The Spirit of Rebellion

This past week, I received my signed copy of the latest Boston Metaphysical Society graphic novel, entitled “The Spirit of Rebellion.” The Boston Metaphysical Society is the brainchild of Madeleine Holly-Rosing and it’s a comic and story series set in an alternate 1895 where there are already rudimentary airships and computers, but where society has not progressed as much as it did in our world. The “Great States of America” are dominated by Great Houses and people in the lower and middle classes exist to serve the upper classes. The stories focus on ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel Hunter, a spirit photographer Caitlin O’Sullivan, and scientist Granville Woods. Together the three confront supernatural mysteries in Boston. Along the way, they encounter such historical figures as Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison.

I first met Madeleine Holly-Rosing a few years ago at Gaslight Gathering in California soon after she started releasing the original six-issue miniseries of The Boston Metaphysical Society as a web comic. In the years since, she’s been quite adept at using Kickstarter to crowdfund new chapters in her steampunk world. “The Spirit of Rebellion” is the latest chapter in that series and is a follow-up to the original six-issue miniseries. This chapter focuses on Caitlin O’Sullivan and the consequences of her actions in the original series. It also moves the action from Boston to Philadelphia, giving more scope to the stories.

Even though “The Spirit of Rebellion” is a sequel, the story is self-contained and gives the reader the backstory needed to follow along. The change of setting also introduces all new characters for our protagonists to get to know and interact with. The story begins with a flashback to Caitlin being thrown out of her mother’s house. In the story’s present, Samuel Hunter takes Caitlin to Philadelphia to find a new place to live. While there, Pinkerton agents recruit Samuel to infiltrate a group of organizing laborers. In the meantime, Caitlin learns more about the extent of her paranormal powers.

This chapter has much of what I’ve come to appreciate about the Boston Metaphysical Society. It has a healthy respect and genuine love for the science of the time. Even though paranormal things happen in the story, they are treated as knowable with a suitable application of science. In earlier chapters, not everyone thinks before they apply their scientific know how, but that does sometimes happen in the real world. What I really like in these comics is the social sensibility, as Holly-Rosing looks at the role of class, race, immigrants, and women through the lens of steampunk to shine some light on where we are today.

You can learn more about the Boston Metaphysical Society and even read the original six-issue miniseries for free at the website http://www.bostonmetaphysicalsociety.com. Of course, you can also learn about my steampunk series with its own share of social sensibility and mad science by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad

One of the more interesting trends I’ve seen in recent years is turning scripts that weren’t filmed into graphic novels. More precisely, two that I’ve read were alternate versions of filmed stories. One was The Star Wars based on an early draft of George Lucas’s famous film. Another was City on the Edge of Forever, based on Harlan Ellison’s script for the Star Trek episode of the same name. The former revealed that George Lucas’s early concepts had more in common with the prequels than the film that became a classic. The latter showed us an even more powerful and heart-wrenching version of a story which already had gone down as one of Star Trek’s finest.

While driving home from Kitt Peak National Observatory after my last shift, I heard a promo for an NPR story about a new graphic novel called Giraffes on Horesback Salad. All the promo told me was that the book depicted an unfilmed script by Salvador Dalí featuring the Marx Brothers. I didn’t need to know more. I had to find a copy of this book right away. It actually took me a couple of days, so I got to hear the NPR story which only further convinced me I wanted to read the book. I was somewhat surprised, though, when I went to my local Barnes and Noble and discovered only one copy on the shelf. I counted myself lucky and snatched it up.

The story as presented in the graphic novel imagines a young, imaginative inventor and designer named Jimmy who is trying to make it in New York City. He’s engaged to Linda, a very ordinary woman who seems a fitting wife, but isn’t actually faithful to Jimmy but wants the prestige of being his wife. The couple go to a nightclub where they encounter the Surrealist Woman who, for all intents and purposes, bends reality around her. Her pals, fittingly enough, are the surrealist Marx Brothers. More precisely we only see two of the brothers at first: Groucho and Chico. Jimmy soon falls for the Surrealist Woman who unleashes the power of his imagination. Linda, who doesn’t want to lose her place in society, fights to ground Jimmy. The plot is ultimately resolved in the courtroom with Groucho and Chico as the competing attorneys.

The graphic novel contains many supplemental notes and reveals that Dalí intended Harpo to play Jimmy. The result is a very different kind of Marx Brothers experience. It gives us a Harpo (of sorts) who both speaks and takes center stage. This all would have happened during the Marx Brothers’ time at MGM, which is after Zeppo left the act.

