Saturday, August 2, 2014

Prelude to Epics Month

              When I came up with the idea of devoting an entire month to comics holding true to the epic form, as with any major project that would allow a person of distinction to read comics at work, I had to set out certain rules for myself. Not just any comic can count as an epic. In fact, many don't. And while some of the longer titles are certainly operatic and massive in scope (Hi, DC), I chose not to do them because the open-ended nature of many comics leaves a lot up in the air. While I could review stories in each comic, and explore the form that way, I'd feel like I was just doing a single chapter of The Iliad and calling it a day. No, I wanted to get deep. Comprehensive. Get some dirt under my fingernails (figuratively). 

               So as part of the project, I did some research. I had to make sure I was using the word "epic" right, and not in another wrong way, especially as these days there have been some fast and loose uses of the word "epic" to mean "something that is awesome or imbued with powers beyond the regular forms". So I had two criteria I had to come up with to judge if these comics fit the mold I was looking for, and if they counted as an epic. And also to determine what series I would use or even be able to use. This may sound like overthinking a little, but I wanted this to be special, since I'm essentially devoting three to four weeks to me reading graphic novels as opposed to doing more with books. I know that this is sort of my "soapbox", mostly for lack of outside input, but I am the kind of cultured man-about-town who believes that even on the internet, one should have standards*.  More, as always, below.

So first, here's my definition of what constitutes an epic: What it contains, what it means, and so on and so forth:

1. It must last at least a year, though preferably multiple years

         This one is probably the least fiddly, but also the least essential. Though it does get complicated sometimes when you have beings who exist outside of time as the main focus of the story. But it's also one I'll stand firm on: An epic has to take at least a year, and possibly span multiple years and multiple points on a timeline. It was actually the epic fantasy tradition that brought this one up. In a lot of literary epics, the timeline spans a large distance. The weight of time should be tangible. I mention that this is probably one of the least essential points because time is an elastic, malleable, and often completely negligible thing when dealing with stories of gods and heroes. But even the smallest piece of epic literature usually takes a year, so I based it somewhat on those expectations

2. Intervention in the form of god(s) and monsters

                   Due to reading The Odyssey before I should have ever read The Odyssey, if an epic doesn't have any intervention from the gods, or godlike entities, I feel cheated. Every epic-- heroic, national, literary-- has its gods. Be it the actual, literal gods of The Odyssey and The Iliad, the Crimson King and Turtle in Stephen King's The Dark Tower, or even the Wizards and Pantheon in The Lord of the Rings. You make an epic, you have to have some kind of power in place. Even War and Peace there are forces beyond the protagonists' control that act on them. Another thing an epic has a lot of is its share of monsters. Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey would be the major touchstones there, but one could also mention the genetic creations of Howard De Vore in Wingrove's excellent Chung Kuo series, Mordred or the countless demons in The Dark Tower, James Joyce in Ulysses, or any number of others. Hell, It by Stephen King counts as an epic along these lines, since it spans multiple time periods with a group of heroic characters fighting (and this is in no way a spoiler) a monster god.

3. A central group of "heroic" characters

              Okay, first, the reason I have quotes around "heroic" is kind of one I've delved into before, but here it is laid out. I hate absolutism in novels. I like everything to be a light grey instead of black and white. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are heroes, but they kill and steal and forge and rob tombs with no compunction against it-- they hear "treasure", and away they go. Similarly, Odysseus is far from the good guy some condensed versions of the Odyssey show him as, since he routinely gets his men killed and don't even get me started on the "Cleansing of the Suitors" chapter. But know what? Despite all this, they are trying to do the right thing. Whether or not they always succeed, I like it when you can tell the characters are trying to do the right thing. I can't look up to people who are "just good" any more than I can despise people who are "just bad". 

