Friday, April 30, 2010

Jack of Fables 41-45 "Kings of earth and sky"

That "the Fables"' first spin-off was a controversial project was clear from the start. Putting the unlikable rogue Jack of tales in the lead role was always an ambitious choice, but the truly polarizing aspect of the Vertigo title's second ongoing series was always it's ambiguous co-writing credit. Yet, Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges' "Jack of Fables" has preserved for years as the supporting title, with sales closely following the parent book. This has given it's creators a chance to freely enjoy their trademark multi layered self-aware storytelling that never tips it's hand to the readers.

Unlike "Fables", it's perennial troubled spin-off has always toyed with the metafictional aspects that fully acknowledge the difficulty of the ideas involved. It was always a title that spun some rather far fetched pulp inspired yarns, yet remained tongue in cheek the whole time, while teasing some rather improbable and unnerving events. Right alongside the black humorous bulk of the narrative involving Jack facing the basic tools of writing fiction, another subplot kept getting alluded to. And in "the Great Fables crossover", that was to wrap up the three years in the making saga, and have the character come full circle with Fables that he has come to stray from, it finally debuted.

Following on the heels of the parent series' new status quo, the mini event saw a new hero take center stage, and hinted at the changes to come for Jack's own series, all in a manner that was as literal as possible. yet, Jack's teenage son still seemed like merely one of the many new characters involved with the proceedings, while admittedly most of the others being even more obnoxious with their roles and titles. Still, following an unfortunately placed fill-in story, the co-writers stayed true to their promise, and started radically altering the series' premise.

The first arc of the new status quo still had to wrap up the loose ends of "Jack of Fables"' previous three years of stories, which in effect meant double billing the page count to host both the logical conclusion of Jack's adventures, and the introduction of his son's first adventure on his own. The shift in direction seemed sudden, but like always with the title, felt planned well in advance. In the new section, the reader was treated with an innocent fantasy episode played ironically typically, but there was still an expectation that the two narratives will collide in the last chapter. Interestingly, Willingham and Sturges had decided to play coy, and have Jack's tale end completely separately, while only soliciting his son's further pulpy adventures as a follow up. The reader, long treated to a purposefully murky storytelling and outright lies by the narrator as part of the standard comedy routine, expected everything but that, particularly considering the "Fables"' history, and the Vertigo's general trend of grown up fantasy storytelling.

And, of course, this is precisely where the co-writers decided to go next with the series. By transporting their hero to yet another new world, they opted for a full on epic fantasy science fiction mash up, with the previous protagonist mentioned only in passing. Thus, they got to graduate his long prepared successor to the title role, and even more importantly style the complete storyline after him. Even the opening text along with the hints at the end of each issue, long infamous for their sarcasm and general uselessness, thus turn into tried and ready hyperbole, hinting at the further adventures of the tragically noble hero.

The self sacrificing lead character is once again shown to be a complete departure from his egoistic father, which is exactly the point. Willingham and Sturges were well aware of how loathsome the never changing scoundrel Jack of tales has become, so following the crossover, they slyly set out to replace him with a much more likable new face. This meant making him the most naive and good-hearted of the protagonists, constantly trying to help those in need, while thankfully finding suitably grand quests lined up in wait for him. In "Kings of earth and sky", young Jack Frost has to try and liberate a whole kingdom from the giant ruler of the planet, while being constantly beset by the people he's trying to save.

On the face of it, it doesn't get more heroic than that, and also more bland. The co-writers have once again purposefully set out their new protagonist on a very generic quest, subtly following the tales that inspired his predecessor, and spiced it with typical subplots. The constant twists come at every turn, as Jack learns not to trust people unequivocally, while risking losing his only friend and mentor, the magical owl MacDuff. Seemingly, the reader is witnessing a slow coming of age story of a young man that could one day become a ruler of a magical kingdom, if he's not beset by sudden death. It's just that such stereotypical storytelling completely opposes the core concept of "Fables", and the entirety of the sinisterly clever "Jack of Fables" run.