What I found fascinating was that Dalí and Harpo had met in real life and became friends. What’s more the idea for this film was developed far enough for Harpo to arrange a meeting with Louis Mayer. I’m not surprised to find that Mayer couldn’t wrap his head around this idea. He was, after all, the man who insisted that Oz would only be a dream. Groucho was unimpressed, saying the idea wouldn’t play. And, in all fairness, it’s hard to imagine how this would have been filmed in the 1930s.

I could easily see a version of this filmed now. It could be done live action with other actors playing the roles of the Marx Brothers, or even as full animation. What might be even more interesting would be if a contemporary comic team took inspiration from this and created their own surrealist satire about an immigrant genius fleeing his war-torn nation and unleashing the power of his imagination. The time seems ripe for such a story, especially when so many people have forgotten their own immigrant ancestry and forsaken their own imaginations.

One delightful side-effect of this graphic novel, is that it became a way for me to introduce my daughter to the comedy of the Marx Brothers. She knew a little about them, but was surprised to discover that many of their movies are musicals. Giraffes on Horesback Salad would also have been a musical and I was delighted to learn a soundtrack is in production. Some songs can be listened to now. For more information about the songs and the book itself, visit: https://www.horsebacksaladbook.com/

Steampunk Batman

One of the appeals of alternate history and steampunk is the ability to imagine wrongs of the past made right. Of course, one of the most notorious villains of the Victorian age was Jack the Ripper. For me, my first Jack the Ripper tale wasn’t alternate history, but science fiction. It was an episode of Star Trek written by Robert Bloch called “Wolf in the Fold” in which Chief Engineer Scott is accused of committing some very Jack the Ripper-like murders.

One of my earliest exposures to alternate history was the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. It imagines that Jack the Ripper travels to Gotham City and starts his murder spree again, only to confront Batman. I bought and read the graphic novel soon after it was released in 1989. I was in graduate school at the time and comics were one of the few things I had time to read. It’s hard to call the original Gotham by Gaslight steampunk. The story pretty much limits itself to technology that was well established in the nineteenth century. That said, the artwork reminds me more than a little of Jacques Tardi’s artwork in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Also, it’s worth noting that Robert Bloch, who wrote the Jack the Ripper Star Trek episode, also wrote the graphic novel’s introduction.

Earlier this year, Warner Brothers produced a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight. I knew I wanted to reacquaint myself with this story. I watched it on Netflix and liked it enough, I went out and bought a copy. I discovered Best Buy has a special edition that includes a reprint of the original graphic novel—very cool because that meant I could refresh my memory of the original without damaging my first edition.

As it turns out, the plot of the movie is quite a bit different from that of the graphic novel. This becomes apparent right away when it opens with Pamela Isley (better known to many Batman fans as Poison Ivy) working in a burlesque house and becoming the Ripper’s first murder victim. I have to admit to mixed feelings on this point. One on hand, it feels a bit like a betrayal of character to make Pamela a victim. On the other, it establishes right away that you can’t take your expectations of certain characters for granted and that does pay off as the movie progresses.

It’s pointed out in the commentary that the graphic novel was only 40 pages long and that doesn’t really provide enough material to fill out a 70-minute movie. What I like is that they didn’t add stuff just to add stuff. They fleshed out the mystery and we got to see my favorite aspect of Batman—we got to see him working as a detective, hunting for clues and actually figuring out who the Ripper is.

They also made it more steampunk than the original, but it’s not a gratuitous addition of gadgets. Instead, they added a World’s Fair, which was very much a showpiece of technology at the time, and they gave the police an airship. This latter works because in Batman: The Animated Series the police are shown as having airships, so it was great to see that idea explored in this alternate history version. They also gave Batman a couple of steampowered gadgets. Of course, Batman always needs cutting-edge technology in his work.

There’s great voice acting in the movie with Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Anthony Head as Alfred the Butler, and Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle. The DVD’s special features are pretty much teasers for other DC/Warner film projects, but the Blu Ray includes a couple of bonus Batman cartoons, a commentary and a making-of featurette. All in all, this ended up being one of my favorite adaptations of a DC comic book. It seems like the makers of the live-action DC movies could learn a thing or two from the animation department.

Of course, if you’re in a steampunk mood, you should check out my Clockwork Legion series. I have plenty of airships to go around, plus there’s even the New Orleans World Cotton Exposition in the fourth book—one of the original World’s Fairs. You can learn more about the series by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. If you’re in Las Cruces, I’m signing copies this morning at COAS Books downtown from 10 until noon. If you miss that, I’ll be at Branigan Library tomorrow from 2 until 4pm.