Taller Tales, Bill Willingham

A graphic novel experiment here.  I have an incredibly hard time reading graphic novel series that are not all of a piece; i.e., that are not written by one writer all the way through.  They feel fragmented.  I don’t read superhero comics for this reason.  I loved Sandman and Fables, and there are many good graphic novels in this world, but I generally find that the people who created the characters tend to be the ones who are able to capture their voices.  So I thought, hey, you know, this doesn’t have to be the case.  I thought, I will read Taller Tales, which is by an author I like, and the characters of which were created by an author I like; and then I will see how that goes.

I have seen how it goes.  I stand by my previously-held opinion about authors and the characters they create.  I vote against it.  Sorry, Bill Willingham.  You have many lovely qualities, and were it not for the fact that I am both very busy with work and rendered guilty by the piles of unread books in my house, I would go back through and reread the entire Fables series although I only finished reading it for the first time a month ago.

The first story is the exact kind of story I don’t like, with the John-Smith-like hero narrating all about how clever he is and how much girls love him.  I don’t like it when it’s serious and I don’t like it when it’s tongue-in-cheek.  It’s called Merv: Agent of D.R.E.A.M., and Merv tells a story about his heroic adventures on behalf of the Dreaming.  The second story was rather sweet – a little apprentice to Lucian (the librarian) goes around collecting books – but nothing much happened in it.  Then the third story was a good bit longer, all about Thessaly tracking down some people who tried to kill her.  And the last story was just a collection of short shorts answering silly questions about dreams.  (Mostly harmless.)

None of these wowed me.  They didn’t tell any exciting stories, so much as take characters and settings from the Dreaming and play around with them a little bit without doing anything new.  I think it would have been more interesting to see another side of the characters – though I’m sure if he had done that, I’d have bitched about him not staying true to the originals.  Although I enjoyed the story about Thessaly, none of these were really quite the characters I remember and love from the Sandman.  I think the reason I enjoyed the Thessaly story more is that I never liked Thessaly to start with, and I liked her less when she made it all rainy by breaking Dream’s heart.  Even with the Thessaly story, I didn’t think he got her quite right.  I believe this is a function of the way that a reader (me) interacts with the characters she reads about, rather than being a problem with Bill Willingham’s reading of the Sandman characters.

What Taller Tales has caused me to think about: The idea of “engaging” with a set of characters suggests an interaction between the characters as written and your own imagination.  Do you have to identify with some aspect of the characters in order to be able to give that piece of yourself to them that’s necessary for this “engagement” thing to happen?  Are there fast and dirty ways to get a reader to engage with a character or set of characters?  Maybe by doing the rags-to-riches thing?  By making them sympathetic in unpleasant circumstances?  By making them Susan Boyle?  (Love her so much.)

  • I have a really, really hard time with graphic novels in general. The only one I’ve read that I liked (and, to be fair, I loved it) was Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”, which is a great story but also made me think about storytelling – especially that whole engagement phenomenon, like you said. It’s such a mysterious thing, how books connect to our imaginations.

    So a friend suggested a nonfiction book which theorizes that the graphic form is the quickest and most effective way to capture a person’s imagination, but I can’t remember the title. I think the author was Scott McLoud or McCall?, and it’s a graphic novel (I feel funny calling a nonfiction book a graphic novel), but so far I haven’t come across it and I haven’t see my friend in ages to ask. But I think that’s the one to read. I don’t know if it will make me want to run out and embrace The Sandman series, but I think it’ll be interesting reading. Must….remember….title….

  • jennysbooks

    I think there’s a book called Understanding Comics by a Scott McCloud. Someone told me about it a while ago and I have been wanting to read it.

    It’s interesting that you don’t like them – I would have thought that being an artist yourself would make graphic novels more interesting to you, not less. Have you tried other memoirs, since you liked Persepolis so much? I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets a while ago, and really enjoyed it – he writes about his childhood as a fundamentalist Christian, and his first love, and struggling with his faith.

    Also, there’s a gorgeous kids’ book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s a big fat illustrated novel, so the text is set up like an ordinary book, but there are also these really lovely illustrations. Sort of a hybrid between a regular book and a graphic novel – maybe that would help to ease you in. 🙂

  • I can see what you mean about the fragmentation. I felt the same when I read At Death’s Door by Jill Thompson. It didn’t feel like a Sandman book, and the characters didn’t feel like the characters I knew, but I still managed to enjoy it for what it was.

    And in the case of Thesally, the art! I just loved the art.

    As for your question about characters, I don’t necessarily need to sympathize with them, but to engage with the story I need to understand them at least somewhat, to be able to make sense of their actions, thoughts, etc. Actually, one of my favourite things that fiction does is make me “see inside” the heads of people I wouldn’t normally identify or sympathize with. I hope this makes sense.

    PS: Understanding Comics is awesome!

  • jennysbooks

    Nymeth, that does make sense. I guess to me, it’s just a question of whether what’s inside their head resonates with me. My mother and I were talking about this after she read Eleanor Rigby, and she said that she thought it spoke more to my situation than hers. I think that’s something to consider with books – the character’s actions and ideas don’t have to be similar to mine, for me to engage with them, but it helps if I can see a glimmer of myself in them.

    That all sounds terribly self-centered! But I think it’s (at least partly) true. If I can’t empathize with a character’s choices or ideas, I can often recognize something in them that’s true of me – struggle against change, feelings of powerlessness, whatever – that makes me interested in what happens to them.

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