The constant presence of Babe the blue ox's page (undergoing a particularly interesting blandification paralleling the main plot) reminds us that there is no chance that such a status quo will remain much longer beyond this introductory arc, meant to stun the readers into once again doubting the whole point of the series. Even the ending blurb hints at the return of Frost's father, by featuring a seemingly generic title of the next arc, that still reveals a clear link to the previous storyline. Willingham and Sturges are once again prepared to shock the readers, but the real question turns out to be how the ambitious idea is mean to work out.

Taking a lot of the readers' loyalty for granted, "the Kings of earth and sky" still doesn't stumbles in delivering it's promises. The execution is flawed on several levels, most apparently on the artistic front. Simply put, Tony Akins the series' regular penciller is called upon do deliver so much detail that he splits the artistic duties of the middle two issues of the arc with Jim ("Crossing midnight") Fern. This problem was sidestepped by having Russ Braun work on the whole of previous storyline, but in "the Kings of earth and sky", there's hardly a unity of style between the two different pencillers. Fern tries his best to continue Akins' initial ten odd pages each issue, but his figurework is completely at odds with the series' standard cartoony work. The jarring shift is very noticable in that the more realistic pages bring forth a completely different look to the "Jack Carter, warlord of Mars"-inspired storyline, immediately clashing with the pages surrounding them.

Thus, Akins' trying to incorporate layouts that echo Mark Buckingham's work on the main "Fables" series simply stop exhibiting the requisite dynamic in the fill in artist's pages, who more or less tells the story without any irony. This leads to Jack Frost's overblown heroics and his female friend's skimpy dressings turn from satire that was called for back into standard adventure story illustrations they were inspired by, before returning back to the norm with the start of every new issue. The colors maintain what little coherence remain, but the rest of the problems lie firmly with the writers.

While they are certainly to be complimented for presenting a well paced page turner, after so many "Jack of Fables" arcs that felt strained and overwritten, the most successful part of the storyline really belongs to their inspirations. And while they certainly find a way to channel the Michael ("Elric", "Jack Cornelius") Moorcock like pulp narratives steeped in the lurid haze of counter culture, Willingham and Sturges end up going too far in a single direction, risking the subversion of their own creative voices for the purposes of pastiche. And this is precisely what happens, as the series' traditional playful postmodernism becomes a distant subtext, easily overcame by ray guns firing through the sweaty psychedelic background.

Moorcock himself was always keen to stretch the form of the pulpy science fiction, but in sticking so close to his template, the co-writers gambled to entertain only the segment of readers familiar with his work, or otherwise generally susceptible to his hugely influential "Saga of the eternal warrior". What's missing is the concrete link to the series the readers have been following up till the beginning of this storyline, a knowing technique employed with potentially troublesome results.

It takes a lot of belief in the "Fables" brand as a whole to see "the Kings of earth and sky" for what it truly is, a middle chapter in the delightfully false new status quo that almost certainly won't last a year, before being tied together with the stylings that preceded it. It's just that read as a story in it's own right it might send a mixed signals message to its readers, who might not be so fond of the radical shift that "Jack of Fables" has undergone.

As an experiment in the continuing storytelling, the current direction of the series is in line with the title's constant ethos of subverting the readers' expectations of what they can expect from a spin off. Yet, as a story on it's own, it's completely dependent on future arcs to determine how the whole of this particular phase of the title measures up. This is certainly a bold decision, made by creators unafraid to follow their own creative impulses, instead of settling in the relative conformity of the tried and true status quo.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday comics: "Metamorpho"

"Metamorpho" was a one page feature that ran in all 12 issues of DC's "Wednesday comics" anthology. Scripted by Neil ("the Sandman") Gaiman, and pencilled by Mike ("the X-Statix", "Madman") Allred, it told a single continuing story, using the project as an excuse to give the character a rare high profile performance.

