May 12, 2009

Book review: "Elk's Run," by Joshua Hale Fialkov

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Elk's Run, by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Elk's Run
By Joshua Hale Fialkov
Villard Books / ISBN: 978-0-345-49511-2

Being the middle-aged creative-class Generation X slacker little sh-t that I am, I of course am a believer in the idea of graphic novels being a legitimate form of adult literature when at its best. But there's a wrinkle in this proposition as well, the same one the novel format faced in the late 1800s when it too first started getting taken seriously as a legitimate art form, which is that the medium as a whole just isn't quite there yet; because no matter how many Pulitzers they hand out to Art Spiegelman, the fact is that the majority of work being done in comics these days will still only appeal to overcaffeinated 14-year-old boys, just like 95 percent of all novels being published at the end of the Victorian Age were still fluffy action tales and overwrought love stories, despite the emergence by then of such early masters as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James and others. And that makes critiques of new graphic novels problematic, in that the majority of people reading them are the exact violence-obsessed 14-year-old boys they were designed for (or the middle-aged videogame-playing slacker sh-ts these boys grow up to be), making their praise untrustworthy to those of us who demand that artists be at the absolute top of their form, in order to count us as their fans.

Take for example Joshua Hale Fialkov's Elk's Run, one of those fabled comics that picked up a bigger and bigger following as more and more crappy things kept happening to it, first being self-published until Fialkov ran out of money, then picked up by a small press that a few years later promptly went bankrupt, and still without the entirety of the series' run actually having been published yet. The entire thing was finally put out in book form by Random House in 2007 (or technically Villard Books, an imprint of Random House), and I had heard nothing but good things about it, which was the whole reason I picked it up in the first place; but now that I've read it myself, I've discovered that it is only slightly above mediocre as a general piece of literature, with the comics crowd going so crazy for it mostly because of its mere difference from the usual Wolverine superhero piece of crap that mostly still defines the medium. And that unto itself is not so terribly bad, for reasons I'll get into in a bit, but I have to admit that I detest it when a grown-up publishing company markets such a book as a grown-up title for grown-up audiences, because it does the entire medium a disservice; it's the exact kind of book that a non-fan of comics will pick up precisely for its effusive praise and mainstream connection, then promptly decide that comics people don't know what the hell they're talking about, and that there can't possibly be anything good about graphic novels if this is an example of its shining best.

Because to be clear, this series starts out with a really intriguing premise, which is what got it so much attention to begin with: it's the story of a group of Vietnam vets with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, who get back to the US in the early '70s and decide that they're sick of the liberal-caused moral decay that led to both Vietnam and the counterculture to begin with. That then leads one of them to purchase with inheritance money an entire abandoned mining town in West Virginia called Elk's Run, built literally into the carved side of a mountain and accessible only through a single tunnel, left to ruin when the mine itself went dry in the '60s. It's there that the soldiers and their families create a right-wing utopia closed off from the rest of society, a place with neither liquor nor police nor processed food, a black-and-white refuge in a shades-of-gray world; and thus does the group live relatively trouble-free for around 25 years (if not in a highly spartan and undeniably patriarchal manner). The story in the book itself then opens right around September 11th or so, when one of the abused wives finally gets all uppity and decides to leave, starting a chain of events that eventually leads to a bloody generational civil war between the parents and their liberal teenaged kids.

Yeah, not a bad premise at all, and a concept that instantly makes me want to read more; but unfortunately Fialkov and his creative team (artists Noel Tuazon and Datsun Tran, colorist Scott Keating, letterer Jason Hanley) do almost nothing with this premise in the actual story itself, using it essentially as an excuse to create 216 pages of really kick-ass-looking explosions and gunshot wounds and burning houses and sassy teens screaming 'f-ck' a laughably insane number of times. And damnit, I sighed to myself while making my way through it, this is always where subpar graphic novels go wrong, each and every time I end up being disappointed by one; all of them start out with these really intriguing ideas, then get so obsessed with drawing cool gory scenes of violence that they forget to actually do anything with that intriguing idea. And like I said, unto itself this is not such a terribly bad thing -- there's a reason, after all, that the word 'graphic' makes up half of the term 'graphic novel' -- but it also relegates such projects firmly to the cultural ghetto of 'comic books,' and makes their appeal virtually non-existent to anyone besides the Comic Book Guys of the world. And this is to say nothing of the more nagging problems with this story just from a plotting standpoint, not the least of which is the loose and fast way that Fialkov plays with the time period being discussed; because even though it's technically possible for a bunch of Vietnam vets to all have teenaged children in the early 2000s, one has to really stretch the limits of believability to make such a timeline work out logically. (And by the way, existing comics enthusiasts, also please be aware that this title is drawn in that sketchy, minimalist way that is so controversial among the fan community, which will be yet another small strike against it among some.)

Now, all that said, this is a fine read for smart teens who are emotionally ready for their first adult material, and I don't mean that as snotty faint praise whatsoever; because as Michel Houellebecq so astutely reminded us several years ago in his astounding book-length essay HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, such projects are absolutely necessary in order for an intelligent society to thrive, and are the very projects that turn gullible children into subversive adults in the first place (you know, much like the role Stephen King played in the '80s among so many people my age). No, as mentioned before, my issue in these situations is never with the books themselves; it's with the greedy, lazy marketing assh-les at places like Random House, who figure they can move a few more books by advertising every graphic novel in their catalog as the next Watchmen. And this is harmful to nearly every person involved in the process besides the actual marketing assh-les, from the audience members filled with falsely high expectations to the artists who bear the brunt of that audience's disappointment, to the critics like me who are constantly arguing that there are adult-worthy projects to be found in the world of comics, no seriously there are.

So when all is said and done, I guess today I have mixed feelings about Elk's Run, ultimately recommending it to both teens and existing comics fans but not to anyone else. And here's hoping that with the next project Fialkov takes on, he actually does something with the admittedly smart concepts he's obviously capable of coming up with, and doesn't just use them as an excuse for 200 pages of BOOM and KABLOOEY and F-CK F-CK F-CK F-CK F-CK F-CK F-CK. Not only will his fans be better off, but the entire comics world in general.

Out of 10: 6.1, or 8.1 for teens and comics fans

Read even more about Elk's Run: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:38 PM, May 12, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |