stop and think about that for a moment.  If someone/thing of that nature had actually shown up in 1938, do you suppose the world would look even vaguely similar to what it looks like now?  I can accept the idea that Wraith shows up in 1938; but I cannot accept that Wraith showed up in the 1938 of a world that is supposed to look and feel at least reasonably similar to our world.

Also, frankly, keep Superman out of world politics.  Did we learn nothing from Superman IV: The Quest For Peace?  All that does is remind us that there is no Superman.  Which is fine, provided I'm not reading a story wherein someone is trying to convince me that -- even if it's just metaphorically -- there is.

I'm willing to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt.  Actually, no; I'm not.  This is a bridge too far for me.  So what I'll say instead is that I'm willing to keep buying and reading the book and see if Snyder ends up redeeming what seems to me at this moment to be a miscalculation.





No miscalculations are evident in Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril, however; except on my part, for having made the miscalculation to get all the way to 2013 without having read any Tom Strong.  If it's this good without Alan Moore, how good must it have been with him?

In this issue, Tom and Val find out that things are not going well on Terra Obscura.  The meet up with a couple of science heroes named Fighting Spirit and The Terror, and if I've read the context correctly, then these are characters whom longtime readers have met before.  If they are not, then Peter Hogan has done a damn good job of making it seem as though they are.  And Chris Sprouse too, of course; his art is exceptional.  Let's have a look at a lovely double-splash:




Gotta love that.


 
  
  
We now come to Trillium, a new Vertigo miniseries from Jeff Lemire.  Lemire is both writer and illustrator on this one, as well as the colorist (albeit assisted in that regard by Jose Villarubia).  I was interested in this one when I heard about it, and decided to give it a look, despite being theoretically in buy-fewer-comics mode.

I'm glad I did.  The first issue is very good.  I'm not quite as gaga for it as some reviewers seem to be, but it's undeniably interesting.

The question I have is: is it anything more than a stunt?  Time will tell, and I suspect the answer to that question is yes.  Even if it isn't, the stunt in this particular issue is strong.  Let me explain.

The reason there are two covers shown above is that the issue has two covers.  It is a flipbook, and no matter which end you begin with -- on one, you begin with "1921 - The Solider," and on the other you begin with 3797 - The Scientist" -- you end up in the same place.  (More on that two paragraphs from now.)

"The Soldier" is the story of a WWI vet -- seemingly deep in the throes of some major PTSD -- who leads a small expedition on an Indiana Jones-esque trek through the Amazonian jungle trying to locate a lost Incan temple, which seems to hide treasures that may hold the key to dominance over death itself.  The expedition kinda doesn't go all that well.  "The Scientist," obviously, takes place in the future, and deals with an off-planet colony on a planet called Atabithi that is feverishly researching a cure for a sentient virus which is attacking other, farther-flung colonies and is steadily getting closer.  Nika, the protagonist of this section, has been meeting with native Atabithians in an attempt to establish a barter system, but when she goes out for her latest meeting, nobody is there to meet her.  From there, things take a strange turn.

Both stories -- as I indicated earlier -- end in the same place.  By which I mean that the final panel of each side of the story is the same, but from the perspective of the soldier or the scientist, depending on which you're reading.  I read "The Soldier" first, so this is what I encountered:




 WTF?!?  Flip it over and read the other part of the story from page one, and it'll all make sense.  Sort of.  And now, for reference purposes, here's what it would look like if you went in the other direction:




Pretty wacky.  Not replicable in digital format, either (at least not easily), and it makes me wonder what the graphic novel will look like when it's collected.
  
That question can't be answered, of course, without knowing what format subsequent issues will take.  And that's something I do not know.  I'll be curious to find out, though; the story interested me, as did the format, so I'm good either way.  Provided that we either follow the story in a straightforward fashion from here or have stunt formats that are as effective as this one going forward, I'm in.




Before we transition to the next section, I wanted to mention that I also recently obtained the oversized special edition of Locke & Key Vol. 2: Head Games, which is just gorgeous.  I wish these things cost less than what they cost, but it's good enough that I don't mind too much.  You get the second volume of the series is treasury-size format, plus all of Hill's original scripts at the back of the book.

If you're able to afford it, this is well worth getting.

*****

And now, as threatened promised, let's turn our attentions back toward Mr. Alan Moore, self-professed magician, worshipper of the Roman snake god Glycon, and a bearded wonder who a podcaster once likened to a skinny Hagrid.





Voice of the Fire is Alan Moore's first prose novel -- a second, Jerusalem, is expected to be published at some point in the not-too-distant future -- and it is handily one of the best things I've read in recent memory.  If you do some Googling for reviews of it, you will find them, and many of them describe the novel in a way similar to this: "it's great, but it's a slog," or "it's rewarding if you stick with it," or "you will need to be patient with it," or "what the fuck?!?"

The common factor seems to be that people seem to think the novel is hard work.  And I'm sure it was...for Moore.  But I had no trouble reading it at all.  Sure, I occasionally had to force myself to pay attention.  But as I've gotten older, my attention span has shortened; that's a big part of why I blog about the things I care about -- it's an attempt to force myself to slow the fuck down and actually smell some of these roses.  I mention that as a means of making the point that even when I'm reading a new Stephen King novel -- or a treasured old one -- I find my attention wandering from time to time, and have to jerk my focus back into place.  So the fact that I had to do that with Voice of the Fire on occasion neither troubles me nor tells me that it is a difficult work.  It doesn't, and it isn't.  You just have to invest in it, and that's something people can sometimes struggle to do.  (Me included.)

What it probably comes down to is that Moore seems to be playing tricks with his readers here.  We'll get more in-depth on that subject in a moment, but it's important to note for anyone who might pick the book up at some point: if you find yourself feeling confused, don't worry about it, because odds are that Moore wants you to feel confused at that point.  If you trust your own instincts, and if you trust that Moore will eventually shed some light on things, then you're going to be better off.  It will help if you've read some of Moore's denser comics work (such as From Hell, which similarly goes off on confusing tangents only to bring it all home at some point thereafter; Neonomicon might be another decent example, and Promethea, too, if that one's reputation is accurate).  He is a complex writer; he is a complicated writer; but he is not, in my experience, a difficult writer.  Some of you may disagree with that assessment, of course, and that's your right.

In any case, Voice of the Fire is a twelve-chaptered narrative that takes place in and around Moore's hometown of Northampton.  The narrative begins circa the year 4000 B.C., and ends in the year 1995.  In some ways, the book can be seen as a series of short stories; each chapter could be read in isolation from the others, and would probably make complete sense.  Or at any rate, would make as much sense as it was going to make to begin with.

But as early as the second chapter, you will begin to see that there are echoes of it.  Those echoes pop up infrequently, but they are there, and by the end of the novel -- which is a novel, and not a collection of short stories (although, oddly, I think you could argue that it is both simultaneously) -- Moore will have made it apparent that those echoes mean something.

I don't want to spend too much time on this, because -- as always with Moore -- it's out of the bounds of this blog's primary focus.  Actually, scratch that.  I do want to spend a lot of time; the work deserves it.  This just isn't the place to go as in-depth as I'm inclined.  As I believe I've threatened in the past, someday I'm going to start a Moore-centric blog -- Blog Of The Fire, maybe, or B For Vendetta, or even The Blog Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (I rather like that one) -- and truly, properly dive into his work.

Not today.  Today, let's be brief.  But not too brief, so let's have a look at each chapter:

"Hob's Hog":  This, frankly, is one of the best things I have ever read.  Hands down.  Set in 4000 BC, it is the story of a young man whose mother dies.  The tribe of roaming folk that he belongs to exiles him, so he is left to his own devices, and wanders around for a bit before meeting a young woman whose husband -- Hob -- doesn't treat her particularly well.  Is there more to the story than that?  Yes, both in terms of plot and presentation.  I won't say anything else about the plot, but I have a great deal more to say about the presentation, and will do so once I'm done briefly describing each chapter.

