Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #99: Three Fingers by Rich Koslowski

Words have meanings -- those can shift over time, and have deep shades of nuance, but every word has core meanings at any given point in time. And a writer needs to use words in ways that make sense, or risk sowing confusion or just alienating his reader.

Take the word "ritual," for example. If you have a story about the early days of Hollywood, with one character who is almost supernaturally successful for a period of years, while all similar performers fail repeatedly, you may want to claim that some mysterious Ritual is responsible. This will immediately cause your reader to think of dark skulduggery, mysterious sacrifices -- that the successful performer is doing something, repeatedly, to maintain that popularity, and that Ritual is his secret. This can be particularly effective if you have that performer, now aged, repeatedly deny all knowledge of The Ritual.

And if you instead reveal, halfway through your book, that the "ritual" is something other people do, to emulate your hero, and that it is successful in its aim, it not only fails to be a ritual (it's more of a procedure or an initiation rite), but it directly clashes with your narrative claims that 1) The Ritual works and 2) no one was as successful as your star performer for a long period during which rumors of The Ritual circulated. This flub is not necessarily fatal to your book, but it's a big problem that could have been easily avoided with just a little thought and care.

The book in question is Rich Koslowski's 2002 Ignatz-winning graphic novel Three Fingers, an oral history of Rickey Rat, of the Dizzy Walters movie studio for about thirty years starting in the 1920s, and about the role of "Toons" in the entertainment world of that time. And that Ritual nonsense is very unfortunate, since the book otherwise is assured and poised, perhaps winking just a little too much with its very familiar characters, but smart and willing to let its metaphor of assimilation lurk beneath the surface.

Three Fingers presents itself like a documentary, probably made sometime in the 1980s in this timeline, when all of the hot young toons of the early days were old or dead, and Koslowski completely commits to that frame, with text that serves as the voice over and pages devoted to successive talking heads of his interviewees. Those pages are quietly impressive: Koslowski varies the body language to show these people really talking, never relying on static poses or copies.

There are a few other signs that Three Fingers might have rushed from script to pages a little too quickly, though, like this passage on page 20: "The Hales Corner Camera Club, otherwise known as the "Hiccups," disbanded in 1921, only four years after it began. World War One was raging in Europe and several of the Hiccups members, including young Dizzy Walters, were called to serve their country." Even leaving aside that Dizzy, born in 1896, is said a page later to only turn twenty-two after the Hiccups broke up, one might notice that World War One was quite definitively over by 1921. (And, even if we want to claim those two sentences are just badly worded, the Hiccups were formed the year the US entered WW I, and the draft went into effect in May of that year.)

That, though, is a quibble -- it's a sign that Three Fingers, like a lot of comics, didn't get the support that a good editor provides in regular just-words publishing, and it could have been fixed quickly and easily. The Ritual issue, though, is at the heart of the book, and there are other problems with that conceit -- need I mention that most Toons are shown wearing gloves?

It's a shame, though: Three Fingers is otherwise smart about itself and its warped retelling of history, with a puckish sense of humor and a willingness to stretch his concept to the edge of breaking but no farther: Marilyn Monroe! the civil rights movement! the assassinations of the 1960s! So Three Fingers is flawed, but that flaw -- that one big flaw -- is one of enthusiasm and love.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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