Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shadrach Stone:
A Tale of the 21st Century: A Graphic Novel

Penny-Farthing Press, 2010, paperback, 104 pages, $ 19.95

Writer: Stuart Moore
Penciler and colorist: Jon Proctor
Inkers: Jeff Dabu, Jon Proctor
Letterer: Jason Levine

As it turns out, the “graphic novel” part of the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than a standalone narrative, this is the first (and, to date, only) book in a projected series. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you—flimsier works have been called graphic novels.

Shadrach Stone is a science-fiction story built around a simple truth: People lie. Its eponymous hero, a literary agent in New York City, may be one of the bigger liars on the planet—right until he undergoes a transformative experience that forces him to change his ways in a rather dramatic fashion, that is.

That’s where the sci-fi stuff comes in, but those are actually the least interesting aspects of the book. It goes like this: Every lie creates a parallel world where the lie is reality. Because those parallel worlds threaten the mainstream, truth-based reality, there’s an international secret organization, called the Force Majeure, whose job is to track down and collapse the rogue realities created by lies. Shadrach is an expert on the subject matter, so they recruit him.

A former editor at Marvel Knights and Vertigo, Mr. Moore knows his stuff when it comes to the page-to-page storytelling, and he’s built this story well. Jon Proctor, likewise, does a solid job with the art. Mr. Proctor’s style has a slick, glossy quality that is strongly reminiscent of Tony Harris’s stuff.

Now, obviously, since this is only the first part of the story, Moore throws quite a few balls in the air. I don’t think I quite understand why the lies create parallel worlds or why those parallel worlds are meant to be a threat. But, of course, all that may be part of the plan, for all we know. There’s a little too much technobabble for my taste when the Force Majeure explain their shtick, but overall, I get the impression that the creators have thought this through.

The problem here, rather, is that the book doesn’t deliver hard enough in its key moments.

First up, in the introduction showing Shadrach as a kid, I don’t quite get to know why he thinks he has to lie, or why it’s so satisfying to him. There’s a lot of glee involved, and without some proper context, I don’t know how to calibrate that. There’s some vague insinuation that his dad doesn’t have much time for him, but that’s not enough. Father issues feature prominently in Moore’s writing for DC’s Firestorm, as well as in his own creations Para and Earthlight, so maybe this will come up at a later point in the story. It should be in here, though. The story should give me more to work with when, on page 7, it turns out that little Shadrach is a big liar.

The second key moment is during the epiphany sequence. I won’t spoil what’s happening in pages 22 through 41, so let’s just say it’s a visually striking sequence, and Proctor’s art sells the time and place of the events. As far as Shadrach himself is concerned, though, the scene loses me. For one thing, the story doesn’t give me any reason to buy why he’s acting the way he does. Who in their right mind would do what he’s doing here? His behavior just doesn’t make sense. It seems unmotivated and dishonest, and that shouldn’t happen—let alone at such a crucial juncture in the story.

Finally, towards the end of the book, Shadrach’s first mission with the Force Majeure ends up being a letdown. The character beats are right, in principle. However, the lead-up to the last scene with Vida should be a big deal, and it isn’t. It’s one of those generic scenarios where the protagonist has to decide between the reality and the fiction. I get that it has to come down to that decision, to a degree, but there’s a very thin line between being too specific and too arbitrary. In this case, it all seems a little too vague and random and non-specific to be convincing as a turning point.

So I’m not really sold on how the protagonist’s character arc is developing here, ultimately; there’s not enough emotional punch behind it. I’m still intrigued by the basic idea, though, and the overall storytelling is rock-solid.

There’s a lot of potential here.

Grade: C+

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