"The Cremation Fields":  Another terrific story, this one is set in 2500 BC, and tells the tale of a woman who goes about life conning people and doing whatever she thinks she needs to do to get by.  Early in the story, she kills another woman, whom we will later find out is the daughter of a nearby village's "Hobman" (i.e., shaman).  The daughter has not seen her father since she was a child, but is making the trek to see him now because word has reached her that he is dying, and wishes to pass his profession -- and wealth -- down to her.  So our main character has killed her and plans to assume her identity, so as to impersonate her and take possession of the Hobman's hoarded treasure.  Do things go according to plan?  They do not.

"In the Drownings":  Set post AD 43, this is an odd tale in which a man -- who seemingly walks on stilts, dressed like a bird -- reminisces about the disappearance of his first family.  If I understand the story correctly, I believe the implication is that this is perhaps based on some sort of occurrence -- mythical, legendary, factual, or otherwise -- which may have occurred in ancient Northampton.  It is not one of my favorite of the stories in Voice of the Fire, but it is nevertheless rather haunting.

"The Head of Diocletian":  Set post AD 290, this is the story of a Roman official sent to England to investigate supposed counterfeit currency.  What he finds surprises him.  Again, not one of my favorite stories, but nevertheless good.  If you are a fan of historical detective stories, you may be drawn to this moreso than I was.

"November Saints":  Set in AD 1064, "November Saints" is the story of a nun, Alfgiva, who has some stuff happen to her.  I must confess that I had a difficult time following this one.  Some of it seemed to be real, some of it seemed to be dream; some vision, and perhaps even some outright falsehood.  My least favorite story in the book, but I'm willig to concede that that might be due to me not reading closely enough, and therefore remediable by way or reread.

"Limping to Jerusalem":  Post AD 1100, we encounter a former Crusader who is -- like numerous characters in and around this novel -- afflicted with some serious foot problems.  He also has a serious wife problem, being as he is trapped in a loveless marriage.  Which is to say that his wife -- almost certainly with good reason -- despises him and makes no secret of it.  He longed to go to Jerusalem during the Crusades, but never made it.  Instead, he has constructed a rather odd church.  Possibly my second least-favorite story in the bunch.  I get the feeling that there may be historical implications at play here that, if I understood them better, might cause the story to resonate with me a bit more.

"Confessions of a Mask":  And here I thought there was no way for two severed heads to hold a conversation!  Silly me.  Set in AD 1607.  Awesome.  One of the best in the novel.

"Angel Language":  Jumping forward just a wee bit to 1618, we come now to a story that would probably be among the favorites of a great many theoretical readers of this blog, for the simple reason that the story could be classified as horror.  It isn't particularly Stephen King-esque, but still.  I probably would say that it bears a passing resemblance to something H.P. Lovecraft might have written (although it remains more or less grounded in realism whereas Lovecraft often veered off into realms of fantasy).  In fact, it would be extremely easy to rewrite the story and replace the English town it is set in with one of Lovecraft's New England towns.  Essentially, the story is about a perpetually horny judge who has been sent to try a prisoner in a neighboring town.  He meets a young widow and her daughter on the coach ride there, and decides to enter into a rather unwholesome relationship with the mother; and maybe the daughter, too, if he gets a chance.  Do things go according to plan?  They do not.  This is another of my favorites in the book.

"Partners in Knitting":  Jumping ahead nearly a century to 1705, here is another story that could be called horror.  This one possibly moreso even than "Angel Language," actually.  It is the story of a pair of witches who are being burned to death.  Proving that the title is no mere catchy placeholder, Voice of the Fire includes numerous deaths by fire; this is merely one of the numerous themes that bind some of the stories together.  Characters from one story may occasionally appear in another, typically as rumors or legends or visions or figures glimpsed during a nightmare.  One such figure appears -- I think -- in "Partners in Knitting," and is fairly terrifying.  Or maybe that was just me overreacting.  Somehow, I don't think it was.

