Neverwhere, the Graphic Novel

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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

(12:42:00 CDT)

Neverwhere, the Graphic Novel

Imagine you are a guy, a British everyman (the kind often played by Martin Freeman). One day, on a date with your beautiful but controlling wife-to-be, you stop and help a young woman you find bleeding. You are told, commanded, to leave her but you do not. By doing this, you not only witness strange people and brief glimpses into an unseen world, but you become part of it. You lose your job because no one can see you. Your apartment is sold while you consider yourself a tenant. You cannot get money out of bank account. All you can do is leave London Above and go into London Below, where you find all the forgotten, epic things: black friars and ancient keys, weapon masters, sewage herders, London particulars, crazed monarchs, angels, hunters, fabled beasts, dark and unspeakable things guarding bridges, and a barter system where dead bodies might be traded for perfume. People speak to rats, eat cats and mice, ignore the smell, and hide away amongst discarded fads and punnish landmarks. You start out as a wastrel, unable to cope, but begin to fit in a little by little, and learn that you are down here on a quest that you were born for, though you have no idea if you will survive.

Neverwhere began as a television show and later became a book. Because the television show had some production problems and miscommunications (as I understand it), the book helped to return some of the intended vision back into the hands of the original creator, Neil Gaiman. One of the biggest changes from the show to the book was a slight loss of claustrophobia. The original version made most things feel right on top of one another. London Below felt like an empire squeezed like sardines into a can. In the book, it felt a little looser, like sardines in a slightly more expansive jar. The characters became a little more epic, the scenery a little more expressive. There is a slight starkness, a weirdness, in the original miniseries that the novel did not capture. For this reason, both exist side by side without taking away from each other.

Mike Carey, along with a team of artists and editors and whosiwatsits, took on the task of a third version: a series of nine comic books (later collected into a single graphic novel). The evolution present in the original adaptation is present moreso. Claustrophobia is a thing of the distant past, the underground sewers and rail lines are massive and well lit. This is most espoused in Earl's Court, which was just a subway car in the original, with an entire court packed on top of one another. In this version, Tardis-esque tricks are played and the inside is the inside of a castle, practically. Or Down street, which started as a series of stairs in the original, now a large and affluent London road, just angled wrong (if you will). It goes down, with all the light posts and all the shops set along the vertical instead of the horizontal. It is a neat effect, and makes for a fantastic comic, though somewhat disobeys the rules of the series. A "down street" would never have existed in the world above. In the comic book, though, the world Below is more about a symbiotic relationship, a collection of possible ideas and dreams that sometimes float up into the world Above, not merely a museum of older things.

The most obvious set of changes is the re-imagining of the various characters' appearances. Door now shows off cleavage (Door now has cleavage to show off) and has a keyhole birthmark over her eye. Vandemar is now brightly colored, larger than life, with a puffy toupé. Anesthesia has deep blue skin and orange hair. Even that pales to the change done to the Marquis de Carabas. He shows up in the comic as darker than dark, literally a black shape molded to look like a human. Deep and ink-like, with white hair, the effect works some times and fails horribly others.

Most of the changes are just fine. Richard narrates some of the comic. This is perfectly fine. Several of the chapters (the original issues) end with an affected cliff-hanger, which can be a little tiresome when forced. Lamia and the Velvets are ellided, which makes sense (or, I should say, works fine in context). The seven sisters are also ellided, but I suppose they are unnecessary in the pace the graphic novel aims for. Croup and Vandemar are missing a bit of their flavor, and the comic makes a change that didn't sit well with me: they bleed. You still can't hurt them, but you can make them bleed? That was a strange visual decision. The Angel Islington is heavily "comicbooked" into a testament of androgyny, except s/he has some sort of puffs where breasts might be. A simple robe would have probably done the trick several times over. The ordeal Richard faces is somehow unconvincing, if it ever was. The fight with the Beast of London feels too brief, almost anticlimatically equivalent to, say, any of the mild scuffles leading up to it.

There is also something not quite tangible lacking in the comic, or I should say, the comic is missing something that I cannot quite put my finger on. I suppose you could sum it up with "fanciful charm". The miniseries and the novel had some reasonable "logical despite the location" aspect to them mixed in a sense of child's wonder, assuming that you embrace the fact that children see more darkness than we adults like to admit. The graphic novel leaves behind the quietudes of reasonability and does not quite grab that childlike quality of the story. There is not much place for said things in the world of comic books, I know, but it is missing. It feels like it, too. The end result is a treat for the eyes, a visual time passing, but not quite a treat for the soul. Comic book fans who are not particular to Neil Gaiman might not miss it, and Gaiman fans who already know Neverwhere will probably fill in the gaps, but I think it somehow misses the overall mark, while still being somewhat enjoyable. I would almost have rather it went off in a while other direction, I guess.

I will give the overall thing an Eh and still hold the book up as the best source for the story. The character designs are interesting to look at, but most of them feel like attempts to X-men the people of London Below, when something more like Eerie would have been better. The story is briefer, and easier to take down in a single setting, but misses some the "London" charm of the original two versions. Recommended for fans of dark fantasy comics, and for fans of the original who are curious about other versions, but not quite as recommended to those who have not read the original but plan on it, or those who like everything about comics except for their recent forced sense of "style".

Si Vales, Valeo


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