Obviously, when contacting Neil Gaiman to contribute to the anthology, editor Mark ("Batman: black and white", "Solo") Chiarello was well aware of the good will his fans will feel towards a story that even tangentially refers to his most successful project for the publisher. Elaborating on the back story of the obscure superheroine Element Woman, previously seen in "the Sandman", Gaiman still shied away from the series' adult fantasy storytelling, to go with the tone of DC's latest weekly series.

It's fortunate then that he was paired with Mike Allred, another contributor to his epic. And while their previous effort resulted in revisiting the company's long forgotten teenage president Prez, the tone of the new story called for still a different mood. The artist's trademark retro modern pencils and inks are still present, colored by his wife Laura, but the effect is much more nostalgic this time around.

Both creators seem to be trying their best to tell a classical Silver Age superhero story, concentrating their efforts by exploiting the unique structural opportunities of the newspaper format of the anthology. Thus, not only are all the characters on model, but their whole adventure could almost seamlessly fit in during the early days of the decades old character. That is, discounting the absurdly irreverent tone that is the creator's chief innovation. The knowing winks to the silliness of the characters and their basic set up are constant, but mostly kept in the background, except for the introduction of the reader's formal helpers, the bizarrely overenthusiastic 1960s children readers.

Yet, the exposition they deliver is actually vital to the story, once one gets past the constant jokes about the supposedly enormous popularity of the Metamorpho line of comic book titles. Even then, Gaiman leaves that idea on a sour note, admitting point blank that Metamorpho has nothing of the popularity he constantly alluded up to that point, that seems somewhat anti-climatic and unnecessary. As for the general tone of the script, the writer's imitation of the famously overwritten superhero comic books of the past is by and large enjoyable, except when it comes to constantly recapping the plot. This was necessary due to the anthology format, but still comes across just as tedious, as the strip's logo that "the Spirit"-like keeps getting integrating into surroundings of every new page.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle with reading Gaiman and Allred's pastiche comes in overcoming two whole pages of Gaiman trying to dramatize the periodic table of elements. Still, that kind of narrative challenge is exactly what a short story like "Metamorpho" was constructed for. The Allred family team follows every step of the way, taking on each page as a separate unit, and bringing forth the sense of adventure and irony that the script calls for. Reading it as a complete comic only accentuates the effort that went into coordinating the double page spreads, that were made to work even in their original form.

Of course, using "Wednesday comics" as a chance for playing with the form could never have worked as well in a DC Universe comic, if not for the solid character work throughout. In order to achieve the irony inherent in the outdated superhero concepts, the creators purposefully keep the characters on the model so much, that they start breaking from their two-dimensional confines to better reveal their comedic potential.

As such, the moment Gaiman and the Allreds figure out that the neanderthal bodyguard Java plays next to no role in the story, the creators turn him into a focal point for the deadpan delivery of some of their most inspired bits of comedy. The rest of the characters are so deeply enveloped in searching the ancient temple, all for their own reasons, that they mostly concentrate on getting to the bottom of a science fiction story that ties in with Element Man and Element Woman's origins. In order to achieve that kind of effect, the Allreds never stray too much from the characters' original Ramona Fradon designed forms, while retaining the "Madman" creators' signature physicality.

The story works even on that level, with Gaiman patiently imitating the rapid stream of child like display of super powers, romantic interest and a never ending stream of 1960s slang. The creators are still aware of how generic an adventure story they have put together, so they once again conscientiously overuse these Silver age plot devices in order to get their point across. And that is, no more and no less, an attempt to have a bit of fun with layouts of a superhero adventure short story, while still treating the Element Man with a nostalgic reverence the character hasn't seen in a very long time.

In the end, Gaiman and the Allreds' "Metamorpho" story is certainly not an attempt to update the character for a new audience, but exactly what it's supposed to be - an offbeat superhero short story, published in a weekly series celebrating the vitality of DC's decades old characters, by using the oversized newspaper format that most of their genre predecessors debuted in.