Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Church & State Unfair: A Reading of Comic Book Series Rex Mundi

I should probably be writing up my lesson plan for my class tomorrow. Or finishing my proposal for the CGSA conference in June that's due tomorrow. Or, you know, be working on that dissertation thing (This week: Genesis manuals! Golden Axe! Sonic! And... those other Genesis games!). But I feel like I haven't done a "pure" blogpost in a while (ie. not school related), so it's time for something different. Comic books!

Specifically, I just read the first volume of Arvid Nelson's Rex Mundi, as well as the introduction of the second, and I feel the need to wax rhapsodic. Here's a link to an article with some pictures for the book. (Why, yes, I am too lazy to post my own images.) The high concept of the series is that it is set in an alternate Europe, during the 19th century or so (it's a little hard to date exactly--the newspaper is prevalent, but the church and monarchy are still firmly in control). It differs from our history in two significant ways: there never was a French Revolution (hence the continuing control of the church and state) and magic is an accepted reality, though only practiced openly by a small and persecuted minority. More specifically, the first volume of Rex Mundi stars Julien Sauniere, a Parisian doctor plunged into a sea of intrigue and mystery after agreeing to help his priest friend track down a stolen forbidden manuscript. There are two chief things I found worth talking about here: the conspiracy theme, and the art.

We'll do art first. Volume 1 of the book (and volume 2, I understand; the foreword suggests the pair went their separate ways after those two or so) has the art duties performed by Eric J. Generally speaking, I'm not a very visual person. I tend to skip long descriptive passages in literature, and even in comics, a medium whose biggest selling point is its visual aspect, I often don't notice the pretty pictures unless it's a work that departs from the realist style very clearly. So when I do notice the art, that's a sign of something really notable going on. Eric J doesn't depart from a realist style, particularly. And while his art is distinct, the individual panels aren't really that noticeable. What's remarkable about his work is his use of silent, sequential patterns to illustrate motion. Most of my comic reading is superhero stuff, which means a lot of fighting. And yet, it's surprisingly rare that I read something that really conveys the motion and flow of action. Eric J does that. There's a scene of Sauniere running through the Paris sewers, and I could actually see, in my mind's eye, how the pursuit went. It's rare that I've seen anything that so thoroughly takes advantage of comic books not just as a visual medium but as a sequential visual medium.

So that's the art. The conspiracy angle is another issue entirely. I don't want to go into too much detail on the specifics, because in such a story, the plot is a large part of the point of reading, but the first volume's foreword compares it favorably to both Da Vinci's Code and Foucault's Pendulum. And the foreword of the second volume (which I still haven't read beyond the foreword, mind you) furthers the point. I'm tempted to retype the whole thing here, but I'll give you an abridged version (which is still very long):
"I say Foucault's Pendulum wasn't necessarily a great work of literature because it was more intellectualism than art, [a distinction, incidentally, that gets at the heart of what I was talking about re: my problems with constrained writing] more about characters sitting around and talking--and talking and talking and talking--in an impersonal way, tearing down the preconceptions of European Christian culture. it was an intellectual exercise of sorts--and people loved it.
Rex Mundi sprang from the same creative font and has gripped its readers in the same way. and why? Why are some of us so eager to see our histories rewritten before our eyes, our beliefs questioned and our faith disproved?
Rex Mundi asks those questions, and in its answers it makes the kind of leaps that reward readers. It offers possibilities that strike bold chords. It says something in the way that the best kind of fiction should, elevating a page-turner into something more by displaying ideas from which readers may discover whatever meanings ring truest to them.
Rex Mundi is a fantasy--Arvid declares that, more clearly than some of his peers in this literary vein, by setting his story in a past which is clearly not our own. But his colorful recreation of early twentieth-century Europe shouldn't distract you from his own honest examination of what it means to be a Westerner, the way some of us are driven to conquer and some to seek, and what sorts of secrets we might find in our own past."
Still here? Good. What Scott Allie is getting at, if I may grossly oversimplify prose that I wish I'd written myself, is the genre of the conspiracy theory, and, more significantly, works that both apply it and question its existence. It's a very prevalent genre-type, one that transcends media--it's in literature and film, obviously, but it's also a common videogame trope. Deus Ex and Assassin's Creed come to mind as two of the more successful examples. I've always liked conspiracy plots in videogames, because they always work on a meta level. Of course there's a conspiracy--every single person you meet in the game exists solely to affect you.

But what Allie and Nelson are doing is much more specific. This isn't a conspiracy theory where your government is lying to you, or your boss, or your some aliens. For a Westerner, when you start talking about massive conspiracies perpetuated by churches and monarchies, what you're saying is that your past is lying to you. The history of the world, of your world, as you know it, is a lie. That narrative of your country's place in the world and your place in it is wrong, because it's foundation is rotten. The flip side of the conspiracy theory genre is that (unless you're dealing with postmodern deconstructionist conspiracy theory--I'm looking at you, Pynchon) once the lie is exposed, it's almost inevitably about the resulting search for truth. Yes, someone has taken advantage of me, but now I have the knowledge, and I won't be deceived again. I don't want to get all Campbell/Hero's Journey here, but it's obviously a theme that resonates on a number of levels, personal and political. Rex Mundi is playing with the conspiracy theory, and what this search for truth means. I don't know what Nelson's agenda is for this play, but I'm going to find out.

Later Days.

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