Sep 30, 2010

Mission Update: September 2010

Last year, I only posted three times in the month of September. Somehow, I figured I could do better than that, despite a busier workload. I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking, tackling proto-steampunk via Verne and Wells (I still love that for a steampunk name: "Dr. Vernon Wells, at your service...") in September and October. I'm far too busy with the start-up of the year to be writing for the blog this month. Next year, I'll write more in the summer when I'm not teaching and save it for September, or I'll simply be taking the month off, or handing the blog over to guest writers.

In addition to being busy with my six-course workload (I only teach - I have no administrative or research duties), I was fortunate enough to get on a few review lists for steampunk books. The upside of this was advance reading copies, sent straight to my office! The downside was...more busy! It's a good busy, but I've had to change October's theme to "New Steampunk," and will finish up my proto-steampunk theme when the smoke clears: I received ARCs of the Steampunk Reloaded anthology, Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth, Arthur Slade's Hunchback Assignments, Tim Aker's The Horns of Ruin, Mike Resnick's The Buntline Special, Mark Hodder's Spring-Heeled Jack, Clay and Susan Griffith's Greyfriar, Cherie Priest's Dreadnought, and Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. I'll also be included as a stop on another blog tour for a series called The Grey Griffins by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis. I'm a busy little scholar with all those books, which is a delight. But I want to be good to the folks who sent them my way and get out my reviews/reflections expeditiously. My apologies for not getting all the way through 20KL this month, and to those looking forward to a Wellsian month. I was too, but there's always next year!

Thanks to those who dropped by for what mostly amounted to a 1/4 of a crash-course in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was glad to share the lecture slides and information with everyone. Having Arthur Slade's blog-tour coincide with 20KL was perfect, both because The Dark Deeps is pure Verne-pastiche, but also because it gave me a break from posting the big academic ruminations for a few days.

Speaking of Arthur Slade, both Hunchback Assignments and The Dark Deeps are available as audiobooks, so we can add those to the ever-growing list of new steampunk audiobooks, along with Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, Cherie Priest's Dreadnought (highly recommended, both as book and because Kate Reading, one of my favorite narrators, is reading it), and Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel: The Infernal Devices Book I from Fans of steampunk may also enjoy knowing that Neal Stephenson's epic Baroque Cycle is now available unabridged from Audible as well.

I'll be speaking at Pure Speculation, a humble yet cozy SF/F convention held here in Edmonton. Here's my schedule:

Saturday, October 23

2:30pm - 4:00pm. Panelist: Which Book Stays on the Island? A Survivor-style discussion of fiction and voting books off the island.

5:00pm - 6:30pm. Presenter: Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." A look at the short story as well as a contrast/comparison with the short film version, 2081.
7:30pm - 8:30pm. Panelist: Fiction to DIE for, a discussion of paranormal fiction.

Sunday, October 24.

1:00pm - 2:00pm. Presenter: Steampunk 101
3:00pm - 4:00pm. Presenter: Joe Lansdale's Jonah Hex: The Weirdest Weird West.

Come on out and say hello if you can make it!

And finally, here are the winners of the Arthur Slade giveaway: Taylor and Paul - please send me an email at mikeperschon AT providing me with a mailing address, and I'll get those books off to you!

Sep 23, 2010

Interview with The Hunchback Assignments' Arthur Slade

As part of his whirlwind blog tour promoting the release of The Dark Deeps, the second book in the Hunchback Assignments series, I present an interview with Canuck steampunk author, Arthur Slade.

Steampunk Scholar: When I first read the first volume of The Hunchback Assignments, it evoked numerous memories of a childhood filled with late-night re-runs of classic horror movies. I couldn’t help but think of Lon Chaney Sr. as Quasimodo in the 1923 silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I used to try and dress up as Quasimodo by stuffing a pillow up the back of my shirt, placing half a ping-pong ball over one eye, and sticking slabs of silly putty to my skin. Dr. Hyde, one of the villains in The Hunchback Assignments, references both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Are you a fan of classic monsters in general?

