Monday, April 17, 2006

Murderous Barbers and the Walking Dead...

Hope y'all had a great Easter!

* As a horror fan who was raised (but is no longer a practicing) Catholic (gave it up at age 13), my fave Easter t-shirt was my "I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin" yellow t, featuring a b&w repro of the iconic ad art for that historic Cinemation double-bill of the early '70s.

I've since passed this shirt on to my son, though I doubt it'll last to pass on to his, should that day come... point being, I always try to savor something suitably Catholic for the weekend: a zombie movie I've never seen, a cannibal pic of yore (though a vampire pic is a fair substitute if nothing better presents itself). This tasteless ritual is enhanced these days knowing devout American Christians everywhere are now subjecting their families to home screenings of the goriest, most graphic, and perhaps most relentless R-rated horror pic ever made, Mel Gibson's The Passion (of the Christ). If they don't have it on DVD or video, Showtime now weaves it into their Easter broadcast schedule.

Choose your bloodbath, and draw inspiration from whatever you will.

For me, the Easter weekend turned out to be a celebration to remember. My sister-and-brother-in-law treated Marj and I to a Broadway matinee of the current theatrical revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and it was a grand & glorious afternoon. True to the promise of the banners over the marquee, there were literal "buckets of blood," appropo to the religious holiday.

Though Marj grew up seeing tons of Broadway theater, this blue-collar Vermont cartoonist has only seen a handful in his lifetime thus far: Miss Saigon, Jane Eyre, 42nd Street (on the 'resurrected' Disneyfied Deuce, in one of the theaters that used to unreel XXX films forever and a day). Some years back (mid-'90s), Marj and I caught an excellent presentation of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler/Harold Prince at the Connecticut Goodspeed Opera House, an ambitious staging true to the Broadway classic of a quarter-century ago (according to Marj & to the video recording of that production). I loved it so that I brought Maia & Daniel to it later that summer, during the Goodspeed's final week of Sweeney, and we had a great evening (the first evidence, too, of Daniel's love for good food: he loved the restaurant we dined at near the theater, and this was the precursor to his own high-school interest in learning culenary and restaurant skills far beyond his years).

I had loved my technical theater classes and work at Johnson State College, studying/working under vet NYC (including the Joffrey Ballet) tech Richard Emerson, who made my two years at JSC academically worthwhile. Thus, I really love what little live theater I've been able to afford to see over the years. The ambitious staging of the Goodspeed production of Sweeney Todd is lodged in my memory: multi-level stages, culminating in the locale of Sweeney's murderous barber's chair (complete with a chute to slide the throat-slit victims down, into Mrs. Lovett's pie-bakery charnelhouse in the cellar) -- and amid that, the closest I've come to savoring true Grand Guignol theater, as the copious bloodshed of the second act was rendered with high spirits and effective special effects, including a backlit jugular geyser punctuating the line "A star/a shooting star" in Act II's "Johanna" that rendered that moving song deliciously subversive, malicious and indelible.

This new 25th Anniversary adaptation of Sweeney Todd eschews such elaborate setpieces for a potently bare-bones, expressionistic reinvention: instead of Sweeney's death-chair seen fully operable onstage, his chair is delivered as a white coffin-shaped wooden object, carted in the barber's arms like an infant, a companion to the pitch-black coffin from which Sweeney arises like a vampire in the opening singing of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," the coffin that serves throughout as deathbox, wall, stage, judge's desk, etc. Instead of Grand Guignol special effects, the torrent of throat-slittings so integral to the venerable tale are rendered impressionistically: the motion of the razor over throat, a pouring of stage blood from one bucket to another at stage front (all sound stifled so the slowing splash of faux gore is all we hear, like the draining of a slit-pig over a pail), as the murdered character ceremoniously dons a white doctor's gown dressed down its center with a flow of red paint. This is UK director/designer John Doyle's conceit, and it worked beautifully for this Sweeney devotee, most of all for its marvelous cast -- the first time I've ever seen an 'original cast' in a stage (or Broadway) production.

The Teutonic touchstones of this adaptation are woven into its fabric from the first seconds: in Doyle's rethinking of Sondheim/Wheeler's creation, the tale is indeed told by a madman. The hapless Tobias (brilliantly played by Manoel Felciano with twitching, Marat/Sade presence throughout, forever attentive to his character's strength & frailty) is the first character we see, bound (by a strait-jacket) and gagged (with a red scarf) centerstage. As a nurse (Donna Lynne Champlin, ostensibly playing the blackmailer barber Pirelli though her accordion-playing nurse presence throughout has a spectral Tales from the Gimli Hospital quality) unbinds Tobias, he begins the singing of the opening ballad, and the entire cast -- who are also the only orchestra, forever onstage and visible, part and parcel of Doyle's inspired reboot -- thus take their part in this Cabinet of Dr. Caligari conceit that tidily ties up one of the dangling threads of the original Harold Prince-directed production (what happened to Tobias after his deus ex machina role in the climax?).

For me, though, this organic integration of Germanic cinematic bedrock resonated throughout the rest of the production: Sweeney's rise from the black coffin to assume his autobiographical center in the singing of the opening ballad echoes both the somnambulist Cesar's awakening to kill in Caligari and Nosferatu's emergence from the coffin in a doomed ship's hold. Flashforward half-a-century: Michael Cerveris's pasty-faced, bald Sweeney is the spitting image of real-life Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf Vampire, as incarnated for reel-life by Kurt Raab in Uli Lommel's Die Zartlichkeit der Wolfe/Tenderness of the Wolves (1973). With or without this associative boot to the unconscious, Cerveris is a galvanizing Sweeney, as brooding and compelling a character to stalk the stage as I've ever seen (outside of the denizens of Samuel Beckett I've lucked into in live theater). This Sweeney is quite different from that of 25 years past and every stage production since, embodying the bile and pathos of the character like never before.

I could go on, but I won't.

Suffice to say, it was one of the most memorable afternoons in the theater I've ever enjoyed, and the day was capped with a family dinner at a Connecticut Italian restaurant that was as savory as the theater we'd feasted and supped upon.

* By bedtime (packed as Marj and I are into a relatively tiny bed in bro-and-sis-in-law's guest room), I was capping the Holy Saturday festivities with my first reading of Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore's The Walking Dead: Vol. 1: Days Gone By, which I couldn't put down until I'd devoured it completely. What a pleasant surprise!

Come Easter Sunday and our return home, I dove into the stack of subsequent issues, and dashed the following fan letter-email off to Robert (who I've never met, to the best of my knowledge). Now, I rarely write to zines or comics in any capacity, save as contributor or paid writer; this is probably my second 'fan letter' or postcard to a comic in as many years (the other was to Street Angel):

Howdy, Robert,

Just a quick email to let you know this lapsed Catholic no-longer-a-lad just spent a chunk of Easter weekend appropriately reading The Walking Dead, complete (to #11) -- and had a tremendous time with it. My pal Steve Washkevich tried to turn me on to your book within the first couple of issues, but it took another amigo (John Rovnak) to drop a set into my lap and make me read it. Thanks, guys -- but thanks most of all to you, Robert.

Comics have become a lean, bottle-necked business since the 1990s implosion, but it's heartening to read in your letter pages that sales are up and your readership is growing. Sorry it took me so damned long to join the ranks.

Kudos to you and your collaborators. Your scripts are top-notch, fueled as they are from stem to stern(um) by potent characters rather than mere mayhem and splashy gore -- no easy paths, no cheats or cheap shots. You show instead of telling, your characters live beyond the panel borders, and it's all from the
heart, finessed with skill, craft and tenacity.

I love the art and visual storytelling as well. Tony Moore got the series off to a terrific start, and whether through happenstance or design, it's immensely satisfying to read the first graphic novel cover-to-cover with you and Tony so in-synch from the get-go, pouring a firm foundation for your
blue-collar horror epic. Come what may, as long as your collaborations are self-contained within the parameters of the collected volumes, The Walking Dead will cook quite nicely for years -- and collections -- to come.

Given the strength of Tony's establishing characterizations, there was initially a grinding of gears to shift to Charlie Adlard's style, but -- again, whether by your clever design or dumb luck of the draw -- kicking off #7 with the flashback to Lori & Shane's coupling made the change in art styles work for rather than against the tapestry. Thereafter, it took no time at all to be seduced by Charlie's bolder use of blacks (almost Jerry Grandenetti-like at times, from that grand old man's Warren and For Monsters Only years). By the time you folks sucker-punched us all (no more than your cast of characters) with the marvelous false idyll of the #8 and 9 "Wiltshire Estates" setpiece and the subsequent barnyard antics,
Adlard had made it all his own. I hope you two maintain the partnership as long as possible, if not forever (a rare thing in this industry).

As a longtime addict to all things horrific who manages to get his own licks in from time to time, please accept my hearty congratulations for all you and your carrion confederates-in-comic-crime have accomplished thus far with The Walking Dead. Your series isn't just a worthy successor to the best of all walking dead literature, movies, music and comics (from EC to Two-Fisted Zombies to Deadworld), but as integral an addition to the current resurrection of the subgenre as more visible pop eruptions as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Cell and Joe Dante & Sam Hamm's "Homecoming."

You're extending and expanding the parameters of horror comics with your work, gentlemen, and that's a fine and noble thing to be doing.

I'm hooked and will be along for the ride from here to whatever bloody end you have in store... should that ever come.

BTW, I have to ask: one of my old Joe Kubert School classmates (and frequent Taboo contributors) was none other than cartoonist extraordinaire Rick Grimes.
Could it be you named your protagonist after -- ?? Nahhhh, couldn't be.

Best always,

Steve Bissette
Mountains of Madness, VT


If you're as unacquainted with The Walking Dead as I was until Holy Saturday, click over to
  • The Walking Dead: Volume 1 for sale at PaneltoPanel
  • and place your order now (the other volumes are there, too; you can easily get to those from the link I've just provided). I'm sorry I waited so long, and this is a comic deserving of your support, if you're a fan of horror comics (or simply good comics, period).

    Robert has made it abundantly clear on his letters pages comments that's he's in the for the long haul, and that makes this a series worth picking up now and sticking with. I'm aboard for the duration, and there aren't many comics at all I do so with these days. I'll be writing a formal review for PaneltoPanel later this month, so keep an eye out for that, too.

    And yes, Kirkman fans, I likewise dove into the silly Marvel Zombies mini-series, which was abundantly dumb fun and worthy of some thought due to its broader Marvel Comics context (which I'll get into on the PaneltoPanel site, natch), but a mere gristle-smear next to The Walking Dead in my book. It's obvious where Robert's heart and soul truly lay, and that's what makes The Walking Dead worthy of your attention.