Revival Does Diversity Right

Revival, Vol. 1: You’re Among Friends

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These days there’s a lot of discussion around diversity in comics, both on the page and in the creative teams. There’s also a lot of noise about the “right” and “wrong” ways to add diversity to stories, most of which have more to do with personal taste than any objective standards of success. In light of all that, I want to nominate Revival as a series that is getting it right in all the best ways and pulling a cool twist on the nearly done-to-death (no pun intended) zombie genre.

One day in rural Wisconsin, the dead came back to life, but they don’t come back as zombies. The dead come back as themselves –  confused, disappointed, amazed and scared as everyone else around them. They are dubbed “revivers” and when a murder takes place at the same time as the revival, it’s unknown if these revivers really are who they appear to be. The event isn’t widespread; it’s limited to a single, sparsely populated county. The area is put under government quarantine as national media, religious zealots and conspiracy theorists descent gather to fan the flames of fear. We follow Officer Dana Cypress as she tries to solve a brutal murder and keep a lid on the mounting pressures of her community, family and personal life.

Author Tim Seely’s set-up is clever because it allows him to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of zombie stories. Everyone in the world of Revival already knows about zombies. They’re all aware of the Romero films, so Seely doesn’t need to waste any story time on characters struggling for a metaphor to understand what is happening. This frees Seely up to focus on the far more interesting personal struggles and conflicts his characters face. He also wisely limits the scope and duration of the revival event, which means that the story doesn’t get sidetracked with the possibility of everyone who dies over the course of it coming back to life. At the outset of the story there are a limited number of revivers. This allows Seely to switch the tension from panic over a growing horde of revivers to paranoia over undiscovered revivers hiding in the quarantined community. The fear is no longer of outsiders or others. The fear is that the familiar faces neighbors, friends and loved ones are harboring a dark secret. Who do you trust? Do you judge people by what you see on the surface or do you judge them by what you fear lurks beneath the surface?

In shifting the source of fear in Revival, Seely creates a story framework that emphasizes the relationships between characters, and in turn, the characters themselves. This is exactly the type of set-up that could be hampered by a lack of diversity in the cast. Every new gender, ethnicity, role, religion or class provides a new type of conflict or doubt between characters, another reason for characters to questions each others motives or to misunderstand their attempts to help. Seely chooses rural Wisconsin as his setting, an area where the population is usually assumed to be whiter than the snow that covers it all winter. In reality, the Midwest has a large Hmong population. Seely includes a Hmong community in the quarantined zone and fully incorporates it in the story. He also includes a Muslim man as the liaison from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing him to bring up the very real generalization and fear happening in the US today. Three of the main characters (Dana Cypress, her sister Em and the reporter, Ms. Tao) are women and none of them are one-dimensional. They each have complex lives with shifting responsibilities to family, job and self-satisfaction.

What is most impressive is how diversity adds to the organic nature of setting, character and conflict created in Revival. The central conflict – that the dead have risen – is not new, but it’s just a starting point for the story. The setting defines what type of characters can populate the story. Diversity of characters increases the possibilities that can come out of the main conflict. Each of these three elements acts upon the other, working together to create a single story and in Revival, that story is an imaginative twist on a familiar tale.

I also need to throw in a few words of praise for artist Mike Norton. His style is clean and expressive. I love the resemblances he gives family members. Norton also rewards those of us who “read” the pictures as much as the text by providing visual clues (Keep an eye on those police patches!) and visual irony (On her way to investigate a murder Officer Cypress passes a sign that proudly proclaims “The City of Wausau is a CRIME FREE COMMUNITY.”). And the cover is great. Look at it up there, dripping with black & white noir and the cold desolation of a Wisconsin winter.

That’s all the raving I have in me for today, so if you want to know more go pick up Revival!

True Detective Part 3: There’s a Monster at the End of It

If you want to start from the beginning, part one of the True Detective Essay can be found HERE

IT WAS ALL THE SAME DREAM, A DREAM THAT YOU HAD INSIDE A LOCKED ROOM…AND LIKE A LOT OF DREAMS, THERE’S A MONSTER AT THE END OF IT.

– Rust Cohle

In the detective genre the term “monster” is nearly synonymous with the concept of big Evil – it’s not tossed around for street thugs who kill over drug deals gone bad or squabbling in-laws who shoot one another over a borrowed car. “Monster” is reserved for those who commit the most heinous of crimes: the rapists, the torture artists, the child killers. True Detective operates under the same rules. We see a parade of terrible people doing terrible things, but there’s only one individual referred to as a “monster.” It’s not even Reverend Tuttle, he of the child porn tapes. No, “Monster” is reserved for Errol Childress: the man with the scars, the man that Hart and Cohle chase through a labyrinth and kill.

