Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 6 – Scaring Kids… And Adults! #2 – The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
Harper Collins
320 Pages
September 30, 2008

I’m dispensing with the introduction on this post because… well, it was meant to be a part of the previous post on Coraline, but… then the monomyth took over and it went a bit overlong and I knew I had a bit to say about this book too, so… we’ve got our own post.

To start:  The Graveyard Book is a little bit scary. I would argue that it isn’t as scary as Coraline (which I finished in one sitting and found it difficult to sleep after reading).  The Graveyard Book is also a more mature book than Coraline in that a lot of the lessons presented are meant for older children (though they could certainly apply for younger children as well).  Similarly, the language used in the book is also aimed at older children, so keep that in mind if you’re considering this book for your little one.

As I stated in the Coraline post, what I particularly enjoy about these books is that Gaiman doesn’t shy away from difficult scenarios or situations.  To wit: the start of this novel has a mysterious man named Jack murdering our protagonist’s entire family.  Our protagonist, Bod, is but a baby (about a year old) who toddles away from the house and into a nearby graveyard.  The baby is taken in by a pair of ghosts who, with the help of the rest of the cemetery, raise him to adulthood.

I should say now that The Graveyard Book bears many similarities to another book with a similarly simplistic title, The Jungle Book.  For instance, the idea of a toddler being taken into the care of a non-human group that raises him.  And, like The Jungle Book, each chapter is a separate story (though all of the stories in Gaiman’s book have the same protagonist, unlike Kipling’s which have multiple).

Unlike Coraline where I felt the best part of the story was showing children that difficult situations can be overcome, the best part of The Graveyard Book is easily the heart.  The characters are easy to make an emotional connection with, especially Liza Hempstock (by far my favorite secondary character in the novel).

The good characters are good, the evil characters are evil and there isn’t really a lot of gray… and it works really well.  Instead of having some kind of sympathetic villain, we have Jack (or in reality, a whole group of Jacks, calling themselves the Jacks of All Trades).  They’re a large organization of people who are looking out for their own best interests and, through a series of murders, magic, and secret planning, are looking to keep it that way.

One thing I particularly enjoyed in the novel is how it treats creatures that would normally be frightening.  For instance, Bod’s guardian in the graveyard, Silas, is the only non-ghost that lives there.  Though it is never stated outright, the observant reader can easily intuit that he is a vampire.  Similarly, one of his teachers (Miss Lupescu) is a werewolf, and they are both part of a group called The Honour Guard who fight to protect the world when necessary (the group also includes a mummy and an ifrit, two other mythological creatures that could be scarier if they weren’t on the side of good).

In the end, though, much of what I appreciated in Coraline are the same things that I appreciated in The Graveyard Book.

Gaiman isn’t pulling punches just because he’s writing for children:  The book starts with a murder and has a lot of unscrupulous people (adults and children) who are trying to pull one over on Bod (or even trying to kill him), and there are many fearsome creatures that Bod encounters that wouldn’t be out-of-place in adult novels (though some are treated in a humorous way).

The two protagonists are also similar in that they generate a lot of sympathy for themselves.  Coraline is a stronger character, by far, but Bod pulls his own weight and it really is enjoyable to watch him grow up, and see him dealing with rather everyday ideas in a more fantastical way.  Each chapter is its own self-contained story and most can be read as a separate entity (though the penultimate chapter does require knowledge of the previous ones to make complete sense) and Bod is one of my favorite characters from children’s literature because I see a lot of myself in him (which is probably the point).

So that’s gonna tie up Neil Gaiman month here at Books & Bits.  The American Gods posting I was going to do just won’t fit in… so maybe next month, maybe later on in the summer.  April will bring Poetry Month, some bits to make up for missing Small Press Month here in March, and a feature or two one another favorite children’s author, John Bellairs.

From there?  The moon.  More books, more 8-Bit Rage… Even a book\video game double post of likes the world has never seen!

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 5 – Scaring Kids… And Adults! – Coraline

If you can’t tell at this point… if there’s anything I love more than a Neil Gaiman book, it’s probably a Neil Gaiman book illustrated by Dave McKean.  Much of the time, the illustrations really complement the words, but in the case of Coraline and The Graveyard Book… I would argue that the illustrations make the books.  With just the words… they’d probably be scary.  But McKean’s illustrations (especially the ones found in Coraline) bring the scary parts to an entirely different level.

