Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber, the comic book

Once in a while I take a break from telling stories about my daughter and writing reviews of cartoons I've watched to write an actual piece on the works of Roger Zelazny, from whose writing this blog takes its name.

Unfortunately, I've covered just about everything he's written, meaning I have to either revisit older commentaries or review items with increasingly tenuous connections to him. (I might finish up that Chronomaster review if I'm feeling particularly masochistic one day).

Today I'll be looking at the comic book adaptation of Nine Princes in Amber. Specifically, the first issue.

Two years ago, my mother in law held a yard sale when she was moving into a smaller house. I didn't really read the comic books of my youth and it was silly hanging on to them if they were just taking up space. So she took a long box of them and offered them for twenty five cents a piece or 5 for a buck. Long story, short, she hadn't sold many, and at the end of the day, when someone offered her ten dollars for the entire long box, she took it. (I told this story to a friend who runs a comic store and he observed that's almost what you'd pay for an empty long box)

I thought I had removed all of the comics I definitely wanted to keep, and the Amber mini-series certainly would have been among them, but since I'm unable to find them, I have to assume they were with the couple hundred other books in that box. Le Sigh.

Anyways, I recently found a copy of the first issue of the series in the dollar bin of the local comic shop, so I've got that again at least.

Adaptations are tricky business, and, in general, I'm not a fan. When I was younger, I demanded slavish adherence, "Ahhh!!! They changed a single line of dialogue! It's ruined! It's crap! The book was better!! Arglebargle wah!"

Now that I'm a wee bit older, I look for distillation of the concepts in the work. The medium, as they say, is the message, and a play is not a web series which is not a novel which is not a video game which is not a comic book which is not an interpretive dance. What works in one format will not work in another. Pretty basic stuff, but it's really surprising how little effort often goes into reworking fiction for a new format.

So, how does the comic stand up? It's not too bad. While Nine Princes isn't my favorite of the Corwin series, I do think it's just about perfect the way it is.

Roger Zelazny wrote a brief introduction, Terry Bisson authored the adaptation, and it's really not bad, as adaptations go. I do think that a good portion of Zelazny's appeal is his poetic prose, which is something that is lost in translation to other formats. Bisson does as good a job as he can within the constraints of the format. For instance, I like the opening scene, where Corwin is dreaming of mountains which resolve themselves into his upraised feet as he awakens more fully.

That's something novel that wouldn't work in the book, but which takes advantage of the comic book format.

The art is solid. The bio for the artist, Lou Harrison, says he was a student of one of the Brothers Hildebrandt, and I can certainly believe that. My main complaint is something else that afflicts adaptations, "Corwin/Flora/Llewella looks different than I imagined!" (Just kidding about that last part. Nobody cares what Llewella looks like.) Silly to fault the artist for that. Corwin, perpetually passing for thirty six, did seem to look little bit young, though.

Also, Flora's bangs are hideous.

In what shadow is this attractive? Avernus? 

Giving him a beard was an interesting choice. The book seems to imply that Corwin is clean-shaven on his trump. He never says so explicitly, but he notes the facial hair of his other brothers, so it stands to reason he'd mention it about himself too. I'm pretty certain that the beard was to heighten the parallel between Corwin and Eric.

He also transforms from clean-shaven Corwin to fuzzy Corwin as Random shifts shadows. It's a departure from Zelazny's text and a little bit odd, but not so much that it ruins the book.

In the book, the attendant at the gas station was "about five feet tall, of enormous girth, with a strawberry-like nose, and his shoulders maybe a yard across."

In the comic, he's a bit different, but I give it a pass because his name tag reads "Roger".

Overall, it's pretty decent. It's a bit shorter than I would have liked. Nine Princes was ten chapters long, and the mini-series just had three issues to cover the book. By necessity, some elements are addressed perfunctorily or omitted entirely. As a consequence, it tends to suffer from the "Greatest Hits" problem of trying to include all the high points of the story that often plagues such adaptations, but Bisson understood when to deviate and/or condense such elements too, so it's not as egregious as most.

I like it, but I think it's mostly of interest as a novelty. It'll never replace the novel, and I think it's mostly of interest to people who have already read it. I think it does a fair job of conveying the same story as the book, but since so much of Zelazny's magic is in his descriptions, a lot of the mood is lost.

Also, Flora's hair. Is this closer to "...a cross between sunset clouds and the outer edge of a candle flame in an otherwise dark room..." or a day glo fright wig? You be the judge.

You should extend that distrust to your hairdresser, Florimel 


  1. This won't be the comment you might have expected from me about this post, but instead a non sequitur. You mentioned "the medium is the message" and whenever I hear that phrase, I'm reminded of the irony that Marshall McLuhan's book of the same name (from which the phrase derives) had a major typo on the cover such that the title read "The Medium is the Massage." And he chose to leave it like that because it worked on so many levels including as a pun, as a reminder of how advertising works on your conscious and subconscious, and because people would see "message" even though it said "massage."

    1. In light of my writing style, I'm hardly in a position to pass judgement on anyone for the occasional digression :)

  2. The NPIA comics were all painted, each with a different artist. The Guns of Avalon comic were a more traditional comic style with Chistopher Schenk I thought was superior despite not having some of the painted splendor. The artist had a good feel for Corwin. The only part I didn't like was the depiction of Benedict, who is practically drawn as a super-hero. From what I read Schenk said that was not his decision, the look for benedict was dictated to him. He reportedly wanted to continue the series, but DC canceled it.

    1. Thank you very much for telling me this. I am now intrigued enough to seek them out. I'll follow up here with my thoughts once I've tracked them down.