 


The most famous labyrinth in the Western world is the Cretan Labyrinth, designed by the architect Daedalus to hold the Minotaur. Being the product of bestiality, the Minotaur fits the classical definition of a Monster, but he is also the living reminder of the sins of his father, King Minos. When he ascended to the throne of Crete, King Minos was obligated to sacrifice a beautiful white bull to show honor to the gods. Being greedy, King Minos ignored his duty and kept the bull for himself. The gods had their revenge on the selfish king. They made his wife, the queen, lust after the great white bull so much so that she copulated with it and birthed a deformed child with the head of bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur’s deformity and his entire existence is a direct result of his father’s greed and selfishness.

In True Detective, Errol Childress, the scarred man, also bears the sins of his father and grandfather. In episode 7, Hart and Cohle learn that Errol is the illegitimate grandchild of a member of the wealthy and powerful Tuttle family. If Sam Tuttle, Errol’s grandfather, had not been so sexually greedy and fond of philandering, there wouldn’t be a murderous bastard grandchild on the loose in the bayou. Like the Minotaur, Errol Childress also has a facial deformity that can be traced to his father. In talking to a former Tuttle family domestic servant, Hart and Cohle learn that Errol’s father burned him when he was just a child, giving him his trademark scars.


Both the Minotaur and Errol Childress are monsters and both fit the big “E” definition of evil; they are murderous, incestuous, the products of brutality and bestiality. Though they are removed from society these monsters still exact their tolls. In the Minotaur myth, every seven years the city of Athens chooses seven youths and seven maidens to be eaten by the Minotaur or die while lost in the labyrinth. Similarly, Errol Childress abducts and murders his young victims on a schedule and with a great deal of ritual. When Detective Cohle chases Errol in to a series of labyrinthine tunnels we see what appears to be a human skeleton with antlers wrapped in a shroud, a pile of children’s clothes and an altar made of branches and human skulls. Errol’s labyrinth is a final resting place for sacrificed children, just as much as the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Both places are shrines to death of innocents and the endurance of Evil. A chosen few enter, but only the monsters survive.

In most myths resolution comes with the death of a monster, but True Detective subverts this pattern. Hard and Cohle slay monsters in both 1995 and 2012, but they do not gain any satisfaction or resolution from their heroic deeds. If True Detective followed a standard narrative, the story would have ended in 1995 after the Detectives killed the bad guys and rescued a little girl. Instead, this “success” leads to a collapse of the partnership and further doubt and unease about the morals by which they live. No one else seems to notice it, but the detectives know theirs is a tainted victory. In truth, they didn’t really save the children the found. The boy was already dead when they arrived and the girl was irreparably damaged by her abuse. Cohle is particularly haunted by his actions, and the incomplete nature of his victory. When recounting the incident he says, “and that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again, and again, and again, forever.” In 2012, Hart and Cole chase Evil again, but this time there are no innocents to save. No children to rescue.The second time around, the Detectives want something more than to save people or protect their community. They want the truth about Evil, they want an answer to the question that haunted them for 20 years: why does Evil exist? When Hart and Cohle find and kill Errol, the physical embodiment of Evil, they find no answers. The center of the labyrinth may have held the monster, but it was devoid of the truth that they so desperately sought.

We don’t need to look to fiction to understand why catching a flesh and blood monster isn’t satisfactory. In real life, the government captured, tried and convicted Jeffrey Dahmer. Top forensic psychologists spent months questioning Dahmer, trying to learn what drove him to torture, rape, kill and eat his victims before decorating his home with their bones. Their interviews gave us more detail than anyone would want to know about these activities, but left us with no more insights as why such an Evil exists in the world. Capturing this real life monster left us with a few more tools in our psychological profiling kit, but it left the good people of the world just as powerless as we were before. We have as much hope of stopping the next serial killer as we do of stopping the next hurricane that will hit the Gulf coast. Evil is a cycle, a spinning force of nature repeating the same patterns over and over again. It cannot be stopped permanently, but it can be contained by structures like the labyrinth and held in check by men like Theseus and Detectives Hart and Cohle.

