Aces: Curse of the Red Baron
Written by G. Willow Wilson and Shannon Eric Denton; Illustrated by Curtis Square-Briggs
AiT/Planet Lar; $12.95
It’s such a beautiful concept. A couple of Allied soldiers searching for the Red Baron’s lost treasure while his ghost keeps showing up to stop them. There’s even a vanishing island and a secret Illuminati group responsible for WWI. How could it go wrong?
As fond of high-concept as we are around here, concept only gets you so far and – unfortunately – Aces is an example of that. It starts off promisingly: an American infantryman and an English pilot both believe they’ve shot down the Red Baron and one of them has a map that he claims he took from the infamous villain’s pocket. It’s a map of an island that both soldiers come to believe holds all the loot taken by the Red Baron over the years. They decide to temporarily abandon their posts, “borrow” a Sopwith Camel, and find the treasure.
As they search, they learn that the island disappears occasionally and that the Red Baron may not be as dead as they thought he was. And then there’s the Black Hand, a secret organization whose operatives assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and started World War I. The Red Baron may or may not have been a member (I’ll leave that for you to discover if you’re curious), but he certainly does take a lot of meetings with “Wolf 1,” the female head of the Black Hand cell that our young soldiers keep running up against.
Curtis Square-Briggs uses a lot of extra lines in his art that don’t need to be there and the result is that his stuff is a bit murky, but the characters are easily identifiable and G. Willow Wilson’s script is excellent at explaining what’s going on without a ton of exposition. She also gives the characters distinct voices so that you can always make out who’s talking even when the figures are too small to see their identifying details.
The major problem with the story is something that novelist Lucienne Diver referred to as “aliens arriving on the farm in chapter 14.” I’m not saying that literal aliens actually arrive in chapter 14 of Aces (there are only three chapters in Aces, after all); it’s just Diver’s way of describing major plot twists that happen late in a story that the writer has in no way prepared the reader for. It’s as if at the end of The Empire Strikes Back you don’t learn that Vader is Luke’s dad, but find out that Luke is a clone of Yoda who was artificially inseminated into Boba Fett, born, and was morphed into human form by wizards on Earth in modern-day New York.
I appreciate a crazy plot twist more than most people do, but “aliens in chapter 14”-style plots don’t work because they don’t play fair with the readers. There are no clues along the way to make you go, “Ahh! That’s what was going on” when you finally learn the truth. Instead, there’s just a lot of head-scratching and “Whaaa – ?” I’m not telling what the island’s secret is in Aces, but it comes out of nowhere and is very hard to buy into once it’s revealed. I appreciate the imagination behind it; I just wish there had been some subtle clues (not ones that I could’ve figured out necessarily, but something) in the first couple of chapters that make the third-chapter revelations fit the rest of the story. As written, the ending soured me on what started out as a fun, joyous WWI adventure-mystery.
Two out of five Bloody Red Barons.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A Pop-Up Book
Written and Illustrated by Sam Ita
Sterling Publishing; $26.95
Please don’t hurt me, Verne fans, but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of the most boring books I’ve ever endured. It’s long, dry, and it has no story. It’s basically an imaginary travelogue made up of individual episodes that don’t connect in any meaningful way. And Verne totally cheats on the ending.
It took Disney’s 1954 movie version to fix the story and film-makers have been riffing off that take ever since. Now Sam Ita’s found another way to improve on Verne’s version: cut out everything but the most crucial or fun bits, turn it into a short comic, and add killer pop-ups.
Ita’s art is crude, but effective at communicating the story and evoking the personalities of the characters, especially Professor Aronnax and his trusty servant Conseil. Aronnax has awesomely thick glasses that give him a perpetual expression of astonishment; exactly right for the man who’s so amazed at Captain Nemo and his underwater miracles. Conseil is an ugly, but funny little man. He has as much personality as Peter Lorre’s interpretation, which is saying something because Lorre’s fantastic. I love how Ita’s Conseil’s first response to the idea of returning to France is, “Hooray, croissants!” That’s a man I can relate to.
Ita’s Ned Land and Captain Nemo aren’t quite as animated as those other two, but let’s face it, the draw here isn’t the outstanding characterization. That Aronnax and Conseil are great characters is bonus. What really matters though are the pop-ups.
At first look, Ita’s book is about 15-pages long, but that’s deceptive. There are lots of flaps and hidden panels that add to that count, but again, that’s mostly just bonus story. The real treat of the book are the insane full-spread scenes depicting things like the introduction of the Nautilus (I love how Ned hurls his harpoon at the same pop-up submarine that he also sits atop when he rescues Aronnax and Conseil), the visit to Atlantis, and of course the giant squid attack. There are also pieces to move that let you operate various features of the Nautilus. You can open the famous iris-window and pull a lever to help the submarine rise and break through the ice of Antarctica. There’s also a great pop-up cutaway map of the submarine. It’s a beautifully cheerful book.
Five out of five pop-up squid.
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