Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

History Channelled

Posted by Don MacPherson on November 22nd, 2012

Mankind: The Story of All of Us Volume One
Writers: Marv Wolfman, Nathan Edmondson, Shawn Brock, Neo Edmund, Devin Grayson and Joe Brusha
Artists: Tom Derenick & Bill Sienkiewicz, Dennis Calero, Giovanni Timpano, Lara Baron, Javier Aranda, and Matt Triano & Mike DeCarlo & Wes Huffor
Colors: Dash Martin, Dennis Calero, Falk, Stephen Downer, Vanessa Banos, Alberto Muriel, Marc Reuda and Josera Bravo
Letters: Jim Campbell
Cover artists: Neal Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz & Dennis Calero
Editors: Joan Hilty & Shawn Brock
Publisher: Zenescope Entertainment
Price: $14.99 US

Zenescope Entertainment has developed a reputation for and a niche market with its bad-girl comics, offering buxom heroines and villains from fairy tales and fantasy, so it’s easy to overlook it when the publisher offers something outside of that milieu. This anthology — spinning out of the History Channel’s documentary series of the same name — features a nice mix of experienced talent and newer creators. The overall tone of the storytelling suits the brand nicely. There’s a matter-of-fact approach to the narration and dialogue throughout the book, but some of the stories offer a strong, personal tone that makes it easier to relate to characters that are far removed from the audience, both in terms of time and culture.

“Seeds of Change”: Longtime comics writer Marv Wolfman delivers an uplifting story about the humanity’s ability to learn, adapt and thrive in the same of potential extinction, but what’s most interesting about his prehistoric tale is its focus on the power of family. He posits that knowledge passed down from one generation to the next over the course of thousands of years gave men and women the tools they needed to feed their families. It’s a powerfully convincing story because he’s transformed theories of history into a personal story of one bloodline’s perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Tradition and the spoken word are viewed as being as powerful as weapons and fire. Wolfman’s story of this generational story is incredibly convincing; if it weren’t set in prehistoric times, I could have been convinced it was history.

Tom Derenick’s a solid super-hero comic artist, but here, Bill Sienkiewicz’s inks help to set his work apart from the norm. The blend of their styles reminds me a great deal of the work of Denys (The Question, Fight for Tomorrow) Cowan’s work. Derenick conveys offers convincing vision of tribal life, and Sienkiewicz’s loose inks bring a raw, untamed quality to the backdrop that aids in the effort a great deal.

“Pyramid of Man”: This second story makes for an interesting counterpoint to the first one. While the first was penned by a comics writer with a career spanning several decades, this one is written by Nathan (Where Is Jake Ellis?) Edmondson. The first boasts a more hopeful, peaceful tone overall, focusing on the encouraging story of mankind’s ability to endure, innovate and thrive. But Edmondson’s story is about the blight of war, about people’s penchant for coveting the land of others and believing conquest to be their birthright. Edmondson opts to guide us through this harsh reality by focusing on innocents in the midst of war. It’s an effective story, with an appropriately disheartening message. Dennis Calero’s boasts a painted quality. It’s airy, bringing an almost mythic sense to the storytelling. Given the segment’s nature as a cautionary tale, the art works pretty well, though it’s occasionally difficult to discern the action in the pivotal scene.

“The Runner”: History’s never really been my forté, so I was encouraged by the fact I recognized some of the history at play in this story. Writer Shawn Brock introduces us to a man who must run for miles and miles to convey a message about a conflict to the men who govern his land, and the journey is an arduous one. Brock’s script conveys the protagonist’s desperation and determination quite effectively. By the end of the story, it purports to be one about the importance of democracy and how it’s something worthy of sacrifice. What I took away from it, though, was its message about the power and importance of communication. The fleet-footed messenger here is the medium for a particularly vital piece of news, information his people need to make a proper decision to plot their future.

Giovanni Timpano’s name is a new one to me, but he delivers some solid comic art here. The bird’s-eye view of the Greek city as the runner nears his destination is an impressive vista. He effectively conveys the inhospitable nature of the terrain the protagonist must cross throughout the story, as well as the pain and strain the runner endures. Timpano’s style reminds me of that of Jerry (Batman: Son of the Demon) Bingham, with a hint of Norm (Batman, Prime) Breyfogle influence here and there.

“Will of Iron”: Lara Baron’s artwork for the piece tells the story fairly clearly, but really, I wouldn’t describe as anything more than serviceable. She boasts a rather standard comic-book art style; it’s the sort of art one would expect to find in a super-hero anthology one-shot from DC or Marvel, in which a publisher tests out new talent. Her style reminds me a little of Tom (Robin, Starman v.1) Lyle’s work.

Like any anthology, this one is something of a mixed bag, and writer Neo Edmund and artist Lara Baron’s “Will of Iron” was the first story I encountered in this book that could have been stronger. The focus, not surprisingly, is about how iron changed the course of history and has allowed mankind to survive and thrive over millennia. I did like how Edmund first points out the Earth itself is dependent on an iron core, but the writer redirects our attention to the mineral’s use in warfare. He tries to balance his story with the peaceful uses of the metal as well. One of the problems with Edmund’s story isn’t his fault; it revisits some of the same subject matter and themes we saw in previous tales in the book. Where he does go awry, though, is with the narration. He falls into the familiar trap of having an implausibly prescient narrator in ancient times who makes thinly veiled references to modern technology.

“Citizens and Believers”: Edmund redeems himself with this provocative but intelligent examination of the rise of Christianity in the middle of the Roman Empire. He opens by showing us the contrasts between Christ himself and Emperor Claudius, but a parallel emerges as well. What impresses me most about the plot is how Edmund approaches Christ as a historical figure, but not the miraculous Son of God he’s portrayed as in the Bible. Edmund’s portrayal of Jesus as a charismatic leader of faith (but not more) could be the source of some controversy, but it stays true to the historical context of the book. It stands out as the strongest piece in the book. It’s illustrated nicely by Giovanni Timpano as well, whose hazy style conveys a sense of history. Adding to the genuine tone of the visuals is his ability to convey the dress and architecture of the periods that are explored in the story. Stephen Downer’s colors achieve a nice balance between darkness and color as well.

“Blood and Silk”: When I saw Devin Grayson credited as the writer for this story, I eagerly dove into it, as I was a fan of her work for DC Comics back in the 1990s. She doesn’t disappoint here, offering a compelling story about the ancient silk trade. It’s interesting how she suggests parallels between the protagonist’s quest to reach Rom and immigrants setting out for America in search of a better life for their families. Furthermore, the Buddhist at the centre of the story has an interesting encounter with some newly converted Christians, and his presentation and defence of his zen philosophy is an encouraging one. The young silk trader/craftsman’s secret is almost like one hidden in plain sight. Even when thieves find his more prized possessions among his belongings, they fail to recognize their value. Javier Aranda’s artwork is a little more stylized than others’ in the book, but it’s nevertheless effective. I love how he brings a fifth-century Asian bazaar to life.

“From Dark to Dawn”: While it’s not writer Joe Brusha’s fault, his story opens with a scene that mirrors that of “Will of Iron,” making the piece seems bit redundant at first. It boasts similar subject matter at first, but instead of discussing the importance of iron in history, the focus here is on gold. Ultimately, this story serves as an interesting counterbalance to “Citizens and Believers,” as it exposes one of the ugliest periods in Christian history. The story is rather ham-fisted, but it successfully makes the point greed was a bigger cause of the Crusades than matters of faith and culture. Unlike the art in the rest of the book, the visuals here look like adapted super-hero genre artwork and don’t really convey the sense of history as well. The art looks like a cross between the styles of Walt (Thor) Simonson and the late Jim (The Brave and the Bold) Aparo, which would be fun for a typical super-hero adventure, but I don’t think it serves this material as well. Furthermore, unlike the rest of the book, this story is rather garishly colored — again, like a super-hero book.

Overall, this book offers a strong package of compelling storytelling. It’s definitely educational in tone, but most stories take care to connect with the reader on some level, bringing resonance to the history lessons. 7/10

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One Response to “History Channelled”

  1. Dwight Williams Says:

    Pleased to see Devin Grayson writing again.

    As to the rest…an intriguing first glimpse at this particular set of works.