Our Thrilling Conclusion: Part 4: The World Needs Bad Men

True Detective part 2: Time is a Flat Circle

If you want to start from the beginning, part one of the True Detective Essay can be found HERE

SOMEONE ONCE TOLD ME, ‘TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE.’ EVERYTHING WE’VE EVER DONE OR WILL DO, WE’RE GONNA DO OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

– Rust Cohle

One of the key symbols in True Detective is a spiral. It first appears on the Dora Kelly Lange’s corpse 1995, but it pops up elsewhere in the investigation, as a tattoo on a suspect, and in the shape of a flock of birds as it flies over the abandoned church.

A spiral is defined by the fact that it is open, rather than closed. A spiral is a line that circles itself, winding and growing but always retaining the exact same shape. It’s the repetition of a spiral that evokes a sense of inevitability. Once the pattern is established, it will never change. The idea of spirals and repeated patterns doesn’t just appear visually in True Detective – it also comes up in language and thought, most notably in Cohle’s rambling interview responses, where he says, “Someone once told me ‘time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over again.”

The spiral is also significant in that it is a naturally occurring shape. We see it in everything from a nautilus shell to the Milky Way galaxy. We also see it in hurricanes, which come up repeatedly in True Detective. Though we don’t see or experience hurricanes Rita, Andrew or Katrina in True Detective, they are all mentioned by name. These storms force residents of the Gulf Coast in to an unending cycle of destruction, loss and rebuilding. They also provide a key plot point by destroying evidence held by the police and paper files held by Reverend Tuttle.

Hart and Cohle enter start their own cycle of destruction and rebuilding when they see the spiral drawn on Dora Kelly Lange’s corpse and they spend twenty years spinning around that central point. Over the course of the show we see two cycles in the investigation of the same crime. The two detectives follow the same trajectory in both 1995 and 2012: a murdered woman, an uneasy partnership, a growing trust, a breakthrough after months of investigation, a step outside the boundaries of the law to catch the killer and finally, a feeling of dissatisfaction even after thwarting a killer and being lauded as heroes. The show drives home the idea of repetition and inevitability by using the same characters from 1995 to act out the 2012 portion of the story. Hart’s wife and daughters, Reverend Tuttle, the revival preacher and the girl from the trailer park brothel are all slightly different than when we first saw them, but they still have roles to play. They are trapped in this same spiral just as much as Detectives Hart and Cohle.

Most importantly for our analysis, a spiral is also a labyrinth; the open end is an invitation to follow the curved path of empty space between the lines. It’s notable that the season finale of the show is named “Form and Void,” a title that could be a description of the actual labyrinth through which Hart and Cohle chase the killer – the form being the walls of the labyrinth and the void being the dead space between. That negative space is where Hart and Cohle live and work. It’s the space between what is known and what is yet to be discovered, what is legal and illegal, what is right and what is wrong. In modern English the words labyrinth and maze are synonymous, but in classical terms there is a distinction between the two. A maze is a puzzle with multiple paths and choices of direction. A labyrinth is a shape with a single, non-branching path that leads to the center. It supports the idea that there is a single, inevitable truth to be found if one only follows the path all the way to the end. The viewers, like the detectives, want there to be a central truth, a clear answer at the end of the long and winding investigation, but sometimes a singular answer does not provide solace or resolution.

True Detective Part 3: There’s a Monster at the End of It

True Detective part 1: Start Asking the Right Fucking Questions

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I recently binged all of HBO’s True Detective. Though not perfect, the show is gorgeous and full of enough mystery and symbolism to keep me puzzling over it long after I was finished watching. Nic Pizzolatto’s writing and the performances by Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle make this a really memorable piece of work.

After heading online to read what other people had to say, I was surprised to find that some viewers and critics found the show boring or disappointing – especially the season finale. These criticisms didn’t make sense until I realized that most people probably came to the show thinking that it would be a mix between psychological horror and police procedural. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, given that True Detective is influenced by the grit of Pulp Detective Fiction, cult horror classics like The King in Yellow and authors like Thomas Ligotti. If viewed through that lens, True Detective is filled with too much philosophical mumbo-jumbo and offers an unsatisfying resolution to the core mystery. Maybe it’s just an unhealthy tendency to obsessively over analyze, but I viewed the show as a modern retelling of the Theseus and the Minotaur Myth where instead of two Athenian kids facing down a monster in a labyrinth, two Southern detectives face down a monster… in a labyrinth. Interested? Check out more below the jump.

YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SPOILER CITY! TURN BACK OR ABANDON YOUR RIGHT TO BITCH!

Daybreak

Title: Daybreak
Author/ Artist: Brian Ralph
ISBN: 9781770460553

Billed as an art house take on the classic zombie story, Daybreak delivers on that promise. Author/ artist Brian Ralph tells a careful, understated story about surviving the zombie apocalypse. Blood and guts are scarce, but hunger fear and fateful decisions are plentiful in these black and white pages.

