Steampunk E.T. : The Bozz Chronicles

The Bozz Chronicles was a six issue comic book series by writer David Michelinie and artist Bret Blevins.  It was originally published bi-monthly by Marvel Comics under their Epic imprint from December 1985 to November 1986.  I recall seeing house ads for the series back when I was nine years old, but I never had an opportunity to read it.  Now, thirty years later, The Bozz Chronicles has finally been collected into a trade paperback by Dover Publications.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB cover

Michelinie was inspired to create The Bozz Chronicles after seeing the Steven Spielberg movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  An idea struck Michelinie: What if an alien landed on Earth in an earlier era, before human technology was advanced enough to cobble together a device with which to phone home?  Michelinie decided to have his alien protagonist become stranded in England in the late Victorian Era, a period that he knew would be familiar to readers through literature, television and films.

Epic Comics editor Archie Goodwin suggested that Michelinie collaborate with up-and-coming artist Bret Blevins.  It was Blevins who designed the looks of the characters, including the unique appearance of Bozz (so called because his unpronounceable alien name begins with a buzzing sound).

Having become marooned on Earth in the late 19th Century, Bozz is overcome by despair.  He is a gentle, soulful being, a total outsider in the chaotic world of humanity.  Despondent over the thought of never returning home, Bozz is ready to kill himself.  His suicide attempt is interrupted by Mandy Flynn, a London prostitute.

Mandy immediately takes a liking to Bozz.  Inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, she decides to set herself and Bozz up as private investigators, hoping that the intellectual stimulation of solving mysteries will distract the alien from his severe ennui.  On a more pragmatic level, Mandy also recognized that the brilliant Bozz has the potential to bring in a large number of well-paying clients, thus providing her with a way out of the dangerous, degrading profession of a hooker.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 137

On one of their early cases, Bozz and Mandy encounter “Madman” Salem Hankshaw, a two-fisted Texan expatriate.  The rough & tumble American joins their detective firm, providing both muscle and snarky wit.  Bozz and Mandy’s investigations also results in them crossing paths with the aristocratic Colin Fitzroy who, dissatisfied with the life of the idle rich, joined Scotland Yard.  Salem and Fitzroy are polar opposites, so naturally enough a rivalry develops between them, especially after the police detective takes an interest in Mandy.

I’ve been a fan of Michelinie’s writing for many years, especially his two now-classic runs on Iron Man with Bob Layton.  Even so, I was especially impressed by Michelinie’s writing on The Bozz Chronicles.  It is very witty and intelligent, a deft blending of Grand Guignol and farcical slapstick with a helping of genuine sentiment.  Michelinie does good work in developing his cast of characters, and in constructing the bizarre mysteries that drive the plots.

Blevins is another creator whose work I enjoy, and I was very impressed by his art on The Bozz Chronicles.  He demonstrates a genuine versatility in these issues.  Bozz is a cartoony, abstract figure, and Mandy is drawn as a sexy “good girl” pin-up type.  In contrast, many of their adversaries are grotesque monstrosities.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 65

The Bozz Chronicles is an early example of what is now known as steampunk.  I think it is noteworthy that most steampunk involves taking the aesthetics of the late 19th Century and transplanting them into a different era or dimension.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that for most of the population of the Victorian Era life was extremely difficult and grueling.  It was characterized by a cavernous divide between an impoverished majority and a wealthy aristocracy, by the exploitation of labor, and by the beginnings of global pollution as private industry ran completely unregulated.

(The novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854, offers a particularly brutal portrait of this time period.)

Michelinie and Blevins do not shy away from the unpleasant realities of the Victorian Era.  The character of Mandy is a definite example of this.  Orphaned after her father abandoned her and her mother died, the uneducated young woman was forced to become a prostitute to make ends meet.  In one story Michelinie introduces a group of wealthy men seeking to use super-science to manipulate the political landscape, to ensure that the dire economic status quo remains in place.  As rendered by Blevins, London during the Industrial Revolution is a grimy & dangerous city.

Veteran artist Al Williamson assisted with inking The Bozz Chronicles.  His detailed embellishments suited Blevins’ penciling perfectly.

