I’m not an “art comix” kind of guy. My bar might not be raised high enough and I may be too “mainstream” for certain comic readers, but I can live with that. I like what I like. You like what you like. Thankfully, enough of us have tastes that overlap to make Pipeline a worthwhile venture. Hopefully, people outside the union in that Venn diagram might find something of worth or interest in what I say to drop by once in a while. In the end, it’s all comics and I’m happy they’re out there for the people who like to read them.
There’s nothing to bore me more quickly, though, than a pretentious arthouse crap that masquerades as something that makes only a semblance of sense. If a critic needs to dissect the hidden messages of a film or a book or a comic in order to get enjoyment from it, I’m afraid they’re working too hard and I’m too busy to deal with them.
Even the stuff that I read and review outside of the CBR “mainstream” still tends to follow certain commercial tendencies, whether that be The Smurfs, or Asterix, or Largo Winch, or Carl Barks’ Duck books. (And what a ridiculous industry we have where Disney characters are considered outside of the “mainstream” and can’t sell in the Direct Market.) I like nice art to go along with entertaining stories, and think too much poor art is excused because the story is entertaining enough to get someone to look past it. Bah! I want it all. This is the comics art form that only exists through a combination of words and pictures; we should demand quality in both.
So this week, I read “A Tale of Sand,” a comics adaptation of a movie that never got made in the 1960s from a script by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl that’s a surreal piece of nonsense. It ought to do nothing for me, and, to be honest, there are moments in the book where I want to shake my head and smack Henson for being so damned cute and/or pretentious, but the other 95% of the time, I’m laughing my head off at the randomness of the book. It’s a series of gags mixing Monty Python with Road Runner shorts with some silent movie prat falls thrown in. It mixes “commercial” influences with one man’s hippy view of life and an experimental art student’s tendencies to create something that should satisfy both camps.
(Wait, isn’t that the best way to describe “Fraggle Rock?” Was there any children’s programming that made you think you were at Woodstock more than that one?)
“A Tale of Sand” is a superstar-making book, the kind of thing that will open eyes to what the comics artform is capable of. It’s a reading experience that entertains and wows the reader with every turn of the page. It’s a career-making book for its creator, and a terrific vision of early unseen work for fans of Jim Henson’s.
The real star of the book is artist Ramon Perez, who had the unenviable task of taking a screenplay as crazy as this and adapting it to comics. This is a breakthrough performance, all his resume needs to get any job in comics for the foreseeable future. He mixes styles throughout the issue, from watercolored crowd scenes to black and white wash panels to straight up pen and ink. He draws cowboys and horses and football players and jazz musicians and birds and desert vistas and small towns. Often, you’ll get all of that in a two page spread. In full color. And black and white. And monochrome. It’s an eclectic mix of styles that doesn’t feel forced, no doubt in part because of the source material’s style.
Perez’s storytelling style is often as chaotic as the events in the story. They aren’t hard to read, but they’re rarely on a grid. Some pages are done with a strong designer’s feel to them, while others are done to guide you carefully across a double-page spread, where inset panels lead your eye from one corner to its opposite. The pages are drawn to be seen at this size, too. There’s no way Perez would make these same decisions of he knew the book was set to be published digest-sized, for example, because he couldn’t fit in the scope of the art that way. In fact, this book is a strong argument in favor of reproducing Franco-Belgian comics at their original size in this country. Allowing the art to breathe at this size is very important.
He also occasionally blends excerpts from the typewritten text of the original script into the book. It calls attention to the book as being a by-product of another artform, but it feels right, somehow. There’s no reading this book without being aware of its origins, so the occasional nudge in that direction seems fitting. The text isn’t all that readable, but it’s not meant to be. It’s used as a texture more than a storytelling tool, or an expository aid. Each page of this book is worthy of dissection by more serious artistic eyes than my own, I bet. It’s an awesome experiment in storytelling, yet perfectly legible. I’d love to read a roundtable discussion (or hear a podcast) of “A Tale of Sand” from some comic book artists in the field today. I bet they’d have a lot of interesting takes on it.