Daybreak is told in the second person, placing the reader as the protagonist of the story. Usually I’m not a fan of the second person voice; it tends to be gimmicky and can become tiresome when used in longer pieces. It does, however, work well for this short graphic novel. In making the reader the protagonist of this story, Ralph makes the most of his medium. He forces the reader to interpret the images on the page rather than rely on narration or dialogue to tell the story. When presented with a panel of a room, the reader must visually search it, just as he would have to do if he really was running from zombies. The room looks empty, but is it? Look again. These wordless panels create a great tension and an immediate sense of intimacy with the few characters that do appear in the story.

With Daybreak Brian Ralph succeeds where many other zombie stories fail. He creates a world where looking and listening are just as important as shooting and running, where human interaction is brief but meaningful and everything can change at a moment’s notice.  It’s a refreshing take on a familiar genre.

Armageddon in Retrospect

Title: Armageddon in Retrospect
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
ISBN: 978-0-425-22689-6

     I’m always wary of any posthumously published works by my favorite authors. That’s why I approached Armageddon in Retrospect, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s essays and short stories, with caution. Being a great writer isn’t just knowing what words to leave in a story, it’s knowing which words should be left out. If Vonnegut chose not to publish these works while he was alive, he must have felt that they were not his best. Part of me prefers to honor the body of work that Vonnegut chose to show us, not what he left on the cutting room floor. Still, there’s much to be learned about the craft of writing by seeing less polished pieces from talented authors. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think Armageddon in Retrospect does it well.

     The book contains both fiction and non-fiction pieces like speeches and letters. The non-fiction in Armageddon is classic Vonnegut:  a dose of rueful humor to sweeten the moral outrage. His speeches seem like the ramblings of an old man, circular and humorous. By the time he’s ready to make his point Vonnegut has touched your humanity, opened your heart just enough to feel what he’s saying rather than just hear it.

     The best piece in the book is the letter that Vonnegut wrote to his family in 1945 after escaping a German prison camp. It is amazing.  Vonnegut takes only two pages to talk about his experience, covering all the facts up to where he is at the moment. It’s one of the most efficient pieces of communication I have ever seen. More than that, it appears to be the birth of his use of refrain.  When describing the death of some of his fellow soldiers Vonnegut says, “Many men died from shock. . . after ten days of starvation, thirst an exposure. But I didn’t.” The “but not me” refrain runs throughout his letter home, screaming his survivor’s guilt without ever addressing the topic directly.

     Most of the short stories in the collection are from early in Vonnegut’s career. He had not yet developed his trademark humor or learned to employ speculative fiction elements (like time travel) in to his work. Vonnegut’s anger in these early pieces is raw and often barely disguised by plot. These stories are not the easiest things to read. Still, they offer hope to struggling writers. If Vonnegut started out like this, it’s possible to keep working, to keep searching until you develop a style that allows you to tell even the most complicated of stories.

     Ultimately, I enjoyed Armageddon and recommend it to all Vonnegut fans. I enjoyed Armageddon – now how many people can say that?

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga

Title: Meanwhile
Author: Jason Shiga
ISBN: 978-0-8109-8423-3

Chocolate or Vanilla? This one mundane choice is what launches you into a world of time travel, mind reading and mad science in Jason Shiga’s book Meanwhile. Shiga, the winner of the 2003 Eisner “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” award, lives up to his reputation as one of the most innovative storytellers working today.

Meanwhile is deceptively simple. The story is told in clean, spare panels strung together in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. With thick, glossy pages the book looks almost like a children’s book. Each time you make a choice the panels diverge and you must follow a twisty line to the next episode of the story. The lines double and re-double, forcing you to trace them across the page with your finger before following them to a new page. This format creates a book that is not just read, it is played. The reader is an active participant in the telling of the story. At some points the act of going back to the last break in the string and choosing a new path can be a bit tedious, but the results are rewarding. There are 3,856 story possibilities in this 80 page book. If you stop at 5 or even 10 story possibilities you will end up missing much of what this book has to offer.

In creating a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book Shiga could have given his readers a galaxy of choices. After all, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books were great for the fantasy and science fiction genres, allowing readers to hop through vast and strange new worlds. In Meanwhile Shiga does the opposite, leading his reader to three key choices in the form of machines to use: time machine, kill-box or mind-reading device. By setting these limitations Shiga creates a closed loop of a world that is anything but boring. The story, like the lines between panels, starts to double and re-double, creating a sense of déjà vu. Keep going. It only gets stranger.

