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Little bit of a different format this time. The first part is my initial reactions written right after I read the book, the next is the actual review written a week or so later.
It begins with a dream. It HAS to be a dream, because of “the silence. In real life, everything is too noisy.” To be meticulously precise it’s a dream about a talking owl and a prophetess and an ancient temple and stuff, but alla that is beside the point. It’s the idea of finding yourself in a dream that’s important here. ‘Cause you almost need the dream-state mentality to approach De:Tales, the first major work from Brazilian cartoonists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. It’s a short story collection, technically, but the only thing that separates the end of one story from the beginning of the next is a small, easily-overlooked oval in the corner of the last panel. As a result the stories, these already somewhat loosely defined stories crash head on into each other, co-mingling, never really settling into the steady predictability of rising action/climax/denoutment narrative but instead unraveling as a series of variations on a theme.
And the theme here is love. It’s approached somewhat randomly at first Boys and girls kissing, falling apart, idly fucking, flirting, and staring out into the night sky thinking of their love far away. Except sometimes the boys aren’t boys and the girls aren’t girls; They can be ghosts, living reflections, whisps of memory… “If this is a dream, then everything here’s symbolic.”
But upon second reading all these half-whips of story congeal into familiar patterns, and a kind of structure emerges. Sex is meaningless, love is timeless (and can overcome death) and it’s vitally important to seize love when the opportunity arises. There isn’t much in the way of character arcs or narrative, and it seems as t he transient little lives of the characters end up being fairly unimportant, they’re a vehicle to communicate with the audience.
It’s a fairly unique take on comic storytelling, neither narrative nor anti-narrative, and it seems a stretch to even call these pieces short stories… More like comic snapshots, one moment captured in time, then gone, forever.
So. Lemme try this again, little more concretely.
The damn thing is beautiful, that’s for sure. I spent a lot of time in my last review bitchin’ about how the artist doesn’t really give us a feeling for the environment his characters live in. But I probably wouldn’t have been so harsh if I hadn’t read Ex Machina right after De:Tales. Moon and Ba animate their magical realist take on Brazil, creating a fully realized, consistent, detailed, and imersive environment. It’s all too easy when dealin’ with non-traditional narrative structures for the artists to forget to actually make some kind of sense, but I never got lost in De:Tales nor found it to be unclear. Each panel is part of the story, sure, but it’s also part of the map of the world that’s being laid out for us. Because all the stories happen in the same PLACE, see? Even if this place is also on another continent, it’s all the same point of view.
This consistency is especially impressive when you realize that these stories are the product of two different artists switching off the art and writing chores. It’s amazing how seamless that Moon and Ba make it look.. It’s not impossible to tell where one’s work begins and the other’s ends, but I did specifically have to go back and examine every panel quite closely to find the switching point. Since Moon and Ba are brothers, it’s hard to wonder if this capacity for similar stylization isn’t in their blood. And it IS stylized: The women (and men) are drawn in a way that isn’t completely different from, say, Michael Turner. Except for the BIG difference: Moon and Ba are really, REALLY good artists, and the stylization serves to enhance and personalize the story rather than detract from it. The “camera” is constantly shifting in De:Tales, changing Point Of View and perspective in nearly every panel, constantly showing us new corners of Moon and Ba’s Brazil but never losing the audience or even making the story hard to follow.
Also, the spotting of blacks is expertly done. I’ve got a major soft spot in my reviewers’ heart for big ‘ol chunks of inky darkness expertly applied, and the brothers Ba are some of the best in the comics biz right now.
I’m concentrating more on the art than the story ’cause De:Tales is much more about the art than the writing. Some of these pieces move from being slice of life vignettes to actual stories… but many of them don’t. My favorite story in the whole book is the last one, which is just two lovers waking up at night and missing each other, with views of the city between them. The artist captures every nuance of body language and facial expression and presents us with sweeping city-scapes, but there just ain’t much plot there. Which is really the major weakness of this book. A series of effectively told stories is always going to be a little more resonant than a series of effectively conveyed mood pieces.
Still ‘an conversely, taken AS a series of mood pieces De:Tales is an unqualified success, albeit one you might have to move your headspace around a little bit to take in. I certainly recommend it.
(De: Tales was nominated for Best US Edition of International Material.)
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