Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Crogan's March

Crogan's March
by Chris Schweizer
Oni Press 2010

Hillary Brown: So we reviewed Chris Schweizer's first entry in this ongoing series, Crogan's Vengeance, some time ago, and I have to say that either Crogan's March is a significant improvement or I'm getting more slack in my assessments or (and this most likely of all) knowing what to expect from these things tempers both hopes and criticisms. This time we're in the French Foreign Legion in the early 20th century, with another member of the Crogan family, and the narrative has been simplified and framed. I don't seem to remember a frame tale in the previous book, but then I didn't go look at it again, so it could very well be there. At any rate, it's a good decision, as it provides some context for why, exactly, we're getting this story and supplies set-up for the inevitable books to come. It's also nice to see visual elements from the frame narrative pop up in the main story, as with the appearance of one of the kids as a character. (Sidebar: I'm not sure that's what's going on here, but it seems to me that, rather than the youngest soldier being unfathomably young, Schweizer's using one of his two kiddie leads in the frame narrative to portray that character, yes?) I think this second effort is more focused than the first, and while elements of its story are a bit too derivative of Futurama (Captain Roitelet is pretty much Zapp Brannigan, only a few feet shorter), the balance of information and action is pretty well done.

Garrett Martin: I love your thought about the young soldier being one of the kids in the framing device. It feels right, and would fit the book perfectly. I don't think it's true, though. The kids definitely look similar, but the soldier has light hair and tiny ears, whereas the boys in the intro are like half-elephant, or something. That could've been a nice bit of visual continuity in a series built upon family ties, but also maybe a little hackneyed. That's a pretty common device, right? Not that either Crogan is fantastically original, but high adventuring will never go out of style. Neither will pirates or foreign legionnaires.

I agree that Crogan's March is a better book. It helps that the subject matter isn't as played out as pirates, but it's also just structured better. The pacing issues of the first book are gone thanks to a relatively clear-cut timeline. The setting is more fleshed out and thus more fascinating. The comedy and action mix smoothly without the slightly jarring tonal shifts of the first book. The art remains delightfully cartoonish and no longer feels incongruous with the more violent or stressful momes. Schweizer's more confident all around.

Also of note: apparently former Atlanta Braves outfielder Gerald Williams (or perhaps a like-named ancestor) is one of Crogan's fellow legionnaires.

HB: Oh, left fielder/utility man Gerald Williams, I have not thought of you in literally years. That's the kind of detail that makes me wonder how much research Schweizer does on these things and whether there really was a Gerald Williams somewhere that far back (it's not exactly an old-timey name) or whether, being an Atlantan, he merely remembers the speedy, low-paid, not-really-all-that-good baseball player with affection. I appreciate your doing the visual comparison I failed to, and I think you're right, but I'd also contend that the child soldier is still there to promote identification on the part of the kids within the story and on the part of ostensible readers, which is a smart move on Schweizer's part. Like it or not (and I'm not suggesting you don't like it), kids identify with other kids. I can't, for the life of me, think of another reason that character exists, unless the Legion historically looked the other way on age limits (according to Wikipedia you have to be at least 17 1/2 to join these days) or the visual depiction of his age is some sort of a metaphor for his relative greenness compared to the other soldiers in the unit. Do you feel a little bit like we're being condescending to Schweizer for having improved in this second volume? Should we worry about that?

GM: How is it condescending for a critic (or two) to note that an artist has improved? I think that's part of the job, if by job you mean a thing we lose money on. In fact (I'm about to aggrandize ourselves) but when I talked to Schweizer at the New York Comic-Con last year (in a brief interview that will never exist outside of a [not actually] broken microcassette) he mentioned how certain reviews of Vengeance impacted his plans for the rest of the series. He said our review was really helpful, and I wonder if the scene in March where Crogan very specifically points out how much time has passed is a direct result of reviews like ours. But no, I don't think it's condescending to share an opinion, especially ones arrived at after literally minutes of consideration.

