Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I am legion 3 - the Three monkeys

With "the Three monkeys", Humanoids have completed their "I am legion" trilogy, which has since been published in one"integral" volume in France. Even "the Devil's due", the licensee of the translated American edition has solicited a trade paperback version of their iteration of the project, which was a 6 issue mini-series cropped to fit the more traditional comic book format. Unfortunately, the series has so far gone under the radar for a lot of the American audience, despite the presence of John Cassaday, perhaps the most sought after superhero artist today. In any event, he has completed his work on Fabien Nury's scripts, making "I am legion" at least the ambitious project that introduced the artist to a new audience.

As a conclusion, "the Three monkeys" almost takes it's tone from the German resistance operation centered around the Valkyrie protocols, that it alludes to in one plot strand. All of the hopelessly overcomplicated plans, that the characters made as a last resort, end up entangled in nothing less than a massacre. The creators have spent two dense volumes getting to this point, and in Romania all pretense of control and careful plotting gets abandoned for a very personal and chaotic finish. It is certainly unexpected to see it all converging in such a dark mess of zombies and wolves, straight out of Stoker's "Dracula".

It seems almost as if the rage clouds the last vestiges of morality for these characters, as they are set against one another, not even trying to survive. In this vein, the noblest of the freedom fighters charges the army on bloody soil, with the sole purpose of trying make some sense of the circumstances. Nury and Cassaday concentrate their big showdown on a situation which is certain not to last, but in turn promising not to left anything standing afterwards. Every shred of compassion, every human feeling that the rare few of these people have that hasn't to do with war gets taken away from them, and ends up being manipulated in the most despicable ways imaginable.

And while all of this was foreshadowed in the previous volumes, there was no real hint that "I am legion" will turn into such a hideously gruesome story. In effect, the book serves to sum up the darkest urges of World War 2 and dramatize them on the scene of a supernatural thriller. It's just that a huge shift occurs somewhere in the middle of the storyline, as the long winded play of the intelligence agencies fades to the background, having set up the bloodbath involving Dracula's origins. When they get to "the Three monkeys", the creators seem like they have little use for the precision and architectural detail any longer.

The careful use of acronyms almost fades to a white nose, as Nury and Cassaday have their British investigator resort to threats and brutal violence, after all of his team's investigative work has literally blown up in their faces. It's as if the creators are intent to keep that entire part of the story separate, as if crossing over to the continent would mean certain death for these characters. They are, in turn, the only ones who piece together the entire truth, and through grave danger, actually have a chance at a normal life, after the Legion affair. Their survival is paralleled by a much darker and conflicted path, that of the pair of girls who have left Romania for Cyprus. The boat's passage closes the story with a twist ending, that at once both homages the book's influences, and implies that the events since have more or less followed the autenthic timeline.

The real world connection is solidified through the continued balanced use of historical players, who appear throughout the series. Once again, the actions of renowned military men make sense, and don't take away from the spotlight on Nury and Cassaday's characters, except when it comes to plot concerns. Fabien Nury never feels smug enough to fall for the common trap of using his and Humanoids' ideas as an easy explanation for truths about World War 2. He treats the period setting as immovable as the local geography, while exploring it by using the genre conventions as the story engine.

Of course, bearing the weight of visualizing the whole tale, once again John Cassaday is forced to make a few rash choices. With "the Three monkeys" being poised to carry a whole lot of well choreographed action shots, some of the surrounding figure work gets slighted, with some of the animals feeling a bit too on the model. This is nothing strange when one is to take into account his career, as superhero comics certainly train their artists to a different esthetic, than that of a period piece.

Still, for most of the time Cassaday seems perfectly suited to the semi-realism of "I am legion". His classical adventure strip tendencies that were on full display in pulpy "Planetary" enable the artist to maintain a distinctively rich, movie-like quality to the visuals, that really helps to convince the reader of the scope of situation. And yet, such an expensive, distinctively layered look, once again ends up hindering the story in a small way, by nature of Cassaday's similar male figures. It is unfortunate to be taken out of the artist's dynamic layouts even for a moment to contemplate how one of the many players in Nury's conspiracy reappers, after seemingly being killed a mere pages before. Discovering that it was a different character altogether only serves to foster confusion, but it's of no real consequence, taking into account that "the Three monkeys" spend most of it's time resolving the plot in a very direct manner.

In the end, the reader is treated with so many of Cassaday's visuals, all finely detailed, with the same amount of attention payed to the characters, cars and backgrounds, that it's easy to see why both DC and the Devil's due saw fit to publish the series on the strength of the artist's name alone. Taken as a whole, it's difficult to foresee the future of "I am legion". It is at every point a professional work, but it's difficult to gauge whether all of the energy that went into to the project eventually turned it into something that's more than the sum of it's parts. For all of it's supernatural intrigue, and the well researched period detail, the biggest difference that Nury's and Cassaday's effort makes when compared to similar offerings, is in it's detailed execution. But, sometimes, having to collaborate closely with a big publishing operation such as Humanoids, can turn what could have been a much more ambitious tale, into an endeavouring that is solely defined by the level of craft applied.

"I am legion" is certainly a work that stays it's hand in asking the bigger questions, and avoids taking the chance to delve into the nature of comics as a medium for telling broader, more important stories. It ends up being a project limited by it's own premise, that all but forces it to treat World War 2 not as the most important event of the 20th century, but a platform for adding just slightly more depth to a genre offering, told by the creators who show all signs that they could be producing much more poignant fare.

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