No One Fights Like Gascons : Alexandre Dumas – “The 45 Guardsmen”

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ABOVE: The Three Musketeers have really let themselves go.

It’s easy to get attached to three or four musketeers; when we’re talking 45 of them, things get a little more challenging, which is why Alexandre Dumas’ “The 45” (often published in English as “The Forty-Five Guardsmen”) is by far the less popular entry in the Valois trilogy, even though it contains all the winning elements of the previous novels, ( “Queen Margot” and “La Dame de Monsoreau”.) Realistically, it’s a steep learning curve for the unconvinced or uninitiated: not counting all the returning royals and nobles from the saga (the Three Henrys, as well as Catherine de Medici and dear Queen Margot) we’re also introduced to over 20 principal characters in the first couple of chapters… and that’s before the 45 titular swashbucklers even show up! (Dumas himself points out that each of them have fascinating stories to tell, but ain’t nobody got time for THAT.)

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ABOVE: “FORTY-FIVE GUARDS?! In one night?! Well, I’m afraid the engagement is off, Monsieur.”

The 45 guardsmen were largely Gascons hired to protect Henry III, and so Dumas gets ample room to praise the bravado and braggadocio that he identifies as a trademarks of the natives of the Gascony, the French region that extends from below Bordeaux almost to Basque Country. It would almost be ethnic stereotyping, but he’s fond of Gascons, it’s clear, since he gave the place what’s easily its most famous fictional son: D’Artagnan.

Unfortunately, there’s no D’Artagnan here, since this all happens some 40 years before “Musketeer Times”, in the 1580s, toward the end of those Wars of Religion that saw the three Henrys, (Henry III, Henry of Lorraine, and Henry of Navarre) fight each other, presumably propelled by the creed that “there can be only one.” Meanwhile, in case one wasn’t confused enough, a FOURTH Henry, Henry de Joyeuse, starts stalking demonstrating his love for Diane de Meridor, the Lady of Monsoreau.

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ABOVE: Guess which of the Henrys this is!

 

Toward the second half of the narrative, both Diane and the returning Chicot the Jester try to elbow their way to the foreground of the narrative, but this is hard to do with so many other characters blocking their way.  The novel itself fails to push its way to the forefront of Dumas’ oeuvre. “The 45” is not recommendable as any kind of entry-point to the world of Dumas: it’s too busy with plot and intrigue (there’s at least four main storylines in here). It also feels unfinished; it’s reputed to be a bridge between “Monsoreau” and a never-written fourth book that would string together all the narrative strands of the Valois trilogy. For something like a satisfying wrap, you’ll have to follow Chicot to his cameo in Auguste Maquet’s “la Belle Gabrielle.”

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ABOVE: “Hmmm, I appreciate the rescue and all, but there’s no need to squeeze my boob that hard.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH forthe fans; a confused SHRUG for newcomers to the Valois books.

May the Fourth and All That : John Jackson Miller – “Lost Tribe of the Sith”

Taking place after “Dawn of the Jedi”, but feeling even more genuinely mythological, John Jackson Miller’s “Lost Tribe of the Sith” is further evidence that almost everyone in the Galaxy has given more though to Star Wars mythology than George Lucas. Now no longer “canon” and relegated to the “legends” designation, this is a nice collection of 9 novellas: “Precipice,” “Skyborn,” “Paragon,” “Savior,” “Purgatory,” “Sentinel,” “Pantheon,” “Secrets,” “Pandemonium.” (Notice a certain pattern?) After the Sith Starship “Omen” crashlands on Kersh, 5000 years or so before the Battle of Yavin, the Dark-Forced castaways made themselves a new home by conquering the Keshiri with incisive, genocidal glee over millennia. Their biggest challenge, though? Their inability to co-operate:  a civilization of sheer evil doesn’t last long because its leaders turn to political cannibalism. How the Sith of Kesh manage to make it all work is an interesting tale, although necessarily fragmented and rushed (you try covering two millennia of Lost Tribe history: even Gabriel Garcia Marquez stuck to 100 years of solitude.)

Jackson Miller, (who also wrote the “Knights of the Old Republic” series) would return to the Lost Tribe with “Spiral,” a 5-issue graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. This follows the collected stories, and is set two thousand years or so before “A New Hope,” or, as normal people call it, “the first Star Wars movie, the one that didn’t have that Jar Jar Binks fella.” Continuing with the idea of strangers in strange lands, “Spiral” is about two discontent Sith who wind up in Kesh’s supposedly uninhabited version of the South Pole, only to find “The Doomed”: descendants of Fallen Jedi.