Ultimately, Meanwhile isn’t just about showy page layout or leading readers through a trippy adventure. It’s an open invitation to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (No joke!) and an exploration of the power behind the tiny decisions we make every day.  It’s a special book and well worth the read.

The Engineer: Konstrukt

Title: The Engineer: Konstrukt
By: Brian Churilla (author/artist) and Jeremy Shepherd (author/colorist)
ISBN: 9781932386547

The Engineer: Konstrukt starts fast, laying out the central conflict on page one of the book. An immense, ancient entity of the Lovecraftian variety is devouring the universe. One thing can stop it: the Konstrukt, an equally ancient device of mysterious origins. The only catch is that the Konstrukt is broken, its many cogs and wheels scattered throughout the fabric of space and time. The Engineer is one man tasked with finding these pieces and reassembling the Konstruct, enabling life as we know it to go on. With that out of the way, the rest of the book is monsters, action and weirdness.

It’s a great concept, but Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd fail to deliver an interesting story. Space travel and monster bashing are fun, but standard fare in the world of comics. There is nothing new or particularly fun in the Engineer’s character. The majority of the dialog in the book consists of the Engineer talking to himself while he fights monsters. Even he seems to get bored of his own running commentary and starts to repeat lines line “That wasn’t so bad!” and “How do like that?” Another problem is that the book has transition issues. While reading, I stopped multiple times and flipped back a few pages, thinking I had skipped a page or that I had missed a key panel, but that wasn’t the case. The story just makes awkward jumps from one scene to another. There’s also a running joke about chickens that falls flat. It seems to be an attempt at Eric Powell (The Goon) style humor, but it comes off as forced and a bit distracting.

The weakness of the writing is especially noticeable against the brilliance of the art in The Engineer. Churilla’s line work is great, clearly influenced by Mike Mignola, but not a slavish copy. There is a fluid quality to his drawing. His style has a smoothness that captures all the necessary detail, but omits anything that would clutter up the scene. There are no throwaway panels here – each one looks as if it could be blown up and made in to a poster. Shepherd’s colors add depth and emotion to the line work. The ethereal blue glow of the Konstruct parts is especially arresting.

Churilla and Shephard are clearly talented individuals, but ultimately The Engineer: Konstrukt is a book that makes for better viewing than reading.

 

The Unwritten Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock

Title: The Unwritten Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock
Author: Mike Carey (Author), Peter Gross (Artist)
ISBN: 9781401230463

If you haven’t started reading Unwritten yet, please do so at your soonest convenience. You are missing out on a New York Times best selling, Eisner-nominated bit of brilliance.  Unwritten is a meta-fantasy in the mold of Fables, focusing on the role that stories play in our lives and culture.  The protagonist, Tommy Taylor, is the adult son of an author who penned a series of children’s books similar in scope and fame to Harry Potter. Tommy’s father disappeared under mysterious circumstances and left his son a problematic legacy.

Dead Man’s Knock pushes the envelope of self-conscious fiction, exploring the idea of a literary franchise. After years of silence, a publisher announces that Tom Taylor’s father is releasing the long awaited final volume in the Tommy Taylor series. A media and fan frenzy ensues. Questions swirl – Is the book really written by Wilson Taylor? Will it be good? Will it be what the fans expect? – but no one asks, “Will the book sell?” In omitting this question Carey and Gross emphasize the raw power of a successful series. Of course the book will sell. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or whether or not it’s good. In a world of closing book stores and declining print sales, that sort of power is rare. In fact, it’s almost magical.

Carey and Gross outdo themselves in this volume, dedicating an entire issue to Lizzie Hexam’s origins. They deliver a compelling back story for her character told in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. It’s well worth the time to flip back around and follow all the story possibilities included in this Eisner Award winning issue.
Seriously people, get out and read this thing!

Streets of Glory

Streets of Glory
Garth Ennis (Author), Mike Wolfer (Artist)
ISBN: 1592910645

Streets of Glory is a perfectly serviceable “End of the Old West” story. Ennis gives us a grizzled but honorable old man, a fresh young kid, a savage Indian, an ill-fated love and the requisite railroad looming over a small town on the prairie. You can see how it’s all going to play out before the story is over. That’s the problem with Westerns – we all know that the Old West has gone the way of boom towns and the Pony Express. It takes a great deal of skill to craft a fresh and exiting story in such a well worn genre, skill that just isn’t present here.