From his works with Gaiman (Mr Punch, Violent Cases, Sandman covers) to other comic writers (Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, various Hellblazer covers), or his own work (Cages, Celluloid), McKean’s varying style usually carries a level of wrongness that seems off, if not downright frightening.

Paired with Gaiman’s messed-up ideas and terror inducing prose… well, you’ve got a match made in heaven.

Coraline
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
Harper Collins
176 Pages
July 2, 2002

The best thing children’s literature can do is give children a mixture of excitement and a thought-provoking story.  This isn’t to say that leisure reading isn’t important for children as well, but children should experience at least some challenge when they’re reading.  And… that’s why I love these two books.  Adventurous, exciting story-lines with important life lessons mixed in.

In addition to this, these are children’s novels in the classic sense of a Black Beauty or A Wrinkle in Time (or one of my favorite children’s authors John Bellairs) where the novel doesn’t shy away from the idea that bad things could happen.  They don’t coddle kids, but present situations where child protagonists overcome overwhelming odds and have actual character development.

What a novel idea.

(ha ha, book puns)

Coraline, which celebrates its Tenth Anniversary later this year, has been popular enough to be a feature film and a comic book adaptation, from frequent Gaiman collaborator P Craig Russell.  Beyond this, it has even entered the classroom and is being taught to school children.  It also won the Hugo Award for Best Novella, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Work For Young Readers, and the Nebula Award for Best Novella.

Of course, popularity and awards mean nothing if it isn’t well-written, or interesting.

But it is!

Coraline Jones is a young girl beset by boredom.  On a rainy day, she suffers to find something to do.  Despite her parents working out of the home, they never have any time to spend with her.  Her mother cooks out of packages, and her father cooks from recipes full of disgusting things.  Worst of all… everyone and everything is so boring.  Her mother won’t even let her buy colorful clothes for the coming school year.

Not to mention, none of the neighbors are able to get her name correct… how frustrating!

In response, she becomes an adventurer and explores around the house they live in.  She starts in her own apartment, counting things and noting small details, including a locked room that leads to a walled-off hallway.  Hm…

The next day, she leaves to visit the two women who live downstairs, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (from their descriptions, they seem to represent the archtypical crones from traditional mythology… but nice ones!).

As she leaves her apartment, she is stopped by the Crazy Old Man Upstairs (later revealed to be named Mr. Bobo) who tells of the mouse circus he’s training to play musical instruments.  He also warns her that the mice have foretold of coming trouble, but Coraline ignores his advice.

When she arrives downstairs, the two women read Coraline’s tea leaves and warn her of coming danger as well.  Because of the negative tea-reading, they provide her with a stone coin for protection (hello again, monomyth!  So nice to see you again!) and send her on her way.

From there begins the next part of the monomyth, the travel into the unknown.  After her parents disappear and the police are condescending, a stray black cat (the helper and the eventual mentor from the monomyth!) leads Coraline to the locked door and sends her down the new found hallway.

The hallway, without the brick wall, is exceptionally long (sorta reminiscient of the seven-and-a-half-minute hallway from House of Leaves) and leads to… Coraline’s own kitchen.  Inside… is Coraline’s mother.  And father.  Oh, except they don’t look quite right… the main difference is the button-eyes sewn onto their faces.  And the Other Mother’s creepy hands and hair.  Creepy, creepy, creepy!

At this point… I’d be remiss to really carry on with the monomyth analyzation because… well, I’m just not prepared.  Plus, at this point the book has some strong deviations from the Hero’s Journey and… it wouldn’t be fair to discuss it that way without a fuller period of research (some day, perhaps).  And on top of all that… I didn’t intend for this to go in this direction… I just started noticing things and couldn’t stop…  So… sorry!

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Dave McKean’s art at this point in the story.  McKean’s art creates a creepy counterpoint to the words that the movie just didn’t capture, especially the Other Mother’s button-eyes, jutting chin, and creepy countenance that are showcased at the start of Chapter 3.

The breakdown of the Other Mother that occurs as Coraline continues to undermine the witch’s plans is particularly disturbing, especially the bumper image at the start of Chapter 9, which shows the Other Mother swallowing the key back to the other world.

