May 27, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Sachs and Violens

When there is a sale for comics, I splurge. Yes, given that this is the Philippines, chances are a sale just brings comics down to their actual retail price, but retail price is better than markup.

In lieu of David Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp, which I guess someone beat me to, I finally decided to purchase a copy of Peter David and George Perez's creator-owned project, Sachs and Violens. I've only ever scanned it before, but any comic that actually has perfume made in its honor must be worth reading, yes?

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a huge George Perez fan, and his name was the reason that I ended up buying the book. This is only his second collaboration with Peter David; the other one being Hulk: Future Imperfect, which I've never read (and would like to).

Sachs and Violens is the story of model Juanita Jean Sachs and her photographer Ernie Schultz, who, in Vietnam, was known as "Violens." The entire theme of the book is about the relationship between sex and violence, from the title being a play on the words themselves to the very outfits and costumes J.J. and Ernie wear (dominatrix-type gear, complete with a whip, for J.J. and army gear, complete with huge fucking guns, for Ernie) to even their antagonists (the first set of enemies is the producers of snuff films, which are pornographic films in which they really kill the woman at the end of it). In Making Comics, Scott McCloud says that you can pretty much write any set of characters using a central theme (e.g., the four elements for the Fantastic Four), and with the central theme of sex and violence, I wonder if Peter David thought that these characters pretty much wrote themselves.

The first thing I want to get out of the way is the minor nitpick I have on the forced nature of these characters' names. "Sachs" isn't a Hispanic name, so a lot of the time you're not really sure if J.J. actually is Hispanic (as she was intended to be) or not, though in the context of the story it doesn't actually matter. Similarly, the name "Violens" with an "S" just seems silly. Still, if you can get past the initial nitpicking, the comic itself is a pretty good read.

Sachs and Violens came out in an interesting time in comics history. It debuted in July 1993, which is about a year after Image Comics was formed and became the third biggest publishing company in the industry. Image really popularized the "bigger is better" mentality of the time, and you can kind of see Sachs and Violens being a product of that sentiment. Furthermore, this series debuted just before Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross's Marvels, the series that unofficially started the "reconstruction" of the superhero genre, trying to make it fun and lighthearted again - yet still enjoyable for mass audiences - in the wake of the angsty, dark, ultra-violent mood that countless imitators of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns had left in their path.

So even though Sachs and Violens has some dark and gruesome moments, there isn't that overload of angst and ultra-badass dialogue that characterized the comics of the mid-90s. At least one of the characters (J.J.) is actually having fun, while Ernie's angst is minimized to a few pages, and he's actually a good guy, which is more than I can say for a whole load of "superheroes" that were coming out at the time. In short, it's a fun story with likable characters.

The thing, though, is that for a story that's supposedly "for adults" and makes it a point to not call itself about "superheroes," it doesn't really read as if it achieved these two goals. In fact, the only indication of this being "adult" is the nudity and the swearing -- and there's even a metatextual panel in which J.J., with her butt exposed, says that "Creators these days find any excuse to show nudity and have characters swear. It's bullshit." And as for it not being about superheroes, J.J. and Ernie wear the same suits each time they go out and fight crime that they may as well be wearing costumes, and they're extraordinarily good at taking care of themselves. Sure sounds like superheroes to me.

And that would be my one big issue with the book; for all the hype that it's not a superhero tale and that it's for adults, it does read like a superhero tale that just so happens to have naked women and a boatload of graphic violence. (One of the villains is a butch lesbian named Rugmuncher.) While I wouldn't give the comic to kids, I would also not say that the narrative part of the storytelling is very adult. I kind of get the feeling that they were trying to write comics for adults without going the dark route, and they just didn't know how quite yet.

(Digression: I wonder how much of an effect and an impact the nudity and the violence caused back in 1993. Having read books like Preacher, this seems tame. And for anyone who's seen, say, Kill Bill, I would think they'd feel the same way. It's amazing how far we've come in terms of what's acceptable in some areas, and how far we've not come in others.)

Which isn't to say that it's not very good. This is Peter David, after all, and a good Peter David superhero story is still a good story. There are only four issues - not enough time to fully develop any of the characters, but enough to get us to know them and like them and root for them (or hate them and want them to die), and explores the theme that's been covered before in works like Watchmen, which connects the physical need to commit violence to a psychological need for sex - except, unlike in Watchmen, the characters clearly like this fact, and they revel in it. Even if the narrative isn't all that remarkable, the very concept of two sexual partners going out after sex offenders is different enough and fresh enough to let this book stand out in the market.

Of course, it being a comic book, a good story can be elevated to a really good story or even a great story by really great artwork, and on that front, this being a George Perez book, Sachs and Violens delivers. In spades.

Look, folks, it's George, so I'll get this out of the way. Everyone knows how good he is when it comes to detail.

But I think it's often overlooked how inventive the man can be. His name is synonymous with big group shots and tons and tons of detail, that I think people can easily forget how good he actually is at conveying mood - specifically a darker one - and setting a scene. (The scene below, when enlarged, may not be safe for work. Maybe. I'm not sure. Go at your own risk.):

Or how incredible he is when it comes to portraying scenes in such a way that only comics can do, such as this fast-paced action scene. Note how the polyptych (technical term for a continuous background) being juxtaposed with the big giant standing outside the panels while Sachs saves Violens creates both the feeling of motion and depth. Moreover, it's just designed well, since your eye starts from the first panel (the villain) and converges into that final point on the right.

This more contemplative dream sequence is quite simply an excellent piece of design:

So yeah, when taking the hype into account - the hype that this is a more mature book without superheroes - this comic falls short. But when taken as what is essentially a superhero story, this is a good story with great art. So does the great art elevate the good story into a higher quality? You be the judge.

Recommended reading.


Peachy said...

What's NSFW? These acronyms are so baffling.

Duy Tano said...

Not safe for work. The post has been edited.

PIG said...

Interesting comic. Will give it a read. Thanks!

Duy Tano said...

Glad to have helped, sir!

PIG said...

Read it yesterday. I thought it was very good. The theme is almost watchmen-like, but its less dark in terms of narration (despite of all the sex and decapitation). There may not be enough room for character development but the characters are likeable enough. I don't think that the overall plot could be extended without it being feeling like a Nip/Tuck TV series, so I agree with the short 4-issues. Perez rocks. You can take out every single text in the entire comic and the illustrations would narrate the story itself. Thanks for the review.

Duy Tano said...

Good to hear it, sir. Yes, the theme of doing violence that begets sex was started in Watchmen, though I can't really say how much Watchmen influenced this particular piece.

Sachs and Violens can be found in the last two issues of volume 1 of Fallen Angel, also written by Peter David, and they were guest stars in the second volume. Basically, David wanted to raise sales on the book, so he brought in Sachs and Violens.

And yes, Perez rocks.

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