The early works of Jeff Lemire

I still remember the very afternoon when I first encountered one of Jeff Lemire’s works. I tend to spend my lunch breaks at the mall and as you might guess, I frequently end up checking out bookstores during such trips. So there I was, carefully examining what’s new on the shelves, looking for things I might have missed during my last visit. That time, I checked the bottom shelf of the graphic novels section hoping to find a hidden gem; I was not disappointed.

I pulled out Lemire’s Underwater Welder from a row of books that seemed to have been forgotten, tucked away beneath Superman, the Walking Dead and the other more popular books that were deemed worthy of the more visible shelf space. At the time, I had no idea what it was about. I don’t have any particular interest in underwater construction either, but the cover just drew me in.

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The story is about a man who struggles with the demands of his job while trying so desperately to be a good husband as he deals with the pressures of his impending fatherhood. As everything seems to be falling apart, a supernatural encounter at the bottom of the ocean sends him to a Twilight Zone type of world.

I would describe Lemire’s art as rugged – not the most technical, not the smoothest drawings you’ll see in today’s comics. But his style communicates the human emotion so strongly. The brilliance of his drawings is that they have the ability to be so striking, so effective in delivering the message in spite of being remarkably simple. The impeccable use of the eyes, some well-placed lines on the face and you find yourself empathizing with the character.

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The use of black and white also adds to the emotion of the book by creating an eerie atmosphere, characteristic of his earlier works.

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Lemire can write about the most mundane things and still manage to captivate his audience through his emotionally charged works. Later on I picked up Essex County, his first graphic novel under Top Shelf Productions and a predecessor of Underwater Welder.

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Again I got more of those expressive looks and Lemire’s trademark gloomy atmosphere.

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It never gets old though, and it’s no surprise he was able to transition into mainstream comics with his masterful storytelling. Since releasing his earlier works under Top Shelf Productions, Jeff Lemire has worked for various comic book publishers including Vertigo, DC Comics and Image.

Beyond pitchforks and torches

I’ve been a fan of horror for as long as I can remember. As a kid I liked wrapping myself up in a blanket while watching scary movies – lights out, of course. And if it started raining hard, all the better.  It’s not that I wasn’t scared. That’s the thing: I was very easy to scare. I dreaded being the last one downstairs at night because that meant I had to switch off the lights and run upstairs to my room before any monster shows up.

But that’s the fun part about getting scared: you always get a rush out of it. So every time I get my hands on anything horror, I get excited. Even more so when I picked up this novel. And why not? Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most iconic antagonists in fiction. Everyone knows about the stitched-up abomination with metahuman strength and intimidating stature. But before I read the book, most of what I knew about the creature came from those movies which always culminated in a classic pitchforks-and-torches scene. And then there’s Lurch from the Adams Family, though you’d probably want to tip your hat to the gentleman rather than run away from him.

I found it curious that in most other media, Frankenstein’s monster is always portrayed as the tall, slow-talking man with deep-set eyes, a flat head and zombie-like complexion. Nothing interesting, really. Yet here we are, still talking about Mary Shelley’s masterpiece two centuries later.

I suspected there’s more to the story than angry mobs and a one-dimensional fiend, and that added to my excitement about reading the novel. I wanted to find out just how diabolical the monster really was. I wanted to know how this bane of society earned its place among the greatest monsters of all time.

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A leather-bound copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Cover art by Jessica Hische.

And what a worthy creation this book is. I was hooked as early as the opening chapter.  I liked how Shelley told the tale through Victor Frankenstein’s letters. The eerie atmosphere was set up brilliantly with the protagonist’s tone of desperation and regret. More than a horror novel, Frankenstein also has that feel of mystery to it.

I can only imagine how it was for those who read the book back when it was first published. It must have been such a treat to read it with no preconceived notion of what it’s about; of what the monster was. Or perhaps to have read the book without even the slightest notion that there was going to be a monster in the story at all. To wonder why the letters were written with such distress and urgency, and to finally find out what monstrosity Victor Frankenstein had created.

And that’s just the beginning. Throughout the story you get to see the creature evolve from an innocent, even benevolent being, to the most horrible adversary you could ever face – vindictive, hateful, diabolically brilliant, nigh-indestructible. It really is no surprise that this story continues to persist even in other forms of media, from TV shows, to movies, to comic books. But what they say is true: the original is always the best.

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Classics Illustrated #26.

Here’s a vintage comic book which I picked up soon after I finished the novel. Although I like the poster-esque cover art, it is a good example of how the book has been misinterpreted and misrepresented in other media.

The cover depicts the monster frightened, fleeing from a man on a sled. In the story, that man is no other than Frankenstein, out to destroy his creation. But the monster was far from frightened. The chase was a sadistic machination of the monster himself in order to torture his maker. He eluded him, staying just beyond his grasp so as to frustrate and ultimately break him. To make him feel powerless. To make him feel utterly helpless for being unable to avenge the death and destruction brought about by his own creation. But on this cover, it seems the monster is at a disadvantage.

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To the creators’ credit, the comic book did attempt to cram all the important details of the novel into its 30-something pages. But as you would expect, it is painfully stripped down. In the photo above, you see one of my favorite scenes depicted where Frankenstein and the monster hold a conversation, almost a debate, in a cave far up the mountains. But alas, the dialogue fell flat in this interpretation. (Though I find it funny how the monster invited Frankenstein to his cave and the brilliant scientist just went along, safety and reason be damned.)

