Does It Really Matter What Happened to the Suit?

(Haspiel’s Spider-Man)

It’s a mystery. But it’s only a minor mystery: the evidence for that is how long it took any one to answer the question. On the occasion of Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary, do we get more than a minor footnote, little more than an errata, and the convenience of a short story in a long career? There’s something a little more disturbing than the average dramatic gesture at the inception of this mystery. Any Spider-Man fan should flinch a little seeing the Spider-Man suit draped over a grimy trashcan in issue #50. It’s extreme enough to mean something, to hit home as a resonant image, but to leave it there? Yes, that’s enough to haunt the back of one’s mind. For the same reason we don’t leave flags lying on the ground, someone needed to pick up that suit. Thankfully, that person was Dean Haspiel.

Spider-Man #692, celebrating 50 years of Spidey’s legacy in comics, was released this month with 3 stories, 3 writers (Dan Slott, Dean Haspiel, and Joshua Hale Fialkov), and a number of artists (Humberto Ramos, Dean Haspiel, Nuno Plati et al.) all making a team effort as tribute to the web-slinger. Haspiel’s story, both written and drawn by him, steps back in time to a missing night in the life of Spider-Man’s costume. In Spider-Man #50, an oppressed Peter Parker, worried about Aunt May’s deteriorating health, hounded by society under the influence of J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle campaign to malign him, and failing at school makes a radical choice: to walk away from his life as Spider-Man. Leaving his suit in a trashcan in the rain, Peter seems to make some headway in his personal life. Aunt May’s health improves, he and Gwen Stacy manage to finally spend some time hanging out, and he settles in for a night of being a good student when his Spidey instincts keep prompting him to leap to the aid of the innocent. He resists, but by the end of night, suit or not, he’s scaling a building on behalf of a threatened security guard. The time away from his suit teaches Peter something, perhaps that being Spider-Man isn’t about the suit. It’s not something he can just strip off and walk away from.

(Amazing Spider-Man #50, 1967)

Haspiel’s story intersects with the themes and ideas of issue #50 in some unpredictable ways. It’s not a rehashing or a retelling from the perspective of the suit in any literal sense. If anything, this is an opposite story told in a kind of bizarro perspective, homing in on the unexpected to illustrate to the reader just how unfamiliar this story can be. It delves a little deeper into the context of that night in Peter Parker’s life even though Peter is only present in the first panel of the story. Firstly, it’s a world where Spider-Man has become a hated figure. In that sense, it is already a world upside down for Peter, a reversal he can’t quite handle. That makes it the most unlucky time in super history for someone to wear the spider-suit. In an upside down world for one upside down night, the upside down version of Peter finds and puts on the suit for his own ends. Who exactly is the opposite of Peter? Not a savage teen with a devil-may-care attitude (we see that guy briefly in Spider-Man’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15), but someone who closely resembles in appearance and behavior the very robber who killed Uncle Ben. If the reader is unconvinced that he’s Peter’s opposite act, the story will convince you, and show the even more surprising ways in which the two are connected.

(Haspiel’s Spider-Man)

Our robber, fleeing from a crime in a somber, close fitting body suit and black ski-mask that bears more than a passing resemblance to a dark spidey-suit, comes upon Peter’s discarded hero costume and puts it on to evade capture. He doesn’t realize that he’s doing a rather unlucky thing, taking on a hated role. The persecution the robber faces from a policeman as Spidey hits home despite its comedic value: “Go home, ya freak”. It’s comedic because our robber deserves a little persecution. It’s painful because what we “see” is Spider-Man being rapped on the hand and treated like a lackey by a policeman. There’s something very wrong with that. What’s wrong centers around the suit.

When readers of Spider-Man #50 saw the suit hanging out of a garbage can, they felt the seriousness of that image. Things weren’t made right again until Peter scaled the Daily Bugle building to redeem the suit that a child has brought in to Jameson. In Haspiel’s story, we know we are dealing with an impersonator, but something still happens—for us—when the robber puts on that suit. We see Spider-Man. He’s not Peter, but in some sense, he’s still Spider-Man. And he’s being grossly mistreated by the society he has thus far protected. However hokey it may sound, the suit has magical properties in terms of storytelling and ideas, and, as we see by the end of Haspiel’s story, that’s a force to be reckoned with.

