Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Ring of the Nibelung

The Ring of the Nibelung
by P. Craig Russell
2001 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series

I love going to the opera. Seeing the performance on stage is a much more engaging experience than simply listening to the music alone. About a year before I began this blog I moved from a major city to a remote location and the thing I miss the most about the city is going to the opera. There is something that the locals call an opera company in the area: they put on two performances a year and sing in English. I'm far from a purist (I prefer to have the subtitles projected above the stage, for example) but changing the lyrics is over the line for me. So when I say that Russell's adaptation of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung is exactly like a great performance in comic book form that is the highest compliment that I can give the book.

Even with all of my affection for opera I have not had a chance to watch Wagner's Ring cycle though I know the story from other references. For those completely unfamiliar with then Der Ring des Nibelungen (to use the German name) they are a set of four operas which make up a mythic cycle. Each opera can stand on its own but together they form a saga. It's a story of gods, heroes, monsters, love, and betrayal.

To keep the synopsis simple, an evil dwarf creates a ring whose wearer can control the world. The ring is a corruptive force in the hands of anyone other than its master. Wotan as the king of gods finds himself repeatedly trapped between his promises and desires. Everyone attempts to manipulate heroes in order to obtain the ring.

Something needs to be made clear right from the start with Russell's adaptation: it is an adaptation of the opera and not the story. The difference between the two is that an opera is formatted for a stage performance while a story can be free to drift about where ever it is necessary. An opera has to feature long sections of people singing the plot, the story can use narration. The pacing is radically different between the two. So Russell's The Ring of the Nibelung carries over that structure and the results may put off someone expecting something traditional it captures the flavor of a stage performance wonderfully.

Each issue of the comic corresponds to an act of the opera. That isolates the action to effectively one set for that issue and the narrative has to flow smoothly around that location. The dialog is structured so that the solos in the opera connect to the monologues in the comic. Russell also maintains a lyrical form for much of the dialog which helps keep the feeling of an opera in his work.

Similar to the narrative structure Russell's art also reflects his focus on making The Ring of the Nibelung as close to a stage performance as possible. The focus for most of the scenes is how the characters act together; facial expressions and posing them so that they help convey the story. When it comes time to switch to action things become very theatrical and simple. Russell's dragon, for example, could be a man in a costume.

If you do read The Ring of the Nibelung then I recommend treating it as a companion piece to Wagner's music. The pacing of the comic pages won't allow you to listen to a complete act while following along with the comic (especially during the forth opera Götterdämmerung). Still you'll find the connection between the music and how Russell builds the comic if you do this and that is something worth seeing.

Taken in isolation Russell's The Ring of the Nibelung is a clumsy, unwieldy thing. However with the context of the original opera then it is an astounding work. In terms of visually presenting the story it is the next best thing to seeing the opera performed and for that reason I recommend it. This is not the only operatic adaptation that Russell has created and I plan on getting the rest of them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review - Maus

Maus II
by Art Spiegelman
1992 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint

Here's the other event from recent history that has been over used for cheap, emotionally manipulative tripe. And just like the previous review Maus is one of those times where the story is told well. Unlike Stuck Rubber Baby though Maus is first and foremost the story of that history even with

While technically the Eisner was awarded to just the second of the two volumes I find it impossible to separate the two since they are one story. That story is the life of Spiegelman's father starting from his life a young Jewish man in Poland. He is in the army when Germany invades and spends years dealing with the occupation of Poland before finally winding up in Auschwitz. Forty years later he's become an overbearing, bitter old man and Spiegelman talks with him and writes Maus in order to come to grips with him.

I think Maus suffers from something that is not it's fault: it is the story of the Holocaust and that story has been repeated so many times that it has lost its impact. If you've read any survivor's account then you know the emotional beats that Maus is going to hit and that drains the power out of the narrative. On the other hand there are few times where the account has been as well done as it is here and I cannot think of another comic that approaches the subject on this level.

Maus also has the complication of not being particularly subtle. Right from the start there's the central image of the Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats. Speigelman does this a lot; when the metaphors aren't being hammered home his writing tends to bluntly state the obvious. This is one of those rare cases where I think it works. Since this is a book about one of the greatest evils in history there isn't much room for dealing with subtleties.

That is not to say that the technique did not backfire as well. I found that the scope and horror of the Holocaust combined with Speigelman's simplistic storytelling methods made the story of his father after the war much less interesting. A bitter old man being unpleasant to everyone around him inherently doesn't carry the same weight and spelling out in meticulous detail the characters' feelings for the readers drags the narrative down in those sections.

Spiegelman's art uses some thick, scratchy lines that help convey the raw emotion. His choice of character designs for Jewish faces on the other hand tends to not be very expressive unless he is going for an extreme reaction. More often it's page after page of blank expressions due to the simple points for eyes and lack of mouths on the figures. He does capture some some stark scenes but they tend to be stand alone images.

Maus is often hailed as one of the great graphic novels and I think it's reputation is overblown a bit by people's visceral reaction to a comic about the Holocaust. Even so it is still a very good book about that period and if you have even the slightest interest in it then I'd recommend it. It's not brilliant and it won't add much if you're already familiar with the mountain of other Holocaust stories out there but it is very well done.