DC Comics has been having something of a string of good fortune lately with their New 52 venture, leading to some geeks to speculate whether or not Marvel Comics should follow suit. Now I’m not saying that I think Marvel should. I’m just saying that if they did, this is a 52-title Marvel Universe I would be interested in reading…
And in this week’s classic EBI, we go back to March 2005, a time when I’d been having a particularly crappy string of luck and I needed some cool comics to cheer myself up. Fortunately, those were easy to find.
Classic EBI #108: The New Mosaic Comics
When I’m having a particularly lousy week (as those of you who follow my blog know I’ve been having in epidemic proportions lately), there are few things that are as certain to cheer me up as finding a new comic book that I really enjoy. So I lucked out Friday when I went into ol’ BSI comics and picked up a copy of Lullaby: Wisdom Seeker from Image Comics and Alias Productions.
I am, as is well known, a big fan of children’s literature. I adore the works of L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll. I think The Chronicles of Narnia are great literature, and one Saturday this summer I’m going to be waking up like a kid at Christmas ready to get the new Harry Potter book. I’m also a big fan of Mike S. Miller, who’s writing this book along with Ben Avery and creator Hector Sevilla on some beautiful artwork. So Lullaby was an easy sell to me.
Here’s the basic plot – the story starts in a version of Wonderland where Alice never made it home. In fact, she doesn’t even remember her life in the “real” world except as vague dreams and shrounded memories. She has risen through the ranks and become the right hand of the infamous Queen of Hearts. Now there is unrest in the lands of imagination, and she sets out to find the source.
Lullaby is, in essence, a patchwork of twisted versions of these classic children’s stories. In addition to this new Alice, we’re also faced with a version of Jim Hawkins (of Treasure Island) who joined up with Long John Silver’s pirate crew and a spritely Pinocchio who was turned back into a puppet and, rather than break his father’s heart, fled to the other lands in hopes of finding the Wizard of Oz to restore his lost humanity.
So no, these aren’t exactly the characters we all grew up reading about, but they aren’t too far removed either. Alice is still a little girl who longs to go home, Pinocchio still yearns to be a real boy and, although Jim isn’t explored too deeply in the first issue, you get the sense that he joined the pirate’s life out of a thirst for adventure rather than gold.
Reading the book, however, immediately brought to mind two other recent comics, both of them critical and commercial successes, that use the same idea of snatching characters from disparate sources and putting them together. Here we’re talking, of course, about Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Bill Willingham’s Fables. Comics have long taken characters from different settings and combined them, going back to the very first stories of the Justice Society of America, which took the most popular characters from the then-National Comics and put them in a book together. At the time, such a thing had never been done. Decades later, it was common for superhero universes to have sort of an “all-star” team – the Justice League of America, the Avengers and so on. What Moore did with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was transplant that idea back a century. Who were the superheroes at the end of the 1800s? Well, that would be like likes of Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) and Mina Murray. (And go ahead and pan the movie if you must, but I thought the addition of an adult Tom Sawyer was a nice touch.) Who would the supervillains be? Clearly, the likes of Dr. Moriarity, the invading Martians from War of the Worlds and perhaps even some of the “heroes.”
Moore turned out two volumes of this critically acclaimed comic book (this isn’t that big a trick for him – Alan Moore could publish a recipe for prune-flavored flan and the comic book press would declare it a masterpiece) and supposedly a third is forthcoming. It wasn’t the first time such an idea had been attempted, but it was certainly one of the best comics ever to use the idea of stitching together such disparate characters.
Then of course there’s Fables. If you don’t know what Fables is, you must not read this column much because I praise it all the time. The brainchild of Bill Willingham, Fables is a story of fairy tale characters driven out of their homeland and into our “real” world by the invading forces of a mysterious entity called the Adversary. Living among humans for hundreds of years, some have resigned themselves to their existence, while others still believe they can one day find their way home. Of all the “mosaic” comics I’m talking about this week, I think Fables has, hands-down, the most expansive cast: Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Prince Charming, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Thumbelina, Old King Cole, Little Boy Blue, Jack of the Tales, Ichabod Crane, Beauty and the Beast, Baba Yaga, Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, Robin Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Beauty and the Beast and Flycatcher, just to name a few, have all been a part of this story. And while so far the Fables we’ve encountered have been mostly European or North American in origin, Willingham promises that future storylines will expand to Fables of other cultures as well.
You wouldn’t think that sort of thing was really so unusual for a comic book fan. We’re used to seeing team-ups. We’re even used to seeing team-ups among really bizarre groups of characters – Alien Vs. Predator, Superman/Madman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Flaming Carrot – even Archie Andrews has met the Punisher.
And it’s not that unusual to see these characters combined in other medium, either. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels cover over a century in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula survived and unleashed vampires across the world – but along the way Newman references real people and fictional characters freely. Jack the Ripper and Edgar Allan Poe make appearances alongside representations of James Bond, Superman, Dr. Strange, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even – in a brief Red Baron joke during World War I – Charles Schulz’s Snoopy.
So why is it stuff like Moore’s League seems so revolutionary to us?
Without sounding like a snob… I kind of think it’s because these are all characters from outside of comic books. We’re used to crossovers with comic book characters – or at the very least, characters that have a firmly-established presence in comics (like Aliens). It’s different when you’re talking about characters from other sources. A lot of the general public, if you tell them you’re reading a comic book, may turn up their nose at you. But if you tell them you’re reading a comic book where the Island of Dr. Moreau is a setting, that may elicit a gem of curiosity. If you tell them about Pinocchio and Jim Hawkins sailing off to the land of Oz, people who loved those books as children will want to know what you’re talking about. And if you mention that one of the best love stories in comics is currently between Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf, they’ll have to ask you where that’s coming from.
I think one of the reasons that comics like these three are arcing up in popularity is because we comic fans realize, on some level, that this is the kind of thing that could potentially grab other readers. Someone who loves the Oz books may want to read Lullaby. Someone who was raised on Allan Quartermain will want to check out the League. Someone who studies folklore will want to see how it is being treating in Fables.
The trick, as always, is getting the word out. The League movie, unfortunately, flopped (although I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people say). But there’s word that a Fables film may be in the works, and Lullaby would be perfect as an animated feature. If those audiences can be grabbed and lured back to the comic books, that would be a very good thing.
Then there’s the other reason that comic fans like these three titles – the most important reason. They’re all really, really good.
Who knew? Maybe you can get something out of those books without pictures after all.
FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: March 22, 2005
It was a surprisingly good week for comics, last week, friends. Aside from the aforementioned Lullaby, there were also very strong showings from Runaways, JLA: Classified and New X-Men: Academy X, but narrowly taking the top spot for me was New Avengers #4. This team is slowly growing on me, I must admit. Brian Michael Bendis has found a logical explanation for the characters on the team now and has thrown in a good bit of mystery as well. His characterization is top-notch, and while some may think Spider-Man’s constant quips are annoying, I think they clearly indicate how nervous the character is to be counted among such an auspicious group. While the impending inclusion of Wolverine still bugs the screaming bejeezus out of me, so far, the book is really a solid read.