Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, November 11, 2006
      ( 11/11/2006 11:11:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THE RIVER WAS BEING A RIVER" – The title leads of Alexander Grecian & Riley Rossmo's black-&-white graphic novel Seven Sons (AiT/Planet Lar) are likely most familiar to American audiences as the Five Chinese Brothers of the Claire Huchet Bishop & Kurt Weise's 1938 illustrated children's book: a set of identical twins, each blessed with one fantastic power, who use those powers and the fact that nobody else can tell 'em apart to save the one brother who’s been accused of killing a child. A classic folk tale that also served as the inspiration for a song on REM's Reckoning album (lyricist Michael "Let's play Twister/Let' play Risk" Stipe long having shown an affinity for pulling in details from childhood), Grecian & Rossmo's adult version transplants the basic story to the American Gold Rush. The results are surprisingly effective.

In Sons (the title change from "Brothers" to "Sons" is significant, though, interestingly, the cover of the book as it appears on Amazon gives the impression that "Brothers" was once in the book's original title), our seven identitical twin heroes immigrate to California, bringing their mother with 'em. There, they prospect for gold, keeping to themselves until a winter accident occurs: a group of children playing on an iced-over river falls through the ice, and one of the brothers (who has the ability to swallow the ocean) attempts to rescue them by taking in all the river's water. Unfortunately, he's unable to hold it long enough and when he lets the river back out, he winds up killing both the children and the men who attempt to retrieve their unconscious bodies. Facing an angry mob of townspeople, the brothers use their individual powers (stretchability a lá Mister Fantastic, super-tough skin, imperviousness to fire, et al) and the fact that nobody can tell 'em apart to save themselves from the villagers' wrath.

As told by Grecian & Rossmo, then, Seven Sons is a super-hero story (not much different from those early Justice League of America comics where super-types separated into individual chapters to defeat an overarching enemy, really), though the historical overlay add some intriguing subtexts to the story. That the immigrant brothers are nearly identical (right down to their freakishly large ear lobes) is, of course, an essential plot point that's been carried through in various countries' version of the folk tale, though, here, the townspeople's inability to see that there is more than one brother also stands in racist xenophobia. (To be fair, as presented in the book, about the only thing to distinguish the brothers is their powers – and the fact that the brother with super-sensitive eyesight wears sunglasses.) From X-Men on, super-hero tales have frequently been used to focus on the persecuted Other, of course, though in this case the metaphor has historical antecedent in the era's exploitation of Chinese immigrant laborers. At one level, you get the sense that – even if they weren't identical – most of the white townsfolk wouldn't be able to differentiate the Chinese brothers, anyway.

Making the mother part of the story strengthens its family theme in some surprising ways. Me, I found myself pondering just what it must've been like to give birth to seven of these guys (how did, f'rinstance, stretchy son come out of the birth canal?), though such questions prove irrelevant when we learn that Ma has some pretty formidable abilities of her own. She is, we learn, a force of nature much like the river that proved too strong for the first brother – and when her "years of accumulated misery" are finally given voice, it has devastating consequences for the town.

Riley Rossmo's loose art, filled with sensitive use of blacks and gray wash, is beautifully suited to the story: he is able to make the art look both super-hero comic bookish (e.g., the scenes where first brother swallows and lets go of the river; a bit where stretchable brother escapes the hangman's noose), than more darkly expressionistic (as in a scene where one of the brothers is cornered by the angry mob). It's a far cry from Kurt Weise's more whimsical storybook take on the characters, but it suits the graphic novel's more serious tone. Still, neither Grecian nor Rossmo forget their story's origins. For all their sturm & drang, super-hero comics remain – no matter how much fans or publishers may protest to the contrary – simple children's tales at heart . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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