Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Listening: GraphicAudio

So, now that summer is officially here, I was thinking about car trips. Pardon the digression from your regularly scheduled comic talk, by the way; it comes around by the end. A few years back, my wife and I were driving out ot visit my in-laws. This is a four and a half hour car ride, so there are various pit stops along the way. One of our regular stops is a Pilot station. For those of you who have never had the pleasure to visit a Pilot, they are convenience stores that double as truck stops, so they cater to long haul truckers, wth gadgets for the discerning trucker, plus wide varieties of meda, like DVDs, CDs, and the like.

While in the Pilot, I was browsing their selection of books on CD. I do a good deal of driving, so the book on CD is my friend. And I was looking at a shelf of sets from a company I had never heard of: GraphicAudio. And as I'm scanning, I stop. And I look closely. One of their selections is a Justice League story. So I picked it up off the shelf, read the description, and had to buy it.

GraphicAudio's tag line is, "A Movie In Your Mind." This isn't just a guy sitting and reading a book to you; it's a full cast audio adaptations of a book. And not just words, but music, sound effects, the whole thing. Think closer to classic radio plays from the 30s, 40s, and 50s than audio books. As someone with a collection of those classic radio plays, and who thinks that the radio play is a lost art, the idea of something similar with the Justice League was too good to pass up.

It turned out the book was Exterminators by Christopher Golden, the last in a series. Each one was by a different author and focused on a different JLA member, and this one was the final one, focusing on the whole League. Fortunately, they were each unrelated stories, just under one banner, so I was able to jump immediately into the story. And I have to say, I was incredibly pleased.

The story was a very solid one, as anyone familiar with Christopher Golden (best known for various licensed projects and for his work with Mike Mignola on his novel Baltimore) would know. But I'm not here to talk about the story. I'm here to talk about the production. And it was great! The voice actors got the characters, and were familiar without sounding like they were aping the more familiar voice actors who have made these characters famous in animation. The sound effects and music were suitable and well placed without being distracting.

I was a little worried at first, I admit, when the narrators voice was so presentational. It really felt like he was reading a script, and not in the world. But as the different actors came in, I found myself lost in the story. And the narrator turned out to also do a bunch of character voices, all very distinct, so I accepted that his narrator voice needed to be something that didn't blend with the characters.
A little looking on-line when I got home, and I realized that there were more than just those five books: Graphic Audio had a whole line of DC adaptations. They had adapted quite a few DC novels, both originals and adpatations of comic stories, and they were releasing a few a year.

An interesting aspect of the GraphicAudio CDs as I continue is that, from book to book, they have done their best to keep the voice actors the same. So, for instance, Richard Rohan, who directs the series, and is the narrator for all of them, is also the voices of Batman, Joker, as well as other characters, or James Konicek is Superman and Jim Gordon each time they appear. It creates a nice little universe; kind of like this is Earth-GA.

One of the things I love about comics is that they have a way of telling stories that no other medium can. You read a comic and it engages your imagintation. You have still frames and have to move the character from point A to point B with your own mind. The classic radio drama is a similar experience, one that honestly engages your mind, makes you picture the characters and use the sound effects to set the world. The similarities in craft make the combination of the two under GraphicAudio works beautifully. You can hear a story of the Justice League and just see the heroes, and since there's no art, hey, this could be a story drawn by Jim Lee, if that's your preference, or Howard Porter from his run with Grant Morrison if you'd rather; hey, you could picture the animated JLU versions of the characters if that's your bag. The only limit is what you can imagine.

So this became part of my routine when I headed to my in-laws: I would stop and pick up a new GraphicAudio DC. I've heard about a dozen of them now, and each one has been a treat. Aside from the Justice League series, there is also a couple of standalone Batman ones, a Green Lantern trilogy called Sleepers, which I haven't started yet since I haven't seen volume one at my stomping grounds, and Greg Cox's novels adapting the big event cycle from the mid-to-late 2000s, from Infinite Crisis to Final Crisis.

