[Outside the Frame] Richard S. Carbonneau’s “The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons” Illustrates Failure
This well-designed collected edition of Carbonneau and Ng’s webcomic about the life of occultist Jack Parsons looks like a magical grimoire the book’s subject would have been proud of. An overlooked gem that deserves more attention. (from MTV Geek)
Publisher: Cellar Door Publishing officially released this graphic novel by Richard S. Carbonneau and artist Robin Simon Ng in 2010. I met the creators at that year’s New York Comic Con, where I picked up the book. They had a booth, copies of the book, promo materials… but less than three years later, it’s almost impossible to find. Amazon doesn’t carry it. Neither does Powell’s, or any other retailer that might have listed it online. Luckily, it’s still available in its original webcomic form (we’ll get to that at the end).
The project has a fascinating concept. It’s a graphic novel which aims to be a biography of a real man – one who was certain he was a great magician – while including events that couldn’t have really happened. It’s true that Jack Parsons (born Marvel Whiteside Parsons) was a rocket scientist in the 1930s and 40s, so the idea of him being a cultist as well is all the more interesting. His scientific work influenced NASA and his occult work was bound up in the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) and with Aleister Crowley.
There are three parts of any comic: subject, writing, and art. The subject is historical fiction, a reimaginging of things known from Parson’s own writing and other historical documents, and in this case seems to be solid. What the writing does is take the string of information which makes up the man’s life and turns it into a fleshed-out tale.
Carbonneau envisions Parsons as a man of great power, which might have more to do with Parson’s own view of himself than how the hi’s life actually turned out. (Parsons died fairly young, in an explosion. It was probably his own fault.) The writing is complex and at times tries to say too much in a short amount of panels, but overall it works. In addition to the story, Carbonneau wrote an introduction which makes clear his deeply personal interest in his subject.
I was less impressed with the heavy-handed art, which favored an abundance of black. Solid black backgrounds, heavy black lines, unnecessary cross-hatching, and detailing which makes the characters look as if they’re all scarred up (with the stitches still in). It’s a stylistic choice, and one that I don’t favor, but the artist – Robin Simon Ng – was consistent and it’s certainly possible it will appeal to others. On the other hand, the cover is gorgeous, done in red and gold layered occult circles and images from the interior. I also like that Ng included sketches at the back of the book which show his process, something I wish all artists would do.
Because it tackles a strange little subject, one few publishers would touch, The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons is a great look at what can be done with comics when we let indie writers and artists produce work outside of the mainstream. It’s also, unfortunately, a look at what happens when a book isn’t a mainstream success – it slips from the shelves and disappears. It isn’t for sale on the Cellar Door website, which doesn’t appear to have been updated since a few years before Carbonneau’s book was published. The author’s website hasn’t changed since June 2011, and it was only after some serious Googling that I found it still up on WebcomicsNation.
I’d recommend the book to anyone with an interest in cults, the 20th century American fascination with Thelemic magic, or early rocketeering. Start HERE and scroll through to the end. You won’t regret it.
Next week: Tony Millionaire’s Billy Hazelnuts, from Fantagraphics
Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Filed under: Outside the Frame
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