Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 322 (12/22) -- The Broadcast by Hobbs and Tuazon

I'm not a social historian, so I have to remain agnostic on the subject of panics arising from Orson Welles's famous Halloween 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast. I've seen some sources claim that panic was widespread; and others that noted that the show was barely half an hour long and broken up by commercials, so there was no time for even the dullest and most easily led crowds to work up any decent panic.

In any case, the panic makes a great story, which is what really counts when it comes to fiction -- and fiction is just what The Broadcast, a new graphic novel written by Eric Hobbs and drawn by Noel Tuazon, is. It's set on that fateful day in October 1938, in a small farming town that I believe is somewhere in southern Illinois. (The book never quite makes it clear; all we're sure is that it seems to be north of Kentucky, since one character comes from there.) In that town, on that day, there's a rich man who's too protective of his daughter, that daughter's suitor and his father, and several other tenant farmers of the rich man -- plus that Kentucky man, who arrives once things have gotten confused.

The Broadcast begins at a moment of tension, and then flashes back to the beginning of the day -- it flashes forward and backward for occasional effect later, but mostly tells its story in order. So the poor boy visits in the morning to ask the rich man for his daughter's hand, and gets permission...along with a dismissive attitude that sends him away angry. But there's another man who is even angrier, with less specific reasons, and at more than just the rich man. Then, in the evening, everyone tunes in the Mercury Theater on the Air -- and, as far as we can see, all of them tune in after it begins, so they don't hear the initial announcement that it's a dramatization of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. And, of course, there's a lightning storm passing through the area, which cuts the power near the end of the show -- before the happy ending, before the final disclaimer.

Panic hits, and violence, as the locals scramble to find a place to hide from the Martian murder-machines that they're sure are already on their way. Several characters add to the panic with lies, or misrepresentations, of their own, but no one ever doubts that the world is coming to an end. (And, after the panic is over, there's only enough space in the story left to clear up the personal stories -- not to examine, at all, anyone's reaction to the panic.) So The Broadcast is dramatic and enthralling, full of taut, important scenes, but it ramps its tension both up and down much more quickly than seems plausible in quiet retrospect.

Tuazon's art is full of slashing lines and loose outlines; it's full of energy and life, barely pinned down to the page. But it's less strong at clearly defining faces and spaces, which remain vague and sketched in. That energy and looseness fight against each other during the action scenes, which are exciting in the way a battle seen by flashes of lightning is: what we can see is thrilling, but we can only see so much.

I didn't entirely believe The Broadcast -- the panic itself, the very carefully assembled characters that carom off each other like a full-table trick shot in billiards, or that murky Tuazon art. But I did enjoy it, as it punched all of the right thriller buttons in the right sequence to tell its story, and as it knew exactly how to play fair with its premise, and work out that billiards trick shot in exacting detail.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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