Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does (My Character) Kiss My Mother With That Mouth?

One of my favorite online magazines of the last decade was Deep Magic magazine, whose tagline was 'Safe Places For Minds To Wander.' I thought that was a clever tag.

But what if you're looking for something just a little less careful, a little riskier? Is there room for authors to let their characters explore darker or edgier themes?

Doug TenNapel defies description. (One reviewer called him 'a genre unto himself.') Doug is an author, graphic novelist, videogame designer (The Neverhood and Earthworm Jim), animator, Eisner Award-winning artist, musician, and blogger. His 2007 graphic novel, Black Cherry, tells the story of a two-bit mob wannabe who steals a body from his own boss. Only the body's neither dead nor human.

Eddie Paretti fell in love with a stripper named Black Cherry. He was about to propose to her when she vanished, after which he hardened his heart against women and God.

But TenNapel has more up his sleeve than tragedy and clich├ęs.
Mary is a crack-addicted ex-stripper who doesn't know if she is forgivable. She keeps returning to her junk and questions if she is just destined to be 'bad.' Eddie Paretti has scars up and down his arms from his dad using his arm as an ashtray…these are the scars left by bad father figures in his life. Father McHugh is the only good dad he ever knew, yet Eddie clearly isn't cut out to be a card-carrying Catholic.
There is a common theme in Black Cherry that is the dark side of religion, what about the condemned? That's why crime-noir became such an important aspect of this story because it often deals with heroes that are too bad to be redeemed. It's like life has chosen some men to be ground up and left face down in the pool.

There is an another character who feels redemption is denied him because Christ appeared to die for humans, not his kind. There are demons and angels and surprises so weird and uninhibited I wasn't sure whether to laugh or gasp. Most times, I did both.

Doug TenNapel uses the grittiness and anti-heroic elements of crime noir to explore both the mean streets of present-day LA and the redemption waiting for those who have ears to hear. He doesn't shy away from showing skin or violence, and the character's street language would make even sailors blush. And so when the final twists unfold, we cheer for Eddie in his battle against demons within and without, and his final sacrifice is both touching and unexpected.

TenNapel blazes a trail and shows how a raw, brutal story can pack a wallop of a punch. Personal failures leave ragged wounds, however, healing and victory mean that much more when we grow with such a damaged character to the place where love conquers all and the guy has the opportunity to finally get the girl. TenNapel manages to march us right through the sewers, down into Hell, and back out again. These aren't stories you'd want to read to your kids, but you might want to save them for when they're older and are ready for something more real than safe.

And then you might want to start taking some risks yourself...
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  1. This one sounds like one for the debate between Christian writers about graphic realism versus "clean" novels. The CBA is slow to change their stance. I wonder who published TenNapel's book.

  2. This graphic novel was published by I presume they picked up based on his proven track record as a graphic novel author and artist. None of his stuff really strikes me as CBA material, but not because it's usually this dark or overt. His stuff is just out there (and I mean that in the most complimentary way). Creature Tech is pretty much the most audacious cross-genre tale I've ever read. It's amazing, brain-busting, and metric tons of fun.

  3. It's funny how what's "risky" for one person is Grandma's apple pie to another. Ultimately, we all have to make our own decisions about what we should or should not be portraying in our work. However, I will never forget a line of advice I once read (although I have, unfortunately, forgotten who said it): The writers who are willing to risk are the writers who produce memorable fiction.

  4. Some of the reviews I read were more incensed by the long, cautionary introduction referring to subject matter and language than anything in the actual book. Also, Doug mentioned that he'd been chastised more vehemently for not separating his recyclables than for anything he wrote in the book (which is, admittedly replete with F-bombs, which he went to great lengths to justify saying he was being honest with the setting). Indeed, the Recycling Police can be more fiercesome than mere Morality Police. ;)

  5. sound interesting, i just finished reading pride and prejudice for the second time, so now i can go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum! i'm going to try and get my hands on a copy of "black cherry..."