Also contributing to the series is John Ridgeway.  Due to deadline problems, he drew issue #4.  This made for an unusual experience.  On a creator-owned title you very seldom see outside artists coming in to do a fill-in story.  Cerebus the Aardvark was only ever drawn by Dave Sim, every issue of Strangers in Paradise was by Terry Moore, and no one is going to be pinch-hitting for Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Yet for one issue The Bozz Chronicles was drawn not by Blevins but by Ridgeway.  It was interesting to see Blevins’ designs interpreted by Ridgeway.  His style is so quintessentially British.  It was so very well suited to drawing this story, a horror mystery set in an English country village in the middle of the winter.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 112

The only weak point I found in The Bozz Chronicles is in the depiction of native Africans.  In the last two issues of the series we meet a tribe who, having encountered other members of Bozz’s people centuries before, believe he is a god.  Now admittedly Bozz is a very unusual looking figure, and he possesses some amazing abilities that seem very much like magic.  Nevertheless, the Africans do come across as rather superstitious and a bit gullible.

Okay, aside from that, I really enjoyed The Bozz Chronicles.  I read the entire book in less than a day.  I did not want to put it down.  And when I got to the end I was disappointed, because I knew that was it, there were no other stories by Michelinie & Blevins featuring Bozz and Mandy and Salem.  I wanted more!

Fortunately, because The Bozz Chronicles was published through Epic, Michelinie & Blevins retained ownership of the series.  Hopefully, with the original material now back in print, it will generate enough interest for them to reunite to create new stories.  Blevins drew a new illustration for the TPB cover, which I take as a good sign.  Cross your fingers.

Comic books I’m reading, part four: graphic novels

As I mentioned in Part Three of this series, I’ve increasingly been picking up more and more “independent” comic books.  And that includes graphic novels.  I recently read a very good graphic novel, The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City, published by Tor.  There are also several other books that I purchased in the last few years that I never had an opportunity to read until now.

The Battle of Blood and Ink is written by Jared Axelrod and illustrated by Steve Walker.  I met Walker at the New York Comic Con a few years ago.  At the time, he had just illustrated another book, The Sons of Liberty, which had been written by Alexander & Joseph Lagos.  I thought it was a pretty good read with some nice art.  So when I heard that Walker had a new book out this year, I picked it up.

I guess The Battle of Blood and Ink would be described as a steampunk adventure.  It is set in Amperstam, a flying city.  The protagonist Ashe is the publisher of The Lurker’s Guide, the city’s newspaper.  Ashe uses The Lurkers’ Guide to attempt to expose what she sees as the oppressive activities of Amperstam’s government, embodied in the form of the icy Provost.  Ashe also has a case of amnesia concerning her childhood, as well as a set of mysterious tattoos on her arms.  These are things she has brushed to the back of her mind, but she soon finds that they have great significance, both for herself and Amperstam.

The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City
The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City

Jared Axelrod’s writing very much reminded me very much of the work of one of my favorite authors, Chris Claremont.  Like Claremont, Axelrod has two strong, independent female characters in the lead, in this case Ashe and her adversary, the Provost.

Axelrod also utilized one of Claremont’s favorite tropes, the examination of identity.  Are we who we really are, or are we living the roles that society has shaped us into?  Ashe comes from Amperstam’s underclass, and her fiery independence & fighting spirit are in many ways a direct response to this, a rebellion against her social station, an act of defiance against the city’s elite.  However, when Ashe is offered the opportunity to join that social stratum, to live a comfortable life with her friend & admirer Cardor, she hesitates.  Would she still be Ashe?  Or instead would she be someone who had been molded into being by Cardor, transformed into the woman he wants her to be?  Likewise, the at-first seemingly villainous Provost is a much more complicated being once examined.  The city’s ruler perceives herself as a servant of duty.  Every choice the Provost has made has been, she claims, for the good of Amperstam.  She sees it as her responsibility to make the difficult choices that others are unwilling to make, no matter how heavily they may weigh on her conscience.  Obviously her motivations do not make some of the Provost’s decisions any less iniquitous, but Axelrod explains why she does what she does, and how she feels an obligation to pursue the course of action that she has.

In regards to Steve Walker’s work on The Battle of Blood and Ink, he has really grown as an artist since The Sons of Liberty.  He has a style that could be described as Charlie Adlard crossed with Jamal Igle.  Walker obviously put a tremendous amount of time & thought into designing Amperstam, its inhabitants, geography, architecture, and technology.  A few of his preliminary sketches are on display in the back of the book.  The upshot is that Amperstam is in many ways a fully realized city, with different neighborhoods and socioeconomic groups.  Walker also renders very exciting action sequences, both on the streets of Amperstam, and in the skies above the city.  There are a few instances where the action could have used somewhat more clarity.  But on the whole Walker is very good at storytelling.

So I would definitely recommend purchasing a copy of The Battle of Blood and Ink.  It’s an exciting read with superb artwork.

Anyway, delving into that big pile of previous unread graphic novels that were starting to stack up in my apartment, what else has been occupying my time?  There was a trio of intriguing, original works that I finally took the time to sit down and read.  Here are a few brief thoughts on them.

World War 3 Illustrated editor & contributor Sabrina Jones created Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography.  Duncan was, to quote the foreword by Lori Belilove, “the mother of modern dance and the muse of modernism.”  I had what might be considered a very passing knowledge of Duncan before having picked up this volume, but from I knew she was an interesting figure.  Indeed, reading it, Jones tells the story of a very talented, free-spirited, revolutionary, eccentric woman, one who had a tremendous impact upon the world of dance throughout the globe in the early 20th Century.  Jones’ biography is a cursory look at Duncan’s life & achievements.  But she provides a detailed bibliography for anyone seeking further information on the legendary performer.  Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography stands out for Jones lovely, flowing line work, which really brings across in still images a feeling of fluid motion & grace.

Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography
Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography

A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge is a book by Josh Neufeld that was inspired by his work volunteering for the American Red Cross in Biloxi, MS.  Neufeld became acquainted with a number of individuals whose lives were affected by Hurricane Katrina.  He kept in touch with them, and recounted their stories.  A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge is a very sobering look at what happened during one of the worst natural disasters of the last decade, told from the points of view of the people on the ground.

I really enjoyed this book, because it really cut through the inaccurate sensationalism that often plagued the reporting of events in New Orleans, and told it as it really was.  This was a very eye-opening read.  It was a great look at how humanity, under the worst circumstances, is sometimes able to rise to the occasion and be the best it can, with unlikely true-life heroes materializing where you least expected them.  Neufeld’s artwork really captures the grim devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent flooding.  His people, with their expressions & body language, have very palpable emotions.  It was a really engaging read.  Hurricane Katrina is definitely a weighty topic to explore, but Neufeld does it in a thoughtful, respectful manner, letting his subjects’ lives unfold on their own, telling their own stories.

A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge
A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge

The final book I read recently was Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli.  I will be up front on this one: it is not a casual read.  There is a tremendous amount of depth, symbolism, and philosophy to Mazzucchelli’s work.  On the surface, the book looks at the disintegration and rebuilding of the life of an architect.  Asterios Polyp is an acclaimed university professor who has designed numerous revolutionary buildings.  Actually, that is to say, Polyp has drawn them on paper, but none of them have been physically constructed.

The book is very much concerned with questions of identity and reality.  If a building has not been built, can it be said to really exist?  Likewise, there is much about Polyp that seems abstract and theoretical, that he is an idea for a person, that he is not really living a life so much as going through the motions of what he thinks his life should be.  Polyp is obsessed with the fact that he had a twin brother who died at birth, and he contemplates that perhaps he is living the life his brother might have if he’d survived.  Polyp goes so far as to videotape all of his activities at home to create a “video doppelganger” to stand in for his missing twin.

Asterios Polyp
Asterios Polyp

I am not going to pretend to understand much of what Mazzucchelli explored with this graphic novel.  It is very apparent that Asterios Polyp is intended to be re-read and contemplated.  What I do know is that Mazzucchelli spent some amount of time on creating this book.  No choice of line work, layout, color shade, or font appears to have been left to chance.  Even the unusual dust jacket size was a deliberate decision on Mazzucchelli’s part.  In a way, he can be regarded as the architect of this book, his designs as meticulous as those he assigned to the works of Polyp within the book.  Did Mazzucchelli intend that, as well?  Is he, in the creation of this work, mirroring his fictional protagonist?  By even creating this book, is Mazzucchelli blurring the line between reality and fiction?  Once again, I cannot say.  But it really does make you think.