Monday, November 7, 2011

Blogging Through a (Comic) Book: Bad Island pt. 3: The Final Word

This book was actually really good. Way better than Doug's last five I want to say. Still not Jacobus good in terms of realized story telling and art, and not Gears good in terms of bizarre and funny, but it's up there. I'd say maybe top five.

I realize that some of my running commentary sounded maybe snarky and perhaps small minded or vindictive, but you probably didn't read Ghostopolis or Flink or Monster Zoo, so you don't know the kind of expectations I had walking into the joint. A lot of my negativity was not deserved.

I think the biggest difference between this and Ghostopolis (the other TenNapel joint I reviewed) is that Ghostopolis was plagued with things so heavy handed and obvious that I frequently got embarrassment goosebumps. Tuskegee Joe is the most ready example. I think this overwhelming obviousness stemmed from the fact that Ghostopolis, for whatever reason, was overly burdened with providing metaphors for Christianity, but metaphors that didn't even work or make sense. There was also the art. Ghost gave the sense that Doug didn't really understand how to work Photoshop, or Illustrator, or Painter, or whatever digital program he was using.

There was also the profusion of loose ends that got tied in Ghostopolis. The ending felt a lot like the end to Return of The King when you're certain Frodo and Sam are about to make out, and that's during the third of maybe five-ish endings. Ghostopolis was too neat.

But let me talk about Bad Island. The art is so much better. I still wish the art was black and white brush work of the Doug of yore, but barring that, I still wish it was an old fashion brush instead of digital. And the color. Doug has admitted before that he's not a strong colorist, and that shows in the Saturday-morning-cartoon kind of way that the book's colored. When you read a book like Jacobus or Creature Tech, you are absolutely not imagining coloring like you'd see on Dora The Explorer (Doug does use more muted colors than that, but exclusively uses the two-tone style of shading). If Doug wants to color his books now, something I'd try to persuade him against, I'd recommend something more abstract or experimental. The monster designs in this book are pretty interesting. I think my favorite are the muppet looking aliens that live on the backs of the rock giants.

From a story perspective, it's much leaner than Ghostopolis, and half of it feels similar to the Gear story. I don't want to spoil too much, but without any exposition, the story communicates that the massive stone deities have been battling these insect and gray alien looking monsters for thousands of years. The monsters have been trying to enslave the small muppet creatures while the stone deities depend on the creatures to run certain parts of them almost like robots. Very cool.

The story was much closer to an ensemble story than anything else Doug's done. It's not quite wholly an ensemble story as only one character experiences change, and really only two of them get developed. I'm not sure why the wife and daughter were even necessary characters. The wife's knowledge proved to be necessary, but not her character.

The family's story is so run of the mill that it's forgettable. I feel like they're all stock characters, and I always felt a little disappointed every time I turned the page to see that they were still the focus of the story. In a 218 page story, that's lots of tiny disappointments.

The father/son backstory seems to have all this import, but nothing really happens with it. You find that the son almost suffocated to death on his mucus when he was a baby, and the dad was all shaken. But that's sort of it. The son had planned to run away before the trip, but it's never revealed why, nor are there any textual clues beyond the fact that he's just a rebellious teenager. You never learn more than a single thing about the mother or the daughter: mom's a botanist, daughter collects animals. Mostly, they're just plant and payoff characters. All the humans felt really insubstantial. I know Doug's method of storytelling is to tell a story in such a way that it's constantly getting pushed forward: every picture and word should reveal plot or character or both, and I appreciate that. I strive for that in my own writing. But these characters are all so one note that I feel cheated that the climax of the story is their reunion and safety. The aliens were so much more interesting.

Which brings me to the things that were unresolved. I complained about Ghostopolis' almost compulsive need to tie things up, but I feel like some large things involving the deities go unaddressed. The king, when he thinks his son has been killed, surrenders, and the muppets ask him if they are to be slaves again. He responds that he would do anything to save them, including his own death, but he can't handle the death of his son. So, at the end of a book is a single frame showing the deity father and son's reunion. And that's it? What about the slavery issue? That's way more interesting than if the stock Disney Channel family gets home in time to see Friends.

There's also a single panel in the book that shows the son deity eating a bunch of monsters. Alive. Apparently this is how the creatures get their energy to do battle. That one panel showed more promise for the direction of the story than almost any other panel in the book. Creatures that eat other living creatures wholesale like that brings up interesting ethical problems. Are they really as good as they say they are? Is it OK to eat these small monsters if we assume they're evil? Does this slaughter have anything to do with the war in outerspace?

Mainly, Doug made the mistake of making his support characters (in this instance, they're almost props) way more interesting than his main characters. I feel like this is a pretty constant problem, however, when your main characters have been normal humans for the last 5 or 6 books. It was a problem with Ghost too. The world is more fascinating than the characters. There was a time when Doug's characters were outright weird. This time might have been in a minority of his books, but Gear doesn't even have humans in it. Creature Tech is a human being almost-possessed by an alien symbiote. Jacobus focused on two regular humans, but one came from a very weird place through very weird means, and the other one had to try to comprehend him directly. I guess with Ghost and Bad Island, Doug just juxtaposes the human and the weird, but has stopped them from directly acting with each other. In an odd way, this sort of dehumanizes the stories. Instead of seeing how humanity acts when confronted with the bizarre, humanity only gets to indirectly participate in it, and therefore their reactions are much more muted.

One thing that was really effective is that there isn't a hidden Evangelical element. You could argue there's one with the prince deity, but if there is, it's so subtle that it doesn't break the story. Several of Doug's stories have a witnessing element that's so shoved in, it makes the story difficult to accept. I think it was Tolkien that said good Christian writing should first and foremost be good writing, and then Christian. That might have also been CS Lewis, and if it's neither of those guys, then I made it up. But if it was those two guys, then you'll notice that Lord of The Rings and Until We Have Faces are both totally void of any overt-punching-you-in-the-ding-ding Christian references. But Bad Island doesn't have any bad or overt religious references, and I think it's a better book for it.

I liken the shoe horning of the gospel message into fiction by Christians to the ubiquity of the Dreamworks face in Dreamworks cartoons, or the moment of internal defeat in Pixar cartoons. Everyone knows about dreamworks face. But the Moment of Internal Doubt in Pixar cartoons is always the final moment of the second act. It's when the hero sighs meaningfully and looks longingly at his hands before he makes a pronouncement about how he can't do it. In the Incredibles, it's the moment in the plane across the ocean when Mr. Incredible sighs, looks down at his hands, shrugs, and says how he can't do it if he thinks his family isn't safe. That's the clearest example.

Would I buy Bad Island? Probably not. Maybe if you're a hardcore TenNapel fan. While it is so much better than Ghostopolis (and Flink, and Monster Zoo, and Black Cherry, and Power-Up), it's still not quite Jacobus, or Gear, or Creature Tech. Or even Iron West (and that was the first Doug book I felt iffy about after I bought it. I even lied on an Amazon review because I kind of thought of Doug as a friend.). I would recommend that you read Bad Island. It's worth reading. And if you like it, then pick up Jacobus. Buy it for full price. It's that good. Then buy Gear. You'll laugh yourself stupid.

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