"The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall":  Speaking of terrifying, this story/chapter appears to be the ramblings of a madman, or perhaps a man afflicted by the then-unknown Alzheimer's disease.  It consists of a series of journal entries, which are irregularly punctuated and not at all prone to have paragraph breaks.  The man is merely telling us the events of his days, but he spends a good amount of time recollecting his relationship with his first wife; a marriage that may or may not ever have even happened.  Seemingly a poet or songwriter, the man is prone to occasional outbursts of art that seem somewhat shocking set against the context of the rest of the the story.  (By the way, have I mentioned that each chapter is told in the first-person?  I don't believe I have.  Well, that is indeed the case.)  This chapter is tough going in some ways, but I think that it is rewarding if you can power through it.  You may feel differently.  Oh, uh...1841 is the date.

"I Travel in Suspenders":  Jumping forward to the nearly recognizable time of 1931, we meet a traveling salesman who, like several other characters in the novel, is a bit of a horndog.  Also like several other of the novel's characters, he may also be insane, and is certainly pathological.  Does another death by fire enter into play?  It does.  The man in a traveling underwear salesman who has multiple wives, and his life has recently gotten even more complicated than it already was.  Good stuff, and featuring my candidate for most despicable narrator of the novel.

"Phipps' Fire Escape":  Set in 1995, the narrator of this tale is none other than Alan Moore himself, who, you will be happy to learn, or not (depending on how you felt about the novel you just read), does not die i a fire during the course of the chapter.  "Hob's Hog" is my favorite story in Voice of the Fire; "Phipps' Fire Escape" is my runner-up.  I have more to say about it, but let's first turn our attentions back to "Hob's Hog."

If Voice of the Fire is famous for anything, "Hob's Hog" is it; except that famous is the wrong word.  "Infamous" is probably a better word.  Why?  Well, it's because Moore does something in "Hob's Hog" that a great many readers simply cannot abide: he writes in a dialect.  And not merely a dialect; an invented dialect, one designed to imply both the antiquity of the time during which the story takes place and the fact that his story's narrator is a Forrest Gump-style halfwit.  He is not completely without intelligence, but seems to lack much in the way of imagination.  For example, he at one point sees a herd of pigs in the distance, and is surprised when, as he gets closer to them, they transform from pigs into logs.  He does not understand the concept of optical illusion.

I was quite moved by that moment, and by others in the tale similar to it (especially one near the end of the story, which I will not divulge here).  I found it easy to imagine myself in ancient times, confronted by something I did not understand and had no means to learn about.  I have poor eyesight without my glasses, and even with them there have times when I saw something and thought it was one thing, only to get closer and see that in fact it was something else entirely.  For a mentally-challenged person who has nobody to teach him any better, what must that simple trick of the eyes be like?  Would it indeed be like witnessing magic, but with no understanding of the concept of there even being such a thing as magic?

For me, "Hob's Hog" is a genius exercise in empathy.    And it functions in that capacity on multiple levels.  It deserves a much fuller exploration than what I'm giving it here, but that time will come.

I alluded to the dialect earlier, but alluding to it and demonstrating it are two very different things.  So I give you now the first few paragraphs of the story.  Best of luck.

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I's feet and wetting they.

There is not grass on high of hill.  There is but dirt, all in a round, that hill is as like to a no-hair man, he's head.  Stands I, and turn I's face to wind for sniff, and yet is no sniff come for far ways off.  I's belly hurts, in middle of I.  Belly-air come up in mouth, and lick of it is like to lick of no thing.  Dry-up blood lump is come black on knee, and is with itch.  Scratch I, where is yet more blood come.

In bove of I is many sky-beasts, big and grey.  Slow is they move, as they is with no strong in they.  May that they want for food, as I is want a-like.  One of they is that empty in he's belly now, he's head it is come off and float a-way, and he is run more quick a-hind, as wants to catch of it.  In low of sky is grass and woods go far ways off, where is I see an other hill, which after is there only little trees as grow world's edge a-bout.