(Haspiel sketch)

So, just how is the robber Peter’s opposite act? The reader gets that sense, firstly, when the robber appears in a dark body-suit, and secondly when, once wearing the Spidey-suit, he picks up a gun. Haspiel gives that moment full visual attention because it should be arresting. The image is familiar—it’s Spider-Man—but  unfamiliar: he’s holding a gun. Not only that, but he also picks up a bag of stolen cash. Violence and personal gain are two things that Peter vanquished early-on in the trials he faced becoming Spider-Man. Could it be that the suit is leading its new inhabitant through the same processes? It’s not a true heroic origin story for our burglar, but a mock version with some points to make.

Let’s note one strange connection between Peter and the burglar, though: motivation. Peter has given up being Spider-Man partly out of concern for the sickly Aunt May, who he can’t really help with his spider-powers, but he can help through simply being her nephew and standing by her. We learn that our burglar is motivated by “Olivia”, later revealed to be his granddaughter, another suffering invalid. He desires the power to help her, and money seems the only way to do that. He may even have been driven to this criminal lifestyle to pay for her “treatments”.

Our burglar attempts to knock over a pawn shop to pay for Olivia’s “treatments”, and again, the reader is faced with the shocking image of Spider-Man leveling a gun at someone. There are no innocent people in this panel, or on the page, for that matter. With real vitriol the shopkeeper and a female customer insult Spidey. Sure, he deserves it as the burglar, but they are not just insulting his current behavior. There’s a strong sense that they had already made up their mind about him. There’s a certain degree of sympathy for the burglar because of their unwarranted bitterness. When the shopkeeper gains the burglar’s gun and, firing it (another alarming image of real violence) finds that it either doesn’t work or isn’t loaded, we’re left with the possibility that the burglar was carrying a dummy gun all along. In some ways, it’s all an act to carefully divide our absent hero from our present criminal in a superficial way that’s then stripped away to reveal similarities.

(Amazing Fantasy #15)

But this breaks down an old dynamic at the heart of the Spider-Man origin story. Couldn’t the shopkeeper have just as easily been Uncle Ben and the robber the very robber who shot Peter’s uncle? It’s a loaded scene in many ways, a retelling, and re-shaping of possibilities. In this case, the robber isn’t evil, just inept, and the potential victim isn’t a saintly mentor, but an easily led hater. Spider-Man’s origin story, however, also contains some of these ambiguities. Isn’t it Peter who has to learn “great responsibility”? He’s hardly heroic in his early decision-making. If Peter’s no saint then the robber who kills Uncle Ben is no super-villain. There will be others to fill that role later on in the Spider-Man narrative.

(Amazing Fantasy #15)

To backtrack, in Haspiel’s story, when the robber puts on the Spider-Man suit, he says, “If I look like a super hero, then I am a super hero”. He’s not commenting on a desire to become a virtuous man. Instead, he means that he expects to be recognized as a hero by society if he puts on the costume. It’s a pre-packaged role that he simply needs to step into to take advantage of. The suit is like an expensive sports car left in an alley, engine running. No wonder he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. But of course his words become a haunting meditation and a question. To what extent do the clothes make the man? In Spider-Man #50, we learn that the clothes do not at all make the man; Peter finds that the heroism is inside of him, and inescapable. His “power” is still with him, and so also therefore is his sense of “responsibility”. But what power does this opportunist have, and to what degree does he have any responsibility to uphold?

Haspiel’s most humorously rendered scene in a comic with quite a few humorous scenes, depicts pseudo-Spidey (whose age and paunchiness by the way may well suggest the hero himself 50 years on), fleeing from a hail of golf clubs. The irony of course is that, the “menace to society” that Jameson has declared Spidey to be has become a fact when a criminal dons the Spidey outfit. Our burglar has proven that he can be a menace to society (though society seems at least equally mendacious), but can he be anything else?

