John-Michael Gariepy

Two Books: ‘Tale of Sand’ and ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Century 1910’

Today’s Two Books are dominated by big thinkers.  Few people haven’t heard of Jim Henson.  He’s the driving force behind The Muppets in their various iterations.  Likewise, it’s hard to call yourself a ‘comic book nerd’ and not know who Alan Moore is.  The creator of ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’ revolutionized the way we think and respond to pictures with accompanying words, dragging comics, kicking and screaming, out of the Bronze Age and into something more real, and more dangerous.  Both men were visionaries who saw the medium of television, films and comic books and demanded more.  They wanted us to think and to feel, and to come to a greater understanding of who we were and what we were capable of.

I don’t want to talk about Jim Henson and Alan Moore, though.  I want to talk about Ramon Perez and Kevin O’Neil.  An maybe a little bit about Jerry Juhl for good measure.

Who are Ramon Perez and Kevin O’Neil?  They’re the guys who took the time to illustrate ‘Tale of Sand’ and ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, respectively.  They both walk in the shadow of the giants that they prop up, and don’t get enough attention for the work they put in.  I’ll be the first to admit it:  I don’t have as much a respect for artists as I do for writers.  Why?  Some of this stems from the comics news people who sit on the opposite side of the fence and talk about which artists are doing what for what book.  Honestly, I get a bit steamed when someone buys a comic book because their favorite artist is doing a guest run.  Is the story any good?  Who cares?  Humberto Ramos is doing the artwork!

Good artists make me skeptical.  I was an innocent teenager when Image became a comic book powerhouse.  A group of underpaid comic book illustrators realized that they could pool their resources and create a spectacular product.  And what a spectacle it was… Image was glossy and splashy and kept selling out.  Over time, however, it became apparent why many of the illustrators in Image weren’t making the big bucks from Marvel and DC.  They were talented guitarists, but terrible singer-songwriters.  A few of those old comics are worth the read (The Maxx jumps to mind), but the majority of Image was a reader’s wasteland.

So, I have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to comic book artists.  Yet, I’m continually impressed by the work that Kevin O’Neil brings to The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  Not because he renders beautiful artwork to place this piece in.  Hell no.  These are some dirty, almost scribblish images.  Think old comics of Judge Dredd.  No, really, he used to be one of the most popular illustrators for Judge Dredd’s 2000 A.D. line, so, if you can imagine old Judge Dredd comic books, you pretty much have O’Neil’s style.

With the type of stories that Alan Moore tells, you want a layer of soot to permeate everything.  The important stuff is not how O’Neil draws, but what he draws.  There’s a website dedicated to picking apart Alan Moore’s works and annotating every little detail, because, you know, Alan Moore is crazy.  One quick look at annotation to this chapter of The League should give you a stark clue as to how crazy.  Crazy crazy.  But, come on!  I refuse to believe that this is all the work of one madman, and not the collaborative efforts of Moore and O’Neil working together to make the filigree more intricate.  Street scenes often spill out with quick caricatures of ten separate literary figures from 1910 per panel.  Really?  O’Neil isn’t doing some research himself and throwing in the occasional idea that slipped past Moore, like an errant Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye’s father when he was younger in 1910?

In the end, I can’t prove where Alan Moore’s intricate script ends, and where O’Neil’s doodly doodading begin.  I can, however, point to Ramon Perez’s work in Tale of Sand and say “A lot of what makes this book so great is due to the success of the artist.”  But for that to make any sense, you’ve got to know what ‘Tale of Sand’ represents.

Young Jim Henson had a lot of ideas floating around in his head.  In between the time when Sam and Friends went off the air and Sesame Street hadn’t been visualized yet, Jim filtered some of these ideas into a couple of short experimental films:  The Cube and Time Piece.  Time Piece went on to be nominated for an Oscar in 1966 for Best Short Film, which got Jim thinking that maybe the ideas and themes of Time Piece could be adapted into a full-length movie.

It’s very easy to act like Jim Henson was the only mover in his narrative, but I’ve got to stop here and remind everyone that when we talk about Jim Henson, we are talking about everyone in his life that contributed to his total work.  We definately don’t want to leave Jerry Juhl out of the picture.  Jerry was a terrible puppeteer.  Knowing how bad he was at putting his hand in a sock and making it come to life, Jerry began focusing on putting words in the mouth of those socks.  Roughly every Jim Henson script written has Jerry’s writing all over it.  The thing that made The Muppets witty and entertaining for all audiences, instead of to just children or subversive radicals – that was Jerry’s work.  Instead of something with which you had to struggle, Jerry turned The Muppeteers’ exuberance into something you could enjoy.