Now looks I down, to grass in low of hill, and sees I pigs.  Big pigs, and long, with one on other's back and shanking she, by look of they.  It make a bone go up I's will to see.  In of I's belly I is glean I may run down of hill to pigs, and hit a stone on one of they and make she not alive, for eat up all of she.  That is I's gleaning.  Now is doing of it.

From hill's high there off dry dirt come I, through of cold grass and run down quick, that I is come on pigs when they is with no whiles for change to that I may not eat, as like to rat I one-whiles catch that change to little stones.  Quick runs I down on pigs, that they is yet pigs while I catch with they.  I's will is up, a bone in he, as shake this way and other in I's running, neath of belly.  Quick runs I, but oh, I's feet fly up from wet of grass and falls I, oh, and falls I arse-ways down of hill.

Up quick, for catch of pigs.  Fall make I slow, that they may come a-change, for I is sniff no pig at all.  At this I's belly is with fright, for which runs I more quick, and looks to pigs as I is come more by of they, but oh.  Oh, one, she is a-change, she's hind legs gone.  All out-ways of she black face is turn in, and is now hole with darkness full.  Runs I more quick that they is yet a bit of pig while I is catch with they, but oh, there is no move in they, and is they sniff with rot.  They come more little pig as more tread is I make.

Now I is by they, and they is but logs of white-wood, lolling one on other.  Eyes come wood-holes.  Pig-foot come to branch-stub.  Ah.

Set I on neath-more log, there flatting grass in low of hill, and make hot waters out I's face.

If you are wishing to tear your hair out now, or if you simply stopped reading after a sentence or two, I sympathize with you, and I do not blame you.  Life is too short to read things you do not wish to read; I've always felt that way, and remind me sometime to tell you about my experience trying to read William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom.  I get it; this sort of thing is not for everyone.

I recently listened to a podcast wherein several people discussed the novel in general and "Hob's Hog" specifically, and the mood was almost entirely anti-Moore in terms of both this chapter and "Phipps' Fire Escape," both of which the podcasters found to be pretentious and self-indulgent and insufferable.  Again, I can sympathize.  I don't agree, but I see how one would reach that conclusion.

All I can speak to is how "Hob's Hog" made me feel: energized to the very core of my being.  I felt almost as if I was being shown a different way to think.  A complaint one could make against the chapter is that it is not a genuine dialect; that it does not actually represent what speech patterns from 4000 BC might have been like, or what a mentally-challenged person's thought patterns might be like.  I'll leave that for other people to decide.  But I didn't assume that Alan Moore wished for me to engage with the material in that way.

Instead, I felt that Moore was asking me to consider the degree to which thought, perception, language, speech, and communication are one and the same; each informs the other, and changes the other, and all of them combined make for a different whole than would any other combination of them.  You can take that a step farther: in a way, these concepts form what we humans think of as reality.  Reality is perception, in some ways; thought is perception; language is thought; communication is language; and language is perception.

While reading "Hob's Hog," I struggled with the language/dialect for about three pages, and then a curious thing began to happen: it began to make sense.  It began to make sense.  I began to be able to interpret things.  The "sky-beasts," I came to realize, were clouds.  (Or is it that I came to realize that clouds are sky-beasts?  Not as simple a question as it seems.)
  
A few more pages, and the dialect began to feel completely natural.  Things began to occur to me.  Is there an important degree of difference between the words "he's" and "his"?  Do "an other" and "another" mean the same thing?  If not, what is the difference?  I was entirely flummoxed by the use of the word "will" to denote "penis," until I remember that a (typically British) slang term for penis is "willy."  In the next chapter, which does not use the dialect but has occasional echoes of it, the word "village" is not used; the word, instead, is "willage."  The image this summons is of an ancient person struggling to come up with a term for a long-term, self-repopulating collection of people, and stumbling upon the idea that such a perpetuation is the result of the process of one's will at work.  And what of our notion of "will," by which I mean one's inner fortitude?  Is that, too, an different word for what is essentially a biological urge?

I found myself thinking Big Thoughts -- Deep Thoughts, even -- while reading "Hob's Hog."  I found myself even thinking in Moore's invented dialect; my cats were meowing at me as I read, and I would think something along the lines of "cats have an empty in they belly, and make they sound wherof for want of I to feed they.  Wait they a like whiles as for I's reading, and I they belly make of not empty."  And like that.

I am never a fan of form over substance, and I can imagine a great many people feeling that "Hob's Hog" is nothing but form.  That is not how I perceive the story.  My take-away is that it is asking us to simply look at the world in a different way, and to imagine what life could be like for a poor, dirty, wretch whose soul yearns for something more out of life, even as he has no concept of what yearning is, or a soul, or even life.  Like V'Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (yeah, I went there), he does not know what he wants; he only knows that he wants.  Except not really; this particular fellow is not quite intelligent enough to even know what want is.  He merely experiences it, unknowing; and we, knowing, experience it with him.  We are both within his experience and outside of it.

This story broke my heart.  But in away, it reinvigorated it, too.  I've utterly failed to actually replicate my feelings about the chapter (although I got close at a couple of points), but the only genuinely meaningful thing about those feelings can be easily summarized: "Hob's Hog" moved me, in a way that very few works of art have ever done.  I could say a lot, but never say more than that.

Now, a few words about the closing chapter, "Phipps' Fire Escape," which depending on how you look at it, is either the conclusion of the novel or an essay by Moore about the writing of the novel.  It may even be complete fiction.

I loved the chapter/story/essay/whatever from beginning to finish, and rather than try to find something cogent to say about it, I'm simply going to replicate a few of my favorite passages.

  • "History is a heat, a slow fire with the planet just now coming to the boil, our culture passing from a fluid to a vaporous state amid the violent and chaotic seethings of the phase transition."  (p. 291)
  • "Across the street are council offices where Cromwell is reputed to have slept and dreamed the night in 1645 before he rode to Naseby and midwifed the gory breach birth of our current parliamentary democracy, the adult form still clearly warped and traumatized by this unspeakable nativity.  They marched the Royalist prisoners out to Ecton afterwards and heralded them into a paddock by the Globe Inn for the night before the march to London, trial, imprisonment or execution.  Many of the wounded died there in the field behind the Inn.  A century later William Hogarth, a recurring patron, offered to design and paint a new sign for the Globe, and changed its name to the World's End with a depiction of the planet bursting into flames.  The pub signs of the county are a secret Tarot deck, with this card the most ominous, the local theme of fire asserted in its final, terrifying aspect."  (p. 288-89)
  • [Moore's brother, asking him a question; Moore, answering]  " 'So what's this book about, then?'  It's about the vital message that the stiff lips of decapitated men still shape; the testament of black and spectral dogs written in piss across our bad dreams.  It's about raising the dead to tell us what they know.  It is a bridge, a crossing-point, a worn spot in the curtain between our world and the underworld, between the mortar and the myth, fact and fiction, a threadbare gauze no thicker than a page.  It's about the powerful glossolalia of witches and their magical revision of the texts we live in.  None of this is speakable.  Instead, deliberate and gecko-eyed evasion: 'Well, it's difficult to say until it's finished.' "  (p. 302)
  • "Although at time unnerving, this was always the intention, this erasing of a line dividing the incontrovertible from the invented.  History, unendingly revised and reinterpreted, is seen upon examination as merely a different class of fiction: becomes hazardous if viewed as having any innate truth beyond this.  Still, it is a fiction that we must inhabit.  Lacking any territory that is not subjective, we can only live upon the map.  All that remains in question is whose map we choose, whether we live within the world's insistent texts or else replace them with a stronger language of our own."  (p. 306)
  • "Drive home.  Settle down to write here on Phipps' Fire Escape.  It's been five years since the book was started.  That was when the Galileo probe set out for Jupiter, the earliest broadcast images just now arriving on our screens: hereto unseen phenomena of gas in thrall to monstrous gravity.  Beguiling comet scars.  The long-anticipated landscape is at last revealed."  (p. 313)