(Haspiel’s Spider-Man)

A strong visual link brings us around to the idea of a “broken” Spider-Man, and it might well remind the reader of Peter’s own psychological struggles walking away from the suit, when our burglar steps on and breaks a Spidey action figure in his granddaughter’s bedroom. If there hasn’t been enough refraction and multiplication of the Spider-Man role in the story from the broken toy and stolen suit, there are also the large Spidey posters, dolls, and memorabilia owned by the adoring Olivia. Spider-Man seems to be everywhere, to the point that the robber externalizes and talks to the ideal of Spidey in doll form, saying, “She loves you”. For her grandfather, that’s enough motivation to try to actually—act—like a hero rather than just look like one.   But Olivia’s reaction to her grandfather’s impersonation of Spider-Man is ambiguous, and leaves the reader with some room for interpretation. She assures him that there are “only so many people a super hero can save in one day”. Does this mean that she doesn’t expect to be saved, and yet loves Spidey anyway? If so, this suggests that she loves him for who he is—a hero—not for what he could do for her. She values his character above his actions. Spider-Man means something to her as an idea.

That obviously has an impact on the robber, who returns the suit to the trashcan where he found it, presumably so that Spider-Man can find it again, but at least in some kind of gesture of reverence for its symbolic value. His words also leave plenty of room for interpretation “It takes more to be a superhero than just dressing like one”. This isn’t a simple gloss on what Olivia said to her grandfather, but a statement about the whole story arc. Even Olivia, who loves Spider-Man, acknowledges a limitation in the super hero role, that Spidey can’t save everyone, and she’s ok with that. It doesn’t diminish her sense of what a super hero is. For her grandfather, this seems to increase his sense of reverence. Spider-Man might just be a guy in some way. It humanizes the hero. Once the robber realizes that, it seems to dawn on him just what Spidey has managed to accomplish. He knows that the suit can’t turn him into a hero. Peter Parker, learning his own lesson that night, learns that taking off the suit can’t “un-turn” him into a hero, either. The suit’s a symbol, of course, for something, a hero, and not the thing in itself.

(Amazing Spider-Man #50)

So, does it really matter what happened to the suit that night? On Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary as a hero, is a minor mystery worth exploring? Why not take on a bigger gap in his long history? Depending on the details and what the story of the suit contained, it could have just been an amusing anecdote, and a particularly satisfying one, especially if it was clever, as this story is. But the story that Haspiel creates opens up the can of worms that Spider-Man #50 opened and carefully resealed about the nature of heroism, and the convoluted and ambiguous relationship between symbols and actions. As a character, part of Spider-Man’s appeal is that he does not always dish out simple paradigms for heroism. In this story, even Olivia’s aware of that. There’s little doubt that, in Spider-Man #50, Peter Parker is actually quantifiably more heroic when he leaps into action out of costume. It’s equally true that, in Haspiel’s story, the robber becomes potentially heroic when he takes that costume off, too. Does that mean that the costume’s unnecessary, something that should be discarded? No. It means that the costume actually does mean something beyond itself. It’s transcendent, and that’s a hard lesson for both Peter and the burglar. It’s a crushing, overpowering thing that can’t be expelled, eliminated, or thrown out, and it’ll change those who get in its path.

One final stroke of genius from Haspiel is the solemn truth that even in absentia, Spider-Man has stopped another criminal from future violent deeds, thereby safeguarding the innocent. Just the idea of Spider-Man converts the burglar toward some higher form of understanding. At a point in Spidey’s story where he is considered little better than a criminal by society, why not let a criminal take the role for a spin? Why does it matter what happened to the suit during the time Peter tried to escape the role? Because Spider-Man #50 may show us that Peter can’t escape the role in costume or not, but Haspiel’s story shows us that no one can escape the role and impact of heroism. Even the burglar acknowledges that is a big, big responsibility.

(Amazing Spider-Man 50th Anniversary cover, issue #692)

Gaelic at the End of the World

If you’re interested in Scottish Gaelic (which the Scots pronounce Gallic), a Celtic language closely related to Irish Gaelic, be prepared for a world of misconceptions. When I first picked up a Scottish Gaelic dictionary, I was twelve years old and had convinced my sister to smuggle me into her college library. That was the only way I could find a Gaelic dictionary or book. Times have changed. In the twenty-first century, the internet can bring Gaelic books to your door, but the misconceptions haven’t greatly shifted in the intervening period.

