Ever hear the story about how the film Speed was originally intended to be a sequel of Die Hard? As it were, Die Hard, as such an interesting action film, completely changed the realm of action films in the scope of its influence, to the point where there was a cottage industry made up of films that essentially copied the structure of Die Hard. Under Siege, Speed, Air Force One, Toy Soldiers, Con Air, Passenger 57…the list goes on. Similarly, the idea of taking a well-known story and viewing it from the perspective of a character other than the usual protagonist is also an idea that was so dramatically influential that we soon saw a variety of similar approaches, with Wide Sargasso Sea being one of the more notable examples. However, the fact that the structure follows a certain pattern does not mean that the work, itself, is not notable and novel. This brings us to The Lone and Level Sands, A. David Lewis’ re-writing of the Book of Exodus from the perspective of Ramses, which, I believe, is a familar style of story, but handled with enough care and intelligence to still be a worthwhile and recommended read.
Lewis and artist Marvin Perry Mann originally self-published this graphic novel, but now Archaia Studio Press has a more recent edition out (which they so graciously sent to me for review), in color rather than the original black and white (colors handled by Jennifer Rodgers).
In “With God On Our Side,” Bob Dylan wrote, “In a many dark hour/I’ve been thinkin’ about this/That Jesus Christ/Was betrayed by a kiss/But I can’t think for you/You’ll have to decide/Whether Judas Iscariot/Had God on his side.” That, essentially, is the main dramatic tension in the story of Pharaoh Ramses II. Part of God’s plan was for Jesus to be sacrificed, so therefore, for the plan to succeed, Judas had to play his part. So, therefore, wasn’t he, in fact, doing God’s will? That, however, conflicts with the idea of free will. It is this tension that is present throughout The Lone and the Level Sands. How much control does Ramses have over his own destiny?
To Lewis’ great credit, he never flinches from the fact that he does not give us real answers, and rather, the fact that, for the story to truly work, he CAN not give us definitive answers.
While this tension is the meat of the story, the potatoes of the comic are Lewis’ depictions of the society at the time, and it is here that he would be lost if not for the strong work by Mann. Mann’s design work is irreproachable, as he manages to depict life in such a manner that we, in 2006, can easily comprehend living in such a society. It is not so foreign to us, while at the same time, Mann makes sure that the depictions of Moses, Aaron, Ramses, etc. do not lean towards deification. There is no movie star good looks in this comic, far from it. Meanwhile, for a comic that was originally produced in black and white, Jennifer Rodgers does a tremendous job making the colors seem both natural and necessary to the story.
Beyond the design work, Lewis’ imagining of how the citizens of Egypt (the type of reactions lacking in Exodus, for the most part) are quite telling. It is interesting to compare the reactions of the “common folk,” who basically view themselves as caught up in events that they cannot control/comprehend with the attitudes of citizens today when faced with such thoughts as terrorism. One cannot let such thoughts dictate one’s lives, and that is the case for the citizens of Egypt. They adapt to each plague with an attitude of “Okay, what do we have to do now?” while their leader, Ramses, knows that his actions have a much more direct effect upon what is going on…or does he? Back to the tension between his power as a ruler to control his country and his lack of power in the workings of a God.
All in all, The Lone and the Level Sands is a very intelligent, and interesting, re-imagining of events that most of us have heard many times before, yet Lewis manages to still make the story interesting and new at the same time. Couple that with fine art from Mann and Rodgers, and you have yourself a fine comic package.