Thursday, November 3, 2011

Comics of the Week - Snyder and Lemire: Literary Man Crushes

This week, I'm doing something a little different, although it should come as no surprise.

Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire each had two books come out this week. Each had a DCU book out and a Vertigo book. Each of their DCU books were once Vertigo books. Each one of them, with these four books, demonstrate a sophistication in story telling that I believe is at an all time high in comics. Sure, back in the 80's Alan Moore's Watchmen and Millers Dark Knight Returns, and yada yada yada. . . I love those books, too. They are important. But this is different. This is not about turning the genre on it's head or changing the medium. This is not a revolution of any sort, unless you consider the craft of storytelling, well done, to be revolutionary. And maybe you do. And maybe you should. I'm not suggesting there aren't other great writers working right now, because there are. But I see a difference in approach and execution from Lemire and Snyder. I think Literary would be the best word to describe it.

Snyder's American Vampire, in many ways, plays out like a great novel. This weeks issue is interesting in that it is the back story of Skinner Sweet and James Book, but within this back story we go further back to the story of the first American Vampire. Under normal circumstances, a flashback in a flashback could be jarring and leave you shaking your head wondering where you are in the story. In the commentary track for Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino addresses the issue of flashbacks in his movies by pointing that novels go back and forth in time and no one calls them flashbacks. He goes on to say "I'll tell you when it's a fucking flashback." I think the same applies here. While comics are not exactly like a novel, I think Snyder can get away with this because the over all story is being told in such a literary way. He clearly knows where he is going and is merely taking his time to get there, letting us take in all the details. He uses a lot of words, but it's never out of place or cumbersome. The same is true of what he is doing in Swamp Thing. 

With Swamp Thing, Snyder is just starting the story so much of what he is doing is about character. Opening with a new character, a child, stuck in a bubble and then going to our hero, Alec Holland, connects the two in a way that goes beyond what the connection is revealed to be. In many ways, the emotion of that opening scene is a reflection of what Alec Holland is feeling. He feels trapped but is about to realize what he is capable of. But it's not just a character study he's doing here. He uses character to move the plot and action forward. Nothing is wasted in Snyder's work and I doubt anything happens by accident. He knows what he's doing at every step of the way and has thought this through well in advance for both of these books. American Vampire has developed over 20 issues and a mini series going back and forth in time and focusing on several different characters along the way. Yet, at no point has this felt anything other than focused. It comes as no surprise to me that he teaches writing.

Lemire's Animal Man and Sweet Tooth have more than a little in common. Here are two books about people being connected to animals, myths and mysticism. Both books are anchored by rich characters and connections to children and family. And yet, they are very different. Animal Man is currently working more with outright horror elements and the fear is palpable. Yet, in the midst of all this, Lemire sprinkles humor in unexpected places. Overall, however, although this issue has big action and high concept, it's Lemire's seemingly effortless characterization that makes it work. In his previous work, Essex County, the characters felt like they would drip from the page in a crying heap. There was a heaviness to them that was undeniable, and you couldn't help but feel their beautiful sadness. Animal Man is not about sad characters, but in this issue in particular, when they are afraid, you know it. These are things that could be attributed to the art, and Lemire was the artist on Essex County. Here, however, although Travel Foreman is amazing, I think the characters work because they've been built up to work. We've seen them interact in real ways that made them relatable to the point that we understand the fear of this issue on a primal level. I think I know what Ellen's screams sound like by reading this.

Meanwhile, in Sweet Tooth, Lemire has built a world from scratch that is magical and real and haunting. Like American Vampire, he's giving us the back story of where the sickness came from. And like American Vampire, the back story takes place in a back story. In this case, however, the characters are more closely connected and maybe that is why the emotional connections between them are played up more. I wasn't sure where this was going as I read it, even though I kind of suspected. But at a certain point, it didn't matter because I was taken in by these people and regardless of where they were taking me, I wanted to know more about them. Although the plot was still moving forward, this did feel closer to Essex County in terms of character work. I could see that Lemire put a lot of thought into who these people are and what would motivate them and it all makes sense. Understanding this makes the revelation of the end that much more impactful. It's not just some guy that unleashed Armageddon on the world. Now we know him and understand him and his motivations. We can't just dismiss his actions. Clearly, Lemire doesn't want us to. He wants us to think about that. And to think about what this means to the overall story. Again, nothing is wasted. Nothing is by accident.

I understand that comics is a visual medium and I don't want to shortchange the artists on these books. In each case, these writers have been lucky to work with not just talented, but amazing artists, who are master storytellers themselves. Travel Foreman brings mood and uneasiness to Animal Man with his use of angles, but also his figures, which in this issue are downright creepy. Yanick Paquette and Victor Ibanez's layouts in Swamp Thing are like organically grown extensions of the story itself. Panels seem to creep into each other like vines. Matt Kindt, guest artist on Sweet Tooth, which Lemire normally draws himself, is perfect for this arc. His rough style is almost the equivalent of black and white grainy footage in a film to show a different time, only much more subtle. It also serves to reflect the roughness of the environment. And yet, in spite of this roughness, the simplicity of the figures makes the characters that much more relatable. Jordi Bernet's work on this arc of American Vampire is classic comics. There are panels that could easily pass for old western comics from the 40's. It's the exact mood that this tale of the Indian Wars needs.

If you've been reading my posts before, you've seen me praise Lemire and Snyder repeatedly for their work. This week really solidified for me what it is about them that I am responding to. It's not surprising that these two are also close friends. I would love to be a fly on the wall when they talk shop.

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