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An American Fantasy: Reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier

*blows dust off blog* Hello everyone! I’ve been awakened from grad school-induced Internet slumber to weigh in on the latest backpat-inducing cause for celebration in the geek/comic/cinema/genre community: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is the 41st movie in the marvel cinematic canon, but watching costumed good guys and bad guys earnestly punch each other feels as fresh as ever.

Weary sarcasm aside, I actually enjoyed The Winter Soldier a lot, for various reasons, which is saying a lot about a superhero-driven movie for me post-Man of Steel. It’s not perfect by any means, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be enjoyable and not stupid.

I did walk into the movie with fairly high expectations. The press on this one has reached mammoth proportions, with people calling it the best Marvel movie yet besides The Avengers. As it turns out, they’re right. It is easily the best non-Avengers movie Marvel has done yet, with the most relevant contemporary appeal and audiences going for it. It feels freshly made for our times (for better and worse, as I’ll explain later).

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Winter Soldier lends Captain America his knife, because that's what good friends do for each other.

Winter Soldier lends Captain America his knife, because that’s what good friends do for each other.

I’m not going to bother recapping the plot of the movie because the trailers more or less spell it out. If you need a recap, go here or here. Take the IGN review with a grain of salt, though. They’re in love with the movie to the point of calling it “the Terminator of superhero movies.” That sounds cool, but that analogy really only hinges on the fact that both the T-800 and the Winter Soldier are nigh-unstoppable badasses. I’m all for making strong points, but let’s not resort to euphoric geek hyperbole.

And now, to break down what worked for me on this one and what left me concerned:

GOOD: The action. This movie works best as a tightly choreographed and filmed deployment of linked action scenes and fights. I enjoyed the opening sequence of Cap and his squad liberating a ship hijacked by Batroc the Leaper (who totally works in this movie by the way, although he still gets his ass utterly handed to him once Cap takes the kid gloves off). It plays out with an interesting sense of cause-and-effect, with Cap’s actions allowing Black Widow’s acts allowing the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents allowing Cap and so on. It’s very meticulous and works wonderfully. That sense of intricate choreography carries through the rest of the action for the most part, though I think the high point of the movie is still the elevator fight between Cap and the various S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, which is teased often in the trailers for good reason. It. Is. BADASS. Other high points? Pretty much any time the Winter Soldier joins the action. More on him later, though…

GOOD: The stakes were high and relatable. I’m stressing that last part especially because that’s something the Marvel movies struggle with at times, in my opinion. It’s a problem with the Thor movies especially, just because the filmmakers don’t always succeed in making me care about the Asgardians and, strangely enough, the humans. It’s easy to pull off in The Winter Soldier though because the movie is, at its core, about us as Americans and our struggle to balance security and freedom, and where we should draw the line. I felt a palpable sense of dread and tension at times, especially once HYDRA shows its face in full view and takes over SHIELD. I actually felt a bit choked up watching still-loyal SHIELD agents try and stop the HYDRA goons, despite being obviously overmatched and outgunned. Which brings me to my next point…

GOOD: The filmmakers are aware of the ramifications of what they depict, and they care. This is the sole reason why I still detest Man of Steel: I don’t think Zack Snyder cared about the fact he was killing off swaths of innocent humans in the course of Superman and Zod’s imitation of a Dragon Ball Z fight through Metropolis, and the deaths of so many at the point of alien weapons. It was all there to make the movie feel epic and earth-shaking. And yet, Superman and other characters didn’t seem to give a damn about all that carnage. Hell, he made out with Lois Lane in the middle of a smoking gray crater, probably standing in the ashes of people he could have protected. Nothing even remotely like that happens in The Winter Soldier. Bad things happen to innocent people here, but it feels like the characters are not only aware of terrible things happening to these people, they also act in a manner that they hope directs the action away from innocent lives. They actively try to minimize damage when possible. Imagine that.

