Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dark Ivory

"Dark Ivory" is the name of the recently concluded Image mini-series, a comic-book that was long time in coming. It's major selling point is that it's co-created by Joe Linsner of "Dawn"'s fame, a cult-favorite artist and designer. Getting past the cover it's apparent that the four issues that make up the mini-series are meant to complete only the first story-arc, named "Blue blood", bringing to mind "Dawn", and the way Linsner structured his fantasy plot as a series of books. Everything past that betrays a much more personal approach on the part of authors, highlighting the co-creator Eva Hopkins' contribution to the character.

Both Linsner and his collaborator produce work that fits into a niche that could be broadly characterized as "gothic paraphelia". Much more obviously than Neil Gaiman's "Sandman", their illustrations and designs for books, posters, sculptures seem geared towards very specific niche audience. On the top of my head, I can recall only Jim Balent "Tarot" as a property/art-style geared towards the same goals. I'm sure there are other examples, but Linsner and Balent are the authors working in that vein perhaps most-recognized in American comic-book mainstream. Having said all that, "Dark ivory" seems to be a comic that almost directly speaks to the style's fans, even though it fully acknowledges the fantasy conventions they're drawn to.

"Dark ivory" starts with a scene typical of post "Interview with the vampire" horror-fantasy, but shifts gears after only a couple of pages to a realistic setting, featuring the day-dreams of a young girl named Ivory, a smart girl obsessed with the vampire sub-culture. This is evocative of the whole mini-series, which works as the opening chapter of the character's initiation into a very real world of mystery and adventure, that she's spent so much time identifying with. And yet, Linsner and Hopkins' art renders the mundane so remarkably, that coupled with an already natural and stream of consciousness styled dialogue, that is more then well-equipped at vying for the reader's attention than the supernatural elements.

The authors manage to successfully avoid the common genre trappings of showing scene after scene of dreams and illogical story progression designed to showcase the characters' physical sex appeal that characterizes so much of the lesser work in similar vein. Linsner and Hopkins spend most of their energy in fleshing out the characters, which makes for a very entertaining read. At first glance, the major players are stereotypes, but as the story unfolds, they start exhibiting more and more character quirks that showcase how personal the story is to creators. In fact, reading Eve Hopkins' editorials in each issue highlights perfectly how much of her own life and experience are we seen, filtered through Ivory's naive eyes.

At first glance, there is an extraordinary amount of dialogue featured on each page, quite often divided in nine or more panels. This seems surprising considering that Linsner's striking painted art is a major draw for the property, but it only continues to draw on the story telling previously featured in "Dawn". Considering that the subject matters is decidedly "mature readers", there is very little swearing, and it's usually reserved for the times Ivory and her friends are caught by surprise. The story is relatively light on captions, as all but the most mysterious of the characters are very open regarding their emotions, painting a clear picture of their personality, that works wonderfully with the their facial expressions and character designs.

As for the art, it's dominated by the various shades of crimson, accompanied by varied hues of green. As ever, Linsner shines at depicting the human figure, leaving most of the backgrounds spare, with only the coloring to bring forth the atmosphere. And yet, what little is there of nudity is used very tastefully and in context with the scene. What's more, even the most surreal sequence is later brought into context, and makes perfect sense, serving not only as the art showcase but a central part of the story.

The authors leave nothing to chance, and all of the plot developments are foreshadowed and work out in a logical way. By the end of the story, the reader is aware of some of the shape and size of the world Ivory has been brought in, but is not left confused. All parts of Dark Ivory's status quo, except for maybe her school work, are brought full circle and mostly left behind as she prepares for a new phase in her life, taking with her only that which can be of use to her, and being forced to leave everything else behind. Thankfully, she doesn't leave into the sunset evolved into a completely cynical and hardened character, but retains most of her previous naivety and warmth, though changed by the events that she's been through and the knowledge that has been hinted to her.

And all of that's just discussing the mythology of the story, which is adequate but seems merely window dressing for the message the authors are really trying to convey. The new reader should not shy away for fear of not knowing if the story ties into the larger Dawn continuity. Even though a footnote directly mentions "Vampire's Christmas", a 2003 Linsner graphic novel, "Dark Ivory" is as accessible as an average horror movie, and at most requires the familiarity with the general vampire myth. "Blue blood", which is the subtitle of this, the first of Dark Ivory mini-series, is a perfect entry-level project to get comic-book readers of similar tastes to sample Linsner's work.