The fact that people now have hundreds of thousands of books at their fingertips just means that out of the way avenues like Gaelic remain unexplored. After all, why would you want to learn Scottish Gaelic? The most common thing people say to me when I bring it up is “Isn’t it dead?” They usually use the word “dead”. Not sure why. Maybe they are familiar with the phrase “dead languages” and are equating Gaelic with imperial Latin or Homeric Greek. I have always said “No.” to the “Isn’t it dead” question, but I was never really sure exactly how “un-dead” it was.

I took up an academic career as a Celtic scholar and became proficient in Welsh while living in the UK, added passable Irish Gaelic to that, learned to understand Breton and decipher Manx. Cornish and Pictish (little though there be) were not entirely mysterious, but somehow I was just always too busy to learn Scottish Gaelic, the reason I had become a Celticist in the first place. My least shining moment was when my professor offered to send me to Scotland to learn Gaelic and I opted to have a crazy week in Paris with some friends instead. The fact that the course of study was on the Isle of Skye made my betrayal worse, because my Gaelic-speaking ancestors were from Skye. My missed opportunities stayed with me a long, long time.

Years later I found myself telling my grandmother that I’d go and take that course “someday” and she, wisely, reminded me that there’s no time like the present. I considered this for awhile, too long, and after she had passed away, it came back to bite me. I decided to finally make that trip.

So this is where the story really starts, but the preamble has a lot to do with the significance of my arrival in July of 2012 on Skye. I was no stranger to Skye by that point- that pilgrimage at least I had made a couple of times- but I was still a little unsure what to expect. The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has been teaching Gaelic language and culture for almost 40 years. I had the idea that they were some kind of lonely academic outpost desperately teaching a few students a year (sorry SMO). I had no idea that they were at the center of a thriving Gaelic-speaking community that spanned the highlands and islands of Scotland and that around a hundred thousand Gaelic speakers still resided in Scotland. It seems almost impossible that a Celtic scholar managed to reach 2012 and not know that. It was the first of many revelations. It should have occurred to me that if my family managed to keep speaking Gaelic in the Carolinas of the USA for nearly 200 years after their arrival, a tenacious language would hold fast to it’s own landscape and endure, and be reborn into new generations.

Just to make things a little more offbeat, my scheduling for the summer meant that I signed up for a newly established course that placed a focus on travel around the island and learning outside the classroom. Skye is a tourist mecca for hiking and climbing, dazzling for photographers and for nature-lovers, so that all sounded brilliant to me, but I packed waterproof gear. The misty isle’s unpredictable weather is legendary and I had been both ice-burned and sun-burned on previous occasions. The new course was also running off site from the college campus that’s the home to SMO, in a “lodge” up north of Staffin on the Trotternish Peninsula. That seemed remote even to me, and when I arrived at a wild coastal landscape with dramatic volcanic views in each direction, it seemed unreal that I’d be spending a week in a place more suited to filming some kind of Viking epic. Beowulf could easily be filmed on Trotternish. They could even use the actual rocky shingles where Vikings drew up their longships. But maybe they wouldn’t want the actual Viking weather to interrupt their filming.

To add to the dream-like quality of the location, the sun would hardly set the entire week, and there’d be a dash of borealis, a shocking neon green, to keep you awake. The “lodge” was a stone house of generous proportions, recently renovated but maintaining a Georgian charm. It was alarmingly luxurious for language course accommodation, but that was part of what made the experiment unique. A small group of people were going to live in the house, travel together, and learn Gaelic more from observation and discussion than from staring at a white board.  That was the idea, and that was what happened.

Each of the students who arrived that Sunday afternoon had a slightly different story and widely divergent journeys in life. Most had taken some Gaelic courses before in some form, but felt for various reasons that they needed to start over and get a different kind of grounding in learning the language. Our teacher, Muriel Fisher, a native speaker from the Isle of Skye who has been a professor of Gaelic and linguistic consultant all over the world, was precisely the kind of change we all needed in our approach to language. I had looked at plenty of Gaelic books in my life- sure- I owned quite a few. They can give you an idea of the romance and structure of the language, but there will be something missing unless you learn Gaelic as a spoken language. It’s oral identity, firmly fixed, demands speech and sound at its formative level. I don’t mean to say that it is not, or cannot be, a literary language also. But Gaelic truly becomes a living language in the hands of a native speaker, and a native speaker knows best how to convey the vitality of a language to pupils.

Muriel’s approach did not focus on the minor rights and wrongs of language usage, but on what was most natural to the language. That’s where the outdoor classroom aspect came in. We learned the Gaelic for place-name features and landscape conversationally, by actually looking at them. How simple, but strangely revolutionary. Meanwhile, because we were moving through communities of Gaelic-speakers, we heard Gaelic spoken even more fluently around us. Anyone who has ever studied a language knows that this is key for beginners. If you only hear the beginners level of a language, you never progress and perhaps in more psychological terms, you never feel that desire to progress or dare to attempt conversations that you’re not sure you’re capable of. There is no doubt that this “experimental” format for the course had positive outcomes for the learners. Add to that the rich amount of history and local lore that we picked up, viewing the Gaelic-speaking community of the isles through real-world events, and gradually becoming even more aware of the tenacity that had kept the language alive through hardship and vast cultural shifts.

This learning aspect gave a greater reason for what we were doing, participating in the preservation of a language. It reminded us that we were becoming part of a community by speaking even one word of Gaelic. The Gaelic we were being introduced to in our rambles, ranging from an early medieval monastery ruin to a late medieval clan chief’s castle and a modern, functioning distillery, gradually increased in complexity, but I don’t think any of us noticed that progression. We were too busy being involved in our environment through the medium of Gaelic.

And at the end of the day we had a return to a small community environment, really mimicking an extended family set-up, with a pleasant sense of seclusion in a constantly changing landscape. Most evenings, the weather was clear enough to view the alluring silhouettes of the Hebrides hovering over the water in the distance. Just over them the sun would set in a streak of orangey-red, hang there for a few hours, then slide into the northern lights if you were still up to see them. We got used to the constant loud beating of waves only a few meters away that at first seemed almost deafening.

Skye, and the course, seemed to save the best for last. Our final day out and about on the island was so cloudless and the air so clear that I could hardly look at the stark landscape without sunglasses. Wind-swept, sun-struck, the ocean took on a Mediterranean blue with that chillier northern edge. We spent the day scrambling over ruins in the severe light, watching sheep being sheared, and learning more about the local community. Only a brief rest later we headed to a ceilidh gathering with a fluent-speaking Gaelic learning community in Flodigarry. We beginners were a little wary that we wouldn’t be able to communicate or participate fully in the party, but we needn’t have worried. I’ve been to ceilidhs before, but for me, this was a unique experience. It really seemed to redefine what a ceilidh is. It wasn’t necessarily the extraordinarily high quality of contributions from singing to instrumental performance to poetic recitation, though that was stellar, but the sense that this was just an informal, ordinary thing, where anyone could participate.

The sense of the ordinary conveyed something- that ceilidhs are, at heart, simply a communal gathering on any particular occasion- but that when they function through the medium of Gaelic, they become extraordinary. This is because it recreates the original circumstances of the language community itself. Ceilidhs were evening entertainments in a community of native speakers and that was what was happening at Flodigarry. Those two factors, simple though they may be, are the kind of thing that makes Gaelic a living language and will continue to do so.

I spoke to some of the people who were contributing to the event, trying to grasp a little of their background story for learning Gaelic, and in particular, pursuing Gaelic as a musical medium. Many were passionate supporters of folk music festivals in far-flung locales spanning the globe. Some were semi-professional, others just enthusiasts. All of them felt part of a community. It seemed like being at an event like this one made them feel like they had come home.

What does this kind of homing signal mean in an era where people are increasingly disconnected from the places where they live and work? I have actually lived in so many places in my life that I no longer remember how many. And yet, having taken the intensive Gaelic course, I am tempted to add Skye to the list. It just feels that way regardless of whether a week can “count” in that reckoning. I think that when people are increasingly faced with a wide range of cultural identities in their personal history, you enter into an era of “identification”. That means choice. If modern people, posed with the question of their national or international identity, decide to maintain their ties to a particular cultural identity, actually make the step to learn a language that has been lost or ineffectively transmitted in their heritage, it becomes quite a statement. It would be the equivalent of getting to choose your family. Everyone at the ceilidh had chosen their family. That’s a remarkable thing.

As long as people keeping choosing, and teaching, Gaelic will live on. It may be strongest in a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world from bustling cities like London or New York, but sometimes that’s the best place to hang out with your family and remember what you think’s important and why. It can be quite a revelation, and like my grandmother reminded me, there’s no time like the present.