But let's talk about the book again. Maybe it's just because everybody's wearing those legionnaire hats, but several moments in March give off a strong Sergio Aragones vibe. One secondary character, the guy who goes off with Williams, looks so much like an Aragones drawing that I assume it's intentional. There's another character that reminded me of a Don Martin drawing, and for a few minutes I excitedly thought Schweizer was working in references to various MAD artists. He's not, but I gotta believe that Aragones reference is a real thing that exists for real.

I hope that kid soldier isn't there to promote identification from other kids, since (SPOILER!) he gets kinda dead after a point.

HB: Okay, you're making me feel very good about the role of Internet jackasses like ourselves, so let me move on to your two other points. First, I totally agree that there's an Aragones-esque feel to the drawings this time around, and maybe it's just because a) they're kind of loose and b) there are a lot of mustaches, but I doubt it's that coincidental. I'm sure Schweizer is a fan. Heck, who isn't? As far as why that influence might be present, I have fewer ideas beyond "because it's cool" and "mustaches," but I might suggest that the adventures of the French Foreign Legion are often painted in the same kind of madcap spirit that Aragones's drawings impart, so there's an appropriateness felt in the choice of style. Also, along those lines, I know Schweizer's talked about wanting to include a real sense of death and peril in these books, despite their being aimed to some extent at young readers and (I'm not sure he mentioned this) their cartoony style, so I'm not sure the eventual fate of the young soldier is necessarily a point against his inclusion for identificative purposes. Does he succeed at that, do you think? I'd say he comes closer than in volume 1, but I'm still not sure he's quite there (although the end was kind of surprising).

GM: Between the expanded framing device and the kid, I assume it would be easier to identify with Crogan's March. Honestly, though, I'm not the best judge of that. I usually hated the child characters in books and movies when I was young. That might have more to do with bad execution than any inherent hatred for my fellow children, and Schweizer avoids much of what would've annoyed young me by not making this kid that focal of a character. He's there, he's useful as an excuse for Crogan to explain the Foreign Legion, and then his death makes a perfect (if a little too obvious) emotional stinger. So I guess I'm saying kids might identify the hell with him, but the character serves a few other purposes, too.

What did you think of the ending?

HB: It's a little abrupt. I don't mind (Spoiler alert again) killing off major characters or even the main character, but I think it can be done slightly more effectively. Again, this book is better than the previous one, but I still wouldn't call myself emotionally involved in any real way. While the cartoony quality of the drawing isn't a distraction this time, it probably still takes away from major heft to some extent. That is, I'm trying to think of an example of something that's both emotionally weighty but as cute and cartoony as this book, and I can't. On the other hand, I am notoriously hard-hearted and hard to reach, so it's quite possible it's my problem!

GM: Go read some manga. Japan's cornered the market on emotional hefty comics that as cute as a button. Also they're not comics obviously but that's kinda Pixar's thing.

Should we embarrass ourselves and talk about colonialism or the Middle East or anything genuinely worthwhile like that? I could maybe dredge up some academic horseshit I read ten years ago.

HB: Okay, you're totally right that there are good examples. So it may just be a small failing, still, rather than a hazard of the approach. I tried to think about colonialism etc. as I was reading, actually, and that's an area where I feel like Schweizer does a good job skirting a lot of very sensitive issues. Neither the Legionnaires nor the folks who live in the area are painted as saints, and, on the whole, if I had to sum up the text's stance, it would be "it's complicated," which is fair. It may be a touch on whitey's side, but that's also hard to avoid, especially when your main character is, you know, whitey. And I don't think Schweizer falls into the Edward Zwick/Dances with Wolves trap either, if only because his protagonist doesn't achieve all that much.

GM: Right, he doesn't romanticize or beautify the locals too much, but he doesn't ignore that both they and the whiteys hate, fear, and totally disrespect the hell out of each other, until they're put in a situation where they have to just be people and help each other out. It's easy to be pandering or offensive when dealing with colonial issues but Schweizer deftly avoids that without completely ignoring the issue. So Crogan's March isn't just fun and cute but also kinda smart, too. Yes sir.