Friday, December 13, 2013

Recommended Reading for 12/13: Fairest In All the Land & Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice

Today's recommended reading is a little different than usual, as it is featuring two books that are not connected by story, but by publisher. In the past couple years, it seems like DC's venerable Vertgo imprint, the mature readers imprint that gave us such seminal works as Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and 100 Bullets, has been slipping away. There have been a few hits, but mostly the new series have come and gone in short order. The end of Vertigo's longest running series, Hellblazer, and the fact that many of its major creators are now doing their creator owned work through Image, seemed like a clear death knell. But there have been some signs of life recently, with a couple new hits, and this fall, two of the better received series of the past five years each released special hardcover original graphic novels: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice and Fairest: In All the Land. I sat down and read them both this past weekend, and was very pleased. There will be some mild spoilers in this piece, but I'll do my best to not give away too much.

Fairest: In All the Land is this year's Fables special project. Since writer/creator Bill Willingham began his work on Fables, he has tried to do nearly annual special issues or tie-ins, whether it was an extra large anniversary issue, a special (The Last Castle), an original graphic novel (1,001 Nights of Snowfall and Werewolves of the Heartland) or even a prose novel (Peter and Max). This new book ties in with the ongoing Fables spinoff, Fairest, which focuses on the large number of strong female fairy tale characters that populate Willingham's world.

The book is tied neatly into the ongoing continuity of Fables and Fairest, so as a warning to people who are reading Fables in trade, DO NOT read this before you read Fables Vol. 19: Snow White, which comes out this Wednesday, and it might not hurt to read volume three of Fairest first, which is scheduled for a June release, but the spoiler there is nowhere near as big as the one for Fables. This book, more than either of the previous graphic novels, feels like it is hugely important for the upcoming arcs of Fables, and I believe is gong to be a major part of the lead in to Willingham's grand finale in a next year. Still, if you have no background in Fables, Willingham does a good job of using the framing sequence to explain everything you need to enjoy the book with no history with the parent series.

I was expecting another anthology of shorts tied together by a framing sequence, like 1001 Nights of Snowfall, but was actually surprised and pleased to see that this is actually one continuous story with various artists drawing each chapter. There is a framing sequence, narrated by the Magic Mirror; you know the one, the one that the wicked queen from Snow White had, that has been trapped in the pocket dimension when the business office of Fabeltown, the block in Alphabet City in New York where the fairy tale characters in exile reside, was lost. He is investigating a mystery, and also putting on a show for his fellow prisoners, a group of tiny women and some severed heads that still have quite a bit of life in them.

The story that he is showing is itself a mystery, connected to the goings on in the business office, but this mystery is  one of a more bloody sort. Cinderella, Fabletown's number one spy, is pulled into a situation where she must solve a murder mystery. As she points out, detective work and spycraft are two distinct skill sets, and she feels somewhat out of her depth. But Cinderella, as created by Willingham and expanded by Chris Roberson in the two mini-series that she starred in, is nothing if not resourceful, and so she goes out to solve the case, with a little help from Reynard the Fox and Little Bo Peep. Soon, the bodies begin to pile higher, and some of Fabletown's luminaries are among them.

The mystery doesn't seem to hard to figure out, especially if you've been reading Fables for any amount of time, but there are some great twists involved, and whodunnit proves to be less important than why and how. Other than giving readers more time with Cinderella, one of the best characters in Fables, we get to spend a little more time with Ozma, the good witch, a character who has been getting fleshed out a bit in the past couple years and who I find a lot of fun. A couple old favorites pop up, including Bellflower, better known as Frau Totenkinder the Black Forest Witch, and the Page Sisters from Jack of Fables. There is also some very interetsing stuff done with one of Fables male characters, Stinky the Badger, who is usually played for laughs. I wouldn't say his speech was poignant, but he makes a point that ties heavily into the theme of the book.

Dancing around the specifics of the mystery makes writing a piece like this tricky, as so much of what happens hinges on the mystery, but Willigham plays with a lot of interesting themes within a story that focuses on the most beautiful women in all of Fables. In a society obsessed with beauty like ours, is it really the most beautiful that get all the best? Exactly what kind of punishment is deserved by those who would enslave or use another? And what exactly does it take to rise up in a society? And aside from the interesting thematic pieces, the book ends with some Fables characters irrevocably dead, which is hard to do when your characters lives are fueled by belief. There are a couple surprising deaths, ones that may have some serious effects on the series as a whole.

While the story here is a lot of fun and well done, the art in this book is something that grabs you by the shirt and demands to be noticed. There are over a dozen different artists who worked on this book, and all of them are impressive on their own, but when put together, it's a murder's row of top talent. Chrissie Zullo, the cover artist for the two Cinderella minis, provided wonderful spot illustrations for Willingham's prose framing sequence. Single chapters are produced by luminaries like Adam Hughes, Chris Sprouse, Gene Ha, and regular Fables artist Mark Buckingham. Russ Braun, former artist from the Jack of Fables spinoff, contributes a couple chapters, as does Shawn McManus, who pencilled the Cinderella minis and is pencilling the current Cinderella arc in the regular Fairest monthly. And that's just a few of the names. Even if you've never read Fables or Fairest, if you're a fan of great comic art, this book is worth picking up.

