Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Nightmare Alley

One things for sure, Seattle is a pretty sweet place to live if you are into comics.  Not only are there some baller comic shows to hit up, but we also have some great comic shops as well.  Among the best of 'em is the retail shop for indie publishing house Fantagraphics Books.  Fantagraphics is responsible for publishing some of the very best cartoonists in the business, and for publishing cool underground comics. Their stuff is always high quality when it comes to printing and binding and all that stuff that makes a book feel special when you hold it in your hands.

In an effort to not blow all my money on comics, I hold myself to about two visits to Fantagraphics per year.  The thing is, I always leave having spent more than I anticipated, all because they have such an amazing selection of comics on hand.  My most recent trip yielded a few sweet purchases, one of which I've already spoken about here, Seth's It's a Good Life if you Don't Weaken, and at least one more that I'll cover here at a later date.

Anyway, I always try to pick up one thing that seems a little out of my ordinary reading comfort zone, and this time I took a chance on Spain Rodriguez' Nightmare Alley.  I've been entertained by carny tales before and this one looked like a it had a bit of a mix between Tod Browning's Freaks, Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes with a dash of Priest's The Prestige.  As it turns out, Nightmare Alley is it's own beast, yet reminiscent of those other works I mentioned as well.

When the story starts out, the primary character, Stanton Carlisle is low-rung assistant in a mind reading act, which is part of a traveling carnival.  Thanks to some sleeping around, a fortuitous death, and his own skill, Stanton quickly rises up though the ranks and before too long has left the carnival life behind for greener pastures.  Eventually he comes to headlining his own show as The Great Stanton, which though lucrative, isn't enough.  With swindling in his blood, Stanton starts up an elaborate, phony, yet convincing career as a spiritualist which really starts the dough rolling in.  The problem is, Stanton is plagued by strange dreams, and the unquenchable desire to always make more money.  What transpires is one of the more tragic rise and fall stories I've read.

Nightmare Alley was originally a novel, then a movie, and now finds a new medium as a graphic novel.  I've never been such a huge fan of adaptations, as I'm a firm believer that the medium something is created in should be the destination, not merely a vehicle for the work being adapted into other mediums.  We see this most often with books and comics being adapted into movies, but rarely the other way around as is the case with this one.

Biggest word bubbles ever.
So how did Nightmare Alley fare as an adaptation?'s pretty awkward at times.  The biggest thing I had a problem with was that there were some ginormous word bubbles all throughout the comic.  The  gigantic word bubbles were pretty obnoxious, and tended to drag down the pacing of the story.  This also put a lot of the onus on the words rather than the art which, in my opinion, was detrimental to the comic.  I wish that when Spain had made his adaptation, he had trimmed down the dialog to be comic-friendly.  That doesn't have to mean cutting a shit load of material either, it must means altering the source material to work best in the new medium.

This adaptation also suffered from some awkward transitions.  There were times when the comic would move from moment in the story's timeline to the next with no warning or context for a change.  This was confusing as hell, and frustrating to say the least.

Spain uses the four panel page as his standard, go-to format for most of the book, with deviations from this format occurring every now and then.  I don't recall having seen this four panel approach used extensively before, but it was both a blessing and a curse for me here. I liked that it allowed for Spain to really fill the page with lots of detailed art, but often, much of the large panels will just filled with the huge word bubbles.  It seems silly to work in such a large panel format, then utilize the space for something that ultimately took away from the story.

Spain's cartooning was a bit hit or miss for me as well.  There were some pages I couldn't take my eyes off, and others that flew completely off my radar.  His style wasn't exactly something that I immediately fell in love with when I flipped through the comic prior to purchase, but it is a style that matches up well with the content of the story.  I really enjoyed his pages and panels that depicted the carny life.  He really captured the seediness and weirdness that is such a big part of the whole traveling carnival.

Spain was also quite excellent when it came to creating atmosphere with his art.  This played out in a lot of different ways, but was most notable when he wanted things to feel creepy and strange.  He was really good at utilizing unique angles to depict scenes which, while subtle, helped make certain scenes and sequences have more power.

In the end, Nightmare Alley had too many ups and downs for me to really enjoy the whole package.  The story had too many awkward moments, and I attributed this to a weak adaptation from novel/film to comics.  Though Spain's art was the real, and only star, it was often overshadowed, or overwhelmed by the monstrous word bubbles that plagued nearly every page.  Sadly, there wasn't really anything to fall in love with here, and I can only recommend this for devoted carny-fiction fans or Spain Rodriguez fans.  Otherwise, I think Nightmare Alley would fall flat for more casual readers.

Grade: C

No comments: