By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Occasionally someone executes a standard storytelling device with such dazzling skill that it reminds you why that device became standard in the first place. Rebecca Guay is that someone, with A Flight of Angels (DC/Vertigo, $24.99).
An award-winning fantasy artist, Guay has set up an anthology of five stories on a single theme, with the narrators gathered together in a framing device that amounts to a sixth story. This is an approach to anthologies at least as old as The Canterbury Tales, so it is well-trod ground – a minus if it feels clichéd, which this does not. And it’s a plus when you consider how quickly the reader will grasp the ground rules.
The framing story begins with a wounded, unconscious angel falling into a forest in Faerie. Various characters – faeries, a pixie, a hag, a hobgoblin, a trickster, etc. – gather to determine what to do: Heal it, or kill it?
They hold a tribunal, where five characters spin tales on who or what they imagine this angel to be. Each of these stories is written by a master of fantasy, including Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles), Louise Hawes (Vanishing Point), Alisa Kwitney (The Dreaming), Todd Mitchell (The Traitor King) and Bill Willingham (Fables). Each quickly establishes a fully-fleshed, entertaining world of magical rules and mythical characters, wherein they place a complete story, with beginning, middle and end. Of course, each story has something to do with angels, but otherwise no two are alike.
To drive this home, Guay uses five different artistic techniques on the five different stories. Even to a novice they are all obviously by the same artist, but just as obviously Guay chooses a different media or style to reflect the tone of the story. The result is a breathtaking artistic tour de force.
Nor does Guay short-shrift the framing device, which is written by Black. Here the artist opts for a duotone wash that reflects the story’s location – the ethereal land of Faerie – and is a clever, subliminal shorthand to remind the reader of transitions into and out of the five stories, which are in full color. Further, the framing device is a fully-realized story in itself, as we learn the origins of Faerie (it goes back to Lucifer’s rebellion), the relationships among the characters (including a bitter faerie lord and the faerie girl who dumped him), character development (a naïve, unworldly faun who becomes less so by the end) and a shocking conclusion.
This is a book that is simultaneously as old as campfire tales and as fresh and full of possibility as the dawn. It’s the sort of book that makes me proud to be a comics fan.
Somebody else who likes comics is the U.S. government! It discovered as long ago as the 1940s that comics were a good way to disseminate information, even to those who would never take the time to read a manual – and it’s been publishing them ever since.
Earlier this year, Abrams ComicArts did the world a favor by assembling a collection of government comics created by comics legend Will Eisner (P.S. Magazine: The Best of Preventive Maintenance Monthly). Now they’ve added Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s-2000s ($29.95), an overview of the zillions of other comics the government has produced. And it is a gold mine of the serious, the silly and the truly strange stuff the government thinks we ought to know.
Want to know how to duck and cover during a nuclear war? How to properly salute? How Social Security disability works? How to clean and operate an M-16? How to know you have syphilis? If so, Uncles Sam’s got a comic book for you, and you can find it in Government Issue!
Some of these comics are incredibly cheesy, which is worth a laugh. But some are by top-flight cartoonists who lend their characters to the cause, such as Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner Joins the Navy!”, “Dennis the Menace Takes a Poke at Poison!” and the Peanuts crew explaining amblyopia (“Security Is an Eye Patch”). You’ll also run across big-name artists like Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates”), Joe Kubert (Sgt. Rock) and Kurt Schaffenberger (Lois Lane).
The comics are selected by Richard Graham, an associated professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a foreword by Sid Jacobson, co-creator of the 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. The comics are separated by category, but united in their importance to pop-culture history – and, too often, their painful sincerity.
1. Vertigo's A Flight of Angels is an anthology of fantasy stories. Courtesy DC Entertainment Inc.
2. Government Issue is an overview of the comics Uncle Sam has produced over the last seven decades. Courtesy Abrams ComicArts.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.