GOOD: Marvel is continuing to push their cinematic universe in cool directions. It’ll be interesting to see what Marvel does in their movies with SHIELD out of commission, and with Nick Fury seemingly burning all his tapes and going underground. It’s an impressive house cleaning, considering all the work they did to sell the presence of SHIELD through other movies. It’s also a little scary to think of HYDRA as an ongoing sleeper element in government and the army. And, if the stinger with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are an indication, they’re ready to introduce “Miracles” to the Marvel universe (because they’re not Mutants; Fox owns that word).

GOOD: Steve Rogers is interesting, along with the other characters. Chris Evans really makes me like Cap. He sells him as a considerate, ethically minded, genuine hero in a field full of anti-heroes and sinister jerks. It’s pretty obvious now that he was the man to play Cap all along. Black Widow gets a great workout in this movie, and I’m pretty much ready to see her solo film now. They also introduced the Falcon in a manner that I considered both believable and compelling. Samuel L. Jackson also gets his biggest badass moment in any of the movies yet as Nick Fury versus a squadron of HYDRA agents early in the movie. You know what? Just give him his own movie now too.

They made Falcon's wings rather cool in the movie too. Big props there.

They made Falcon’s wings rather cool in the movie too. Big props there.

GOOD: The villains are legit baddies. Fact: the Winter Soldier – Bucky Barnes – is a damn cool character. He was one of the best characters in the contemporary revamp of Captain America in the comics, thanks to the genius rewriting of Barnes as a wetworks agent during WWII even before he was resurrected in the modern era by the Russians as a brainwashed assassin. He’s a fantastic foil for Cap, and this totally comes through in the movie. He’s a dark mirror of Steve Rogers, which actually bends back and makes Rogers a better character in the process, much like the Joker does for Batman. Also, the movie absolutely comes alive when he’s on screen because he’s such a wild card, even if he’s working at the bidding of Robert Redford’s sinister politico, Alexander Pierce. Pierce, however, is not the next best villain in the movie (he’s actually one of the movie’s weaker points, in fact). That honor goes to the entirety of SHIELD itself. The best part about making HYDRA take over SHIELD unawares is the general paranoia generated by realizing that you’ve been working for the bad guys all along. Narratologically, that’s a great turn. Plain old logically, though, it’s a hard sell. Special bad guy notice must go to Frank Grillo’s depiction of Brock Rumlow, aka the future Crossbones, a classic Cap villain. The guy is such a jerk in this movie, and he clearly relishes playing such an unapologetically brutal person. He’s so easy to hate; you keep wishing one of the heroes would punch his lights out. Can’t wait to see him come back in future movies.

Hell of a way to disguise a cold sore.

Hell of a way to disguise a cold sore.

GOOD: This movie is absolutely, 100% science fiction. And I will fight anyone who claims otherwise. “But Adam, there’s no aliens, or lightspeed travel, or telekinesis, or blah blah blah.” Yeah, well there’s futuristic technology yet-to-be realized by our current progress in the fields of unmanned warfare and computers. They have yet to make superpowered prosthetic metal limbs for people. Armin Zola comes back from the dead as a program of himself logged in old SHIELD computers. And, lest we forget, super serums. Just saying. The fact is, this is plausible future fiction. I suspect that the reason I feel more tension watching Winter Soldier than any of the other Marvel movies is that this one is simply more plausible in relation to our current world than any of the other movies so far. I love it when people can pull science fiction off so sneakily that you don’t even realize it’s sci-fi until later.

GOOD: Cool callbacks to the first Captain. Welcome back, Peggy Carter. The scene with the now elderly Peggy and modern day Cap is an emotional highlight of the movie. I will admit to feeling twinges of emotion while Cap visits the museum exhibits of his old adventures with the Howling Commandoes as well. And, of course, Armin Zola. His special appearance in this movie was totally unexpected for me, and I loved every second of it. (The other reason I loved that scene? Zola is the character who gets to break it to Cap that HYDRA has spread its tentacles through all of SHIELD.)