The Unwritten is currently in between volumes, with the original series ending with issue 54 and the final year, subtitled Apocalypse, not beginning until next month. This has been one of my favorite comics since it began, and I intentionally saved the first Unwritten original graphic novel to help me get over the hump in between volumes. After the previous arc, "The Unwritten Fables" which was a crossover between the two properties (huh, see, I found a way to tie the two books together after all), it's good to be back firmly grounded in the world of The Unwritten.

The concepts behind The Unrwitten is a bit more complex than Fables, "fairy tale characters living in the modern world," one, so bear with me as I explain a bit. The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, a young man whose father wrote a mammothly popular series of books about a bespectacled, young, orphaned wizard named Tommy Taylor (and yes, I know that description is familiar to pretty much everyone, but it's not like J.K. came up with the concept from whole cloth either, and all similarities are not purely coincidental here). Tom has spent his whole life dogged by his literary alter ego, but at the beginning of the series, things start happening to Tom, things that seem to connect him more to Tommy than he imagined, and he finds himself thrust into battle with a cabal that wants to control the world through stories and the collective unconscious.

Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice is the first book in the Tommy Taylor series, and this graphic novel serves as a full adaptation of that fictional book. Throughout the series, readers have been treated to bits and pieces from the Tommy Taylor series, but never more than a page or two. All the things we've seen in the series come together here: Tommy, his friends Peter Price and Sue Sparrow, his pet/familiar Mingus the flying cat, his nemesis the vampire Count Ambrosio, and the wand Glitterspar. And the world of the books, the ones that readers have heard so much about, makes a lot more sense and has a life that it lacked before.

In a recent episode of NPR's excellent podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, host Linda Holmes commented on how hard it is for a fictional work to live up to its hype. If you hear about a band or a book or a movie in a TV show that exists exclusively in that world, when the consumer of that media actually gets a chance to sample that much ballyhooed bit of culture, it rarely is anything near what you've been led to expect. I was a little worried about that as an idea before I heard the podcast, and after I did it crystallized my fears about reading this book: what if the Tommy Taylor story was dull, or just really read as warmed over Harry Potter? Would that throw me out of the world the series of books inhabits? Fortunately, I don't have to find out.

I won't say Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice is the greatest piece of fantasy I've ever read. Writer Mike Carey actually addresses that in the reviews we see of the book in the sequences in the graphic novel that take place in the "real" world. He acknowledges the failings of Wilson Taylor, Tom's father and the author of the Tommy series, as a writer, and that gives him a safe little out. But what we get is a very fun fantasy story.

Tommy's world isn't like that of Harry Potter. Magic is commonplace, and the world is controlled by mages. Tommy is rescued from the same watery grave as his parents in the ship Demeter by Leviathan, the great whale (an important figure in The Unwritten), and he is deposited at a school for magic, where he is raised in the kitchens. He has no magic himself, and so seems to be relegated to the life of a second class citizen. But Tommy is clever, and he makes friends, and when the Demeter is raised from the sea, it is his intelligence and grit that saves the day as much as the magic he discovers in himself. He proves himself a hero, and makes a difficult choice that makes him a savior, and sets him a messianic path.

That description could pretty well describe Harry Potter, and that's clearly intentional. It's the differences that make this book interesting. The more magical world and the fact that Tommy combines Harry Potter's grit and Hermione Granger's brain, gives the book a different flavor. Frankly, it feels closer to Garth Nix than J.K. Rowling, and there are healthy doses of Bram Stoker mixed in as well, with even a touch of Lovecraft for good measure. Carey knows his source material, and wears that on his sleeve, but in a book that is about humanity absorbing stories, and how stories effect the human mind and world, there are worse ways to be.

While the main part of the book is the story of Tommy, it is interspersed with scenes of the events surrounding the writing of the book and the birth and first year of life of Tom Taylor. These sequences are narrated through the journals of Wilson Taylor, so the view of events is somewhat skewed, but the reader gets a better understanding of what Wilson was doing. This does not make him any more sympathetic a character. In the regular comics, we've seen glimpses of Wilson's journals before, and they portrayed him as a cold, manipulative s.o.b., and this doesn't help. His treatment of Tom's mother, and the way he uses Tom, is nothing short of repugnant. But you get to see him as a pragmatist, doing this for "the greater good," and not a sadist, hurting people for no other reason than he can. The thorough process that Wilson uses to make Tom and Tommy one thing, despite them being inherently two (a little boy and a fictional character) is finally laid out, and it's brilliant in its Machiavellian design. Every step is laid out, from the moment of conception of both the book and child to Tommy's first birthday party, and every step he takes in between.

As with Fairest In All the Land, you don't really need to have read The Unwritten to enjoy this book. The sequences with Wilson won't have the same resonance, and you might really hate him if you don't know exactly what it is he's creating Tom to fight, but it's not like we don't live in a time where anti-heroes outnumber heroes in a lot of popular media. It also uses various artists, mainly Peter Gross, the main artist for The Unwritten, but includes works by other who have worked with Carey before. If you're someone who has enjoyed Tom Taylor's battles in the monthly comic, or someone who just enjoys a well told fantasy story, this is a great volume.

Both of these volumes are available now at both comic shops and book stores, and would make for excellent holiday presents.

No comments: