I hadn't seen this one coming:

The Golden Plates Vol. 1: The Sword of Laban and The Tree of Life

Here it is, totally catching me by surprise: the first part of Mike Allred’s ambitious attempt to adapt the entire Book of Mormon to comics form. This initial volume is a 64-page prestige-format style production. I’m uncertain exactly how many volumes are planned, but this one covers chapters 1-14 of the first Book of Nephi (leaving eight chapters left) with fourteen books to go, at least one of which has over sixty chapters, though some of them have only one. So it’s going to be a very long series.

I got all of that Book of Mormon information online, and if among the real purposes of the book is getting me (the non-Mormon) to learn more about the faith, I expect that I‘ve guaranteed a small victory simply by doing my mild researching for this review. I suspect that a good deal of the book’s initial readers will be in my boat in regards to non-LDS status, so I’m going to try and express how much value this comic has to somebody outside of the faith. I’ll state immediately that I love the logo; it looks like something off the cover art to a good pop album. But this is absolutely not a loosey-goose personal re-imagining of religious events, like Tezuka’s “Buddha”. This is quite a faithful adaptation of the source material, which employs some lengthy captions to better condense scriptural information. Some of the dialogue, where applicable, is also taken straight from the text, although Allred has allowed himself some creative freedom in improving the flow of character interactions.

I’d not so much as glanced at the Book of Mormon before, so I suspect I was helped immeasurably attention-wise by having the story presented to me as all-new; in this way, the comic emerges as a somewhat text-heavy biblical-type adventure, although one that’s intent on taking its time. There’s a whole lot of scenes of characters standing around and talking at the front of the book, and perhaps a few too many small panels representing pantomime action while line after line of verse narrates the story. Allred’s source material becomes friendlier to comics as the plot thickens, with Nephi and his brothers struggling to rescue the brass plates upon which the five books of Moses have been inscribed, although I sensed a certain measure of uncertainty on Allred’s part in dealing with the more violent sequences. A climactic beheading is kept prudently in the shadows, perhaps to maintain a wide potential audience for the book among the more faithful than I (bulk discounts are available, as the inside front cover tells us). Yet a vision of cannibals chowing down on human flesh is shown dead-on.

Matters of visual portrayal aside, Allred is quite determined to present all of the story in some form, including the more potentially controversial passages, like the bit with the destruction of various Native American cultures being part of God’s Will as punishment for the sins of the descendants of the unfaithful brothers of Nephi (whom those Native peoples in fact are), and the multiple references to the beauty of white and/or exceedingly fair skin, in comparison to the darker hues of the errant soul. But if the project is intended as a full adaptation, such things must be included, and there will be no controversy surrounding this adaptation that hasn’t existed before the source material in the past, I expect, and it‘s good of Allred to put everything on the table, in the same way that I‘d expect a full adaptation of the Old Testament to not side-step the more heated segments of that particular work.

It’s in the latter half of this volume that Allred finally begins to breathe more deeply, as Nephi receives all sorts of visions about the upcoming ministry of Jesus and God’s favor over the settlers in the American colonies, as well as more metaphorical sights like a tree of gleaming white fruit and a demonic figure grasping the Earth betwixt his/her legs. Allred’s signature style mixes exceedingly well with familiar Life ’o Christ highlights, boiling each panel and splash down to the smooth essence of Bible illustration. Laura Allred is (naturally) the colorist and she’s at the top of her game, making even endless pages in the desert pleasing to the eye, and the visions crackle with energy and mystery. Even the most crowded panels of the book’s earlier pages provide an attractive-looking crowd.

It is perhaps inevitable that a comic will seem crowded when tied so firmly to a source-verse. There’s the need on the part of the adaptor to not miss anything vital, the desire to pour as much as possible onto the page. But Allred, who writes a pair of text essays on both inside covers, mentions that this comic is not supposed to be any sort of substitute for the Book of Mormon itself. Perhaps in later volumes he will become a little more comfortable with the adaptation and free up the incidental sequences from too much reliance on text. It’s not that “The Golden Plates” is a slog as it stands now. Allred is certainly on top of the use of comics art, and his figures and layouts are perfectly readable and attractive. It’s just that Allred’s skill occasionally groans out of the need to carry the weight of so much direct word transplant. I think of Chester Brown’s (still unfinished) adaptation of the Book of Mark, with the descriptive word of the Gospel translated to image, and Brown’s looming, crinkled Jesus speaking only to deliver the Word to the uncomfortable world. But maybe this isn’t a viable option for Allred, if indeed a purpose of this book is to familiarize the source material to the outside. Perhaps as much of the direct word as possible is needed, with the art and visual flow serving as vehicle to deliver the words as they are. Edutainment, then. A spoonful of sugar.

JLA: Classified #1

I’m sure it’d have helped if I’d read Morison’s “JLA” run, most of which is sitting in my apartment unopened, but I had to go through this issue twice to sort out all of the characters and action. The cover helped, displaying the seven members of the International Ultramarine Corps., who spend most of the issue battling Grodd, that super-powerful talking gorilla who’s taken over a whole city. Things don’t go very well, and the Justice League is mostly indisposed, so it’s Morrison’s sci-fi Batman, piloting a Bat-Saucer and armed with all sorts of wild crap on a secret JLA base near Pluto, who must save the day.

Morrison seems a little more focused when dealing with his own creations, or at least heavily modified versions of pre-existing creations. “Marvel Boy” dealt in a similar brand of superhero sci-fi razzle-dazzle, but it felt more organic than this, which comes off as hustling all over the place to show off weird superhero powers. It’s fun, and it certainly seems like it must have been a hoot to write, but I wonder if Morrison is trying to trade off of a pre-existing familiarity with certain characters that I don’t have, and which doesn’t enter into the equation in Morrison’s self-contained work. Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines of “Superman/Batman” fame provide the lively cartoon art, which strikes a nice balance between animation-ready simplicity and heavy superhero detail. It’s way too early to comment much on the story; I hope it’s enough to say that it was a pleasant if chaotic reading experience(s).

Hulk/Thing: Hard Knocks #3 (of 4)

It’s a frequent complaint these days that all superhero comics seem interested in doing in reviewing and revising cherished stories of old, updating them for new readers and cashing in on the pleasant memories of long-time fans. So why not have a nice miniseries that’s mostly about two superheroes literally telling each other stories about their earliest adventures? Fits right into the current storytelling climate.

Jae Lee is a fine choice for showing the Hulk fighting the Fantastic Four in days of old. June Chung’s arid colors compliment Lee’s often minimal staging well, with backgrounds often dissolving into haze. Writer Bruce Jones is still having trouble deciding if Ben’s going to use his ‘silly voice’ (“…But before I got the chance to clock ya… somethin’ white… hot and mean as jock itch came zappin’ up…”) or a more articulate voice (“There! Right there! You admit you were in a weakened state from Kort’s ray!”). I guess the whole thing’s going to be about purging Ben’s insecurity about being ugly through battle with Hulk. And the army is still lurking around.

A yawn.

*Much more coming soon, like a ton more comics and that new Chris Ware book from the creator of “The Imp”!

*But finally... Dan Clowes: How About Them Apples?! (found at the good ol' TCJ Board)