NOT SO GOOD: Steve Rogers is still simplistic at his core. Cap is basically a big ol’ wish fulfillment character. He’s a harbinger of “older, simpler times” for America which, quite frankly, were not as simple and clear-cut as people think they were. In her review for io9, Charlie Jane Anders is dead-on when she claims that Cap’s main superpower is making other people’s worldviews simpler, because his own worldview is black and white. This works within the parameters of an escapist superhero movie, but when extrapolated to a real world setting beyond the movie, it crumbles pretty easily. The bigger issue here is that because of his simplicity, Cap’s potential character development in this cinematic universe is ultimately limited, which is why they have to keep surrounding him with more dynamic characters like Black Widow and Nick Fury.

I rather like this outfit more than the regular Cap costume, to be honest.

I rather like this outfit more than the regular Cap costume, to be honest.

NOT SO GOOD: The subtext, at times. I feel like some more die-hard libertarians will try to politicize this movie for their own purposes, and honestly it would fit pretty easily. It’s about a small group of superpowered/ultra-talented rebellious American fighters striking back against a big government organization with scary-huge overreach and a lack of transparency and citizen oversight, using only the meager resources they can gather on their own. The scene at the end with Black Widow daring the military-government tribunal to sentence her for her crimes and then calling their bluff because they need her and her abilities really cements the possibility for a libertarian reading in my mind (it’s also a slight rip-off of a similar scene from Iron Man 2).

This isn’t exactly the movie’s fault; I just think that superhero narratives lend themselves rather naturally to libertarian fantasies of individual power and collective evil. (This is the exact same reason why I will always be a little wary of The Incredibles, despite how much I enjoy that movie.) The oversimplification of the central theme of the movie – Freedom vs. Security – and the direction the movie falls in that conflict don’t help either. It eliminates a lot of compelling gray space as it proceeds towards the end; this is a necessary part of the story as spectacle, but it’s a loss I found slightly disappointing given my own preferences in political conflict.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that Cap himself is tailor-made for nationalistic allegories. He has a long history of being used as a form of both political support and protest, and given the movie’s take on drone warfare, he’s following in that tradition to this day. Ultimately, Winter Soldier is a perfect American fantasy built for fulfilling inner wishes and fears we might have about the direction of our country in the War on Terror era. Also, by and large I still think this is a more socially positive depiction of a superhero narrative than Man of Steel, for instance.

NOT SO GOOD: The plot twists, while fun, stretch credulity, even by comic book movie standards. As cool as it is that the real villain of this movie is HYDRA – the title of the movie probably should’ve been Captain America: Hail HYDRA – the actual logistics of this happening are fairly unwieldy. The more the movie tries to explain how HYDRA pulled off its systematic poisoning of SHIELD’s well, the more it falters because more questions keep popping up of exactly how and why people didn’t notice this shit sooner. As the movie goes on, too, the central conflict becomes oversimplified to broad strokes of Order vs. Freedom, which technically makes this an unsanctioned installment of Assassin’s Creed. It’s surprisingly easy; just replace HYDRA with the Templars. Now, you could handwave this all away by saying “It’s a superhero movie, relax,” but the fact is Marvel has consistently upped their own game through all their movies, leading up to Winter Soldier. The excuse of being a comic book adaptation is no longer, or will soon no longer be, a justification for questionable logic in a story.

Marvel's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER - Teaser Poster

FINAL CALL: It’s not perfect, but it’s a ton of fun. The good here far outweighs the bad. As escapist fantasy action, it’s absolutely fantastic and well worth seeing. It also features the most mature and civic-minded writing of any of the Marvel movies so far, including Avengers. In fact, I like this movie better than Avengers.  I stand by my feelings about how non-ambiguously the movie paints its central conflict and how plausible the logistics of the various twists actually are, but those may say more about myself and my own tastes than the movie itself.

