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July 2004
 
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by Charles de Lint

IT'S BEEN said that the two original art forms that the United States has given to the world are comic books and jazz.

Now, I'd be hard pressed to fit any discussion of jazz into this column, though I will say that it can make an excellent soundtrack while reading sf. Just try some Coltrane—Alice or John—while reading, say, William Gibson. But I have discussed comic books in previous columns and with the U.S.-centric theme of this issue, perhaps it's appropriate to discuss a couple more—or at least a couple of comic book-related items:

Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross, by Chip Kidd,
Pantheon Books, 2003, $35.

If you go into a comic shop these days you'll find the shelves filled with the new edgy comics—many adult-oriented—or familiar characters, made just as edgy by new creative teams trying to redo old concepts for the contemporary audience. Frankly, it doesn't always work. Sometimes, the reinvention dilutes what first made a character work. And many of these characters really did work for a whole generation of young readers.

Way back when, DC Comics ruled the roost. Yes, Marvel came along with upstarts such as Spider-Man and was soon vying with DC for the top spot, but DC was there first. And never mind the movies, TV series, and prose books of varying degrees of quality. Ask most people to name a superhero and they'll come up with one of DC's three flagship characters: Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman.

If you have any fondness at all for these pop culture icons, you'll probably appreciate this collection of Alex Ross's art.

Who is Alex Ross?

I like the way it's summed up in one of the pages of the book's introductory material, and if this isn't the quintessential American success story, I don't know what is:

"Once upon a time a lonely little boy in Lubbock, Texas, turned to comic book heroes for friendship. And they did what they do best—they rescued him. But then, after a decade and a half of hard work and intense study, something amazing happened.

"He returned the favor."

Save for the place where he grew up, this could be in the biography of half the men and women working in the sf/f field as well: they were rescued in their youth by the fiction and art that today provides them their method of making a living. And along the way, they complete a circle by inspiring another generation to follow in their footsteps.

In Ross's case, what he brought to the table wasn't so much innovation as a glorious reconfiguring of comic book superheroes who, if it weren't for their spandex outfits, would no longer be recognizably the same characters. Ross finds what made the characters work in the first place, and puts that into his paintings: modern production values combined with old-fashioned character values. You see it in the faces he depicts. The characters don't have to say a word for us to know that they are honorable, dedicated, and larger than life.

In the few short years that Ross has been working in the field he has quickly become a force to be reckoned with. His comics are fully painted—every panel, of every page—and if you're unfamiliar with his work, Mythology is an excellent starting point to see what the fuss is about. It features page after page of paintings and sketches, informative text, and even an eight-page strip done solely for this book. The production values are superb throughout—so much so that, if tearing apart a book wasn't such a horrible concept, many of the pages could be framed and hung as if they were art prints.

*     *     *

Lovecraft, by Hans Rodionoff, Enrique Breccia & Keith Giffen,
Vertigo/DC, 2003, $24.95.

Many of us in this genre were first drawn into reading fantastic fiction by the Weird Tales authors, of whom H. P. Lovecraft was a prime example. And if we weren't taken by Lovecraft and his peers, we probably were drawn in by someone influenced by them. Either way, most people are at least aware of him and should enjoy this fictional biography.

Lovecraft had an odd enough upbringing as it was (mother dressed him as a girl for years, parents died in an asylum, etc.), but the authors of this illustrated book take the strange moments of his life and amp them up with the rather unsettling conceit that perhaps the morbid and fantastic creatures of his Cthulhu Mythos were real. That the reason so much went wrong with the reclusive Lovecraft was because he was aware of a true vast and monstrous reality that lies just on the edge of our own, and it was only through his writing that he was able to keep our world safe from it. The cost was his own happiness.

I'm not an expert in either Lovecraft's life or the Cthulhu Mythos, but from what I do know, it appears that the authors have done a fine job of weaving truth with fiction.

The story is based on a screenplay written by Hans Rodionoff adapted to a comic book narrative by Keith Giffen. The art is a wonderful mix of realism, Gahan Wilson-inspired art, and the strange grotesqueries that illustrated so many of the stories that appeared in Weird Tales, or its later children such as Weirdbook and Whispers. It won't be to everyone's taste, but it does an admirable job of bringing to life Providence in the early part of the last century, fictional Arkham, and the more fictional (I hope!) creatures and beings of Lovecraft's eldritch mythos.

You don't need to be familiar with either Lovecraft's life or his fiction to be able to appreciate what the creators of Lovecraft have accomplished, but those of you who are will certainly get an extra buzz while reading it.

*     *     *

The Knight, by Gene Wolfe,
Tor Books, 2004, $25.95.

When I think of iconic American fantasy writers, I'm afraid it's not Robert Jordan or David Eddings who come to my mind. I'm far more likely to consider the likes of Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, and Gene Wolfe.

Anyone who has read The Book of the New Sun series will immediately understand why I mention Wolfe, though unfortunately, Wolfe—like, say, Samuel R. Delany in the sf field—has somehow acquired the reputation of being a difficult writer. I don't mean difficult as a person (one would be hard-pressed to find a more genial individual in our field than Wolfe), but rather that his books require a large investment of time, and a lot of concentration, to appreciate.

I don't believe that to be true, and it's certainly not the case with this new book of his, the first half of a duology called The Wizard Knight.

Simply put, by a method with which Wolfe doesn't bother to burden us, a teenager from our world falls into another. As soon as he arrives he begins to lose his memories of our world, or they get mixed up with memories of a life in this new one that he's pretty sure he didn't live. After a while, he's no longer certain, and since he's the narrator, we readers can only go by what he tells us.

A chance meeting with a knight early in the narrative sets him on a quest to become a knight himself, and therein lies the story.

It's an episodic ramble through this new world as the narrator has various adventures in and above the sea, in fairyland (here called Aelfland), and in the mortal world. He's a bit larger than life (helped by an aelf spell that leaves him a teenager in his mind, but with the body of an adult) and has a refreshing sense of honor and doing what is right, no matter the circumstances. But best of all—for this reader—The Knight is one of those rare high fantasies where I couldn't begin to predict where the story was going after only a couple of chapters—a failing for far too many fantasies that I start but never finish.

Wolfe has done a terrific job with this book. He's given us a world that's invigoratingly fresh and a storyline that, while it plays with the archetypes of high fantasy, chooses its own path to follow. He has caught a wonderful, dead-on voice for the first person narrative (this young boy in a man's body). And what attracted me the most, and the principle reason I would recommend The Knight so strongly to you, the book is steeped with that delightful sense of wonder that started so many of us reading this sort of material in the first place.

There are lyric passages that sing, but at its heart, it remains an earthy book, the first of two, as I mentioned above. And happily, Wolfe plays fair and leaves us with a breathing point at the end rather than a cliffhanger, so that while we want to know what's going to happen next, we don't feel the need to go by his house, banging on his door to demand the next volume right now.

We can be patient for…oh, a week or so.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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