The following column originally appeared in March 2001. With the SPARKS story now complete in one hefty volume from Slave Labor Graphics, we present this column once again in the hopes that it inspires you to check out the book.
SPARKS: AN URBAN FAIRYTALE
...is just what its name suggests. Slave Labor Graphics publishes this series (the fifth issue just came out last month) from writer/artist Lawrence Marvit, about a girl and her magical robot friend. It's not nearly as corny as that, though. It is, at times, haunting. It's tear jerking. It's fun and adventurous. It's a philosophical tract on the behavior of humans, particularly the shallowness of youth. But at the heart of it, it's the story of a girl and her mechanical man.
The black and white series stars Josephine, who has her share of problems. And then some. Her father is both verbally and physically abusive. Her mother is too tired from all the years of putting up with it to fight it anymore. Jo's a tomboy, whose biggest pleasure comes from toying around with cars at work. She hopes to someday finish her pet project, a car nicknamed Trigger. Then she can drive out of town and away from her troubles.
She's uncomfortable in most social situations, has self-esteem issues, is flat chested and often mistaken for being a boy, and has no luck at all when opportunity seemingly knocks. She's a dreamer in a world filled with shallow, surface-oriented people. She dreams of a perfect man. He'd be the one, as she writes in her diary, with "soft hands that weren't afraid to work, shoulders to bear the weight of the world, strong arms to hold me, legs to carry me to a better place, a head full of knowledge and wonder, eyes that could see beauty, and a heart full of understanding."
Doing what every other 20-year-old woman with mechanical talent would do, she builds this perfect man. On a bit of lark one day, she assembles a bunch of old car parts and lays them out in the bit of scrap yard behind the garage in which she works. His chest is made out of the front grill of a car. His head is an old oilcan, and his heart is a flower. Then, in true fairytale fashion, the sculpture gets struck by lightning and her perfect man comes to life.
Thankfully, the book doesn't waste any time explaining how Galahad – as the next-door neighbor's kid dubs the robot -- can exist. It's the fantasy part of the story. This is a fairy tale, like a fairy godmother granting you a wish and your coach turning into a pumpkin. It doesn't require an explanation.
Learning comes quickly for Galahad, with the aid of some flash cards and an unlimited library card. As his linguistic skills develop, his mind does, too. That's where the difficulty – and the interesting stuff -- begins. How do you explain humanity to a mechanical man?
It's a learning experience that spills over to Josephine. As she teaches Galahad about the world around him, she learns things about herself and is able to put things into perspective. In a way, it's like the way a little kid's constant questioning of "Why?" can lead you into confusion and, perhaps, understanding. We so often don't challenge the things that we take for granted that in explaining them we convince ourselves of some greater truth. It's a classic learning technique. Once you know something well enough to teach a classroom filled with students about it, you're an expert. If all you can do is answer a peremptory set of questions, you've barely scratched the surface. Life's like that. You may know why you like a certain car or love a certain person, but you don't question it until someone asks you why. Your attempt to justify it will, in the end, bring new issues to light. But enough armchair psychology…
Jo repeatedly tries – and fails – to gain entry into the world she craves being a part of. It's a world of people who look good, get the guys, and dance divinely. It's also completely empty and a lie. But her stumbling attempts to join the world of the culturally elite and socially sophisticated inevitably backfire. People who seem to be her friends are even suspect. It's her weak self-esteem and naiveté that drives her back for more humiliation time and time again. That lifestyle is not hers, but she refuses to believe it. Whenever she tries to be something she isn't, she fails. It's something Galahad is slowly trying to explain to her, whether he realizes it or not.
Meanwhile, Galahad grows tired of hiding and doesn't quite understand why he has to hide. He befriends the next-door neighbor's kid, a precocious second grader obsessed with Camelot. (This is where the robot gets his name.) The two play out their fantasy in the burnt out remains of the apartment building nearby. Galahad doesn't need to fear the kid leaking his secret, since everyone would chalk it up to his overactive imagination.
There are also a lot of literary and mythical allusions sprinkled throughout the book, from the stories of the constellations to the ancient myths and legends. From Orion to Jason and the Argonauts to Prometheus. They work well within the context of the story and come out of Galahad's natural learning progression, as he reads through books from the library.
SPARKS is a predefined story. Marvit has it all laid out already in about 50 page chunks for a total of just about 400 pages. So this is definitely going somewhere. After the first 225+ pages now, you can see a large segment of the story arc. With the fifth issue, "Crossroads," it seems a path has been chosen and Jo is tentatively on her way to fixing her life. Since there are still 200 pages left, give or take, I get the feeling a couple of curve balls are still coming her way. There's a number of plot points set up by the initial issues that haven't been touched on, although enough hints have been dropped that you can guess a little bit at some of the points that are coming up ahead. (Dang, it's tough talking about this stuff without dropping spoilers galore sometimes.)