Some other quick thoughts, perhaps unrelated, based on the movie and the previews before the movie, and pretty much anything else on my mind:

  • Abed has a cameo! So glad to see the Russo brothers drop one of their Community actors in the movie. And if there’s anyone that needs to cameo in a comic book movie, it’s Danny Pudi. So, going forward: Donald Glover as Luke Cage? Maybe?
  • I’m psyched about Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s one of my fave Marvel comics, and I hope the movie is just as fun and bizarre as the actual comics were. It looks like straight-up sci-fi funny action, and I believe in James Gunn as the director for this project. Also, ROCKET RACCOON. AND GROOT.
  • I do fear that Chris Pratt — who I think will be good as Star-Lord in GotG — is going to become the next Ryan Reynolds: funny dude develops abs and starts getting recruited for increasingly mediocre action-oriented roles. Think of the last good Ryan Reynolds action movie you saw besides Blade Trinity. Yeah. Thought so. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Pratt will fare better.
  • Speaking of Chris Pratt: he’s the main voice protagonist in The LEGO Movie, and if you haven’t seen that yet, go see it in theaters NOW. It’s the best, most inventive, most moving film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s Toy Story-quality goodness.
  • Back to Marvel: please make that Dr. Strange movie soon, with Jon Hamm as the good doctor. I need it.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past looks increasingly good to me. I will wind up watching it once it comes out, if only to see if they can pull it off. Amazing Spider-Man 2 concerns me, though. It looks like it’s going to be a collection of CGI video game boss fights. I really hope I’m wrong, because I want to see that movie if only for Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne.
  • Angelina Jolie was born to play Malificent in live action. I could tell that ten seconds into the trailer. The movie Malificent looks like it could be good, although I wonder if it will suffer from the bloat of making all fantasy-related movies “epics” in some fashion.
  • Of all the previews I saw, Marvel-related and otherwise, I am by far the most excited for the new Godzilla movie. Every preview I see makes it look more and more awesome. It’s hard not to let my expectations get worked up.

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Reading Roundup: The Bookening

Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve been reading like a fiend. It’s been a rather productive start, actually, churning through more books and stories in the month of January than I can recall in recent memory. Much of this is due to my work at Weird Fiction Review, where I’ve been reading through a lot of material and figuring out a tentative schedule for the first half of the year. A lot of what I’ve been reading isn’t quite available to the public yet, or more accurately I don’t know if rights and permissions allow me to discuss it. This includes some absolutely splendid work from French writers like Bernard Quiriny and Jehanne Jean-Charles, translated by Edward Gauvin, one of our regular columnists at WFR.

A lot of what I’ve read has already been featured on the site, like Yoko Ogawa’s collection Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, which I enjoyed immensely. My review for WFR sums up my feelings on Ogawa’s book pretty nicely. And then just last week, we posted some features on Helen Marshall and her collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side, including an interview and her story “The Mouth, Open,” which knocked me back when I originally read it. I seriously hope many readers have the same reaction.

Here’s a brief, non-complete roundup of the rest of my reading for January, then. Some of this will be featured on WFR in the coming months, hopefully. Otherwise, all of these books and stories make for quality reading.

1508685The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco: I’m quickly realizing that Cisco’s novels, indeed his writing in general, are required reading for fans and scholars of weird fiction. This is the first novel of Cisco’s that I read, but it won’t be the last (I’ve already acquired copies of The Traitor and his latest novel, Celebrant). The central premise is striking enough: a guy who is struck by lightning and brought back to life as a paper-stuffed golem, then sent into this crumbling city to try and reconstruct a forbidden divine language by reliving the memories of dead people. The language itself is stunning and vivid, rendering what are some pretty bizarre and consciousness-expanding/challenging moments in readable prose. Even when you don’t quite understand what is going on, you’ll at least perceive what’s happening. This is a novel of a phantasmagorical, broken, maddening world with characters and a pervasive overall psyche to match. Simply amazing.

