Review time! with Nocturne: The Walled City Trilogy volume 2

"I'll give you television, I'll give you eyes of blue, I'll give you a man who wants to rule the world"

A few years ago, I read His Dream of the Skyland, the first book in the so-called "Walled City trilogy." I didn't review it on the blog because it came out late in 2011 and I was so busy with other things, but when I did my top ten list, I put it on there, because it's a terrific comic. Now, the second volume of this massive epic is coming out, and a very nice lady at Gestalt Comics sent me a digital copy so I would review it. I usually don't review middle volumes of trilogies because they're by necessity not the set-up and not the climax, but since she was so nice about it, I made an exception. Nocturne is written by Anne Opotowsky, drawn by Angie Hoffmeister (who did not draw volume 1), and lettered by Oswin Tickler. It's a massive volume - over 450 pages - but I'm not sure how much it costs. It's supposed to be in the next Previews catalog, so I'll definitely mention it then.

It took me a long time to read Nocturne, as it's very long and my computer kept screwing up the download. So that was frustrating. However, once I managed to, it was a good experience, as the book is extremely immersive - Opotowsky draws you into a world that is hauntingly familiar while still being exotic. The book is set in the 1920s (I think; it might be the 1930s, although it feels more like the '20s) in Hong Kong and Kowloon, and Opotowsky and Hoffmeister do a marvelous job with all the aspects of life in those cities, including the Kowloon ghetto, which is walled (hence the name), keeping the undesirables away from the wealthier Chinese and British across the harbor. We catch up with some characters, including the nominal protagonist, Song, who is still working at the post office, although he gets out of the dead letter office for a time before machinations high above him begin to move him around like a pawn. Song is poking around where he doesn't belong, as he tries to find the addressees of the dead letters, which takes him into the walled city and beyond, into places that he really shouldn't be going. Opotowsky has a lot on her mind, as she introduces another quasi-protagonist, Benjamin, who was abandoned on a dock in Calcutta in 1905 and brought to Kowloon by a brother and sister. Now, as a grown-up, he's trying to figure out who his father is, as it might be a highly-placed British official (but that might just be a tall tale). Benjamin is also introducing a young lady to the sexual joys of bondage, which is just one small indication that the epic is taking a darker turn. The criminals who run Kowloon are jockeying for position, and toward the end of the book, there's more violence in a few chapters than there's been in the entire book so far. Opotowsky does a wonderful job moving her characters around the city, so that the bursts of violence that seem to come randomly are actually part of a massive chess game, it seems. The violence also highlights the lawlessness that simmers just under the surface in Hong Kong, as the British are barely a presence in the book, and when they are, they're performing ineffectual and bullying tasks like burning trees and closing businesses for no good reason. For a good portion of the book, it feels like Opotowsky is simply moving people around and marking time until the third volume, but by the end, she has upended the status quo of the criminal world quite nicely, although there's still plenty of drama left over for the book.

The plot doesn't matter as much as you might think, because Opotowsky isn't necessarily interested in it to the exclusion of everything else. She has a very large cast to deal with, and they each get a lot of page time. She is giving us a look at Chinese society during the interwar years, and so she delves into the lives of street urchins, prostitutes, dance hall girls, entrepreneurs who live on both sides of the law, women struggling to make it in a patriarchal world, and people from every class level and how they try to move up. Opotowsky gives us a street-level view of the city, as people meet, buy, sell, chat, play Go, and love as they traverse the alleyways. She gets into the casual racism of the period, and shows how the Chinese tried to emulate the Europeans even in their dismissive attitude toward those in the lower classes. The portrait of Kowloon/Hong Kong society is as important as the major plots that move through the book, as it places the plots in nice context and makes them more believable and even understandable. Opotowsky gives us a lot of diverse characters, and when they do things, she makes it clear why they do them. They're not always good reasons, but we can understand why the characters make their choices.

Hoffmeister didn't draw the first volume, and I guess the idea is to get a different artist for each massive book, which makes this, visually, an interesting project. Aya Morton, who drew the first volume, had a more dreamlike quality to her art, while Hoffmeister is a bit - just a bit - more down to earth. That fits the slightly darker tone of the book, as the characters are a bit more involved in the messiness of real life in this volume than in the first one - again, not too much, just a bit. Hoffmeister does nice work with the many characters in the book, giving them each unique looks and personalities. She handles the young and the old, the Chinese and the Europeans, and the high and low classes all very well, and she makes sure to dress the characters in ways that reflect their social standing and the way they want to present themselves to the world. Opotowsky's story is partly about the clash between modernity and the rustic aspects of Chinese life, and Hoffmeister is very good at showing that rift, as motorcycle-powered rickshaws move through narrow streets and the water is piped through bamboo tubes. Hoffmeister is wonderful with the lushness of the cities, as she piles buildings on top of each other, puts greenery in every nook and cranny, and strings clothes lines across the alleys while characters leap along roofs and duck into rooms from the outside balconies. She places steps everywhere, and the streets are always crowded with extras selling their wares, picking pockets, and performing tricks. Her buildings in the wealthier sections of town are solid stone, implying a permanence to the British rule that the characters ignore. She swoops down the hills of Hong Kong on cobblestone streets and moves through gambling dens and brothels. The one problem I have with the art is that her perspective is occasionally very wonky, although I'm sure that's by design. She draws a lot of panels with characters moving from the back of the panel to the front or of people looking down from a high place, and too often her perspective doesn't quite work - the characters in the background are too big, or the buildings and/or figures have been lengthened or even shortened a bit too much. It's disconcerting, and while I do think it's deliberate - in many case, Hoffmeister demonstrates that she knows very well how to use perspective - I don't love it. She doesn't do action that wonderfully, but there's not a lot of it in the book, so that's not as big a deal. The book is so long that Hoffmeister can often draw painfully beautiful full-page spreads of certain cityscapes, and those help us get further into the mysterious world of the story. It's a beautiful comic.

While Opotowsky does get to quite a bit in this volume, it still doesn't stand alone, which isn't surprising but might make people resist a little. You should read the first volume, because she picks up so many plot threads from that one, and although she does resolve some in this volume, the two main plots aren't cleared up here. But that's okay - the first volume is terrific, and this volume continues a fascinating group of stories and a portrait of a place during a time period that we don't often read about. I'm already looking forward to the third volume!

Nocturne will be published in March, apparently (the 19th, it seems). You can find it at Turnaround Books or on Amazon, if you want to pre-order it. As I noted, it's supposed to be in the next Previews, but Diamond is weird, so who knows. Give it a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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