Like I said at the start, though, the greatest joy I had when reading this book came from Gaiman’s unflinching attitude to creating a horror novel for children.  As the epigraph from the incomparable G.K. Chesterton tells us, the most important part of any fantasy (or in his case, fairy tale) is not that the child learns that monsters are real… but instead that the dark creatures one meets in stories (and also in life) can be beaten.

Through her ingenuity, confidence, and intelligence, Coraline is able to overcome a frightening, terrifying situation and she even learns a lesson about how, sometimes at least, a little bit of boredom in one’s life can better than she thought.

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 4 – Tricksters, Tigers, Trouble – Anansi Boys

Have you ever read a book by an author you really like only to find it… lacking?  Good examples of these in my reading history include The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante, Pulp by Charles Bukowski, and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  None of them are terrible books in any way, but… compared to other works by the authors, they’re not as good.

For the last couple of years, Anansi Boys was that book for me in my Neil Gaiman library.  In fact, I came in here ready to talk about how disappointing it is… how similar the character of “Fat Charlie” Nancy is to Richard Mayhew, from Gaiman’s superior debut novel Neverwhere.  I was going to talk about how predictable much of the plot was, and how derivative the novel felt as a whole…

But then I re-read it.  I figured I owed the book (and Gaiman himself) at least that much.  And you know what?  I really enjoyed it this time around.  We’ll get into why I think this is below.

Anansi Boys
Neil Gaiman
352 Pages
William Morrow
Sept 25, 2005

So… Anansi Boys.  Even typing out the title gives me a bit of a cringe at the tip of my spine.  The title bugged me since I first saw the book at the first bookstore I worked at back in 2006, before I even knew who Neil Gaiman was (funnily enough, I remember disliking the title because I didn’t know how to pronounce it, but kept thinking it sounded too much like “Nancy Boys” for me to take seriously).  My, how things change.

To wit:  At that point, I had a dislike for fantasy.  I read the plot on the back and put the book back without a second thought.  And I forgot about the novel, pretty much entirely… even after I read Neverwhere and Sandman and greatly enjoyed them.  And then I found a battered, old remainder copy of the book at a Goodwill here in Portland and thought… A book of Neil Gaiman’s is certainly worth $3… Why not?

So I came to own my first Gaiman book.  This was about two years ago, not long after I completed my first reading of Neverwhere.  Upon finishing Anansi Boys I found the two main characters to be too similar, their arcs as characters to be almost entirely the same, and the supporting cast (particularly Rosie and Spider) to be less compelling than Door or The Marquis from Neverwhere.

Then I put the novel on the shelf and slowly surrounded it.  Next came the Absolute Sandman volumes… Then Black Orchid, Prince of Stories, and Interworld.  Soon, (all one purchase) signed copies of American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition, Coraline, Odd and the Frost Giants, and The Graveyard Book.  And I read and re-read these books once or twice each while Anansi Boys just sat there.  I didn’t feel bad about it either.  I just wrote it off as a sophomore slump novel (though I was incorrect… Anansi Boys is Gaiman’s fourth novel… fifth if you include the illustration-less version of Stardust… whoops) and let it sit.

But after re-reading American Gods for about the third time… I came to enjoy the brief moments of Mr Nancy, and particularly laughed aloud at his mention of his son, whom Nancy claims he can recognize parts of Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods.  And it got me thinking… I should give Anansi Boys another chance.

So I have.  And honestly?  I love the hell out of it now.  Gone are my concerns about the similarities between Richard Mayhew and Fat Charlie (in fact, I can’t even figure out why I thought they were so bloody similar to begin with) and I’m not so miffed about the parallels in their plotting because… well, Gaiman often writes using Campbell’s idea of the monomyth (that is, the Hero’s Journey).  In fact… pretty much all his novels have at least some aspects of the monomyth  and Shadow from American Gods and Morpheus from Sandman are pretty much dead ringers for the whole idea…

So much of this novel is done well.  From the dichotomy between Fat Charlie and his brother Spider, to the slightly off-kilter humor, to the perfect annoyance one feels at Grahame Coats’ constant stream clichés (and the eventual disgust one feels as he descends further into madness).

I will admit that I found some sentences required one or two readings to be fully understood.  I would even go so far as to describe a couple of sentences as a bit clumsy.  But Gaiman hits some very Douglas Adams-esque metaphors that showcase the level of humor of the novel, and also the differences between Anansi Boys and its predecessor American Gods.