OP3anonym1Anonym by Eric Basso: I’ve previously written about my experiences reading Basso’s work and how notable it is, and Anonym is a similarly notable and distinct experience. It’s a large, sprawling work, which surprised me because up to that point my experience of Basso had come from reading his novella “The Beak Doctor” and other short stories and poems of his. It also shows off his considerable range as a writer, seemingly moving from genre to genre within the same chapter: surrealistic stream-of-consciousness, stranded astronaut sci-fi, decadent historical drama, unsettling gothic horror, etc. Like much of Basso’s other work, sadly, it’s also hard to find: it exists in the form of eight chapbooks, each distributed in a limited edition of sixty copies. Fortunately, there are plans for serializing Anonym on WFR later this year, which will hopefully lead to greater interest.

Teatro GrottescoTeatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti: Before I read this book, my only experience with Ligotti and his writing was in reading “The Town Manager” in The Weird and “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” from Poe’s Children, edited by Peter Straub (a collection I enjoy by and large). The influence of people like Lovecraft and other luminaries of pessimistic, cosmic horror and philosophy is evident, but Ligotti is a far better writer than Lovecraft ever was. His scares are more genuine and personal, and he has something that Lovecraft lacked horribly: a sense of humor, however sardonic, which actually helps to enhance the horror and keep it from going stale. My personal favorite stories from this collection include “Gas Station Carnivals” and “The Bungalow House.”

567224Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas: Now this is my idea of good Lovecraftian fiction. This novel is set in a version of the 60s where Cthulhu and the sunken city of R’lyeh have risen from the Pacific Ocean, sending America and its citizens mutating and spiraling out of control into hideous forms, threatening to drop the world into a horrible nightmare existence. Our surprising heroes? Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, and William Burroughs. The novel itself is written from the perspective of Kerouac, who makes for a surprisingly effective and appropriate protagonist and narrator for Lovecraftian horror. The really cool part about this novel is how Mamatas uses the setting of the 60s, the threat of Cthulhu and his bros, and the perspective of Kerouac to let loose on American culture of the mid-20th century and beyond. As it turns out from reading the novel, America was far better primed to received Lovecraftian horrors than we may realize.

original“The Descent of Man” by T.C. Boyle and “Buddha Nostril Bird” by John Kessel: I’m lumping these together because I read them in the same anthology, The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by my old Stonecoast mentor James Patrick Kelly and his frequent partner-in-crime, John Kessel. These two stories couldn’t be more different in content and style, but I loved them all the same. “The Descent of Man” is a bananas story of a man whose wife has been steadily losing her culture – and her heart – to the genius-intellect monkey she works alongside at a primate center, in a world where intelligent monkeys and humans coexist as a given. Besides being lovably bonkers, the story is alternately funny and heartbreaking. Meanwhile, “Buddha Nostril Bird” is what I would term philosophical science fiction, with sequencing of detail and event that feels partly surreal and partly Zen koan. The story kicks off with the protagonist escaping from a prison that specializes in ontological torture and quickly becomes a trial of enlightenment as he attempts to reclaim his old life and loves.

“The Black Pool” by Frederick Stuart Greene: This story is one nasty piece of work. It’s about twin brothers with distinctive, and opposite, personalities who begin to experience turbulence with one another after they fall for the same woman. One of them wins her hand, the other one does not. In different hands, this would be the work of sheer melodrama, but in Greene’s hands it becomes the catalyst for a twisted, dark story of sibling rivalry with deadly consequences, and not always in the way you might expect.

“Special” by Kit Reed: Another nasty piece of work from a writer I really need to explore further (luckily, I have a copy of Weird Women, Wired Women I’ll read soon). This story, which comes from her collection What Wolves Know, overlays small town middle class culture with celebrity worship in a simultaneous, razor sharp takedown of both. There is a genuine sense of undefinable menace that creeps into the story and builds, until you reach a final paragraph that hits you like a cinderblock to the back of the head.

“Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Childe Phoenix” by Marly Youmans:  Lightspeed Magazine recently reprinted this story, which I enjoyed immensely. It’s a coming of age story, more or less, that uses its fabulism and imagery as an extension of the protagonist’s emotional state. His father is an alchemist, his mother is a ghost, his sister lies in a glass coffin in suspended animation, and the house is falling apart around them. The sheer strangeness and poignancy of it is what keeps you reading. In a way, it reminded me of the intense emotional fantasy of some of Bruno Schulz’s stories.

“The Dog Said Bow-Wow” by Michael Swanwick: I actually read a four story suite of Swanwick’s Darger and Surplus stories, including “Smoke and Mirrors,” “The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport,” and “Girls and Boys, come Out to Play” – but my favorite of the bunch is “The Dog Said Bow-Wow.” There’s a fun sense of adventure and playfulness in these stories. The backdrop for the stories is essentially science fiction, but the actual surface detail of the stories is at times surreal and fabulist.

“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter: Oh, how I love Carter and her writing. I encountered this story in an anthology called Extreme Fiction, which I heavily recommend. It collects a variety of stories that challenge reality either through the use of fabulist or formalist narrative methodologies. “Axe Murders” falls in under fabulism between Flann O’Brien and Octavia Butler, presumably because the story engages in alternative mythmaking for the story of Lizzie Borden and the (supposed) murder of her family. Carter’s goal for this story seems to be nothing less than rewriting the sequence of events leading up to the murders to show various forces applying pressure to Borden – her family, her personal life, her hometown – that made her act inevitable. The story never depicts the titular act, but quite frankly it doesn’t need to because we already know it’s going to happen. It’s great, deft writing really, challenging readers’ expectations while still being aware of them.

“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert Chambers: I would love to put together some kind of feature week for Chambers on WFR in the future. I only recently encountered him and his fiction, namely his collection The King in Yellow, published back in 1895. His stories revolve around a play that induces madness in all readers, concerning the titular king who rules the alternate dimension of Carcosa. Those who have read the play are then susceptible to the influence of the Yellow Sign, a glyph that communicates the King in Yellow’s power. “The Repairer of Reputations” is the lead-off story for The King in Yellow. It’s quite well-written, in fact easily readable. It’s also surprisingly sci-fi for a story that proved influential in supernatural and weird fiction. Alternate history of New York? Suicide booths? Curious. Those of you who are readers of H.P. Lovecraft should check out Chambers and his stories because Lovecraft himself borrowed concepts from Chambers! (It should be noted that Chambers himself was influence by several of Ambrose Bierce’s stories, especially “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.”) The whole notion of Carcosa and the King in Yellow was massively influential on the Cthulhu Mythos, and Lovecraft (and especially his followers) lifted entire names and places from Chambers’ fiction for use in the Mythos down the line. So, without Chambers, there would be no Cthulhu Mythos, and likely no Lovecraftian fiction. How’s that for an alternate history?

kingyellow

I’ve got more reading yet to go, as always. Currently working my way through K.J. Bishop’s collection of short fiction, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and I plan to follow that up with Christopher Barzak’s new collection, Before and Afterlives. After that?  Not sure. Of course, I’ll have reading for WFR to take care of. New and new-to-me releases I’ve got my eye on are Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Ian Sales’s Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone, and Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby. I’ve also never read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a situation I must resolve soon, and at some point I have to finish reading Cloud Atlas (I’m halfway through; I keep having to stop and tackle other things). So, yes, one book at a time.

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The ReaderCon Haul and the Moon Moth

So, the past week was an eventful one for me, between visiting friends at the Stonecoast Summer Residency in Maine and then traveling to Burlington, MA with Jeff VanderMeer to Readercon 23 before shooting back home Monday night. I’ll be telling the story of that trip before long, believe me.

In the meantime, I’m digging back into my reading, prompted by the mighty haul that was my book-buying spree in the ReaderCon dealers’ bookstore/room. By the end of the weekend, I came home with no less than 28 books. I’m claiming temporary insanity, if anyone asks.

Apologies for the photo quality (taken from my iPod) and any resultant headaches from reading the text on the spines.