"Dark ivory" is in fact so effectual at depicting the everyday, that when the story eventually starts shedding it's "slice of life" elements, one can't help but feel a little down. Eve Hopkins' contribution is sadly, mostly underplayed by Image's marketing, but I'm positive that it's her contribution that makes the book so personal and effective. In fact, it is a bit disconcerting to know that even in this day and age of a wide variety of comics, there is little space for what could have been perhaps a much stronger piece told without any fantastic elements whatsoever. Thankfully, in this introductory mini-series, the genre elements don't go so far to ruin the authors' authentic experience in being a part of an underground culture scene, but by the very nature of genre fiction, they will most likely be forced to downplayed them to the level of metaphor in the future publications.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mister Dark?

Vertigo’s “Fables” comic is not a series known for metafictional storytelling. It’s claim to post-modernism lies in it’s basis, a then-familiar Vertigo cliché, of recasting yesterday’s myths, this time around children’s fairytales, into the modern world, fully inspired by Neil Gaiman’s seminal “Sandman”. Since then on, it’s built up a continuity and settings it’s own that, though populated with fairytale characters famous or less so, has continued on as a basicly large and ambitious epic fantasy series.

It’s a wonder then how little mention was made of the writer Bill Willingham’s wink and a nod to Fables’ influential “predecessor”, Vertigo’s “Sandman”. “Sandman” started off with it’s God-like main character freeing himself from the prison he’s spent a long time in and going on a quest to gather his items of power. Having completed it’s initial arc, the series’ writer Neil Gaiman, opted to continue in a different direction, focusing on the profound questions of life, while continuing in less common story structure for what was still on the outside a fantasy series.

What has happened in “Fables” then, was that it’s creator, Bill Willinghem decided to have a massively powerful being awakened from it’s year-long confine and dealing with the beings that have usurped his power since. The similiarity to Gaiman’s series extended to the imitation of his main character’s look and the way of speech. But, just thinking on the subject for a bit more, makes the more interesting connection apparent.

Vertigo has released several volumes of it's critically acclaimed series, Fables. You could use payday loans to collect them all.

“Fables” is without a question, Vertigo’s best-selling series, that even spawned a relatively successful on it’s own, in “the Jack of Fables” ongoing series. One could even go so far as to say that it is Vertigo’s most succesful series since “Sandman”, and it’s myriad spin-offs (the most notable of which being Mike Carey’s excellent “Lucifer”, a noteworthy comic and, interestingly, a direct structural parallel to Gaiman’s series). And yet, it was “Sandman” that popularized the trend of updating parts of folklore in today’s setting, as evident by many of Vertigo’s offerings since it debuted.

Willingham is not only aware of this, but he is commenting on it as directly as he can, using his own stand-in, in “Mister Dark”, a character that acknowledges to having many other names before. This was, of course, another trait that Gaiman’s “Sandman” exibited, along with the obvious ability to afflict the dreaming, which is how his opposite number in “Fables” seems able to influence the children of the world. He was also possessing of a magical weave whose threads Fables stole and remade into a magical cloak, that has help them conquer insurmountable odds and triumph. It should go without mention that the storyline that effectively ended “the Sandman” made many comparisions to storytelling comparing it to weaving a cloth. Using the chivalry code Willingham’s fantasy series has followed from the start, it only made sense to have the evil king return and claim back his spoils. Along the way he is, of course, building his castle, with his fate seemingly tied in with the workings of the three witches.

It’s very amusing to watch this new turn in Willingham’s “Fables”, and another sure sign that the series is in every way as vital as before, having entered it’s second major storyline with #76. Now, it would be excellent if Neil Gaiman saw this “challenge” as an opportunity to find a way to reach compromise with Vertigo, so that the proposed prequel to “Sandman” could see the light of day. That would be great way for Gaiman and Vertigo to continue their collaboration, but most of all, it would be a delight to fans, and I’m sure that most of the “Fables” aficianados“ hold a soft spot for “Sandman” in their hearts. It must be that Bill Willingham shares that belief, or else we wouldn’t see as much of “Mister Dark”, and with such a charm.