The book alternates well the scares and humor, but the most crucial thing to remember about this novel (and this is true for a good deal of Gaiman’s oeuvre) is that it is first and foremost a story about stories… where they come from, why we tell them, and the truths and lies we tell ourselves to make it through our everyday lives… and even more importantly the ones we tell ourselves when our lives turn to shit.

Neil Gaiman month is almost all wrapped up here at Books & Bits!  And that greatly saddens me.  But I’ve got about one more week of posts to go… so look forward to a double post about Coraline and The Graveyard Book (with maybe another children’s book or two tossed in for good measure), something on American Gods, and… well, maybe one or two more… believe it or not, I’m almost all out of Gaiman content to write about!

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Bites of Bits Gaiman Edition #2 – Supersized!!!

So in my Black Orchid post late last week, I mentioned a Gaiman book entitled Midnight Days. This book… is… awesome!  The collection features some of Gaiman’s least common works, for instance…

There’s Gaiman’s “Jack in the Green” story for the Swamp Thing character is wonderful and reunites Steven Bissette and John Totleben, the pair who helped Alan Moore revitilize the character in the late eighties.  This story was also one of his earliest scripts for DC Comics, even though it wasn’t published until this book.

There’s also the Sandman Midnight Theater story penned by both Gaiman and Matt Wagner, who was writing the similarly titled, but much different series Sandman Mystery Theater.  Both are worth reading (though Mystery Theater is a bit hit-and-miss sometimes).

Oh and how about that Floronic Man story illustrated by Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame)?  If you love Mignola’s art, you’ll love this comic.  If you don’t, well… you’d do well to skip it.

And who could forget Brother Power the Geek?  Wait… who?  Yeah, he’s one… strange comic character.  And that’s really saying something.  Brother Power was created by Joe Simon (who also co-created Captain America) and the original series lasted for all of two issues.  I could go on forever about how surreal this story is… but the short, short version:

Mannequin dressed in hippie garb crashes down to Earth from space (don’t ask), grows giant (I said don’t FUCKING ask), and goes on a rampage.  In the end, another hippie saves the day.  Oh and also, Batman (leave it alone, man!).

I could talk about those stories… but I won’t.  Because, if you’ve read the book, you know there’s really only one story to talk about.  Gaiman once again recruits his friend Dave McKean and they pair up to do a one-shot Hellblazer comic (number 27, titled “Hold Me”) that is far and away one of the best single issues of Hellblazer and another high point for the Gaiman\McKean pairing.

Oh god, I’m already nearly a hundred my self-imposed word limit for these Bites of Bits postings… and if I keep writing about how I’m at my limit, I’ll only get closer and closer to the dreaded five hundred words…

Well shit…  I’m not deleting the section about Brother Power.  I can’t.  If more people learn about him, they’ll be just as confused as I am.  And one can only hope it helps quell the madness inside my mind…

ANYway… So… Midnight Days… Hellblazer…  “Hold Me.”  Yeah…  Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean… Brilliantly colored by Daniel Vozzo, equally brilliantly lettered by Todd Klein (who else?).

Like just about anything Neil Gaiman related… I could go on and on.  What you need to know about this issue is that it is first and foremost a horror story.  Like pretty much everything related to Constantine (especially that movie… scariest thing I ever saw, man…).  But it also encompasses a love story, social commentary on the public’s willing indifference to homelessness, and the importance of even the briefest of kind gestures.

Quite a bit for just 24 pages.

The book is long out-of-print in the original, single issue format.  But you could pick up Midnight Days for less than the price of the individual comic (yes it is rare and expensive in the original format) and get a bunch of other great Gaiman work as well.  I say you do it.

BROTHER POWER COMMANDS YOU!!!!

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 3 – Reinvention of the Modern Super Hero – Black Orchid

I read somewhere online that said when Neil Gaiman was asked by DC Comics what character(s) he wanted to work with (after they rejected his initial idea to do a revival of the Golden Age Sandman character), editor Karen Berger misheard him through his British accent and thought he said, “Black Hawk Kid.”

I don’t know where I read that, or if it actually contains any truth… but it makes me laugh. And wonder. What if Neil Gaiman hadn’t done Black Orchid?  It was the first mainstream, US exposure for both Gaiman and Dave McKean and Gaiman has stated that it took a lot of work to get DC Comics to agree to partner him with Dave McKean.  Black Orchid‘s debut predates Sandman by about a year (as well as Dave McKean’s breakout artwork for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) and one wonders if Sandman would have even seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the successes seen in Black Orchid.

Fortunately, the series did quite well.  But after nearly twenty-five years, does it still hold up?  Well… yes. Yes it does.

Black Orchid
Script: Neil Gaiman 
Art and Covers: Dave McKean
Lettering:  Todd Klein
DC Comics
160 Pages
September 1, 1991

Now I’m reading this in the trade format, not the original prestige format books, but it doesn’t seem to have lost anything in translation.  The art is beautiful and McKean’s attention to detail in fantastic.  There’s a full-page illustration (tri-panel) depicting the three major DC characters (besides Orchid) who have deep connections to the Green (think of it as a plant-based spirit world) that is breathtaking.  It shows full-on shots of Swamp Thing (Alec Holland), Poison Ivy (Pamela Isley), and The Floronic Man (Jason Woodrue) and is the only time I’ve seen McKean draw Swamp Thing (though I hope more exists because he does beautiful work!).

To speak further on McKean’s art… he is unafraid to change up the art style depending on the perspective, time-frame, or narration.  Much like Violent Cases and Mr Punch, McKean’s art transcends what we would normally see in comic books and it blows the mind to realize that he was so early in his career.

Gaiman’s writing is particularly strong as well and, given his intimate connection to Alan Mooreit isn’t particularly surprising that much of the style (both in the prose and panel transitions) comes from Alan Moore’s game-changing Swamp Thing run.  One character’s words in one panel are echoed by another in the next, Gaiman transposes song lyrics (Frank Sinatra’s American Beauty Rose) with ugly dialogue, and Gaiman and McKean mix it up in fun (if a bit derivative) ways.

The story remains a stand out today for many of the same reasons that Gaiman’s own Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen still remain the pinnacle of comics storytelling… it takes something familiar (in this case, superhero tropes and cliches) and turns them slightly off-kilter.

For instance, at the start of the story, Orchid is caught attempting to infiltrate a crime organization and is tied to a chair.  The mob boss tells her that he knows all the bullshit ways criminals get caught in comics and movies, and proceeds to shoot her in the head, burn her alive, and blow up the top few floors of the building, leaving no room for error in the elimination of an enemy.  A James Bond villain, he ain’t.

Of course, this mobster (under the employ of known supervillain and all around douche-nozzle Lex Luthor) has no way of knowing that Orchid was one of many plant\human hybrids created by scientist Philip Sylvain.  When the original Orchid is killed, another awakens in a lab and begins a journey to attempt to understand who she is, what she is, and why she is.

Given that this is a DC title (not Vertigo, where it was later collected in Trade), Gaiman takes us throughout the DC Universe.  Orchid meets up with Batman and the inmates at Arkham Asylum (specifically The Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy, but a few others make guest appearances).  As cool and fun as this is, the best stuff for my money is the Swamp Thing section of the book.

Dave McKean portrays Swamp Thing better than almost anyone (Rich Veitch is still a personal favorite of mine) and Gaiman infuses the short scene with the right balance of gravity and humor and it comes off as one of the best scenes in the book.  Also interesting to note:  One of Neil Gaiman’s earliest scripts to DC Comics was a Swamp Thing tale called “Jack in the Green” that went unpublished until the fantastic collection Midnight Days hit around the turn of the century (Midnight Days? “Jack in the Green?”  I smell a second Bites of Bits post for Gaiman Month!!!).

Anyhow… Eventually, we end up in the South American rain forest for our final showdown between Orchid, Luthor’s men, and the wild card Carl Thorne.  Needless to say, McKean’s art continues to shine as he illustrates the lush greens of the rain forest and the conclusion?  Well… you’ll have to read it yourself.

The story is quite good. I’ll say that, unlike a lot of Gaiman’s work, it tends to play it safe at times.  And for as much as the book tries to distance itself from traditional comic stories, it does still feel at times like a superhero comic.

At the same time, though, Gaiman infuses his characters with life and humor, which is odd for any comic that was coming on the tails of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  He also gives a spark of humanity to Orchid, who begins the novel as an unrelatable enigma, which speaks to his strengths as an author.