I don’t think I’ll be doing anything quite that rash again. It was a bit of a pain to pack all of those books in my luggage in such a way that I didn’t harm the books or go over my weight limit for checked baggage (thankfully, I succeeded in both regards). That’s also a lot of reading to tackle, especially when I already have other books I want to mow through. Kinda hard to say no to Michael Swanwick when he tells you to pick up a copy of A Princess of Roumania, though. And I am finding more time and energy for reading, now that I’m not beholden to school obligations.

Thus, I found myself completing the first bit of reading from my ReaderCon pile: the graphic adaptation of The Moon Moth, based on the original short story by Jack Vance. Brooklyn-based artist Humayoun Ibrahim adapted the story and handled the majority of the art, while Hilary Sycamore tackled the colors.

The premise of the story is intriguing: Edwer Thissell, a member of an intergalactic police force (I kept thinking of it as a form of Interpol), is sent to the planet Sirene, where the residents indulge in several curious behaviors. Firstly, they wear masks that represent their social status and prestige, or strakh. There is no currency on the planet other than barter-and-trade dictated by the residents’ strakh, so it becomes a reputation-based economy. Secondly, their primary mode of communication is song. They sing their intended communication with musical accompaniment, with different instruments used for, say, whether they are talking to social inferiors, superiors, or intimate friends.

Good move on the part of Ibrahim and Sycamore to include a key for all the instruments in the front material of the book.

Moreover, their communication is not very direct, but rather circuitous. They place a higher emphasis on emotion and tone than getting straight to the point. This creates an impenetrable and, for Thissell, hard-to-understand etiquette that has dire consequences for those who misunderstand it.

Things become difficult for Thissell and his job, especially since shortly after he lands in Sirene, an infamous criminal and murderer, much more versed in the culture of Sirene than he, also touches down on this planet. Thissell’s main task: solving the mystery of who this criminal is on this planet, where everyone wears a mask and makes simple communication seemingly difficult, and bringing him to justice.

The story itself is ingenious. The mystery element of the story is strong, especially once Thissell seizes upon his means of finding his bounty among the tangled identities of those he knows. The shift from fish-out-of-water to capable detective is handled deftly. What stuck with me even more is the bizarre etiquette and social framework presented by Sirene and the complications this presents for Thissell. His attempts to penetrate past this etiquette, and his constant failure to do so, reminded me of a cross between Kafka’s The Castle and a Victorian comedy of manners.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim and Sycamore render the art of The Moon Moth wonderfully. I’ve read other reviews of this graphic novel that object to the art not being as detailed as it could be. Not to discount those critics’ views, but such things really are a matter of personal taste.

I found the art to be detailed in the right ways – and beautiful – drawing my eye to details I needed to notice for their importance to the story: the characters’ masks, their instruments, and most importantly the dialogue.

The lettering in The Moon Moth is a stroke of genius and perfectly accentuates the language of the story and the characters’ communication with one another. In regular, unsung speech, the word balloons take the typical comic book shape and style: white space, black lettering, plain and simple. When the characters use their instruments and sing their dialogue, however, the borders and tail of the given word balloon are altered to match the instrument being used, and the lettering takes on a more florid script. This adds an extra dimension to the communication between the characters and helps visualize the etiquette being followed or broken (in Thissell’s case, often unknowingly). Well done, artists.

My advice: pick up a copy of The Moon Moth, especially if you’re a student of the graphic form and want to consider how the various techniques that compose a given story can be used to accentuate the content of the story. Then, pick up a copy of Jack Vance’s short story and read it, as I plan on doing. It’s a little extra reading, especially considering what I brought home with me, but I’m quite fine with that.

I imagine I’ll be reviewing more of the books I grabbed from ReaderCon in the coming weeks – I just finished reading Ben Loory’s collection Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, which I also enjoyed – along with the books I still need to tackle from the box Jeff sent me a few months back. I can’t say I’m at a loss for reading material, but I will need to pace myself, won’t I?

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