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There is a particularly dumb moment in “Episode III : Revenge of the Sith” when Annakin says something to Obi-Wan Kenobi like (and I paraphrase because dialogue this bad shouldn’t be committed to memory): “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” to which Obi Boy replies all like: “Only a Sith would think like that. THEREFORE YOU’RE NOT WITH ME AND YOU ARE MY ENEMY AND I MUST KILL YOU AND I DON’T SEE THE IRONY IN ANY OF THIS!”

The much smarter (and better-written) Doomed, instead, have  realized that there IS a possible middle ground between the Dark Force and the Light Force. This is a concept so apparently beyond the subtleties of Hollywood cinema that so far it hasn’t even been considered in 7 “Star Wars” movies- and a spinoff. To find out how they make it work, of course, look up the comics.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH, clearly best for SW fans.

Don’t Judge a Video Game by its Cover : Tim Lapetino – “The Art of Atari”

atari2Ready, Player One? “The Art of Atari” is a massively nostalgic stroll down the 8-bit arcade. Tim Lapetino is the curator of this gallery of huckstery, where the most adventurous artists and graphic designers of the 70s and 80’s were tasked with the un-enviable job of convincing a generation of gamers that the green rectangle that moved through the black screen was actually a slimy alien – or  a treacherous shark – or  a fast-advancing tank – or a menacing dinosaur.

They succeeded!

Sure, the cartridge art made promises the software would never be able to fulfill, but it didn’t matter; we were young, and we wanted to believe! More than nostalgia, “The Art of Atari” honors influential commercial artists- and I’m not sure why I forced the word “commercial” in there. These artists objectively fueled more dreams than many a beret-sporting garret-dweller.

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RATING: EXTREMELY COOL!

Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”

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“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.

RATNG: COOL!

 

In Cold Blood : Daniel Clowes – “Ice Haven”

“You want to know why we did it? Because we damn well felt like doing it.”

In 1924, two seemingly well-adjusted young men from “good families” abducted and murdered a 14-year-old boy because they were convinced they were bright enough to get away with it. They were indeed bright, perhaps remarkably so, but Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb got caught almost immediately, their “perfect murder” botched in a way that would be laughably idiotic if the circumstances weren’t so horrifying. (To wit, Leopold dropped his custom-made glasses at the crime scene! D’oh!)

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The Crime of the Century long before O. J. Simpson, the Leopold and Loeb case is at the chilling core of Daniel Clowes’ “Ice Haven,” a “comic strip novel” about the small titular town, where a boy named David Goldberg has disappeared. Has he been done in by a local L&L admirer?

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If Lloyd Llewellyn , “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” and “David Boring” are, at least nominally, surreal mysteries, “Ice Haven” is more about what happens on the periphery of a mystery: David’s disappearance is an excuse to look at the lives of his family, his neighbors, his schoolmates – the surprisingly expansive circle of people touched by the loss of this most insignificant of lives, (and it’s no slight; David himself embraces his own insignificance with stoic pride.)

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Clowes, like most of his peers, is a child of the comic strip, and it’s in the Sunday Funnies format that “Ice Haven” unfolds; but although there are Schulz parodies here, (and “Nancy” and “Little Lulu” allusions and, heck, even nods to “The Flinstones”) these strips are mainly riffing on their own Daniel Clowes-ness.  That would be self-parody if “self-parody” didn’t usually suggest creative bankruptcy; to the contrary, there’s wealth in this slim volume. Think of it as Clowes’ illustrations for “Our Town” as inhabited by Nabokov characters. A listing of the novel’s wacky cast would read like a chapter index, and give too much away. Go saunter through “Ice Haven,” and meet its denizens. In the words of Random “Not Thornton” Wilder, (the town’s bespectacled, self-proclaimed bard): “It’s not as cold as it sounds.”

RATING: COOL! Perhaps too brief for MASTERPIECE!!!

P. S.:

“While prose tends toward pure ‘interiority,’ coming to life in the reader’s mind, and cinema gravitates toward the ‘exteriority’ of experiential spectacle, perhaps ‘comics,’ in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality.’ ”

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