Saturday, June 05, 2010

Review: Fraggle Rock #1

Fraggle Rock is a pretty tricky property to approach as the source for a comic book spin-off.

Fraggle Rock was a live-action, almost all-Muppet half-hour children’s television program produced by Jim Henson and company, beginning in 1983 and lasting four seasons (With at least one season of a Saturday morning animated spin-off to follow).

Unlike the more pervasive Muppet television projects, The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock rarely if ever looked at the fourth wall, let alone broke it, and took itself much more seriously. If Sesame Street’s Muppet segments were lessons disguised as comedy sketches addressing split audiences of kids and parents and The Muppet Show was a Vaudeville-style variety show, Fraggle Rock was part fantasy adventure, part character drama and part situational comedy.

It was also had a rather amazingly imaginative and elaborate setting and cast of creatures, particularly when looked at through adult eyes. It was titled after the subterranean home of a race of little, tailed creatures that evoked a colorful, bug-eyed version of the sort of creatures that populated things like The Littles cartoon (and John Peterson novels before that) and Mary Norton's The Borrowers (And I suppose they roughly correspond to kobolds and house fairies and the like, if you want to think about it too hard).

They lived alongside normal humans, although humans were unaware of their existence (The only Fraggle who ventured out of the Rock into the “outer of space” of our world was explorer Uncle Traveling Matt, whom as completely ignored by all the human beings he encountered). The had a weird symbiotic relationship with a race of tiny humanoid creatures called Doozers that shared their home, but had a different worldview (Fraggles were like the grasshopper in the Aesop fable, while the Doozers were like the ant—luckily for Fraggles, Doozers spent all their time building things that the Fraggles could eat). On the other side of the Rock was another race of creatures that were roughly human-sized—The Gorgs—which tried to eat Fraggles.

If you’re around my age, having grown up or at least been pop culturally aware in the 1980s, you probably know all of this already. I’m stating it all here simply to emphasize how peculiar a property Fraggle Rock really is. (One-off Henson/Muppet fantasy worlds like those in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, despite more dramatically unusual creatures, don’t seem quite as strange as that of Fraggle Rock to me, perhaps because the former is a completely self-contained alien world, and the latter is a familiar normal kid-in-fantasy world set-up, whereas Fraggle Rock imagines its fantasy world right alongside and interacting with our own).

The most obvious comic book to compare Archaia’s new Fraggle Rock adaptation is, of course, Boom Studios' Muppet Show Comic Book. I think that’s probably unfair in two notable ways. First, Roger Langridge’s work on that title is pretty incredible, and stands as one of the best examples of a comic based on a licensed property that I can think of. Secondly, is some ways Langridge’s source material was a bit easier to work with.

As I said above, the Muppet Show never took itself as seriously as Fraggle Rock; I mean, one of main Muppet Show Muppets’ defining characteristics was that he was a terrible comedian (Fozzy Bear); others were defined by how weird they were (Gonzo), how terrible they were in the fields they were presumably on TV as experts in (The Swedish Chef, Dr. Honeydew), and there were even two characters whose role in the program were to make fun of how terrible the program was (Waldorf and…The Other Old Guy In The Balcony).

Well, I hope the Jim Henson Company is pleased with what Archaia has done with the license for Fraggle Rock comics adaptations, because the first issue was surprisingly great—it’s a fine adaptation and a fine comic book in its own right. I don’t think it has the same transcendental qualities that Langridge’s book did, but, again, Fraggle Rock is a pretty thorny form of source material, and one without a lot of room to personalize.

The first issue features a lead story by Heather White and artist Jeff Stokely entitled “A Throne of My Own,” which is more or less a comic book version of an episode of the TV show, missing only a performance of the theme song and that old guy talking to his dog for a few minutes (the dog, knows of the existence of the Fraggles, does appear in a panel though).

Red gets sick of hearing Gobo (whom I just noticed wears a Middle East war correspondent vest for some reason) brag about his bravery and adventures and ends up daring him to spend a night in the Gorg garden. He accepts, and she spends it there with him. Unfortunately, there’s a complication, and the pair end up stuck in the garden, so their friends must rally the Rock to help get them out before they’re discovered. The Trash Heap is consulted, and a lesson learned.

