There’s a lot to like about this debut graphic novel from Ward and Frogchildren Studios, a company that, according to their Web site, primarily deals in producing video games and animation. Brandon Graham is listed as one of the staff artists.
That’s not too surprising since Ward, the company’s art director, seems to share many of the same artistic and storytelling sensibilities that Graham and some of their fellow contemporaries like Ashley Wood have, namely a loose but very controlled delineating style, a taste for the surreal and an interest in world-building, no doubt forged from reading back issues of Heavy Metal, and obvious love of drawing pretty girls (also no doubt forged from HM).
Myself, I’ve never been a huge fan of the magazine, except for Moebius’ contributions of course. I liked Merricks — or at least the title story that makes up the bulk of this collection — quite a bit however. It’s got a nice, steady drive to it that, combined with it’s growing sense of unease sets up a fine tension that pulls you through the book. It’s all about the momentum.
The plot opens like something out of Bunuel. A man enters an apartment (we assume it’s his, though we’re never quite sure) and finds a strange woman there. She leads him to a storage room which connects to a narrow but lengthy series of hallways. The girl is agitated and fearful. The man is condescending and a bit irritated (though when confronted he has trouble doing things like remembering his name). And it’s at this point that the water starts coming.
Ward frames all of this in narrow panels framed at mid-level, rarely zooming into close-ups or pulling back except when the story calls for it. The net result is a tightly wound comic that manages to effectively evoke a nightmarish sense of dread.
Unfortunately, Ward feels the need to ultimately attempt to explain exactly what’s going on, and his revelation, though it builds nicely on the story and adds a grim note of sorrow to the proceedings, takes away a good deal of the mystery and horror that had propelled me through the book thus far. I really didn’t need to know what was going on. The mystery was too enticing to be spoiled.
There are a few other short tales included in the book, mostly fantasy and science-fiction style set pieces that betray the afore-mentioned Heavy Metal influence. They’re amusing — nicely drawn and well-colored — but lack the immediate narrative hook that the title story has.
If he continues to build on the promise of Merricks, Ward could quickly become a cartoonist well worth following. Despite my gripes about the ending, he evidences enough storytelling skill for me to recommend the book. He’s onto something here.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell
Harper Collins Children’s Books, $18.99
Considering that Russell collaborated with Gaiman on one of the best stories to grace the Sandman series, it’s kind of surprising how inert and bland this adaptation of Gaiman’s children’s tale feels. Perhaps Russell (or one of the Harper Collins editors) was concerned about the visuals becoming too frightening and traumatic for children — the notion of a “second mom” with black buttons for eyes is a an innately disturbing one after all, to say nothing of the roaming hand that terrorizes Coraline towards the end. Perhaps this darker material just doesn’t suit Russell’s light touch (Charles Vess may have been a better choice — though certainly Russell is no stranger to the scary part of fairy tale lore).
Whatever the reason the book, except for one or two moments, this adaptation simply feels nowhere near as thrilling or deliciously creepy as it would if you were reading it in the original prose form, where your imagination could paint pictures much more iconic and unnerving. If anything, it makes me want to get a copy of the original book and see what I’m missing. File under disappointment.