Arthur Slade: Absolutely! And oddly enough I used the pillow/ping-pong ball/silly putty trick while I was writing the book (kidding, of course, it's hard to write with a ping-pong ball in one eye). I have been a fan of horror ever since childhood and I even watched the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame again as inspiration. One of the pleasures of this series for me was that I now had a good excuse (not that you need one) to watch the old movies and read the old books again and again. From the very first I wanted this series to be an ode to the Victorian era novels that have inspired so much of our modern day horror and science fiction. To be able to return to the source (or sources) has really inspired my imagination and has made me feel like I'm a kid again--the same kid who sat petrified in front of the screen during Frankenstein. I want to capture that same feel with these novels.

SS: You’ve definitely succeeded in creating an “ode to the Victorian era novels.” Throughout both volumes of The Hunchback Assignments, you play with classic Victorian-era writers’ characters and plot lines, morphing those in the same way Modo morphs his appearance. For example, The Dark Deeps is an homage to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, paced toward modern readers’ sensibilities. I have to say, I love the addition of sharks in the scene that mirrors Conseil and Aronnax trying to stay alive after being thrown overboard from the Abraham Lincoln. You’re also playing a character from one of H.G. Wells’s most famous works, which again takes us into the “classic” horror movie realm (I’m not saying which one, as I want it to remain a surprise for readers). You reference Shakespeare, and Dickens’s Great Expectations, making The Hunchback Assignments a decidedly literary experience. Have you had any readers write to tell you that you got them started on reading classic works of literature, or checking out those old horror movies?

AS: Yes, the shark scene was rather a fun scene to write. I blame the inspiration to blur these stories on two things: my English degree and my love of Science Fiction and horror. At the outset I wanted to blend the "literary" side of English literature and the "fantastical" side of fiction (obviously the quotations denote my true feelings that both can and do exist in one work). I don't mean that I wanted the novels to be incredibly deep and thought provoking, but I wanted to borrow Dickens' ability to create believable characters and setting and meld that with Verne's talent for action and exploring scientific concepts. My goal was to make the world around my characters appear as real as possible. My hope was that if the readers "believe" that the setting and characters are real, then they are more likely to accept some of the steampunk concepts that I am introducing them to: steam-powered limbs and mechanical hounds, as an example. Modo really is a symbol for this "blurring." He is a lover of words, of Shakespeare and Coleridge, yet he is also an action hero trained to infiltrate organizations and to kill enemy agents.

Most adult readers of the series certainly get the literary references. The younger readers sometimes pick up on them and other times, if they are taught the book in school, get the references pointed out to them. I can't say the series had been sending droves of people to buy Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, but at least they are getting an introduction to the classics.

SS: Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the books so much, since my interests are a blend of that literary fantastic as well. On the subject of English literature, has anyone used your books in curriculum? Is that something you hope to see happen when you’re writing?

AS: The books have certainly been used in a number of schools. It does take a bit of time for books to trickle down into the education system, since teachers have to read them then, if they're appropriate, add them to the books they're covering that year or the next year. I've talked to several schools who are teaching the book and teachers appreciate being able to draw direct links to the classics. That was one of the things I had hoped would happen when I first started writing the series. Plus, in all honesty, those connections make the books more saleable to the education market.

SS: The Hunchback Assignments have been labeled steampunk. Did you write with a conscious awareness of the steampunk style in your work, or was it something that emerged as a result of the elements you’d placed together?

AS: I wrote the first book in 2007-2008 and at that time steampunk hadn't quite become a part of the greater public consciousness (especially in the young adult field). It wasn't until early 2009 when we began talking with various publishers about the marketing of the novels that the word steampunk started to be bandied about as a good label to put on the series. I was lucky that steampunk's profile was rising at the exact moment the first book came out.

As I was writing the novels, though, I was drawing from some of the steampunk I'd read earlier in my life. Also, I'd have to draw a direct line back to Verne's work. And part of the steampunkedness of the series did just emerge from where the story ended up taking me. So I guess my mishmash of an answer is that it was partly a conscious and unconscious process that inspired the steampunk elements in the series.

I define steampunk, basically, as "science fiction that is inspired by the Victorian era." But that doesn't quite cover it, either. The field keeps getting larger and larger.