"History, unendingly revised and reinterpreted, is seen upon examination as merely a different class of fiction: becomes hazardous if viewed as having any innate truth beyond this.  Still, it is a fiction that we must inhabit."  I cannot help but associate this with the narrator of "Hob's Hog," too dim-witted to understand that logs can look like pigs, too hungry to keep from trying to catch one even once the change has begun to come upon them.  If indeed we are like him in the way we constantly consider a history that cannot precisely be said even to have existed, then I believe there are profound implications to this novel, implications both horrifying and marvelous.  Because if a pig must sometimes change into a log, then a log must also sometimes be revealed to be a pig.

I apologize for all of this stonerific deep-thinkage.  So as to ameliorate the situation, I present to you a two-minute compliation of testicular damage, set to the tune of "Yakety Sax."






Not even gonna lie: I laughed at that for two solid minutes.

See ya.

6 comments:

  1. Good God, that last clip, there = comedy gold.

    I've read zilch on this list, alas, but I enjoyed reading these. (I skipped Voice of the Fire now, as I keep meaning to get back to that one - I'll jump back here with a comment at that time, though who knows when that will be... alas. Damn 24-hour-days instead of 36 and all...)

    I will say I can't agree more with keeping Superman out of world politics and forcing things on the character/ concept that in my mind are just not very interesting.

    What do you think of those Ba brothers, Fabio (Moon) and Gabriel? I sometimes think they're absolutely brilliant and then there are other times where I think I've fooled myself. I love Umbrella Academy and (most of) Casanova, but Daytripper and a few others kinda fizzled for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know nothing about the Brothers Ba apart from the thing I covered here. "Umbrella Academy" has been on my wanna-read list for a while, and maybe I'll get to it eventually. This "American Vampire" short did nothing to either speed or delay that process.

      The nut-shot compilation was a low blow (pun intended), but I felt it was the only way to follow up a discussion of "Voice of the Fire." Comedy doesn't get more bottom-of-the-barrel than that, but there's something about it that's just unavoidable. I'll take that over "Duck Dynasty" or the like every time.

      Plus, it's got "Yakety Sax"!

      Delete
  2. I too considered "Hob's Hog" to be the best tale in Voice of the Fire. A narrator who is almost pre-verbal, and almost certainly pre breakdown of the bicameral mind - he literally can't tell the difference between thought, memory, and sensation; if he thinks he sees pigs, why then they must actually be pigs, and if on closer inspection he sees that they are logs, then the pigs must have turned into logs - making him one of the most unreliable narrators of all time... but the story is crafted so well that this becomes a strength, not a weakness.

    There are a couple of things you did not point out, that I think are important. All of the stories take place in what is now Northampton England. All of the stories take place in November. All of the stories have something to do with fire. In all but two, *something* in the story is based on actual history, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has read 'V for Vendetta' ("Remember, remember, the fifth of November...".)

    But Moore has been trying for many years to convince us that sometimes fictions can be more true than mere historical truth, the accidents of history.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, there's no doubt at all in my mind that that novel deserves a much more thorough review than what I can it here. I'd love to do that one of these days, if only so as to give myself an excuse to reread the novel in deep-dive format.

      I couldn't agree more that the "unreliability" of the narrator in that first chapter is a strength, and not a weakness. Damn ... that chapter, man ... just genius. I'd pay good money for Moore to record that novel on audiobook.

      Have you read "Jerusalem" yet? It's sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to grow bold enough to take it down. I've been in a rut, reading-wise, for the last year or so; and I don't want to give that novel anything less than a proper read, so I'm kind of waiting for the time to be right.

      Thanks for reading this post!

      Delete
  3. I believe the use of "will" for penis in Hob's Hog is a magick thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Makes sense! Thanks for the clarification.

      Delete