         But what an epic needs is a hero and his adventuring party. Jason didn't look for the Golden Fleece alone, the Norse always took a huge ton of cannon fodder with lineages longer than the uncut version of The Stand, and there are always decent-sized casts of characters. Sometimes, it doesn't even have to be a central character-- sometimes it's a group of characters. Some of the Greek epics involved multiple people, parties of demigods and warring gods and all kinds of things like that. Look at The Romance of the Three Kingdoms-- there are almost too many central characters, all of them fighting with each other and against external forces and...I should probably tell you now that outside of my research, the closest I've been to Romance of the Three Kingdoms is playing Dynasty Warriors. But the point remains, there aren't just a few central characters, there's an entire fargin' cast. So we need central characters, of dubious heroism.

4. A quest

         And finally and most importantly, a good epic needs a good quest. Well, a heroic epic does. It doesn't have to be a tangible thing, either. Some times it can be something as simple as "freedom" or "peace of mind". There have been philosophical epics (I read one last week, in fact), there have been romantic epics, there have been epics of every kind and stripe, but all the heroes-- whether they get it or not-- are trying to achieve something. There is an end goal. There is a point. Whether or not it is achieved, there is a point. Something people are trying to reach. Unlike this article, which has kind of ballooned out of proportion. 

       And there you have it. My big criteria for what constitutes an epic. What I'll be using to define my four entrants this month. But that also leaves the question of how I selected the comic books I selected. That's just as important, and deserves some time, too. So:

1. Must have a completed storyline

           This was a big one, because there are more than a few classic epic comics that have still yet to complete. Hellblazer is a tragicomic heroic epic about a man searching for peace of mind and for the universe to leave him alone. Buuut while Hellblazer was cancelled, the adventures of John Constantine continue. Fables is an epic about war and the people who are forced to face it, buuut it's currently slated to finish sometime in spring of 2015 with its hundred and fiftieth issue**. Most of DC and Marvel's main lines count, buuut none of them can actually be counted as "finished". Nor will they. And I'm not in the habit of reviewing things that are still going on. Because then I can't formulate a finished opinion. The story still has turns and twists it could take. So no. Must have a complete storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. Must also have completed said storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. These are my rules, I make 'em up, and I told myself if I wanted to do this, I'd keep to things that actually had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

2. Must be able to stand on its own, or with very little outside context required.

        This was one for my readers more than anyone else. I don't want to have to explain myself any more than I already am, and there are some books where knowing a whole ton of outside context is required. This is also why I didn't really push for superhero books, is because they require context. While pop-culture kind of carries the load on that, and I'd like to think that since you're reading this on the internet, chances are you already know most of the context, that is probably not the case. So everything has to be able to stand on its own, and not as part of a bigger series. The one where I'm playing fast and loose on this is that by doing both Lucifer and The Sandman, I'm kind of cheating-- Lucifer follows off of the plot of Sandman, thus providing all the necessary context by giving the review. So my evil plan is, I will be able to do Lucifer because by doing Sandman, I'm introducing the character of Lucifer. Anyway, it doesn't matter too much, because once Lucifer truly takes off, then it abandons its context and goes freestanding anyway. But I wanted to have to explain as little background as possible in my pursuit of things.

3. Must have run at least twenty issues

   Because quantity is important, whereas quality is something to be determined over the course of the month. And I don't know how many epic novels/poems/comic books you guys read regularly, but all the ones I've read are at least either a trilogy or doorstopper-length. But since I'm reviewing them, quantity matters at this juncture a little more than quality, as I can determine quality as I read through things.

          So this was how I decided to tackle this particular theme month. I hope this explains some of the things I'm doing, and helps set a tone up. Now, without further ado, Geek Rage/Strange Library presents EPICS MONTH.

*I know most news/media/journalism/blogging outfits on the internet disagree with me on this one very important point. They're allowed to. They have money, I have standards, and thus the world continues to turn. 
** Most people I know who really dig it got out of it well before volume 3 of the trades, which includes drugged wolf sex, anti-abortion rants, and when you get far enough, what people tell me these days is a rather unsettling sentiment. 

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