When I was offered the opportunity to review Ghosts of Engines Past, a short-story collection by one of my favorite authors, Sean McMullen, the initial e-mail said it was a steampunk anthology. I suppose this is broadly true, in much the same way that an anthology about veterinarians might be 80 percent dog stories. In this case, the 80 percent is stories of flight.
And if there’s one thing McMullen knows how to do, it’s make people fly.
The following is part one of a two-part piece on graphic novels. It contains spoilers for several graphic novel series… serieses… whatever. The most recent one is Buffy Season 8, but many older ones are included as well. Read at your own risk.
I have a problem with graphic novels.
When I was a kid, I read a lot of comics — some superhero stuff, some Archie stuff, whatever looked cool at the comic shop, and of course a bit of Star Trek because, you know, it’s me. Later, as comics started to cost more and more*, I got out of the habit of reading them. I’d pick up an occasional collection, such as the Star Trek Mirror Universe saga, or I’d get a multi-issue run such as “The Worst of Both Worlds”, but for the most part… no more comics for me. I was too busy spending my pocket money on books.
I preferred books. Books were $6 (for a mass-market paperback), and they had hundreds of pages, and if there were no pictures… well… that was fine with me, because I could use my imagination. I could fill in the visual blanks using cover images and my own experiences**. And books took longer to read, too — a 350-page novel would last me a week or two, whereas a 32-page comic book took all of fifteen minutes to read.
Now, a lot of my friends who are comic readers say it’s not just about the story. They tell me the art is important. And yeah, they’re right, the art is important. But not to me.
Let me explain.
When I read a graphic novel, I rarely notice the nuances of the artwork. I’m far more interested in reading the story and finding out what happens next. Often that does happen via artwork, especially in sequences void of dialogue or narration. But for the most part, there’s text. As a short-story/novella writer, what I care about is the storyline. While I totally appreciate great artwork, if it’s just there as a reaction shot, I’m less appreciative.
Let’s take a panel from “Twilight, Part 1”***, issue 32 of Buffy Season 8, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, and Michelle Madsen****. Specifically, the panel that references the iconic scene in Superman where Lois says “You’ve got me? But who’s got you?” At this point in the story, Buffy has gained superpowers and she and Xander are trying to figure out just how powerful she is. At the bottom of a cliff in Tibet, Buffy throws Xander into the air as he calls back to that line, then zips to the top of the cliff to catch him. The panel itself depicts the cliff, a temple at the top where Oz lives, and Xander in the sky with “YOOOOOOoooooooooou?!” breaking vertically out of his word bubble.
Maybe that sort of thing works for some people, but for me it was just silly. For me, I might have better appreciated something like this:
Without warning, Xander jumped into Buffy’s arms. He recognized the mischievous look in her eye and, honestly, it worried him a little bit.
More than a little bit.
“What are you doing?” she asked him, smiling.
Xander didn’t really like the smile — he had a sinking feeling she was going to do something Slayer-like. But he’d committed to the part, and he had to say the line now. “You’ve got me?” he quoted. “Then who’s got you–!”
The last word was a howl as Buffy flung him into the air. He watched the cliff go past, then Oz’s temple — was someone waving at him? — then the treetops, and then he was more stories up than he’d care to count.
As his ascent slowed, something from Geometry class popped into the back of Xander’s mind. Something about parabolas.
He stopped rising.
He started falling.
Well, he thought, at this point, screaming will do me absolutely no good.
He screamed anyway.
The ground was looking awfully close.
And so was Buffy. Who caught him easily in her arms, bounced a little, and smiled. “Hat trick,” she said.
Now, to me that’s got far more impact than actually seeing it happen on the page. Maybe if Season 8 had been televised, and they’d done this on screen, I would’ve appreciated the visual impact, but to my mind action sequences really don’t work in comic form. Plus they have all those Adam West-era Batman sound effects. Like my personal favorite, KPOK!, which some Klingon somewhere will someday read and be pretty ticked off about the misuse of his name.
Admittedly, writing action sequences can be tough; I’ve struggled with fight scenes from time to time — I recently wrote one about two martial artists trying to see who’s better, and I inevitably found myself getting sucked into the witty dialogue at the expense of the ass-kicking — but they can be done well. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s latest Anita novel, Hit List (click the link for my review), I mentioned that the action sequences were well-written and well-paced. Sean McMullen pulls it off admirably in the battle sequences in his Moonworlds saga. And of course we’ve heard it on the various Escape Artists casts — anyone remember the squid combat of Ferrett Steinmetz’s “As Below, So Above”? But when you’re writing an action sequence, you only have to concentrate on transcribing what you see in your mind. When you’re writing the action sequence in a graphic novel (or comic), you have to pick specific points in the action to depict.
I don’t want to see specific points. I want to see the whole thing. And, for me, comics just can’t pull it off.