McKean’s art, as I’ve said far, far too much already, is beautiful.  He jumps around style-wise, but most of the book is done in a semi-realistic style that fits the tone of the book quite well.

Gaiman and McKean’s strength shows in this, their… what, fourth or fifth pairing at this point?  Many of the DC mainstay characters go unnamed (who doesn’t know who Batman is, honestly?  Or The Joker?) and at times, the characters themselves are either completely hidden (Batman) or camouflaged (Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy).

For as violent as the book is, most of the actual violence occurs either off panel, or is done through suggestion.  You’ll get a flash of a knife, or see the start of the bottle’s arc to someone’s head, but the end result is obscured in some way.  Still, there’s plenty of blood and cursing, so… children, dig in!  Your mind can’t be warped worse than The Hunger Games and this… well this is funny too!

If you haven’t read superhero comics in a while, or if you haven’t read any Black Orchid is a good place to start.  The three issues are a bit longer than the standard comic book, but the pairing is stellar, the humor is subtle, and the use of the medium is just plain fantastic. Early as it is, Gaiman’s work shows a clever mind and a lot of promise… promise that would later be realized in works like Sandman and Neverwhere.  The book remains, even twenty years later, one of the finest examples of a superhero comic done right.

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Bites of Bits Gaiman Edition

There’s a lot of Neil Gaiman books that I could go into crazy amount of detail.  Check out the Sandman post I made last week.  I cut out TONS of crap from that one that was pretty much just geeking out.  It was embarrassing and awesome.  But it wasn’t necessary for the post.

The Cover (in poor light)

Similarly, there’s Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli’s “Penny Dreadful” Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  I could go on and on about this, but… there’s really not much to say.  This item is fairly uncommon in Gaiman collections because it was only given away to subscribers of the horror comic zine Taboo, laid in the front cover of Issue 6.

The first page warns, “Sweeney Todd ‘Penny Dreadful’ is a limited edition and will never be reprinted in this format.  Those who create unauthorized and unlawful reprints will be served up piping hot at Mrs Lovett’s in Bell Yard.”

The tone through the rest of the brief chapbook is fairly similar.  Gaiman presents his text alongside Zulli’s illustrations, as well as beside different variations on the Sweeney Todd story.

In brief, Gaiman gives a brief literary history of Sweeney Todd, the character, and attempts to place the character into a greater historical context as well.  It is a curious bit of work and well worth tracking down if you’re able to find a copy on the cheap.

The Penny Dreadful included in Issue 6 of Taboo and a Prologue published in Issue 7 are all that saw the light of day for this Gaiman\Zulli project.  They went on to work on Sandman together(most interestingly in the story arc entitled The Wake), and a couple of other projects, but the Sweeney Todd idea seems dead in the water, killed by the disappearance of Taboo.

This is one of those Gaiman pieces that’s definitely more for the collector.  It is a pretty cool idea, but never goes anywhere because the magazine folded.  Part of me wants to scan it and upload it in full to my blog… but part of me can’t help but heed the warning at the beginning…

8-Bit Rage – Karnov, The Mad Russian, Or Generic Eastern European

So… We’re taking a short break from Neil Gaiman month at the moment to bring you a new 8-Bit Rage column.  This time, we’re talking about the oft-overlooked 1987 Data East gem Karnov!

I’ll skip the general bits of introduction as I’m sure you’re already familiar with Karnov.  I mean, who isn’t familiar with him?  A more classic tale there isn’t!  A chubby Russian circus fire-eater who spits fire at enemies (or shoots the projectiles from his nipples… I’m not certain). Up to three at a time, when you collect the right power-ups.

And why does he do this?  Well…  8-bit games aren’t generally known for their plotting.  And this is no different.  Is he fighting for a kidnapped lady-friend?  Did someone steal his vodka?  I don’t know.  The end screen of the game only shows three words:  Congratulations!! and The End

(necessary addendum, according to a manual I found online… An evil dragon named Ryu [not to be confused with Ryu from Street Fighter II or Ryu from Ninja Gaiden] stole the lost treasure of Babylon from Karnov’s home village)

OK, really? You don’t know Karnov? You know… Karnov! From the Arcade\NES\Famicom game Karnov? Yeah, you know the guy. He fights off enemies like… uhhh… well I don’t know their names. I never had the manual growing up and sure as shit don’t have it now.

