Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Blood: A Tale #1

Blood: A Tale #1, November 1996, Vertigo/DC Comics
writer: J.M. DeMatteis
illustrator: Kent Williams
letterer: Gasper Salading

Despite the cover’s November 1996 publication date, when I flipped through Blood: A Tale, I felt compelled to double check the inside cover’s fine print, where my suspicions were confirmed – this material was originally copyrighted in 1987. Like Stray Toasters, Blood: A Tale boasts a fully painted interior which, unfortunately, hasn’t stood the test of time; that is to say, the nature of the artwork and its reprinted resolution is indicative of its era. Its dark, shadowy hues, coupled with its uber-melodramatic story, is just what transitioned mainstream comics from its campy roots to its angst driven, soap-operatic branches of the early ‘90s. But don’t worry; I won’t go off on that tangent again.

I will, however, address another issue that has permeated the comics industry – specifically, the validity of comics as a legitimate influence in modern pop culture. An article at Comic Book Resources is just the latest in a slew of exclusive editorials that claim the importance of the comics medium as an art form, a stance I would normally embrace and argue to no end, until I read Blood: A Tale. I’ll warn you, this train of thought is potentially a long one, but hear me out. Regarding Blood’s plot, DeMatteis crafts an intricate tale that begins as a short story, in which an old, lifeless king is visited by a virginal, virtuous girl that tells the story unfolded through Williams’ graphics. That element is intriguing enough, but the core of this issue is truly perplexing, not as a body of work, but as an intentional effort from its creators.

See, if I thought Mora was symbolic and ethereal, I obviously hadn’t read Blood yet. A majority of this story is told through lofty narrative, written with the eloquence of the diary of a Victorian heiress, or something. Interestingly, the beginning of this issue isn’t unlike the beloved Christmas story, as an unwitting woman inexplicably, perhaps divinely, becomes a mother, only to watch her son become consumed by a seemingly more holy way of life. However, the tale deviates when our protagonist discovers that his monastery is a ruse, and an act of murder is followed by an aimless existence. Suddenly, in the end, the man is bitten by and becomes a vampire. Yes, vampires arrive in this story with a similar severity to their first appearance in the film From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, but with less cinematic gore, I reckon. You just don’t see it coming, and as much as I thought it would cheapen the work’s integrity, it actually added a macabre relevance. Blood: A Tale is an allegory for something; I just don’t know what yet.

And that’s the thing. Blood is written with a grace befitting a mythological work, which is exactly what industry professionals boast when defending the significance of comic books. We’ve heard it all by now: comics are the modern cave etchings, our superheroes are the modern Pantheon, et al. Two things cynically flutter to mind in the face of these claims. Firstly, when those cave dwellers told stories via chisel, how could they have known their tales would become historical legend? How could they know they would become the forefathers of art and literature as we know it? Those ancient Egyptian vases were the proverbial “this just in” headlines of their day! This is to say, the authors of any given fiction have no right to claim that their contemporary works are mythological in nature. That’s for the test of time to decide.

Secondly, and most importantly, when I studied Greek and Roman mythology in junior high school, I was fascinated by its grandiose tales, by the heroics of its characters, by the supernatural overtones of their cultures. Furthermore, although some stories shared characters, many of these epics were self-contained adventures, episodic through makeshift chapter headings but otherwise complete in and of themselves. Therein, what does Superman and Hercules really have in common? On a very practical level, through a mundane pedestrian fanboy perspective, I can’t help but wonder if Homer ever tried to retract the origins of Achilles, if the whole weakness-in-the-heel thing was something he ret-conned after years’ worth of pre-established continuity and other creators’ legacies. What I’m getting at is, if these characters actually are our culture’s modern mythological heroes, so consuming to our global landscape that their legends spread in various languages and media, why do their contributors treat them with such reckless abandon? Why is our modern Hercules at the apparent whim of any Hollywood hotshot that decides to moonlight as a comic book writer for a month or two? Hey, I’m a fan of Morrison’s Batman, but hold the last thirty years’ worth of Detective Comics to the first thirty years of its lore, and those old Kane/Finger books look our cave etchings, sans the reverence. Who would dare scratch out those old stories to tell it as “they really must’ve intended?”

Yes, I know this review reads like an embittered fanboy’s dissatisfied rant, but I hope whoever reads these thoughts considers them in the scope of modern, relevant pop culture. Blood: A Tale is an excellently written piece of work, just as Stray Toasters struck many a literary cord, but where does a story like this fit in the contemporary scheme of things? It’s not enough to write a mythological tale anymore; a comic book can (and perhaps must) too easily become a franchise, selling movie, video games, and merchandising rights to the highest bidder. Blood: A Tale isn’t a superhero comic, nor is it a quirky indie tale with potential Hot Topic appeal. It’s just a good old-fashioned story of high-concept proportions. It’s the life’s blood of what comics used to be, before corporatism took a vampire-bite out of its neck and . . .

Wait a minute . . .

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