This is precisely why we shouldn’t be satisfied with just reading or watching simplified adaptations of novels. You will almost certainly lose out on the best parts. At its core, Frankenstein urges us to examine the dangers of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and cautions us against the sin of hubris. Do not be dissuaded by what you see in the movies. It is a brilliantly written book, entertaining and engaging through and through.

What’s changed, what’s to come

Hey guys!

It’s been over a year since I last wrote here. If you’ve been following my blog you might have noticed some significant changes on my site. I initially set up this blog to showcase my comic book collection and to share my hobby with the rest of the world. Little did i know then that my passion for reading would grow into what it is now. I’m still a huge fan of the comic book genre and I will continue to publish posts on that subject. But on top of that, I’ll also be talking about novels, both classic and current.

If you want to read about how I got hooked on pretty much every form of written fiction over the past year and a half, click here. In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the books I’ll be featuring in the coming weeks. Talk to you soon.

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The Brave and the Bold

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In 1955, DC launched an ongoing series entitled The Brave and the Bold. It originally featured done-in-one stories of varying heroes from issue to issue, and eventually became a vehicle for experimenting with new character ideas through team-ups. Its most notable issue – The Brave and the Bold #28 – brought together, for the first time, the world’s greatest superheroes: the Justice League. The series was quite successful, running for almost three decades and producing 200 issues of odd pairings and crazy adventures.

From my collection: The Brave and the Bold #99 (Nov. 1971), where Batman gets possessed by an evil spirit and the Flash comes in to save the day.

 

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While supervillains have become a staple in today’s comic books, it wasn’t until the Silver Age (mid 1950’s-late 1960’s) that readers saw a boom in their creation. Golden Age comic book stories (late 1930’s-mid 1950’s) were mostly characterized by conflicts between the superhero and everyday bad guys such as bank robbers, mobsters, common thugs, crooked politicians, and – perhaps most notable for that era – the Nazis.

With a newly revamped Flash that debuted in Showcase #4 (Aug. 1956), Carmine Infantino and his crew proceeded to introduce an array of supervillains to pit against the Crimson Comet. Showcase #8 (Apr. 1957), Barry Allen’s second appearance, gave birth to one of the Flash’s most prominent rogues: Captain Cold. But the hero in red wouldn’t be the Captain’s only rival.

Making his first appearance in Flash #140 (Sep. 1963) is Mick Rory, a.k.a. Heat Wave. In the story, the two criminals initially hit it off as Heat Wave helped Captain Cold escape with his loot by attacking the Flash just as the icy criminal was about to get caught. However, things quickly turned sour between the two. They found themselves at odds with each other after a short conversation revealed they were after the same girl – a TV celebrity widely known by her stage name, Dream Girl.

This was the beginning of a rivalry that has so far lasted for half a century. Although the two supervillains belong to the same super group (fondly called the Rogues), readers still find them constantly butting heads over issues such as who should be the leader of the gang or whose fault it was that the job didn’t go as planned and so much more. This volatile relationship caused by their constant bickering has created a unique dynamic among the villains of the Flash mythos, and has kept its readers entertained through several decades.

From my collection: The Flash #140 (Sep. 1963), Heat Wave’s first appearance – one of my favorite Silver Age stories and cover art.

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It's a race!

Who’s faster? Superman or the Flash?

This has been the subject of so many debates over several decades of comic book history. Nowadays, it’s quite established that the Flash has earned the title “Fastest Man Alive” (perhaps most decisively in June 2009’s Flash Rebirth #3). But back in the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s, people could only guess. It wasn’t until June of 1967 in Superman #199 when comic book fans finally got to see the Man of Steel and the Scarlet Speedster in a showdown to see who’s the fastest.

Needless to say, it was a big hit. And having their first two races end in a draw only captivated readers even more. In the decades that followed, Superman would go on to race not only Barry Allen, but also fellow Flashes Jay Garrick and Wally West. Most recently, sidekicks Superboy and Kid Flash raced for the very first time in Superboy #5 (Mar. 2011), proving that comic book fans still appreciate a good old-fashioned high-speed throwdown.

From my collection: Superman and Flash race for the second time in The Flash #175 (Oct. 1967).

It’s a race!

Flash Moment: Crisis on Infinite Earths #8

In the eighth issue of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s ground-breaking series Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-1986), the Flash sacrifices his life to destroy the Anti-Monitor’s ultimate weapon: an anti-matter cannon threatening to wipe out all reality. This monumental event, easily among the top 50 events in comic book history, has defined what the Flash legacy stands for: hope in adversity, and an unflinching spirit determined to do what is right.

From my collection: A near-mint copy (CGC 9.8) of Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 (Sep. 1985).

Flash Moment: Crisis on Infinite Earths #8

Ten-cent tales

Up until the early 60’s, most comic books cost only 10 cents. If you were a kid living in the 1940’s and you had 10 cents to spend, you would have had to choose between ice cream, candy and comic books.

The movies would have been too expensive for you, since they cost a little over 20 cents. Apart from toys (which you probably had to convince your parents to buy for you), your only other forms of entertainment were the radio and television. And, by the way, the TV didn’t have color until around mid-50’s; and they were too expensive for most families then.

It’s no surprise how comic books kept a lot of kids (and even adults) entertained with their colorful pages, fantastic stories, and super-powered protagonists – just as they continue to do so today.

All for just 10 cents.

My first ten-cent tales (L-R): Flash #115 (Jul. 1960) where Flash becomes morbidly obese, Flash #116 (Sep. 1960) where Flash battles a man from another dimension, and Flash #119 (Jan. 1961), an early appearance of the Mirror Master, and Ralph Dibny marries Sue Dearbon (on her first appearance in comics, no less).

Ten-cent tales