I haven't gotten to listen to all the Cox adaptations yet, but I did pick up Final Crisis, and it was one of the most impressive of these that I've heard. First, Cox's novel does a really good job of streamlining a lot of Grant Morrison's more out there storytelling tricks, and while there is some material cut I would have liked to see kept in (mostly sequences from the trippy but awesome Superman Beyond two parter), it does a good job of keeping the core of the story. Since it presents the events of the last issue in a linear fashion, it's a heck of a lot easier to follow. The thing that impressed me about the audio version was that there were no cut corners. Final Crisis has a HUGE cast of characters, and everyone was there and every one sounded different. The pacing of the audio adaptation was excellent, really keeping you on the edge of your seat, and it added something to the story.

Judging by the list of new titles for this year, GraphicAudio might have completed all the DC Comics novels they have the rights to, with the last one coming out the end of 2011, but boy did they go out on a high note. The final adaptation was of Greg Rucka's novelization of 1999's epic Batman story No Man's Land. This was a two part adaptation, extending over two graphic audio sets and totaling about ten hours of listening time.

For those of you not familiar with No Man's Land, it was a year long story where Gotham was cut off from the rest of the country, and quickly degenerated into this almost medieval society ruled by petty lords. And most of the people ruling over Gotham are, as you might imagine, the worst of the worst from Batman's rogues gallery. It's a harrowing story, full of some great twists, but at its heart is really about Batman's relationship with Gotham, its people, and specifically with Jim Gordon. Greg Rucka was one of the key writers of the original comics, some of his earliest Batman work, so he knows the story inside and out, and so makes the change of media from comic to novel seamless; Graphic Audio does a similar trick moving it from novel to radio drama.

I've already commented on the voice work in the series, but No Man's Land took it to another level. James Konicek's performance as Jim Gordon is excellent, following Gordon's journey, and really showing him at his best and worst. Richard Rohan's Batman has the gravelly tone that most voice actor's give Batman, but since there are no visuals, he really has to work to give the Dark Knight levels in his voice to properly convey his emotions, and he succeeds admirably. The narration is split between the omniscient narrator and Oracle, Barbara Gordon, who is writing a journal of her time in the No Man's Land. I can't find the credit for who voices Oracle, but she does an excellent job, bringing a heart to the predicament of the people trapped in the city. The standout performance to me, though, was Barbara Pinolini as Rene Montoya. While Montoya had appeared for year's before No Man's Land, but the arc that carried her from her original identity as loyal police officer to the new Question really started during the No Man's Land (it also happens to be when Greg Rucka started writing her). Montoya has a lot to do during No Man's Land, working as one of the few remaining cops in Gotham, as one of Gordon's inner circle, and as the go between for Gordon and a particularly unsavory ally. Her journey is as important to the story as that of Batman, Gordon, or Oracle, and Pinolini hits a homerun. Her performance has moved the adaptation of 52 to the top of my list of Graphic Audio's to pick up next, so I can hear what she does with Rene's transition to The Question.

I'm planning on snagging a couple more GraphicAudio DC adaptations for my summer driving this year, probably 52 or Batman: Dead White. If you have a long car ride by yourself, or with friends who are into comics, or a spouse/significant other who might enjoy it or tolerate it (love you, honey!), you could do a lot worse than picking one up too. As a warning, they aren't overly kid friendly, being based on novels written for adults, so they fall into a PG-13 rating, if such a thing existed for radio drama. You can find them on Amazon, or go check out GraphicAudio's website. There are a lot of other series there: sci-fi, fantasy, western, and adventure, so you might find something that speaks to you that isn't necessarily comic related. And after that awful pun, I think I should wrap things up. Happy listening.


Anonymous said...

According to their Facebook page they are working on a new comics release, hopefully by the end of the year, but they don't have any details right now.

I wish they did more DC comics releases, since its the only one of theirs I follow. Not because their other series are badly done, but because its the only one with a plot I enjoy

Anonymous said...

I really like the Rogue Angel series they produce. It's about Anja Creed a female archeologist that finds Joan of Arks sword and becomes a warrior against evil.

Another to check out are Elizabeth Moon 2 series, Trading in Danger and The Serrano Legacy. Both are space based series.

Anyways I'm glad you discovered graphic audio!