SS: The Dark Deeps is definitely a direct line to Verne. Some might accuse you of just ripping off Verne, but I see it as a tribute. At the very least, we can say you're being more original than the current deluge of mash-ups that use the original text and then carve in their own ostensibly clever spin. I'd describe what you're doing as introducing readers to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a way modern readers will more readily take to. I don't want to steal any of the surprises of the text by highlighting some of the ways you depart from Verne's story, but I wanted to ask about your process of deciding where to stay faithful, and where to do something different.

AS: One of my difficulties was to create a work that is inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not a copy of it. I think the divergence comes from melding the Verne story with the world of The Hunchback Assignments. That certainly pushed the story in different directions than if I had followed the course of the original novel--after all Modo is quite different than Professor Arronax and brings with him this whole other world of espionage, his "love" life, and his disfigurement. And, of course, he is in conflict with the Clockwork Guild, so the presence of that organization also affects the storyline. Also, my book is intended for young adults, so there isn't very much "time" to examine all the scientific tidbits that Verne so loved. I really just wanted to capture the feel of the Verne novel, which I hope I've achieved.

SS: You've certainly achieved the adventure "feel" of the Leagues without Verne's scientific "info-dumps", which many modern readers find cumbersome anyhow! That's one of the strengths of The Dark Deeps, as I think this interview demonstrates: on the surface, The Dark Deeps is an engaging steampunk adventure story with elements of humour and romance. Beneath that veneer, in the deeps between the lines, it's a treasure trove of signposts leading to classic monster movies and literary masterpieces.

As with other stops along the way, Steampunk Scholar was provided with two ARC copies of Arthur Slade's The Dark Deeps: Volume 2 of the Hunchback Assignments to give away to my readers. To enter, simply leave a comment about your favorite classic monster, and why you love them: Dracula? Frankenstein's Monster? The Phantom of the Opera? Even though I know it's been awhile since Jason and Freddy stepped onto the horror stage, they don't count! It's got to be from pre-1960, film or text. I'll put all the entries into a hat and let y'all know who won next Thursday!

Other Stops on Arthur Slade's Blog Tour:
Friday, September 17 -
Saturday September 18 - Cynsations - how to put steam in steampunk
Sunday, September 19 - Free the Princess - Matt Delman's Interview w. Arthur Slade
Monday, September 20 - STEAMED! - Book Trailers
Tuesday, September 21 - Steampunk Tribune - Creating Steampunk Villains
Wednesday, September 22 - Suvudu: The Hunchback Assignments' "Soundtrack" (Great post!)
Friday, September 24 - Through the Looking Glass 

Sep 21, 2010

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne: Part II, Chapters 8-14

Despite a stack of review books begging to be read, lesson plans laying unfinished, and a secret project deadline that looms large, I'm doggedly committed to keeping this month about Verne...(NOTE TO SELF - next year, September is going to be a month off...)

The first big reveal of 20KL is that the monster is no creature at all, but a man-made submarine far beyond the technological limitations of Verne's day. Yet this revelation is not entire, as Aronnax and his companions are quickly ushered into a dark cell within the ship. Verne maintains mastery of unveiling his mysteries. I can imagine that schoolyard conversations amongst his first readers amounted to the same type I engaged with friends in, speculating on whether Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker's father, or modern forums devoted to television series like Lost are filled with conjectures about "what's really going on." What manner of ship have they found themselves on?

The illustrations on both of these slides are by Pablo Marcos studios, from an Illustrated Classic Editions version of 20KL I picked up from a used bookstore. While it isn't an exact replica, they are the same illustrations that filled the pages of the first edition of the book I ever owned. The cover of my current copy is different from the one I owned as a child, but I was pleased to note that Aronnax isn't rendered as an old man, and surprised at how much of the text this children's adaptation by Malvina G. Vogel covers. I utilize these illustrations in my lectures to bring attention to how Verne is primarily perceived as a "boy's adventure" writer in North America, again owing to the poor translations of 20KL. I have even had students tell me their parents are concerned they aren't studying "real literature" when they reveal the textbooks their English professor has assigned them.

