Friday, May 21, 2010

Review - Age of Bronze

Age of Bronze
by Eric Shanower
2001, 2003 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist

In a sad kind of way I wish I had never read Age of Bronze. It's not because it is a bad book since it's one of the most ingenious uses of the comics medium I have encounter. And it's not because some aspect of the content made me angry even though it features a lot of uncompromisingly unpleasant people doing horrible, brutal things to innocent victims. It's not even because it's going to have me chasing down reading material on early Greece; I've already got more than my fair share of books on that subject. It's because I have now read roughly one third of a story that I strongly suspect will never be completed.

Age of Bronze is the story of the Trojan War from Paris being found by King Priam to the ships sailing away from the sacked city. Shanower set down for himself two conflicting goals in this: to be as realistic as possible and to incorporate every fragment of legend that has surrounded the war into one coherent story. The only thing that he does not do is directly place the divine on stage with his mortal heroes. He hints at it but the closest he comes is allowing the prophets to say things that come true. And even there he often gives another reason why they may say the things they do.

It's the historical details that make Age of Bronze terrific. The Aegean society of 1200 BCE is presented in the story as accurately as possible. There's no trace of the Hollywood vision of ancient societies where everything before medieval Europe looks exactly the same. It's an obsessive attention to visual details that would be impossible in other mediums (at least if you wanted to be commercially viable). While this might not be exactly how history unfolded (the inclusion of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida as one of the many sources for the narrative means that it isn't) it looks like how it may have happened.

For those of you who lacking a classical education and don't know anything about the subject beyond the fact that there is a horse at the end the war begins when Paris the prince of Troy runs off with Helen who is the wife of King Menelaus. All of the cities states in Greece band together to capture the rich city of Troy in a conflict that lasts ten years. And in the three thousand years since then their war has been a cultural touchstone referenced over and over again.

Which is another thing that makes me respect this project. Rather than just telling the story of the Trojan War Shanower is trying to integrate everything. All the tidbits, fragments, and off-handed mentions are included, referenced, or illustrated as appropriate. And the way that he is weaving it together so well is amazing.

It isn't perfect though. The dialog is often clunky and Shanower gets very heavy with the exposition. He doesn't do much to differentiate his characters in their speech. He is getting better; the most recent volume has a scene near the end which was the first time that the dialog in a scene really worked for me. Odysseus as part of a diplomatic party unleashes a storm of curses and rage against the Trojans before Hector snaps back in their defense. It allows the two of them to share a personal moment of respect between them despite being in a crowd before Odysseus returns to the words that presage the war. I suspect that the dialog will get even better if this series reaches a conclusion.

Shanower projects that it will take seven volumes to conclude Age of Bronze and going by the first two and half these will be about ten to twelve issues each. That's a mammoth undertaking but many other creators have managed such large projects. However Age of Bronze started in 1998 and issue thirty is due next month. There have been points with a gap greater than a year between issues. It's a pace that makes me think it will never be finished or even reach the point where Homer can take over for the rest of the narrative.

Age of Bronze is a book tailor made for me and while I wanted better dialog to go with the awesome scope and plotting I enjoyed it a lot. If you have any interest in ancient Greece then this is a book that you will want to read. The only thing that I can do is warn you that it will, even should it finish, leave you hungry for more.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review - Creepy Archives

Creepy Archives
Edited by Shawna Gore
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Archival Collection/Project: Comic Books

I've mentioned it before but I love the current trend of archival projects. In the past five or six years old comics that had been unavailable for a long time have become relatively easy to get. Right now I can easily collect a sampling of every major creator and trend in comics from 1890 to today and if there's something obscure I'm interested in there's a very good chance that it's either been completely reprinted or someone is working on putting out the volumes. Not all of that material is going to be good to a modern reader but it's great to have the history available. That sums up my feelings on the Creepy Archives; the stories aren't very good but they are an important part of comic book history which I'm glad to have available.

The context of history is important here. It really starts with EC comics and their horror line which thanks to some fear mongering put the publisher before a congressional panel to defend himself against charges of corrupting America's youth. That publisher abandoned his comic line for MAD Magazine and the Comic Code Authority was formed to insure that no objectionable content appeared in comics. Ten years later the fear mongering had faded away and Warren Publishing wanted to create comics in the EC style. To avoid the Comic Code Authority they put their work into an oversized magazine format and so Creepy Magazine was formed.

Creepy specialized in the kinds of stories you would expect in horror from in 1964. It was still the era of The Twilight Zone and Creepy was kind of the Outer Limits of comics; desperately trying to be The Twilight Zone but never being able to live up to that standard. There's a vampire stalking the village where the new count and his wife are settling into the castle. Shocking twist: his wife was the vampire and not him! A murder is stalking the woods near a woman's house and her new husband sneaks out at strange hours. Shocking twist: after she kills him she finds out he was not the murderer!

That's how the stories work. Everyone has to have a big twist ending and just that fact makes it obvious what it'll be most of the time and the rest of the time it's something completely from left field. Since they're plotted around that weak twist ending it undermines the whole story. These are horror stories firmly rooted in the B-movies of the time and that can make them difficult to read today.

What makes the Creepy Archives something more than a historical oddity is the line up of artists that worked on it. Warren Publishing went to the people who worked on EC comics and brought many of them to their books. They also managed to find some great new talent; Bernie Wrightson, for example, had his first published work on a fan page that's included in the archive. Just to pick out a handful of the great illustrators represented in the first four books: Joe Orlando, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Jack Davis, Gray Morrow, Angelo Torres, and of course Frank Frazetta whose last work in sequential art is in the first issue. It really is a superstar line up; an all-star game of comic book artists.

With archive projects like this a lot depends on the presentation and I don't think it could be better. The books are the same size as the original magazines. All of the magazine contents are represented including the letter pages and fan club pages. The only change is they adjusted the page numbers on each issue's table of contents and added creator credits to the margins of the title pages for stories. The pages look sharper than they did when they were first printed. There's a good introduction that gives the history behind the magazine though I suspect anyone buying Creepy Archives will already be familiar with it.

I like having the Creepy Archives. In my youth I never collected the magazine format comics or showed any interest in them until they were already gone. But I still recognize that this is the kind of book that has limited appeal. I enjoy collecting the history of comics and just looking at the artwork but that's it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Alex Ross's Eisner Winning Covers in 1998

Alex Ross continued his winning streak for Eisner awards for his covers in 1998. This time he added a miniseries Uncle Sam to his credits.