BOOK REVIEWS (2013) – Templesmith’s [Illustrator], Wickline, and Benson’s [Authors] (2011) Blood-Stained Sword

2 September 2013

Summary

Graphic novels live or die on their artwork but not even accomplished artwork can rescue every story from itself or its author.

Pre-Disclaimer

Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Templesmith’s, Wickline, and Benson’s (2011)[1] Blood-Stained Sword

This book collects two previously separately published pieces, Dan Wickline’s Blood-Stained Sword and Amber Benson’s[2] Demon Father John’s Pinwheel Blues, both illustrated by Templesmith.

In general, I should focus only on the art of this graphic diptych, partly because both pieces represent graphic novellas, but most of all because the stories fail stupidly—though Benson’s piece by far less so.

Wickline’s story misappropriates the samurai ethos to tell of a son who goes to Seattle to learn more details about his father’s death, the father having supposedly embezzled millions from “the giant local corporation” and, when caught, elected to commit seppuku. I don’t even have to tell you the details for you to guess all of them—one twist involves that the hero’s arranged bride turns out less a long-lost love interest and rather a betraying harlot who has bedded the murderer.

I don’t think Templesmith necessarily took the project seriously—I’d find it hard to, most assuredly. The first skyline picture he provides of Seattle looks more like Chicago or, at the very least, fails to include the iconic and identifying Space Needle. Curiously, it shows up in a later illustration although even here if Templesmith admitted at some point, “Yeah, I added that in later as an afterthought when someone told me it ought to be in the picture” I would utterly believe him. In another frame, when the hero (in semi-mechanized samurai armor) encounters some inexplicably robotic quasi-samurai guards, Templesmith scripts “Larry, Moe, and Curly” over the three of them—a piece of irony that completely punctures, in the most wrong way imaginable, whatever sense of drama the scene aims to build.

I can hardly blame Templesmith. A graphic novel lives and dies by its imagery, I think, but sometimes a script gives you worse than nothing to work with. Besides deploying every platitude you can think of,[3] Wickline also—in addition to the unexpected and fails-to-seem-cool introduction of cybernetic armor—injects a flying hover-cycle into the story. Whatever “world-plausibility” had prevailed to then goes out the window and we move from semi-reality to fantasy/sci-fi without warning or preparation. Second, to create an opportunity for the heroine to do away with the (evil) arranged-bride-to-be, the would-be bride losing her balance when she breaks a heel—an especially gross version of the “helpless girl” trope in action adventures and movies. Even what constitutes a sort of best line in the book does quite come off. As the “girls” fight, the heroine says, “More people have wanted to kick my ass today … Excuse me if I don’t just cower in the corner”; to which the would-be bridge replies, “I have found that most Americans try hiding their fear behind witty banter. … Yours isn’t even witty” (36). It may not provide the wittiest remark ever, but “Excuse me if I don’t just cower in the corner” at least warrants the term witty. (Of course, the best part of the exchange involves the would-be bride’s first observation, fucked up by the daft “Yours isn’t even witty”.)

The unfortunately named Demon Father John’s Pinwheel Blues fares somewhat better, although if Blood-Stained Sword foolishly tries to channel “epic” and fails miserably, this piece gratingly harps on the merely relentless sentimentality of the poor blue-eyed boy who gets turned into a vampire by the bad, bad man—lots of big-eyed tears, &c. And I could tolerate that, more or less, to the extent that the whole thing actually aimed for melodramatic camp, but ultimately what happens turns out wholly unclear. Demon Father John must feed on the innocent blood of children, which makes them vampires—what a meany! And so our plucky little hero, inexplicably named Pinwheel, tries to go home, murders his dog (and mother) in a murderous hunger, weeps more, then somehow gets into a conspiracy with another kid (nicely named Morsel), and then dismembers Demon Father John.

Why this operation accomplishes anything, how they think to do it, how they manage to accomplish it—none of this seems clear, and once accomplished even the unrepentantly wicked morsel, and his demonically red-eyed money, become friends maybe. Or not. On the last page, Morsel asks, “What’s your name?” The kid replies, “Pinwheel.” “Where’d you get a weird name like that, anyway?” “I made it up.” And then in a blue box, not part of the dialogue, “I make everything up.” So maybe none of it happened, or maybe Pinwheel never recovered from the cover of part two, where something (Demon Father John?) has torn everything from his waist down off, letting his intestines spill out everywhere. He says there (two pages later) that this “is only a dream” …

The story remains too obvious and too wooden for me to care either way. At the back of the book, Templesmith provides some more illustrations that didn’t get used. Unfortunately, the two best illustrations from the book remain Internet-unavailable. The first, which easily could come off as maudlin and campy, shows Pinwheel as he realizes he has transformed into a vampire.  His hands have become old, gnarled claws (which nonetheless do not always remain that way for the rest of the book), his pupils have become red, a red tear dribbles down his face, and he now sports cute little boy-fangs (77). I’ve long noticed that a secret to depictions of vampires involves making their undesirable (ontological) status obvious while still attempting to seduce one into becoming one—Rice did this best in Interview with a Vampire of course. Here, Pinwheel hates what he has become, but Templesmith draws him adorably. The other best illustration involves Demon Father John’s massive open mouth, teeth, and pointed tongue as he begins to devour his latest (little girl) victim’s foot (94). Find a copy at the library and take a gander.

I wouldn’t mind having back the time I spent reading Blood-Stained Sword.  And curiously, only the back of the book would let you know you’ll find two pieces insides; considering Benson’s greater fame (I assume), leave it to the gods to guess why.

Endnotes

[1] Templesmith, B., Wickline, D., and Benson, A (2011). Blood-stained sword. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, p. 1–104.

[2] Yes, the one from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

[3] The father did not commit the crimes accused of; the head of the corporation framed him and had his head of security murder the father; the head of the corporation has bought off the police—which rises a whole bunch of other questions that Wickline fails to address, like why the officer ever lets the hero out of jail in the first place after he’s caught breaking into the corporation’s headquarters, &c.

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