Verne's next reveal introduces the character of Captain Nemo, who will remain enigmatic beyond the close of the book. Even once Verne has revealed the nature of the submarine vessel, the origin and mission of its captain will stay hidden. Brüno's spare black and white illustration is a masterful visual of how Nemo remains metaphorically in shadow. While Nemo promises to reveal the depths of the ocean floor to Aronnax, there is much he keeps hidden beneath his own surface.

While I consider Disney's version of 20KL a classic, this is one of my biggest beefs with their storytelling decisions. Echoing James Maertens's complaints in "Between Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Brains, Brawn, and Masculine Desire in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," the idea that Aronnax and his companions can so nonchalantly walk on board The Nautilus while Nemo and what seems to be his entire crew are busy conducting a funeral strikes me as ridiculous. Nemo is caught with his pants down, or in this case, his hatches open. Maertens's argument centers on how Disney repeatedly undermines Nemo's brilliance by presenting Ned Land as an antagonist, and turning the narrative into The Great Escape Under the Sea. It's a wonderful piece of scholarship on 20KL.

Verne's reveal of the Nautilus demonstrates his mastery of delivering didactic detail without sacrificing narrative content. Even as Verne catalogues the Nautilus's seafood delights, and the masterful use of the ocean's resources to produce clothing, perfume, pens, ink, and even cigars (I was most pleased to find that Captain Nemo shares my love for a good cigar, and am eagerly awaiting some enterprising steampunk tobacco aficionado's line of seaweed cigars), he reveals the extent of Nemo's separation from the surface world.  

The library serves to underscore this even further, while engaging in one of Verne's many lists to establish verisimilitude. Even while the reader would be coming to terms with this fantastic underwater vehicle, Verne inserts reminders that this takes place in a 'real' world, not one of pure fantasy. Among Nemo's 12,000 volumes under the sea, Verne lists "Homer and Victor Hugo" among "masterpieces both ancient and modern" (72). One of Miller and Walter's footnotes relate how "Madame Sand" was a colleague of Verne's, a French romantic novelist who encouraged Verne to "take us into the depths of the sea, making your characters travel in diving equipment perfected by your science and your imagination," causing French scholars to conclude she likely inspired 20KL.  

Likewise, the "thirty pictures by the masters" are listed so an exploration via Google Image could help a modern reader to imagine the sorts of images Nemo has chosen to adorn the walls of his salon. I've not had time to investigate these artworks in depth, and so have not speculated whether they were chosen by Verne as a character reveal, or simply as representative of Verne's own artistic tastes. This is definitely one of the moments that undermines Verne's later choice for Nemo's heritage, since the art is all European. It is more likely a demonstration of the original intention for Nemo's background as a Polish aristocrat seeking revenge against Russia, a decision censored by Verne's publisher, Pierre Hetzel. Nevertheless, between the listing of books and art, a young French reader may have been inspired to reading or viewing of classics, depending on their proximity and accessibility to a museum or library. I can't help but again make a comparison to Arthur Slade's Hunchback Assignments, which maintain this intertextual cataloging through a protagonist who loves literature.

From food to art to literature and onto the technical details of navigation, Verne reveals the wonders of the Nautilus, all the while teaching his readers, so that a number of children's books about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea contain diagrams and photographs further illuminating the facts Verne can only briefly touch upon. The images of the Compass and Barometer featured in the following slide are scanned from Deluxe Classics 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which features both an adaptation of the story as well as numerous side-bard illustrations and captions. Another fantastic edition sharing this approach is Oceanology: The True Account of the Voyage of the Nautilus, with its gorgeous "Ologies" elements of envelopes containing letters, holographic images, intricate charts, and antique-style maps.

Both books contain cut-away schematic diagrams of the Nautilus, joining a long list of artists' renditions of Nemo's amazing vessel. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus for the 1954 Disney film version of 20KL might well be one of the greatest inspirations for the steampunk aesthetic. It also stands as one of the greatest inspirations for artists looking to submit their own spin on the Nautilus' design. Take a look through the wonderful list of Nautilus designs at the Catalog of Nautilus designs, which limits its content to ships that don't depart drastically from Verne's vision (as in the case of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). You can see in the following slide how the designs have progressed from the cigar-like cylinder of the book to a mix of highly functional, or exceedingly stylized versions.

