Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Wisdom: Rudiments of Wisdom

This is a very strange volume, one of those strange trades one of the Big Two comics publishers occasionally release where I find myself almost as interested in the behind-the-scenes, why-this-book-is-the-way-it-is story than the events of the actual stories it contains.

Almost.

This is written by Paul Cornell, and it’s written in a rather Morrisonian, throw a bunch of crazy ideas out there, super-compressed style. It doesn’t all mesh terribly well—in large part due to the oddness I’ll get to in a moment—and functions better as a sort of first draft or “pilot” for Cornell’s later, more polished Captain Britain and MI-13 series than it does as a complete story unto itself. But there are a whole bunch of fun ideas being thrown around between these covers, and some rather interesting things being done with them.

Wisdom: Rudiments of Wisdom began as a six-issue, 2007 limited series on Marvel’s Max imprint (a part of the Marvel superhero line that’s just like all the other Marvel books, except with more swear words and fewer readers).

Every single issue shipped on time, which is generally a good thing, except this feat was accomplished by calling in a second art team to draw issues #3-#6. If the original team of Trevor Hairsine and Paul Neary couldn’t do all six issues in the necessary time frame, why not just have the second art team of Manuel Garcia and Mark Farmer draw the whole thing, rather than simply the last two-thirds of it?
(Above: Hairsine and Neary's Wisdom, followed by Garcia and Farmer's Wisdom. See, you can tell they're the same character because, um, they both wear sunglasses...?)

Did Hairsine and Neary decide against finishing the series for some reason, or did they simply fall behind schedule so badly that a new team was needed to finish it? And if the latter, why not just give them the sort of time Marvel gives, say, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., since, like Kick-Ass, this was a story happening so far away from the main Marvel Universe it didn’t really matter if it took six months or two years to wrap up?

Obviously no explanation is given, but it’s kind of annoying to see it as a reader. The finished product, collected into a trade paperback like this, looks amateurish and rushed, and rather trashy compared to the other books I have lying around the room I’m typing this post up in. These are all from Oni, Fantagraphics or First Second, and while I suppose there’s a degree of comparing apples to oranges, of all the bound comics sitting around my living room at the moment, the Marvel one is the only one that looks like it wasn’t published like this on purpose.

Neither art team is bad, mind you. I don’t think either has a style I’m necessarily crazy about, and yes, some of the art choices seem to be made in the name of style over substance (Hairsine’s Hitch-like, Ultimates/Authority “wide-screen” lay-outs, for example), but nothing about the artwork is as bad as the fact that it changes mid-way through. If this graphic novel were a movie, I suppose it would be a bit like the cast and director’s changing after the first act, if that makes sense.(Actually, on second thought, this bit by Hairsine is pretty bad. Surely there are better ways to frame a scene in which someone tells off the Fairy King Oberon, who is appearing in the form of a giant monster...)

So let’s ignore the art for a bit—which you really shouldn’t do when talking about a comic book, I know—and focus instead on Cornell’s script.

That’s pretty strong, particularly in the plotting.

The book opens with an invasion from the fairy realm, the fairies looking like more savage, hide-wearing, spear-wielding versions of the Victorian little fairies. One of them has pulled the old fairy trick of stealing a human child, only this child happens to be that of a cabinet minister. The British government turns to Pete Wisdom and his MI-13 team to invade Fairyland/The British Collective Unconscious to extract the child and, if possible, broker peace.

Wisdom is, I think, and old X-Men character, but that’s not really important here, other than explaining the fact that he can shoot energy beams out of his hands. His team consists of John The Skrull (a shape-changing Skrull alien who has taken the form and personality of John Lennon), Tink, a fairy expatriate, Captain Midlands, a British version of Captain America who isn’t quite as well preserved as Steve Rogers, and Maureen Raven, a clairsentient who it turns out is the relative of a pre-existing Marvel character.

The war with the Fairy Realm could easily have fueled an entire six-issue miniseries, but Cornell uses it as no more than the main portion of the first issue plot. The series is fairly episodic, with each issue finding the team facing a new threat, all more or less dealing with an overarching conflict between the British unconscious and the British population, while character drama involving Wisdom, the women on the team and some of his fellow British intelligence agents wind through all six.

The episodic nature of the book is, in large part, why the book “feels” kind of wrong to me; it reads like the first arc of an ongoing comic book meant to last years, rather than a miniseries (When Cornell did get to follow the series with an ongoing, the title, imprint and focus was changed, however). And while Cornell does a valiant job in introducing new characters and focusing on them as much as possible between zany threats like a legendary Welsh dragon becoming a modern gangster or an infinite army of Schrodinger’s cat-like Jack the Rippers invading London, there’s just not much space to fully realize new characters like Tink and Maureen.

I had a blast reading it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that, while fun and fairly good, there was a really rather brilliant comic in here somewhere, and rather than working to tease it out, Marvel just went ahead and rushed the thing to publication, before even they themselves were ready to do so.


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RELATED: Here's a couple panels from Wisdom #4, the issue which sees alternate versions of Jack The Ripper pouring into MI-13's reality. Tink takes on the Jack from From Hell:

4 comments:

Nicholas Yankovec said...

I did read somewhere that the artist was changed due to the very poor sales on the first issue or two. I have no idea how true that is, however.

I'm just reminded now about some of the obscure references thrown into this: "ooh I could crush a grape" is a catchphrase from an old British kids variety tv show from probably the early 80s! Probably why an old fart like me loved the series so much.

Hdefined said...

I'm pretty sure Peter Wisdom was created by Warren Ellis during his Excalibur run. He's a very non-Excalibur-ish mutant character. It was at a time when the book got very dark and cynical, obsessed with conspiracy theories . . . but it was written by Ellis at the time, so that's not really surprising.

Doug Dorr said...

I loved this. He can see more Wisdom in MI-13.

CRushton said...

I read this a few months ago, after reading the three MI:13 trades. I enjoyed it, although you're right that it doesn't hold together as a story very well.

I think Wisdom was from the Ellis Excalibur run, because that's where he and Kitty Pryde become an item (which I think is referenced in "Rudiments of Wisdom.")