Plus, action sequences in comics are sometimes… well… boring. Who needs to see two or three pages of your main characters fighting each other? There’s no story there. There’s no real advancement of the plot. Maybe there’s some “scuffling for the superweapon-of-doom” that you might also see on TV when the good guy kicks the bad guy’s gun away but then has to get to it in order to kill the bad guy… but otherwise, to me it’s just meh. If I’m watching a fight scene on TV or in a movie, it’s maybe two minutes of moves before the plot moves along and someone wins. Occasionally it goes longer — especially if it’s a Boss Fight, or we’re seeing a space battle. But jeez… compared to the video version of a space battle, even if you’re only watching it on a four-inch phone screen, a comic just can’t stand up to that kind of action. You can just do so much more.
I realize it’s a limitation of the medium, one that the artists and writers work valiantly to overcome, but really… there’s a lot more to Kirk blasting the Reliant than a bright orange line and the words ZZZZZAP!!! in bold, colorful letters somewhere on the panel.
In the second part of this article, I will move from action sequences and general discussion about art to the way comics make me feel… or don’t.
*I picked up some older comics to read on my iPad, and all the covers say $2.99. That’s for a 32-page book. My friend Chrome, who reads a lot more comics than I do, says prices these days are still the same, but that some books go up to $4.99. Too rich for my blood.
**Someone remind me later to write an article about how we perceive fictional characters we’ve never seen before. I’m on a roll right now and can’t stop to make notes.
Every now and then, a sci-fi or fantasy novel or series comes along that completely redefines your definition of “the best sci-fi book I’ve read”. Which is not to say it’s the best book ever, or that everyone who reads it will love it.
However, in the case of author Sean McMullen’s Souls in the Great Machine, I feel comfortable saying “you’re going to like this book”.
SOTM, released in 1999 as a single-book version of McMullen’s Voices in the Light (1994) and Mirrorsun Rising (1995), takes place in Australia, in the future, after a worldwide event called Greatwinter led to the end of modern technology as we know it. No cars, only trains — many powered by wind or by passengers doing the pedaling. No phones, only beamflash — long-distance semaphore similar to the Clacks. And no computers.
Until a young woman named Zarvora Cybeline decides to build a computer.
The thing is, she can’t do it with electronic machines, because the Wanderers — satellites left in orbit from the technological age — will blow electronic and fuel-powered machines out of existence the moment they sense them.
What’s a girl to do? Well, if you’re Zarvora, you take over the most powerful entity in Australia — Libris, the library system — and conscript criminals and numerate individuals to sit in a huge room and do calculations for you. Occasionally you’ll have to duel someone — with flintlock firearms — or take over the government, but when you want to prevent the end of the world (again), sometimes a girl’s got to get her hands dirty.
Into this world, we bring a cast of characters that you’ll enjoy the hell out of, including such rogues as:
Lemorel: an extremely intelligent librarian who you should never, ever wrong. Because she’ll kill you.
Glasken: a chemistry student with a taste for fine wine and fine women. Guess who he ends up with.
Theresla: an abbess from a far-off region who, it’s said, eats grilled mice on toast. When she can find toast.
Ilyire: a driven, dangerous man who you’d be glad to have at your back. Just make sure he’s on your side first.
Dolorian: a beautiful junior librarian who knows exactly how many buttons of her blouse should be undone at any time.
These characters, and all the other inhabitants of Australia, are subject to a strange force — the Call — which sweeps across the land, forcing those caught unawares to walk south, to some unimaginable fate. No one knows where the Call comes from, and only a few can predict it, and no one can resist it. Precautions are taken — belt anchors, mercy walls, and the like — but if you’re caught, you’re gone.
Lest you think nothing actually happens in the book, I assure you there’s murder, mischief, sex, love, war, technology, and a whole lot of humor. In fact, McMullen is one of the most consistently humorous writers I’ve encountered who isn’t specifically writing a humorous tale.
The book itself is massive — a small-print mass-market paperback version is almost 600 pages — but into those pages you’ll find a world unlike many others, a world of intelligence and honor, chivalry and technology, science and religion, and much, much more. Oh, and for some reason, lots of talk about breasts — I’m going to be honest here: one thing McMullen does in both the Greatwinter and Moonworlds sagas is show his characters’ appreciation for that part of the female anatomy. It’s not like there’s a Hooters in Rochester (the Australian city around which much of this book takes place), but trust me. You’ll notice it.
And if you really like the book, don’t fret — there’s volumes two and three, The Miocene Arrow and Eyes of the Calculor. I personally think Souls is the best of them, and it does stand alone; you don’t have to read the other two.
I’d love to tell you everything about my favorite scenes — Denkar meeting Black Alpha’s true face, learning about resistance to the Call and how exactly that works, Glasken’s time with Theresla as well as his escape from the most dangerous fighting monks in the land, and the final duel between the villain and… well, I can’t tell you that. I don’t want to spoil the book for you — especially when, as I said, this is the book that, to me, redefined my personal definition of “best” when it comes to SF novels. It has everything I like — full characters, a sweeping story, great worldbuilding, and enough action to keep me interested without taking away from the science and technology*.
Buy this book. Read it. It’s worth it. Trust me.
*And breasts. Hey, I’m a lech, but at least I’m a charming one. Right? Anyone?