Stokely’s art work is…strange. Like most Muppet characters, the Fraggles don’t lend themselves to two-dimensional drawing adaptation too well, and, in fact, are probably a little more difficult to render than other Muppets, given the relative lack of detail they have.

Stokely does a pretty exceptional job of rendering the characters and making them seem at once Muppet-like and not Muppet-like, although the characters can look quite eerie. Gobo’s unblinking eyes, for example, almost never show a trace of lid, so in most of the images of him he looks, well, dead…or at least asleep with his eyes open. It’s also kind of weird seeing so much of the Fraggles’ legs and feet, and in a lot of ways they seemed like different creatures then the ones I remember from my youth.

There’s a computer-generated looking slickness about Stokely’s art as well, which is often a turn-off for me, although there’s no sense of photo-referencing (or –tracing) here, and the storytelling doesn’t suffer at all.

So, like I said, it was strange. I liked it and thought it was extremely effective, but at the same time I realized it was in a style that I don’t normally like.

White’s story is structured perfectly to reflect that of the show, or, at least, my memory of the show (unlike The Muppet Show and the Henson movies, Fraggle Rock isn’t something I’ve returned to since I originally outgrew it), and she must have gotten all of the voices right, because every line of dialogue “sounded” right to my mind’s ear. In fact, I was pretty shocked to discover that I was “hearing” the original voice actors’ voices in my head as I was reading the dialogue of the characters they once played. I suppose that speaks to how effective they played their roles,that I still know what Red, Gobo, Mokey, Boober, Wembley and the Gorg-with-a-speech-impediment sounded like over 20 years ago.

So A-plus as far as the adaptation goes. I can’t say I’d want to add this to my pull-list or anything—I found it engaging enough and would consider all-ages more than kid-specific, but I think I’ve experienced all the stories about Fraggles that I need to experience, personally.

But then, that’s not the whole comic. Far more exciting for me were the back-ups, which allowed for a couple of cartoonists whose work I admire play in the Fraggle Rock sand-box. The stories were shorter, and thus didn’t make any attempt to replicate the format of the show, and, I think, freed the characters up a bit so that the artists could do what they liked with them.

The artists? Katie Cook* and Jeffrey Brown.

Cook’s story is a six-pager in which the Gorg who can’t pronounce R’s drops a pocket watch down the well, and Red uses the instrument of keeping time in order to organize a not-very-fun game that rubs against the Fraggles’ natural resistance to work. Her Fraggles, like pretty much everything she draws, are darling, and I was pretty impressed with how much personality she is able to imbue them with, especially considering that her versions are even more abstract that Stokely’s more-faithful designs.

Brown’s is a four-page story about how he once dated a Fraggle, but she broke up with him and broke his heart. No, actually it’s about Red inventing a Fraggle-scaled Segway that she calls the F.R.A.G.G.L.E.W.A.Y. The joke—or two—of the strip is—or are—slight, but it’s a weird pleasure to see Brown filtering the Fraggle’s through his style, and his pages work perfectly well as images, with or without the words on them. (Great lettering though, particularly when Red says “Preesenting…” before unveiling her invention).

I’m glad Archaia featured these back-ups, as they sort of saved the project for a reader like me, who doesn’t feel a great need to read comic books about Fraggles necessarily, but am a fan of Cook and Brown and am always interested to see what they’re doing. Such strips provide a little extra weight to tip the scales toward picking up future issues.

*Warning! If you’ve never been to Katie Cook’s site before—and it’s a place on the Internet you should totally go—make sure you visit when you’ve got some time on your hands, because it is chock-full of fantastic art of all kinds, and you're going to want to see all of it. That makes it very easy to click over there expecting to spend a few seconds and then look up and find an hour has passed.


Joe Hennes said...

You know that the Fraggle Rock comic will have different sets of creative teams for every issue, right? So even if you don't like one of the writers or artists, there will be completely new talent a month later.

Hdefined said...

I don't remember the Fraggles as fondly as you do, Caleb, but I really like your description of the show's concept, characters, and how you distinguish it all from the other Henson properties. While you haven't sold me on the comic, you description's made me more interested in revisiting the Fraggles than I've been in the last 20 years.

Earlofthercs said...

The other old man who doesn't like the show is named Statler.