So Jim and Jerry wrote a feature length script for Time Piece, and titled it ‘Tale of Sand’.  It didn’t get picked up, so they polished it.  They made Sesame Street and the Muppet Show and Fragile Rock and a lot of movies together, but Tale of Sand couldn’t stand on it’s legs.  It didn’t matter that Jim and Jerry kept pulling it out of the bottom drawer and working and reworking that script.  No studio wanted to pick it up.

In 2011, however, Archaia Entertainment, a comic book publisher, impressed the Jim Henson Estate with their desire to turn Tale of Sand into a comic book.  The estate agreed, and Ramon Perez was put in charge of illustrating it and oh… oh, wow.

And there’s a ton of stuff that you can point to and say “Jim didn’t envision that.  That’s Ramon.”  At one point, a pack of Arabs meet up with a football team (don’t ask why).  The Arabs speak in Arabian, while the football players speak in a series of ‘X’s, ‘O’s and arrows.  You know, like they were writing a football play on chalkboard.  Movies don’t have word balloons.  It’s cute, it fits Jerry and Jim’s humor and it adds to the fun. Tale of Sand has a lot of establishing shots and a lot of action shots.  The script is very low on dialogue and relies on the director and cameramen to pull the story together.  Except, in comic book form, there is no film crew.  There’s just Ramon, fighting with Jerry and Jim’s direction, working to make something befitting of this classic duo.  And he did it.  He did it in such a way that comes dangerously close to overshadowing Jerry and Jim’s great plot.  This book is beautiful, man.

At times, Ramon slaps copies of the script with original annotations as the background.  It’s a good fit, because it pays homage to the work that Jim and Jerry did, as well as give you a sense of how the original writers worked.  But those two wouldn’t have been vain enough to put their own script in the movie… not without a chance to make fun of themselves in the process.  At one point, we see a movie director pop into the scene, and, Hey!  That’s Jim Henson!  He’s in his own comic!  And, yes, that’s exactly what Jim would have done if he ever got a chance to direct this, as a wink to the audience.  But I doubt he would have written that in so much as made a mental note to do it later.  The fact that Ramon picks up on this detail goes a long way to show that he’s right in Jim’s head.  He knows what this story wants and he delivers.

So, yes, Tale of Sand is brilliant.  Here comes the awkward part where reality seeps in and I need to give this book a review and I have to admit a snag. Since the book was made with a very high production quality, Archaia is asking for the fair price of $29.95 retail.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that, while the book is dense, it is dialogue light, and you could blow through it in maybe two hours.  Thirty bucks for two hours entertainment.  That’s rough.

I think it’s worth it, but I can see how other people may balk.  I tell you what:  If you demand that your library get a copy of this book, I’ll consider us even.  Talk to the person in charge of your public or school library and convince them of the cultural significance of this book.  Or spread the word by buying the book, reading through it, then giving it to a friend as a present.  It’s a very nice present.

As for ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century 1910’, there was nothing wrong with the book, but it’s a bit too much of a ‘I told you that story so I can tell you this one’ tale.  Alan Moore plans and plots, and when he does it well, you feel like you got clobbered aside the head.  Sometimes, though, the payoff requires a lot of plotting and scheming for that which is coming down the line.  Century 1910 feels like its building to something important that never comes.

So, those who are already reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen don’t have to fear.  If you like the story so far, then this is a continuation, nothing more or less.  If this is you’re a first time reader to tLXG books, however, you should stay away from this stuffy book full of characters you don’t recognize with a plot that’s about as in-between as they get.  I’d either suggest starting from the beginning with Volume I, or, if you want a sense of crazy, yet fascinating, you can jump straight to the Black Dossier, which gets across everything that’s happened, and more so.  No, really, Black Dossier is a great read, but, despite the fact that it is a comic book, it is denser than most novels I know.  So, fair warning:  Jump to the Black Dossier only if you find it fun to go out of your mind on occasion.

All right people, until next time, don’t watch out for the little guy.  Watch out for the big guy right behind the big guy.  That guy packs a whollop.

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