But the thing that sold the book most to me is its sense of humor. Once you get into the rhythm of the book and get over the initial surrealistic randomness of everything (and the opening sequence is like a musical montage you’d have under the credits, replicated on paper to startlingly good effect), you get swept away in a story in which anything goes, and usually does. You turn each page without a clue as to what might happen next, and are always surprised. A record that plays an explosive sound creates explosions, and a crowd of sword-carrying Middle Eastern men can only be stopped by a deus ex machine in the shape of a football team that tackles them. All the while, the man just wants his cigarette, which he recovered out of a dead man’s mouth and can’t get to light for all the fire in the world. And, hey, there’s a nipple! (Spoiler?)
The plot isn’t the point of the book. It’s not meant as something to teach us all a valuable life lesson in the third act, though I suppose it could be interpreted that way. This is a story told for the sake of its own story, one meant to entertain in a way completely different from everything else on the shelf that’s too concerned about “the real world” and keeping things “realistic.”
“A Tale of Sand” isn’t a three act well-structured classic Hollywood screenplay come to life. It is a random and meandering series of events that sometimes, but not always, build up to something greater or crazier. Along the way, some random moments create the kind of discord that make you laugh. The lead in the story is sympathetic, starting the story as dazed and confused as the reader, searching for the meaning or the point of what’s happening. His end goals are pretty simple: Survive. Smoke a cigarette. And, perhaps, get to the “X” at the end of the map. He’s the perfect point of view character, since his being lost is half the point of the story. And since he didn’t do anything questionable to wind up in this situation and doesn’t do anything evil along the way, he becomes sympathetic and a real rooting interest.
So, yeah, “A Tale of Sand” is a comic based on an arthouse movie that never got made that I like. A lot. I didn’t see that one coming at all. Aren’t comics wonderful?
I linked to his site at the top of this review, but it deserves another plug. Go to RamonPerez.com and soak it all in. He’s done a couple of webcomics in the past that are beautiful to look at. They’re completely professional and slick, not something done on the side as an experimental dashed-off project between gigs. He’s the real deal.
The book’s publisher, Archaia, does a beautiful job with this book, going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure The Jim Henson Company gets a final product worthy of the script’s origins. It’s an oversized hardcover book clocking in at around 150 pages, including a helpful origin story for the script in the beginning and an Afterword to explain how the book happened at the end. When you open it, you’ll immediately recognize the smell: Made In China. Anytime you see a book produced by a publisher in this country in a format other than standard trade size at a reasonable price ($30 in this case), you can bet it came from overseas. And, sure enough, it’s there in the indicia. You can’t beat the quality of the printing jobs that come out of there, even with the extra hassle it must take for the publisher to get it through and back on the slow boat.
There’s a purple bookmark sewed into the book that’s elastic, so you can wrap the mark through the book where you left off. I’ve never seen one like that before in a comic book. The pages are on nice heavy stock paper that’s a perfect dull white color. It doesn’t shine, it doesn’t compete with the art, it doesn’t feel flimsy in your hands. About the only trick Archaia missed with this book is in not rounding off the corners of the interior pages to match the rounded corners of the covers. While the pages do go full bleed, I don’t think you’d have lost any information by doing that. The covers overhang the page dimensions by maybe an eight of an inch along all sides, which keeps the corners from peaking out, but still. That extra detail would have perfected this book.
Don’t wait for the digital version of this book, though I believe one is in the works. This is a book worth experiencing as a real world physical object. Also, the frequent double page spread layouts mean reading this thing on anything less than a 27 inch monitor in double-page reading mode would make it a bear to get through.
“A Tale of Sand” is available in the Direct Market today, though is having a bit of a slow roll-out getting out there completely. It’ll be available in the book world mid-January. It’s a $29.99 book, and the contents justify the cost. If you need more help, Archaia has a 20 page preview on its website, while CBR has the first few pages over here. CBR also had an interview with Perez about the book back in September. (Please note that the cover has changed since that preview.)
AND IN CONCLUSION
I learned a valuable lesson this Christmas: When creating an Amazon Wish List that doubles as your Christmas Wish List, double check that you put the right “Hulk” movie Blu-ray on your list, or else you might end up getting the Eric Bana movie by mistake. Whoops.
I also picked up the “Thor” and “X-Men First Class” Blu-rays this Christmas, so you might see those reviewed in the new year. Everyone else reviewed those months ago, I know, but I wanted to give you all ample time to see them for yourselves before I potentially spoil them. Yeah, that’s my excuse…
In the meantime, here’s where I am on the web this week: