Sunday, December 11, 2005

Not for Children

Mainline Sequence
Apex Digest online - December 2005

Picture books in modern times have come to be associated with children’s books.

There have always been illustrated stories, right from the time the first cro-magnon slapped her bloody hand on a cave wall after a successful hunt brought a few mammoth steaks back home (I’m assuming a ‘she’ because the guys were likely too busy leaving bloody handprints on each others’ backs and thighs as they slapped each other in congratulations and talked themselves up). “Hmmm,” she thought. “That looks a bit like Og. If I just add a smear here for his head, and another one here for his arm, then…” and so it went. Stone Age Stan Lee or Michaelangelo?

Rudolph Dirk's Katzenjammer Kids, which appeared on December 12, 1897, was the first strip to use sequential panels and in-panel dialogue balloons. Superheroes turned up in 1938 with DC’s Superman, they started getting introspective in the 1960’s with Marvel’s Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spiderman. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw comics go edgy and dark with titles such as Frank Millar’s interpretation of Batman, and Alan Moore’s many works such as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and From Hell.

And so on.

One of the titles that helped fuel the X-generation comic renaissance of the 90’s is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman graphic novel series (read: “epic”).


The central character in the series is Dream, one of the seven Endless who are other than gods – they are the embodiments of aspects of existence. Destiny, Death, Destruction, Dream, Despair, Desire, and Delight(Delerium). Dream is captured in 1916 by an occult group, and held prisoner until he escapes in 1988. The consequences of his imprisonment become clear in the course of the 75 part series.

The series ran several storylines, all combining in a grand story arc that left fans wanting more at the conclusion. Gaiman went on to other projects, but has returned from time to time to re-visit Dream of the Endless. One of those returns was Sandman: Dream Hunters (2000), a classic Japanese tale (adapted from The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night's Dreaming) that Gaiman has adapted and absorbed into his Sandman universe.

But the Dream Hunters is not told in sequential panels. It is prose text with magnificent full-page painted illustrations by one of Japan’s premier and most popular modern artists, Yoshitaka Amano. Amano is famed in the West for his work with the Final Fantasy video game series, and his depiction of Vampire Hunter D. The combination of Gaiman’s prose style (developed through writing Neverwhere and stardust) with Amano’s fluid multi-medium illustration, results in a book that delivers a reading experience that can only be described as “sensuous”.

Moving right along, Amano teamed up with award winning comic and novel writer Greg Rucka to create Elektra and Wolverine: The Redeemer (2002) for Marvel. The story is classic: Elektra Natchios plans to assassinate a wealthy and powerful scientist, but is interrupted by the victim’s daughter. Logan is employed to protect the girl by government agents, and the two supremely skilled fighters face off in the streets of new York. The grand finale is haunting.

Both books are more than prose with illustrations: the art helps drive the story on an emotional level, as well as breathing movement and action into the words. But they are also more than standard panel sequences. Amano exhibits internationally, and his talent is a unique fusion of ancient and modern; East and West. The art is sexy, and so the stories become sexy even though one is a fable and the other is a superhero story. But the art is also raw. The primeval handprint can be seen in Amano’s work, and again: the art infuses the text with some of that raw, primeval, energy.

Most of all, both these “picture books” are serious. They are for grownups. They are not for children.

If you like Gaiman, get hold of The Dreamhunters. If you like Elektra or Wolverine, get The Redeemer. Most of all, if you like sensual, raw, beautiful art to infuse your reading, then get hold of both.


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