AND ON THE VISUAL SIDE…
Marvit's art is lively and animated, which makes sense since he comes from an animation background. It's not animated in the sense that Mike Kunkel's is with HEROBEAR AND THE KID. This is inked over and the guidelines are erased. But the characters look and act lively. There are definite character models behind each character in the cast, and Marvit doesn't stray from them. Usually in a new series like this, you can see the art style evolve. While there's a slight different between the first issue and the rest – and one I imagine had something to do with the scanning of the art for production purposes at too low a resolution – there's no change in the character designs as the series progresses.
The page layouts are fairly blocky, but not necessarily a straight grid. Some panels overlap each other at odd intervals. This regularity helps emphasize the strange effects of different layouts. There's a scene in the third issue where Galahad takes Jo for a trip around the city. The panels are tilted at a diagonal to emphasize Jo's disorientation as Galahad briskly traverses the city. Otherwise, everything works at right angles.
Marvit handles the quiet moments really well. This story doesn't use panels as scenic highlights. Many comics will have a conversation between two characters with two static panels and a lot of word balloons. Here, Marvit will draw those awkward silences in conversation as small silent panels. A simple pause while a character takes a drink or smokes a cigarette appears as another panel. It's very much influenced, I imagine, from animated storyboards, where every action is drawn in. In most comics, it seems, those middle actions are left to the reader.
One last thing: Marvit draws some terrific cityscapes in here. Pay particular attention to the first page of the first issue, but also to the backgrounds during scene transitions or trips through the city. It's great stuff. Most of the panels in the comic center more on character and not setting or terribly well detailed backgrounds. The cityscapes, however, are cartoony while remaining detailed and proportioned.
The one nit I'd have to pick with the book is with the computer lettering. Christopher Williams is credited here with "digital lead, lettering and layout." While the lettering works when Galahad acquires a Mr. Spell and Speak, I can't help but think this book would have a softer feeling with hand lettering, or maybe even another font. The lettering often doesn't sit well in the balloons for me, either. A potentially bigger problem is the number of times the order of balloons in a given panel gets confusing. The big trouble with that seems to be when two people are speaking from opposite sides of the panels; their balloons are not staggered in an obvious fashion.
There is also a bunch of misspelled words through the book. I wonder sometimes how much Galahad's incorrect speech is due to the Speak and Spell, and how much of it is lettering goofs…
The subtitle to the book is "An urban fairytale." Much of the action takes place in the city, starting with the apartment that Josephine and her parents live in, extending to the dinky garage she works at, and including the burnt out apartment building her second grade neighbor likes to play in.
But it's also an adult fairytale. There's some serious stuff going on here. There are bullies and suicide attempts and near sexual assaults. There is also the mistreatment physically handed to Josephine's mother and verbally assailed at her from her father. He doesn't mince words and Marvit doesn't hide them at all from the reader. There's a shocking event of this kind of bluntly realistic nature in the fourth issue that ultimately sold me on the book. It's a straight-on punch to the gut and could leave you a weeping mess, if you're the emotional kind.
In theory, a lot of this could be toned down if SPARKS were ever made into an animated movie. The story is rich and startlingly frank in its depiction of the abusive father and the cruelties of the other girls Josephine hangs out with. But the themes of identity and acceptance are universal and could withstand such a transition to a more family friendly format, if need be…
The first four issues are black and white and contain 49 pages of story. The paper is good high quality heavy white paper. There are no ads. The inside front cover is used for credits and everything else is story-related. The story in each issue finishes up on the inside back cover. Each cover is a beautifully painted wraparound. The asking price on these is $4.95 per, if you can find them anywhere. The fifth issue is only 33 pages of story, but the price is down to $2.95, so who's to complain?
I'd really like to see a trade paperback put out with the first four issues included. The first four make for a nice starting point to the series, and would easily catch you up to the present fifth issue. It would be easier for people to pick one of those up than it would be to track down these first five issues, which have taken nearly two years to come out.
If you liked the IRON GIANT, I can't see how you could possibly not like this. It's got many of the same sensibilities, although aimed at an older audience.
Lawrence Marvit may not have won the 2000 Eisner for "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition", but he certainly deserves more attention for this book. SPARKS is an intelligent, frank, bold endeavor and yet another book well worth reading in a day and age of dwindling comic readership.
One other little thing that didn’t fit in too well above: Marvit directed one of the first shorts at Thrave.com, which made its debut at the San Diego Comicon last year. I have no idea, quite honestly, if the site is still viable. It probably dot-bombed a while ago, for all I know. But you can see his short, CUPIDS, at thrave.com.
More than 400 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.