To learn more about studying Gaelic with the SMO, click here.

To learn more about Muriel Fisher and all the great teaching she does in Scotland and the USA, click here.

Comics That Punch You in The Face 2: NEVSKY by Ben McCool and Mario Guevara

We are living in an era of increased media tie-ins between comics and film, comics and merchandise, and comics with digital meta-texts. This isn’t a new pattern, but the exact routes of cultural transmission are becoming more complex and the ways in which a film may stem from a comic and eventually return to a comic format can dazzle even the careful enthusiast. Usually the movement is from comics to film. Occasionally, it’s from film back into comics. But it’s a highly unusual thing for a classic film, one that set the standard for genre and redefined the capability of film, to be adapted into a comics text.  The allure of doing so becomes clearer when it’s a film that is visually stunning, highly imaginative, and as rich in narrative threads as Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein. Perhaps even more of a logical step when the original material deals with content dear to the comics medium: the rise and fall of an unlikely hero. What could be more at home in the comics medium than a heroic narrative?

Gonzo writer Ben McCool of Choker, Memoir, Pigs, and the upcoming Lookouts from Penny Arcade, and artist Mario Guevara, who has done some stunning historical pieces in Solomon Kane and Victorian Undead, throw down the gauntlet on just what comics, as a storytelling medium, are capable of. They are joined by colorists David Baron, Allen Passalaqua, Peter Pantazis, and letterer Shawn Lee. Passalaqua has established quite a reputation for luminous palettes carefully tailored to project needs, as seen in The Five Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies from Shiftylook (by Ben McCool and Dean Haspiel). This graphic novel has the total package in terms of teamwork, and this is only cemented by the presence of Scott Dunbier of IDW as editor.

It takes guts to attempt an adaptation like this, both for the writer and the artist. They are handling the material arranged by an acknowledged master of visual storytelling and creating something that attempts to stand alongside one of Eisenstein’s greatest triumphs. They also face some of the same challenges that Eisenstein faced on a basic level: how to convey the epic scale and scope of major battle scenes and point out the significant moments within the arc of a legendary career without repetition or a diminution in impact for the audience/reader. It takes real determination to tell such an astonishing story, suggesting a firm respect for the original film and its impact.

Legendary filmmaker Sergie Eisenstein, perhaps best known for his silent film Battleship Potemkin, with its Odessa steps sequence of a bouncing baby carriage, was a master of the meaningful montage, a series of images that, when combined, created an emotional impact greater than the sum of its frames. That’s a lot for a comic to take on, and especially since it must do so within the logic of the comics medium rather than simply trying to mirror the techniques of a different art form.

The film Alexader Nevsky was released in 1938 within a Stalinist state engaged with the rise of the German threat on the verge of World War II. Eisenstein created one of his greatest works diplomatically, avoiding, unlike some of his previous films, being banned, and even assuring its circulation as far afield as the United States. Its subject matter concerned one of Russia’s greatest medieval heroes, the ruling prince from 1220-1263 who was later enshrined as a patron saint of a sacred order of knights. It is the story of an underdog who becomes an inspiring leader, someone who creates a sense of national identity during a time of invasion. Eisenstein is thought of as a film director for the “common man”, and this is no exception since the themes he celebrates in Alexander Nevsky are universal.

McCool has his work cut out for him, but as Eisenstein has illustrated, the material, however problematic, is a goldmine. Some of the potential pitfalls that McCool navigates, perhaps even more deftly than the master of cinema, is the use of historical language when crafting new and relevant dialogue. McCool’s choices are particularly satisfying. Rather than going straight for the ultra-modern in terms of lingo to give a sense of total update, which readers would no doubt find passable rather than inspiring, he maintains a respectful tone toward historical context, using elements of more formal syntax without getting bogged down. In other words, the dialogue of Nevsky has a stately rhythm that elevates the heroic tone of the piece without rendering it too rigid or unfamiliar. It strikes a balance between the type of language readers appreciate from a heroic epic and the function of that language in telling a story with reasonable speed and accuracy. It would have been easy to produce a narrative more heavily burdened by narrative and dialogue out of respect for exact adaptation. McCool shows a savvy understanding of the needs of the comics medium in his choices and it makes a big difference in the accessibility of the text to readers.

