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Between Hell & a Hard Place

I don't care for comics that read like books. Where the pages contain caption boxes full of text, often just telling us what we're seeing in the artwork. This is often how writers not accustomed to the medium write comics, or how adaptations of prose pieces turn out. (Like the various Gaiman short story adaptations... come on fellas, I know it's Gaiman, but you don't have to repeat his words verbatim on the page - there's a reason he writes differently for the comic page, there's a reason it's called "adaptation".) It's rare that caption-heavy comics work, and usually only if there are two narratives going on - one in the art, one in the words ... and even then it has to be done well.

Brian Azzarello writes comics like I think they should be written: minimal or no captions, with exposition of milieu, character and story all happening in the dialogue or in the artwork. It's a very cinematic approach to graphic storytelling and while I understand the argument that it doesn't take advantage of all the medium's possibilities (eg the now widely deprecated thought balloons), it works for me. What it does mean though is that you have to pay closer attention because things aren't always spelled out, something I admit I don't always do. (Which is why, I suspect, I never quite got into 100 Bullets.)

Sergeant Rock and Easy Company have been a DC mainstay for 50 years and while I only ever read a handful of their comics, I was certainly aware of them. Between Hell & a Hard Place (Hell instead of a Rock, get it?) is a full length (140+ pages) graphic novel under the Vertigo banner. And while this means Azzarello could have littered his script with "shits" and worse (even plausible given the war setting), the language is generally more restrained, perhaps in deference to the characters' previous G-rated appearances. The story takes its time to unfold and is littered with good scenes - an encounter with a mine for instance - and good questions, such as what's the difference between killing someone in a battle and murdering them?

The art - by Joe Kubert - also never gets explicit, with no gore to speak of. What it is however is beautifully evocative. Kubert, a comics legend with a 50 year close association with Rock, is (as far as I can tell, as I'm - shamefully - not too familiar with his work) at the top of his game. The art is sparse, loose and confident. I'd have said that he skipped pencils altogether as the linework is so fluid, except that the sketches on the chapter title pages indicate otherwise. And the pastel colouring, incredibly restrained and all the more effective for it, is amazing: a totally unexpected treatment for a war story set in a forest.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 14, 2006 12:15 AM.

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