6.7.09

Scarlet Traces

Ahh. Good old British fi-sci. I read War of the Worlds when I was a teen, and finished it to my surprise. All the quaint talk of Martians advancing on Clapham felt a bit silly. But the showdown at the end was terrific. Still, have to say I enjoyed this comic book steampunk sequel by Brit duo Ian Edgington and D'Israeli a whole lot more. It was much prettier, for one.

Why have comic books cornered the market in pulpy speculative fiction? The comic strip is a form. It can tell any and all types of stories. And yet it is most commonly associated with genres featuring the outlandish and the weird -- science fiction, fantasy, horror. This is no accident, I think. Because these tales feature events so removed from our regular experience (zombies, spaceships, castles), describing those worlds is difficult to do with words. In fact, can you even use our language in a context so alien? I remember being really annoyed by how the dragon firework in Lord of the Rings is described as 'passing like an express train'. Hobbits have no knowledge of express trains. That simile takes the reader outside the world they are reading about. You feel like the internal consistency and credibility of the story is undermined.

Telling your tale in a comic strip means you avoid all such problems. The pictures take care of the description. How does Spiderman swing on his webs? I'll show you how he does it. Before computers started making films, illustration and animation were the only ways you could tell these stories easily, using visual information to convey things words cannot describe. Only with the advent of CGI have the tables turned. And this is why we are getting such a rush of superhero, science fiction and fantasy films in our multiplexes. It's not that those stories are particularly relevant to our times (they always were). It's just that they are now easier to make.

But back to Scarlet Traces. It is a perfect example of pictures saying more than a thousand words. D'Israeli can convey in a couple of pages the huge transformation Victorian society has undergone with the arrival of Martian technology. His backgrounds and landscape panels are meticulously designed, making this new world order completely believable. The fact that his artwork is beautiful (particularly the colours) also helps. It's a totally immersive experience.

And Edginton's writing pulls its weight. He is able to construct a variety of voices for his different characters -- refined Queen's English, East End cockney and gruff Scotsman. And they all sound like people who lived a hundred years ago. The mystery itself unfolds at a merry pace, taking up just four chapters. There is a wonderful circular feel to the story, the last scene being a grim echo of the first. Most importantly, Edginton finds time to pack his tale with all sorts of ideas. The fate of Scotland post-invasion is an evocative exploration of the Marxist critique of capitalism. The women being lured to work as domestic servants, only to be bled dry servicing the British war machine, has feminism written all over it. And the villain of the piece brings back uncomfortable memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four's O'Brien. The state uses people as a means to an end, and its only objective is to protect those in power.

What more do you want? This is SF at its very best -- building a believable alternative reality and using it to explore grand ideas about human society. It can't really get better than that. Now go read it!

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