Sunday, October 28, 2012

Two Graphic Novels With Nothing in Common

I read both of these books last month, and -- even with my new "everything will be done by the end of the month, no matter how slipshod and hasty" policy -- haven't yet written about them. And I do have to admit that they really, really don't go together in any coherent way at all. In fact -- if I wanted to make a fault into a purpose -- they could be a great object lesson in how wide the world of comics can be, since neither of them is a "standard" comic, either superhero or manga, and yet they each diverge from that standard in vastly different ways, by audience, art style, tone, emotional register, and provenance.

Gosh, it's almost like graphic novels are real books, and can be as different as other books are!

Anyway, first is Raina Telgemeier's Drama, the follow-up to her comics memoir Smile, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, an Eisner winner, and several other awards (and which both I and Thing 2 really enjoyed) -- not that there was any pressure of Ms. Telgemeier to produce, I'm sure!

Drama has a similar tone and feel to Smile while telling a completely different story: Drama is fictional, to begin with, the story of middle-schooler Callie, who is in love with drama and stagecraft (and possibly in love with one or more cute boys connected with her school's drama department). This year, Callie is in seventh grade, and she'll be designing sets for that "old classic, Moon over Mississippi" (which seems to be somewhere in between Showboat and Gone With the Wind) while dealing with a love...well, it's definitely not a triangle, since there are more people than that involved. Telgemeier keeps it all very real and easy to follow -- no small task with a cast of at least a dozen that includes a set of twins. It's all very middle-school-y (and, even more so, the kind of story librarians and teachers are comfortable giving to middle schoolers) in its love plots: a few kisses and held hands, lots of "does he like me like I like him," and not a whisper of anything more than that.

But it's sweet and true and energetic and funny and just great comics; Telgemeier is expert at telling real stories about interesting, quirky kids, and this is just as lovable as Smile while being more complicated -- bordering on screwball -- and broad in its view of kids' lives, loves, and passions.

And then there's Richard Stark's Parker: The Score, the third in Darwyn Cooke's pitch-perfect translations of the early novels by Donald E. Westlake alter ego "Stark" into comics that almost could have been produced at the time, if the '60s comics world was more amenable to crime stories utterly tough, true, and unsentimental.

At this point in the series, the origin was over: Parker had been introduced, gone through his initial confrontation with The Outfit, and was going back to what he did best: using cold violence and careful planning to expropriate a lot of other people's money for the use of himself (and, where necessary, the other professionals in his team for that particular job).

(Parenthetically, there could be a great MBA project in comparing Parker's philosophy to modern management practice -- he's a one-man corporate raider, thirty years before his time.)

The Score is one of the great set-piece books of that series, and of crime fiction in general: Parker happens into a plan to take an entire town -- a mining town out west, in a box canyon, with banks and department stores and jewelry shops and all -- over one night, and get away with it all. The novel -- and Cooke's comics adaptation -- follows that plot closely, telling its one story economically, precisely, and tautly. I won't tell you how it works out: the fun of a story like this is following it as it all goes down, bit by bit. "Stark" was an expert at telling those stories, and Cooke is equally good at making those virtues work in comics form.

Cooke's neo-New Frontier stylings work exceptionally well for the Parker stories -- this one has an orange wash, as the earlier two books (The Hunter and The Outfit) had their own distinctive colors. Parker and his compatriots are hard, tough men, and Cooke lets them be tough and of their time -- there are some scene-setting moments to remind the reader this is the early '60s, but those are few. Mostly, they're just hard men doing hard, nasty work in a time and place that is almost as fictional to us as Middle-earth or Trantor. This is genre fiction as it should be: specific, smart about itself and its place in the genre, instinctively contemptuous of cliche and flab.

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