Thursday, 2 June 2011

Books: Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms


Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Carlos Pacheco


Available now from Islington Libraries
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The first World War as you've never seen it before: fought with magic, wizards, zombies, dragons, vampires and spells: hell yes. For someone like me who rarely ventures into the fantasy section of the library (old beardy guys with pointy hats? I dunno - it just seems a little bit too silly or something I guess) I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone who enjoys a little bit of rip-roaring action adventure with a side helping of stomach-churning horrors of war (even tho it's got little magical sprites in it - that doesn't mean that it's all happy airy nonsense: I mean - stating the obvious here I know: but World War I wasn't exactly a picnic [1]).

(I'm pretty sure I heard somewhere that The Lord of the Rings was Tolkien sublimating his wartime experiences into a more palatable form anyway (no?) [2]: so it makes a strange sort of sense to join the two previously very separate genres (war and fantasy) into the same exhilarating package).

Fletcher Arrowsmith (nice name [3]) is a young, innocent, fresh-faced, starry eyed farm-boy (like he says: "I'm a just a kid - a small-town kid who'll never be anything much - just one more nobody who'll never matter in the world."[4]) who dreams of one day taking to the sky and becoming a member of the Overseas Aero Corps: where - well - let's just say that they don't fly in planes - and instead of guns - everyone carries a sword. Obviously - as you can probably tell by now - it's not exactly the same World War that you might (should?) know from the history books (I'm thinking I could make a joke about Spitfires and dragons at this point but I don't quite know how to phrase it (because dragons spit fire - yeah? no?)) - and it's lots of fun noticing the things they're tweaked (Those damn Prussians!) and what things they've kept the same ("They want t'kill each other over a dead Nobleman or Two was never no use to anyone anyway, it's their business."): just try not to get too jealous when you see their Statue of Liberty.

The story itself is pretty conventional and hits all the usual beats that you'd expect from a bildungsroman [5] but because of the strange setting (for me) it all felt brand new and exciting and fresh in way that most of the time you just don't get anymore... And even tho I'm sure a kid could read it with no ill effects (and in fact - I think some of the libraries even have it shelved in the children's section) - it feels like you need to be a little bit more adult to get the full effect of the thing (like I said - I'm not really into fantasy - so I don't know if this a old cliché or whatever - but I liked the bit where Arrowsmith gets the hang of how a spell works and when asked to describe how it works comes out with: "Don't really know. I was too scared to think straight, and then I was just doing it, and it was working, but I got nervous, and..." [6])

But - yeah - ingeniously conceived and set in a enticing world full of magnificent sights and wonders (and yeah - Carlos Pacheco is totally great at drawing the panoramic vistas stretching out into the horizon, the hustle and bustle of busy streets and (best of all) Paris at night under siege (is that a dinosaur?) - and - well - because he always makes sure to have everything properly filled out and detailed and - you know - having stuff in the foreground to contrast with the stuff in the background: it always has this cool feeling of depth  - cinematic? Yeah ok then. That's a good word to use...) as well as awful unsettling nightmarish horrors [7]: this is a comic that begs for several volumes worth of adventures (shame that - so far - there's only been the one book). With un-fussy artwork [8] and lots of nice ideas and cool juxapositions of the world of dungeons and dragons with the world of battles and bloodshed - that can make you smile at the way it's mixed it's genres together ("My real name is not for humin t-roats. Chust call me Rocky.") and then use that same mixture to deliver the low emotional blows ("Breaks my vamily, too. Break dem dead.") this is a fine book: smartly told.

[1] Obviously that's a major understatement - but I wasn't exactly sure how to phrase it without sounding totally glib. And in fact - one of the magical things about this book is how even tho what it seems to be doing is quite - well - disrespectful (telling a story about war - about adding dragons to it - I mean - that kinda sounds as ridiculous as writing a story about a murder or a sexual assault or whatever (something grim) and then adding leprechauns or some cartoon animal into it (you know - something a little bit childish) - but yet manages (through a few small displacements (notice that it's not really the same world as ours)) to make it reverential and (actually) quite serious: so - you know: it never really makes war seem like a fun thing to do (quite the reverse). Which is good for two reasons: one - there's no real problems with tone (see The Marvels Project (below) for the reverse of that) and two: it means that the story feels like it has real stakes. It doesn't feel frivolous - it's more like it's all (somehow) important.

[2] Isn't it supposed to be that the Hobbits are the nice, quiet, peace-loving English who want to do nothing more than sit in the countryside - sipping pints and smoking pipes - and the Orcs are the dirty nasty warmonging Germans? (Hey - I never said it was subtle).

[3] And "Mitch Taggart"? That's such a great name for a bully.

[4] With a winning sense of naïvety that (for better or for worse) just no longer seems possible in today's more bitter and cynical world: "People there deserve to live free of fear just as much as they do here. And someone's killing them, that someone's got to be stopped." (But - hey - we have ipods now so you know: swings and roundabouts).

[5] What a great word - right? For those of you that haven't heard it before: "In literary criticism, a Bildungsroman (German pronunciation: [ˈbɪldʊŋs.ʁoˌmaːn]; German: "formation novel") or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age), and in which character change is thus extremely important."

[6] And then - a little bit later on: "It was only temporary. Only fifteen minutes."

[7] The Blood Emperor - any relation I wonder to the Crimson King from Stephen King's Dark Tower books? (You know - just a thought). Also - I like the way that at the start of the book everything seems pretty black and white - but towards the end Busiek starts to leaven things out with a few shades of grey and you start to reconsider whether The Blood Emperor really exists - or if he's just a product of propaganda...

[8] You've got to love a comic that takes the time to have wordless panels of the hero staring out into the middle distance (in fact for the first part of the book that seems to be all that Fletcher Arrowsmith does). Pay attention people: it doesn't all have to be bang!-bang!-bang! all the time. Plus: there is a danger that with all the fantasy figures floating around that you could lose the all-important sense of realism - but Pacheco is really good at making all the magical wonders peppered throughout seem believable and even (and I mean this in a good way) mundane. Plus: I'm usually pretty lousy when it comes to talking about the colouring of books - but Alex Sinclair does a really top notch job all through this book - there's a moment when we get a close up of Mitch Taggart's in Chapter two ("Won't be any women's skirts there to hide behind...") and the way that the colours fill out all the contours of his face is really cool: you can see that there's not that much in terms of the lines from Carlos Pacheco but with the addition of the toning - it makes it all look three-dimensional... (I mean - this could be totally wrong - but it kinda reminded me of the work Jamie Grant does on All Star Superman). 

Further reading: Aetheric MechanicsSmaxSagaBattlefields, The Dark Tower, Astro City, Lucifer, The Arrival, The Authority, Orc Stain, Elephantmen, GrandvilleThe HobbitJoe the Barbarian, The UnwrittenThe TwelveThe Marvels ProjectTop 10: The Forty-Niners.

All comments welcome.

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