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Archive for November, 2008

Creature Tech cover
Creature Tech cover

What makes for a good comic?

I’d have to stay story comes first, but – unlike a regular book – art also comes into it. This is rather obvious, I know, but there’s more: the pacing is crucial as well. It doesn’t have to be fast – or slow – to be good, but it has to be right for the story. If it’s an introspective exploration of human character, it should take its time; and too many slow moments in an action adventure will send the readers yawning. But this, of course, is not enough – you also need characters that are believable and you make them believable mostly through their actions and their dialogue. Both have to be consistent – not necessarily consistent with real life (where’s the fun in that?), but consistent with the story’s reality.

The first time I read Doug TenNapel‘s Creature Tech (from Top Shelf) I couldn’t put the finger on why I didn’t like it. It had neat technological innovations. It had wonderful art. It had a fast-paced story with loads of cool monsters. It had an effeminate British undead scientist with a neat sense of humor. What’s not to like?

The second time around, I got it: the pacing’s wrong and some of the dialogue was, well, horrible. Both of these were not consistently off, but when they were, it yanked me out of the story, of the world – it made everything seem unbelievable. Less fun, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Which is kind of what happened to Dr. Michael Ong when he moved to Turlock, California, to head the Research Technical Institute.

RTI – or Creature Tech, as the locals have it – is more than Ong bargained for, as is Turlock. Ong, you see, was born there – and he isn’t happy to be back. And Creature Tech is full of crates, and until he’s catalogued the lot, he’s not getting a transfer. As if this wasn’t enough, the crates’ contents are, how shall we put it, slightly odd. Or is it more apt to call, just as an example, an alien slug beast with revolving teeth and a multi-talented symbiotebizarre“? One wonders.

Ong is handling all of this with a certain amount of success, but then two things happen at once: one of the crates turns out to contain the shroud of Turin; and Dr. Jameson, a long deceased mad scientist, appears as a ghost to steal the shroud and revive himself. Jameson, however, is not just your run-of-the-mill undead evil nemesis. He has made a pact with a demon, and can turn ordinary cats into raving, roving, roaring, randomly-shaped beasts of destruction. Oh, and he’s out to conquer the world with the help of inter-galactic giant space eels. Obviously.

You may think I’ve just thrown dozens of spoilers your way. Not so. All of this is just the premise for the story, which now picks up the pace, introduces a love interest to Dr. Ong, explores his relationship with his parents, veers into religious themes, casually throws a half-man/half-mantis security guard into the mix and gallops onwards to an action-packed climax.

Now, as if all of this is not impressive enough – and the imaginative prowess behind Creature Tech is awe-inspiring – TenNapel almost manages to make it work. Somehow, much of the book doesn’t seem crowded or rushed, and the world is – remarkably – not only believable, but not that different from our own.
And then there’s the art.
Oh, the art.

TenNapel is, let us not mince words, a master. This is not only because he’s an excellent artist, demonstrating line-work as impressive as I’ve ever seen, but because he doesn’t let the art go over the top: it’s there to serve the story. The synergetic effect is quite wonderful, and everything else about the art – lettering, layouts, even sound-effects – works as well.

But then come characterization and dialogue. The book only has two significant characters – Dr. Ong and Dr. Jameson. Jameson is rather one-dimensional, but in an original sort of way, and, after all, he’s a zombie mad-scientist – so no complaints there. But Ong, who carries most of the book on his shoulders, is supposed to make amends with his father, learn to live with an altered medical condition, struggle with theological issues, initiate a romantic relationship and stop a horde of hell-cats hell-bent on enslaving the world. The character collapses under the strain and stops being believable before he’s even begun: is he a geek or a rebel? Why does he fall for his love? When and why did he become an atheist, and why is it even important? All of these – and many more – just get left behind as the story races on. If the story was just about action and monsters none of this would matter, but it aims to cover more “serious” issues and, mostly when it comes to Theology, fails.

What, really?
What, really?

I think I may have still liked Creature Tech – because, really, it has so much going for it – if the only problem was Dr. Ong. But TenNapel doesn’t trust his readers to understand what’s going on, and from time to time the characters pause to state the obvious. I may be going out of a limb here, but I suspect that when an alien creature has just pierced your heart, you don’t pause to state “it has pierced my heart!” before collapsing. And when you stumble unto a highway and bright lights approach you – as is clearly indicated by the beautiful art shown above – you’re not going to say “bright lights!”. This is devastating to suspension of disbelief. Suddenly, you’re not in a wondrous world where work is reached by a plant/worm tunnel; you’re sitting in a chair, reading a book.

Creature Tech is not all bad. Actually, it’s mostly good, often excellent, and many people love it. But the occasional spalshes of “bad” paint, for me, the whole thing a rather depressing shade of mediocre.

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White Shaka Boy cover

In the 19th century, John Dunn, a white South African hunter, became quite a sensation when he was declared a ‘White chief of the Zulu’: the British gave him the largest piece of land of the thirteen chiefs of Zululand, and The New York Herald ran a piece on him in 1881.

Over a hundred years later, Alan Brody, another South African – currently living in Scarsdale, New York – was inspired by this story to write White Shaka Boy. It is an imaginary retelling of the story of one of John Dunn’s (renamed Robert Mahon in Brody’s tale) descendants, a young denizen of New York City by the name of Brad Mahon.

Bard is an inspiring rapper, but he is laughed off stage and scorned by other rappers as “nothing but a phoneya no-talent white boy” (sic), so he decides to go to college, where he applies for financial aid. Much to his surprise, his request is turned down because the college officials have discovered he is a heir to a Zulu kingdom in South Africa. Intrigued, Brad flies to Durban, the biggest city in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal (formerly Zululand). There, he quickly finds himself neck-deep in local politics: his family, the Mahons, claim the land is their own; some squatters have settled on the land and refuse to move out; Tsotsis, local crime gangs that plague the poor townships, abound; and a white-owned sugar cane company is also – somehow – involved. Everybody seems to be after the deed to the land – which Brad, it turns out, is in possession of.

Brad decides to go into hiding until he figures what’s going on, so he moves to the tourist town of Umhlanga, where he teams up with local talent Mbuwase and the two spread their hybrid hip-hop African/American music. Brad also gets romantically involved with a Zulu girl by the name of Busi, and with Elizabeth, a white lawyer with questionable allegiances.
But some mysterious people are in Brad’s pursuit, and he forced to hide in the bush with a local witch doctor (Inyanga). Soon, Brad is tired of all of this hiding, and he decides to solve the problems once and for all, with the help of a new weapon – music!

White Shaka Boy is Brody’s first work of fiction – hitherto he has been involved mostly in marketing: doing it or writing about it. It is, needless to say, also his first graphic novel. Regrettably, it shows.
Story-wise, the book is not half-bad. True, there are several flaws: the politics are a bit confusing and the time-scale is vague (just a day after Brad lands in Durban, we learn a few months have passed since he learned about his roots, although in the book only one panel has transpired), to name just two of the more obvious problems. And yet, it’s a compelling story and rather eye-opening when it comes to the contemporary and historical circumstances of living in South Africa: Brody manages to weave historical, political and cultural lessons into the narrative without making it seem forced, and Brad makes for an interesting character.

As a graphic novel, though, White Shaka Boy falls short of the mark. The paneling, as can be seen below, is badly handled, with one panel seeping into the next and text-balloons spreading all which ways. Too much of the dialogue reads like a script, and while Brody manages to make individual characters have distinct speech patterns, he fails in making their interactions seem verbally plausible. He seems to relay on the drawings to provide the context to the dialogue, but too much action is packed into too few panels, and the lack of proper background art for the protagonists to work in makes it all seem detached and artificial.
The main problem, however, is the art itself. All of it was done on a computer, and is rather minimalistic and bland. It is, to put it bluntly, amateurish work – which is quite alright for self-published books like this, but not for 64-page books that cost $19.95.

A few panels from the book

While Brody’s motives for writing the book are not exactly clear – in a Scarsdale Inquirer interview he claimed to be doing it in order to promote the music CD that comes with the book, but also aims to sell it to school libraries as a means of teaching children about contemporary Africa; in an interview to Wizard he emphasizes his wish to tell stories with pictures and to turn the story into a movie – his heart seems to be in the right place.
White Shaka Boy would have benefited immensely from a stern editorial hand (which would have also weeded out the occasional typo), mostly in setting the pacing the making the relationships between the characters more believable- but even in its current crude form, and if one regards it more as a story than a graphic story, it’s rather captivating. This makes the fact the book is only "volume 1", and stops in mid-story, even more frustrating.

However, I have one final qualm with the project, and its a substantial one: in the interviews above, Brody mentions that he sketched the book, and then sent it overseas to a professional artist. This identity of this artist is not revealed, and in the book itself he is not even mentioned – the complete work is accredited exclusively to Brody. This may be standard practice in commercial ventures, but is almost taboo in the comics business: you always give credit where credit is due; anything else would be, to say the least, unkind.
The situation with the music CD that comes with the book is similar. The CD label says “Music by Imbube”, but no details are given anywhere in the book or the website. Who are Imbube? Are all of the tracks in the CD by the group? I had to do some web digging for the answer to the first question, and have no way of discovering the answer to the second. The music itself is excellent – urban South African hip hop with inspired application of vocals, horns and strings – but the book does the music a disservice by giving Imbube (the Zulu word for "lion" and a duo composed of musicians Beruit and Khanya) the most minimal credit possible.

All in all, White Shaka Boy is a mixed blessing. In the Western world, not enough is known about contemporary Africa, and the book does a decent job in attempting to rectify this to a small degree. If the credit was duly distributed, if more effort would have been put into the art, if better editing would have been applied – it could have been a diamond. At the moment, and for $19.95 you can only spend via the official site (the book is not available via Amazon, for instance), it is a rather expensive, and quite flawed, gem.

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