Both McCool and Guevara can be credited with a strong instinct for pacing in a story driven by “action”, back-stories, and significant diplomatic conversations. Eisenstein produced a film about Russian history for a Russian audience and managed to gain international recognition for rendering his tale transparent to an audience unfamiliar with the subject matter. McCool and Guevara manage to convey the information necessary to grasp historical context and political intrigue without delving into elaborate asides or heavy exposition. Page for page, Nevsky shows a strong sense of balance, not to mention a clear visual language and movement between interlinked panels. It’s a sprawling epic, in fact, but the reader is not aware of the narrative dangers thereof, that of losing the narrative thread: another pitfall avoided masterfully.

Guevara’s strengths are at once visible in his earlier work on the moody Puritan monster-hunter Solomon Kane from Darkhorse. He brings a canny instinct for movement in close-up fight scenes to Nevsky. In a story dealing with whole armies and the fate of a city, he renders violence a more personal, and therefore more dramatic, thing through focusing on narrow angles and the role of setting. His atmospheric settings are superb, from the architecture of Novgorod, to the eerie forests and ice-plains of the “Battle on the Ice” famously rendered by Eisenstein. Perhaps Guevara’s most striking contribution, though, to telling Nevsky’s story visually, is his use of the distance “shot”, seen from above and including architectural features. It has a highly symbolic effect typical also of Eisenstein’s filmmaking of placing people within a meaningful landscape.

Neither McCool or Guevara shy away from the potential impact of “silent” panels. Though Alexander Nevsky was a “talking” film when released in 1938, the influence of silent cinema on Eisenstein’s filmmaking remained, and produced the peculiar visual style of silence during movement to create thematic weight. The scene from the film, and also present in the graphic novel of the “Battle on the Ice” is a salient example. Guevara does not litter the clash between armies with overcrowded sound effects. We see small groups of combatants poised in motion. Facial expressions and physical positions replace dialogue or suggested sound, and remind us what comics can do particularly well: tell a story through direct visual cues which invite reader participation for interpretation.

Passalaqua’s colors also create an iconic palette for this comic, quite literally. The text is seeped in the ethereal blues of the interiors of Orthodox church domes and religious annunciations. It’s set off and edged with the intense reds of illustrated saints’ lives on wooden panels, and has a particular golden-brown glow of vellum manuscript pages and wooden statuary. Blue predominates imbuing the story with a particular mood of the sacred.

The graphic novel is awash with supporting material for the historically or artistically minded; from essays and interviews to historical background materials, the “meta-text” to the story makes sure that the story itself is placed within its historically significant context. This suggests that the graphic novel Nevsky is aware of its place within the wider myth of Nevsky and his achievements. It’s a remarkable gesture that challenges the reader to presume that Nevsky is more than just a story, but rather is part of world-wide heroic mythology itself.

The creators of Nevsky set themselves quite a task in taking on a story that had already set an industry standard within its own medium. McCool and Guevara assume, and therefore set out to demonstrate, the capability of comics to handle the extremities of epic storytelling on an equal footing with film. But they do far more than prove this point in Nevsky. They tell a timeless story to a new generation of fans while conveying a respect for story-origins. This may sound like an impossible task, but Nevsky was an “impossible” hero, too; both set out and manage to surprise all expectations.

*For a digital “trailer” and preview of Nevsky, visit the graphic novel’s website here.

*For more about Ben McCool’s work, visit his blog here.

*For more about Mario Guevara’s work, you can find it here.

Leaping Tall Buildings @Jim Hanley’s Universe, July 25, 2012

I had the good fortune to attend one of the most entertaining panels I’ve yet seen, bringing together a range of comics professionals who were featured in the new photo-essay comics history book Leaping Tall Buildings by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner. Chris Claremont, Larry Hama, Dean Haspiel, Kevin Colden, Simon Fraser, Matt Madden, and Joe Infurnari turned this into a riveting event as they discussed their own comics origin stories, the mementos and memories they hold onto from comics past, and where they all are headed in the near future. Hosted by Chris Irving and Seth Kushner, the event “chronicle” I did can be found on TRIP CITY, here, with photos by India Kushner. Here are a couple of my own, too.