Sunday, September 28, 2014

Annihilation: A Novel by Jeff Vandermeer

“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.” 

Annihilation tells the story of the twelfth expedition sent in to explore and hopefully answer the mysteries of Area X. The story is told through one of the members, the biologist: our characters' names are that of their profession. 

Area X, what an ominous name, but what is Area X? I can't answer that, but what I can tell you that it is a place-out-of-time and out-of-space. Area X is an island that's been overrun by nature. There's an Edenic and pristine look To Area X's nature to the point where it's too pristine. Its's pristineness is almost blinding the viewer; it's as if everything in Area X is hyper-real, but behind that hyper-realness is something insidious; something that will swallow you whole and regurgitate you and if you survive, you're drastically changed. This swallowing, regurgitating and changing isn't just something that occurs to the characters: it occurs to the reader as well.

Since reading Annihilation, it's buried itself in my subconscious, making me feel out-of-place whenever it pops up from its hiding place. There's a something in the book: a virus within the words that Vandermeer writes; I don't know what it is, but it infects you and changes you and you see the world around you slowly change. You go through the changes the characters go through and you come out the end a different person.

Then again, I could be feeling like this because I read Annihilation in the perfect conditions: feeling alienated during a dreary, rainy, overcast day.

It took me two days to read--it's a one day book, but I wanted to make it last--Annihilation, during which there was heavy raining and overcast when it wasn't it. I love rainy, overcast days, but those two days were different: there was a sense of dread and oppression in the air; I felt out-of-place and out-of-time;  it was as if I was being rejected by the universe and there was nothing I could do but accept the conditions that were handed to me and slowly slip away. Just when things couldn't get any weirder, I picked up Annihilation and started reading it: it only exacerbated my feelings.

After I got done, the world around me felt dreamlike: as if I was drifting through a waking dream. The edges of my vision were becoming wavy and distorted and I could feel myself slipping into another place, a place like Area X. These alterations lingered days after I got done with the book, I think this is due to Vandermeer's dreamlike prose and the dreamlike structure and logic of Annihilation. Vandermeer also has an amazing ability to vividly describe the place in which the twelfth expedition are in: Vandermeer can make it seem lived it, that there's a history behind the landscape and in an instant, change the dreamlike landscape into a nightmare. There's a feverish immediacy when we enter that nightmarish landscape that haunts you.

Annihilation is nothing like I've read before. Its weirdness and refusal to answer questions are its strength and in that adds the reading experience. Come into this book for the experience than for a cohesive narrative. And be prepared to have Area X invade you and forever change you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Michael Moorcock's Elric Vol. 1: The Ruby Throne by Julien Blondel, Didier Poli, Robin Recht, Jean Bastide

Right off the bat I have to admit that I have never read either Moorcock's original novels about the albino emperor and his decaying island of Melniboné nor any of the graphic novel versions that have been around since the 1970s, so don't expect me to tell you how faithful this French BD version is to Moorcock's vision or how it compares to those older Elric comics.

What I can tell you, however, is that Moorcock himself admits in his introduction that this is the closest anyone has ever come to what he had originally intended with the character and his world (no small feat, considering the talent that has laid their hands on the character in graphic novel form before: Philippe Druillet, Michael Kaluta, P. Craig Russell, Frank Miller and Mike Mignola, amongst others). 

But more importantly, I can tell you that this is an incredible fantasy graphic novel to behold - from start to finish.

Let's begin with the artwork: it is both complex and rushed, contrasts (little) light with (a lot of) dark, the organic with the lifeless – often at the same time, creating a feeling of chaos.

Just look at the opening page of the book: the reader faces a sheer endlessly tall tower, made of ivory and obsidian, and while the upper, white part is covered with artful ornaments and writings, it is juxtaposed with its bottom half – a dark tunnel of jagged rock, that opens and looks like a shark’s maw. And since this is the entrance to Melniboné, you’ll immediately get a sense of what to expect.
The tower that marks the entry to Melnibone
As a matter of fact, the artists (Poli, Recht and Bastide) often reference predators or the animals of our nightmares in their artwork. The lair of Doctor Jest, chief torturer of Melniboné, looks to be held together by spider-webs, while the Doctor himself has a parasite-like being (machine?) seemingly attached to his spine with long spider-legs that can – and do – pierce through his victims’ bodies. 

This should already tell you that the artists are not holding anything back. There are live and naked human bodies being sacrificed or tortured by the people of Melniboné for entertainment, or even just because they feel like it. There’s blood and wounds, lots of them. And what else the Doctor does to his victims is best left unsaid. Death and decay are oozing from almost every page.
I mentioned above that the artwork looks rushed at times, but that is anything but bad inking. The empire of Melniboné is a decadent, chaotic and decaying place, and the “rushed” ink strokes underline this feeling. In fact, Blondel himself says in the section at the end of the book Didier Poli’s pencilwork looked too tame and pretty for this story. This is why Robin Recht was added to the team, whose inks made the pages more “impulsive and dynamic”, as Blondel puts it. 

“Elric” truly looks nightmarish then and conveys a sense of mindless decadence, of impending doom and decay - like a painting by Albrecht Dürer come alive.  

The graphic novel’s protagonist, the albino Elric, looks both regal and – more often than not - frail, with his skin “the colour of a bleached skull”, as Moorcock himself described him in his books. His outer appearance alone then is enough to make him look displaced, an outsider in his own empire, and there are many people at his court who let him know this. But it is the characterisation that Blondel (and Moorcock) give him which makes him not only an outsider, but also an anti-hero. This is not Frodo or John Carter we are dealing with here. While he is the main protagonist and the victim of the machinations of his cousin Prince Yyrkoon, I found it difficult to really root for him. And how can you if you see the way he lets himself be influenced by others and, more importantly, if he bathes in the blood of human sacrifices, albeit to preserve his health? That, however, does not mean “Elric” suffers from poor characterisation. What Moorcock/Blondel try to do here is to question morality and nostalgia and to lay bare the corruption behind the façades of society – something that Moorcock again admits to in his introduction and which comes across perfectly in the comic.
the brooding emperor
Similarly (though less) contradictory is Elric's antagonist Yyrkoon, who should be the classical villain. While fully immersed in its decadent life, he also sees the complacency of Melniboné as its own potential downfall. His aim then is to save the empire – although the question arises if this is an empire worth saving.

Then there are also the humans who attack the island. But read for yourselves to find out if you would really want them to win.
Blood. Just a taster, though.

I am not going to give away more of the story – on the one hand because this is only the first part of a series of (hopefully not only) four volumes which introduces us to the world of Elric and the main players, but on the other hand because you should do yourselves a favour and go read "Elric Vol. 1" yourselves - a graphic novel which ranks among the very best of the recent wave of English-language publications of French BD.

This review is based on the German version of Elric Vol.1 , published by SPLITTER Verlag (€14.80)

Michael Moorcock’s Elric Vol. 1: The Ruby Throne is published in English by Titan ($12.99/ISBN 13: 978-1782761242)

Vol. 2, "Stormbringer", will be released in April 2015.