Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Who loves some Orson Welles-related fiction? I do!
NBM brings us The Broadcast, which is written by Eric Hobbs and drawn by Noel Tuazon. It’s $13.99, which is pretty good as it’s a decent hunk of comics, and Francesco Francavilla’s cool-ass cover (from 2007!) is neat because it’s “aged” to look like a pulp novel from the 1930s. Groovy, indeed!
If the Orson Welles reference didn’t do it for you, The Broadcast is the story of a town in Indiana whose inhabitants catch some of Welles’ broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” but don’t find out it’s a hoax because their power goes out. So they spend a very tense night trying to figure out if there are indeed Martians out in the storm, coming to kill and/or enslave them all. That can’t be good!
Hobbs begins the story in the middle of the night, when many of the inhabitants are hiding out in a barn. This is a fine idea, because it adds to the sense of drama and when a character staggers in from the rain, raving about another character getting snatched by “one of those damned things,” we begin to wonder. Is Hobbs writing a true science fiction story, where the Martians use Welles’s broadcast as a cover to actually invade (thankfully, no one’s ever done that before), or is it a case of collective madness? What the crap is going on?!?!? It’s a good beginning because it immediately ropes us in with a weird mystery. Hobbs then goes back to the morning of the same day and begins filling in the blanks. We meet the principle characters – Gavin, a young man; his father, Eli; Mr. Schrader, the local bigwig; Kim, his daughter and beau of Gavin; Dawson and Jacob, farmers who sold their land to Schrader and now work it, much to Jacob’s chagrin; Marvin, a black man who arrives in town under somewhat mysterious circumstances. As they move through the day, we find out what’s going on. Gavin seeks Schrader’s permission to marry Kim, but he’s disdainful of the young man. Kim, meanwhile, wants to move to New York and write, which of course her father thinks is ridiculous. Dawson remains cheerful about his situation but Jacob is quite bitter about it. Eli and Gavin find Marvin in the road, somewhat wounded, and take him home. This is the situation when some of them start listening to the radio that night. Hobbs gives us a few scenes of Welles in New York, just enough to let people who don’t know the story that Welles did actually tell people it was a radio play and not a real broadcast. Unfortunately, many people didn’t hear those parts and freaked out, and of course, as Hobbs points out, the power goes out in the town in the book soon after they hear some of the more gruesome parts. (If you’ve never heard the play, I bet you can find it on-line somewhere. It’s really well done, and although Welles interrupts I think thrice to remind people it’s a play, there are long stretches where it sounds extremely real. It’s not surprising some isolated people freaked out.)
Hobbs does a nice job keeping us guessing (even though we’re fairly sure Martians aren’t invading). There’s the scene I already wrote about, at the very beginning, when Jacob crawls into the barn and tells the assembled townsfolk that something grabbed Eli. Kim, angry at her father, sneaks out of the house and comes across a truck with two burned bodies in it. What’s going on? Hobbs explains it all, as his entire point is to show what happens when townspeople are driven to a point where all their secrets and personality disorders are exposed. They’re under a great deal of stress, and this reveals their hidden desires and some of the ugliness in their hearts. As the tension rises, we wait to see how the characters will react to events. Will they show that they’re noble and selfless, or will they be petty and even dangerous? This is the entire crux of the book – who are these people, really? Hobbs does a good job with it, although it’s not perfect – some of the characters are very easy to figure out, not because of how Hobbs writes them, but because of cultural stereotypes separate from the book itself (I don’t want to go into too much detail, but there are a few characters that you just know are going to be good no matter what happens). It doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book, but it does rob a few crucial scenes of some of their drama, because we know how they’re going to end.
The best part of the book is that Hobbs makes the characters believable and sympathetic, even the less-than-noble ones. We know exactly why every character is doing what they’re doing, and it never feels forced. Hobbs simply lets them do their things, and he doesn’t put them in situations that feel artificial. Even the bigger idea – that the town is being invaded by Martians – doesn’t feel too contrived – in 1938, we still didn’t know very much about the planets, so why couldn’t Mars teem with aggressive life? Hobbs does a good job giving the townspeople just enough information, and as it’s an October night in rural Indiana (which is never mentioned in the text, but the location of the town is on the back cover), the power most definitely could go out. Even the way the characters evolve over the course of the story is believable – Schrader, for instance, may do some jackassy things, but he’s also a caring (if somewhat blind) father, so that drives his actions through the book. Some aspects of the plot may be predictable, but it’s still fascinating to watch how Hobbs moves these characters around.
When this first came out, I noted in my brief blurb about it that I hated Tuazon’s art. Hobbs left a comment hoping that Tuazon’s work would grow on me as I read it. I’m a big fan of Tuazon, as I’ve noted before on the blog (see: Elk’s Run and Tumor), and it’s partly why I picked up this book (I hadn’t read anything by Hobbs; the hook was also a good reason to get it, though). I have softened my stance on Tuazon’s art a bit, but I still don’t love it. It’s much sketchier than his other work, and while we can tell the characters apart (always a good thing), we don’t get very much detail with them or their surroundings, and what detail we do get is often sloppy. In some scenes, this works very well – when characters go out in the dark and the rain, for instance, Tuazon does a good job obscuring a lot, so that the bad things that happen outside seem even darker. In the few flashbacks in the book, he “colors” the figures much darker, adding a nice layer of opacity to the memories. The best part of the art, in fact, is the way Tuazon shades the comic – it looks like watercolors, and I wonder if the original art is in color but has been reproduced in black-and-white (as seems likely). The shading in the book adds some good layers of detail to Tuazon’s frantic pencil work, and I wonder if the art would have looked better in muted colors. As you read the book, you can certainly tell what’s going on as the panels unfold, so I can’t criticize Tuazon’s storytelling, but his level of detail on his other books is better than on this one, and it’s frustrating because he’s shown a nice ability to shift from scratchy, impressionistic art to more solid line work. In The Broadcast, he sticks to one style, and the art is less than ideal. Tuazon’s art is easy to follow, but it’s not his best work, unfortunately.
With that caveat, I still recommend The Broadcast. Hobbs writes a good story that delves deep into the human psyche and uncovers the rawness within, and while Tuazon doesn’t shine, he doesn’t ruin anything either. In a few scenes, we even see that he’s perfectly capable of adding some nice details to express characters’ feelings a bit, but he doesn’t do enough of it. I’m still a fan of Tuazon, though, and I’ll definitely look forward to his next project. And thanks to this book, I’ll have to keep an eye on Hobbs as well. The Broadcast might not be a great comic, but it’s a good, tense, psychological thriller that will have you turning pages to find out what happens. And that certainly isn’t a bad thing!
Tomorrow: Is it manga? Is it Becky Cloonan? Is it some unholy amalgam of both?!?!?!?
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