But there’s that grey guy who throws the rocks. Oh and the red guy who throws rocks faster. And then there’s generic flying alien enemy. And lest we forget the second level boss Man Walking Lion.  I wish I were kidding.  Leash and everything.  Oh and random circus strongmen rain from the sky, there’s a bizarre dragon… thing that has completely different shading from pretty much the rest of the enemies, and… well, here’s some pictures.

There’s also this really weird enemy that looks a HELL of a lot like the Starman from the Earthbound series… If you wait too long to kill him, he’ll split into several parts and be invincible.  What a dick.

This game has one strategy.  The NES Advantage.  Yup, just flip the Turbo button and blast away.  That’s pretty much the ONLY way you’ll be able to progress in this game.  Like many games of the era… it is hard as fuck.  The difficulty of some of the enemies is compounded by the fact that many enemies won’t show up until you reach a certain part of the screen.  As soon as you uncover about an inch of the right hand side of the screen… BAM!  There’s a giant head shooting fireballs at you.

Two hits and you’re dead, too.   You start out shaded in red, but one hit and you’ll be looking like something out of Picasso’s Blue Period.  Not a great look for Karnov.  Is he suffocating?  Drowning?  A Smurf?  I don’t know, but it’ll definitely provide incentive to find a healing item (that is, the same item that gives you a second or third projectile… it also heals you, but doesn’t provide an additional projectile…).

But giving two hits means that the game is actually a bit more forgiving than others of the period (and allegedly easier than the Arcade version, which only gave you one hit). Add into that the most excellent choice to give the player INFINITE CONTINUES and you’ve got yourself a semi-reasonable challenge that is frustrating, but at least possible.  With lots and lots of trial and error.

What I think I love most about this game, though, is how it came to me.  My cousin was selling off his NES stuff to get a Genesis (fuck you with your Mega Drive bullshit… The box said Genesis, it’s a fucking Genesis) and I really, really wanted his copies of Double Dragon II and RBI Baseball (Tengen represent!).  So I bought the whole pile of games he had (DDII, RBI Baseball, Karnov, Amagon, and a few others) and spent at least two years playing RBI Baseball and Double Dragon II before I realized… hey… this Karnov game is pretty badass looking on the cover…  I should try it.

And as strange as it was… it wasn’t the weirdest game on the NES.  Super Mario Bros  had Super Mushrooms that caused you to grow, A Boy and His Blob exemplified a child’s enabling of an obese friend (well, Blob), and Princess Tomato In The Salad Kingdom was… well, Princess Tomato In The Salad Kingdom (before you ask, no I didn’t make that game up…), so Karnov, though odd…  is more just quirky.

Just because the game is fun, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed.  For one thing… the graphical models on a lot of the enemies (and Karnov himself) are quite good… but the color schemes on the early levels are a muddy mess, especially when Karnov is still undamaged.  His red color blends him with a lot of the backgrounds (and some enemies also hide well, causing unnecessary damage).

Collision detection is also a bit busted.  Nice jump over that enemy!  Too bad you didn’t really clear it, even though your pixels never touched its pixels.  And you should never touch your pixels to an enemy’s pixels.  You dirty, dirty bastard.  On the other side of things, ducking will dodge most enemy projectiles, even if they go right through poor Karnov’s head.

The most annoying this, however, is item selection and use.  In many games, items can be selected using the Select button.  Not shocking.  However, given that the NES controller only has two buttons (and B for those of you who are somehow unfamiliar), the Select key is instead assigned to USE an item.  Worse than that, pressing left or right on the D-pad will change the item you have selected, so tense boss fights are all the worse because you can’t select the right item and look like an asshole when you set up your Ladder when you really just wanted to chuck a Boomerang.

Ha ha, look at that loser with his ladder!  What an asshat!

Still, the game is kind enough to go with the industry standard A = Jump, B = Fire set so many decades ago by Mario.  In fact, remember this… If you’re playing an NES platformer and B makes you jump… You’re playing a shitty game.  Hate to say it, but it is true.  Very, very true.

But these are minor quibbles.  The game has some issues, but overall is a solid enough (and weird enough) title to stand out from the normal platformer offerings.  Indeed, I would go far enough to say that it beats a majority of platformers of its day, including fan favorite Kid Icarus.

And if you take nothing else with you, take this image.

When Karnov falls from a high place, it looks like he’s taking a massive dump.  See you all next time!