Friday, October 12, 2007

My name is Red

My Name is Red is Orhan Pamuk’s latest in a line of books which seek to capture the melancholy beauty , pain and contrariness that is his hometown, Istanbul. Set in 16th century Istanbul at the height of the Ottoman Empire, the novel revolves around the murder of a master miniaturist for reasons that include the creation of a highly secretive and possibly sacrilegious book commissioned by the Emperor himself. At this point, comparisons with The Name of the Rose will inevitably crop up, seeing as both are historical murder mysteries. While Umberto Eco’s tour de force was a brilliant and intelligent work which dabbled in esotery , Pamuk’s book is a more emotional and beautiful creature, appealing more to the heart than to the brain.

Orhan uses the voices of the various characters to guide us through the turmoil and changing landscape of the empire, challenged by the technological and artistic advances of the West. This collision of cultures in the Ottoman empire leaves the miniaturists with a choice, stick to the ways of old or be engulfed by the oncoming avalanche of Westernism. Pamuk’s Ottoman Empire evokes all the old stereotypes established by such childhood tales of the east such as 1001 Nights and the legends of Haroun Al Raschid. Istanbul is lush and exotic; the sultanate is rich beyond imagining and the glory and power of the sultan is sacrosanct. The land is rich with tradition and dozens of Oriental legends are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of this book. As Pamuk strives to explain the grand scheme of art, explaining its relationship to the will of God and other variables, he ends up creating art. Beauty oozes out of Pamuk’s exquisitely crafted sentences and one must assume that they must sound more beautiful in the original Turkish, losing something in the(albeit wonderful) translation.

Ultimately this work is more poem than book, spinning delicate sentences that murmur an ode to an art form that will soon be devoured by a cultural deluge from the West.

The age of the Graphic Novel

Ever since Superman and Batman made their advent in the late 1930s, comic books have constituted an endearing and essential part of our teen years. The vicarious pleasure we experienced when the Green Lantern defeated yet another evil nemesis with his power ring and the open-jawed disbelief with which we received Superman’s death ( early 90’s) were emotions of such undistilled purity and innocence. Our years of boyish adventure were spent putting on spandex and trying to make batarangs. In our late teens, when we rediscovered the opposite gender, Archie and his gang from Riverdale High entered our lives and Betty and Veronica formed the fantasy diet for many a freckled adolescent. In due course, adulthood came along and we outgrew comic books. Those who still had the hots for Wonderwoman and idolized the Flash were mercilessly ribbed about it and soon fell out of popular society. Generation after generation, a few individuals retain this childlike wonder and innocence and get relegated to the backburner of society. These are the lucky few, the ones that fall through the chinks. For them, the magic lives on.

Up until the 80’s, a major percentage of mainstream comics (think Marvel and DC) dabbled in fare that was childish and repetitive : black versus white, add some tights, add some fights. The Comics Code Authority, instituted because a certain Fredrick Wertham felt comic books led to juvenile delinquency, had severely stifled creativity in the industry for decades. All that was about to change. A slew of great stories with mature themes was suddenly unleashed on the world in the eighties. Suddenly, comic books were no longer for kids. Realizing the potential of the visual medium, great visionaries like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were bringing their unique, often bleak , disturbing and thought-provoking visions to the pages of comics. Moore’s groundbreaking opus Watchmen did plenty to get comic books re-integrated into the mainstream. It won a Hugo award and became a bestseller. Inspired by this success, many artists followed suit with daring and risqué stories. Violence and blood once again rode the streets of comicdom. Murder, mayhem and anarchy followed, leading to a turbulent but extremely creative period in the industry. Moore’s Swamp Thing, From Hell and V for Vendetta, Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez were seminal oeuvres, changing and redefining the landscape of comics. Soon, those of the geek and nerd persuasion were crawling out of the woodwork and walking with their heads held high.

Enter the nineties and with it Neil Gaiman. This heretofore unknown writer resurrected a little known DC character called the Sandman and reinvented him in a stunningly original series. The Sandman books were published under the DC Vertigo imprint, a new line of adult comics. Buoyed by the success and critical acclaim they received, DC commissioned many new titles. Garth Ennis’ highly irreverent Preacher ( my personal favorite), Warren Ellis vision of a dystopian future, Transmetropolitan and the long running Hellblazer and Moonshadow were the most successful progeny of the Vertigo imprint. On the other side of the world, Japanese manga had become a craze and was churning out great masterpieces such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira. Graphic novels had finally arrived with a bang and comic book- aficionados were suddenly hip. Even still, they occupied a niche culture that baptized only a chosen few. But, like rap music, the initiates were cool cats.
Hollywood soon cottoned on to the popularity of comic books and superhero movies have become a Hollywood staple. Dozens of graphic novel adaptations are in the works, most notably Miller’s Sin City 2 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

Today, the comic scene is abuzz with creativity, propelled by such fine minds as Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Brian Wood, Bill Willingham and Brian Azzarello. The best contemporary titles on the scene include Fables, 100 Bullets, The Walking Dead, DMZ and Y the Last Man. The medium offers infinite potential and with the artistic genius of such stalwarts as Glenn Fabry, Dave McKean and the inimitable Alex Ross, rest assured that the future of the graphic novel is in great hands.