Finally, unless the truly devoted reader of Verne's texts takes the time to peruse the image database at Zvi Har'El's excellent website of all-things-Verne, they'd miss the opportunity original readers had in puzzling out those "info-dumps" of sea-life classification. Take a look at the first slide, which shows the image the Naval Institute edition includes, and then check out the second slide of a labeled drawing, which would have enabled readers to match up the sea-life with the text's descriptions. For Verne's first readers, these illustrations were a window into an underwater world beyond their means of exploration. In a post-Cousteau world, we may be too jaded to appreciate the value of these drawings. My recommendation to modern readers is to take those labeled versions, and once again play with Google Image. The second slide has a collage of my own image search. We have the opportunity to take a similar journey in ways even Verne didn't dream of. Let's not take that for granted. Think of it as homework for next 'lecture'!

Sep 15, 2010

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne: Part I, Chapters 1-7

While September is devoted entirely to Jules Verne and steampunk, the sheer volume of the man's work precludes looking at his writing beyond the most popularly known novels. My research over the past two years has demonstrated repeatedly that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the work most steampunks reference when speaking about Verne as proto-steampunk. I'm in agreement with Greg Bear, who speculated that the steampunk aesthetic really began with Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus in the 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Eaton SF conference 2009). As I'll discuss further in the Verne at the movies post, I'm dubious about how much direct influence one can draw between Verne's actual texts and steampunk. Instead, I'm of the opinion that the glut of cinematic adaptations and knock-offs are the source of many steampunk fans' perceptions of Verne's works, in much the same way we currently see people's perceptions of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novel coloured by Peter Jackson's film versions.

Additionally, the steampunk works I'm looking at in relation to Verne (The Dark Deeps, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Secret Sea) draw from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (20KL), with the exception of the wonderfully whimsical "Selene Gardening Society," which plays off From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel, Around the Moon. There are steampunk works which reference Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but 20KL remains a steampunk favorite. Accordingly, to start off our month with Jules Verne, I present a brief synopsis and analysis of 20KL, along with the slides I use when teaching it, to give readers who have either never read 20KL a better idea of its actual plot (so often butchered in the film adapations), or to converse with readers familiar with the material about the novel's thematic elements: spoilers abound. While I had originally intended to talk about the original book, the films, and some graphic adaptations separately, I found once I got into my writing that it was easier to talk about all of them in tandem.

Before getting into the novel, I think it's essential to inform new readers about why they're going to meet with odd looks from literary aficionados in North America. One of my students remarked that her father had dismissively told her Verne wasn't literature, which concerned her, and allowed me to explain that misconception. Verne was French, which also surprises English readers from time-to-time, and accordingly his works were translated for consumption in other countries. Verne is one of the most-translated authors of the nineteenth century. However, quantity didn't guarantee quality, and many of his books were very poortly translated. 20KL is an especially interesting study of the vagaries of translation, since it wasn't simply bad translation, but censorship that sullied Verne's reputation. One of the best articles on the subject of the problems of translation is Arthur B. Evans's "Jules Verne's English Translations," while his "Bibliography of Jules Verne's English Translations" will help you separate the good from the bad. My favorite version of the text is Naval Institute Press's Completely Restored and Annotated Edition, translated by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter. It's a lovely book filled with great footnotes that enlarge one's experience of reading 20KL. It can be found online as well, sans footnotes.

Many are familiar with the novel's opening, which is brilliant, considering the original cover. Most modern 20KL covers unfortunately give the game away immediately, a move made under the erroneous impression that everyone knows the identity of the monster of the opening chapters. As time goes by without a decent cinematic version of 20KL, an entire generation is growing up with knowledge of the title, but little idea what the book is actually about. When I taught 20KL for the first time last fall, I was surprised at how many of my students didn't know the book was about a submarine: a few were even disappointed at Verne's reveal of the monster as a man-made underwater vehicle, which gave me a fresh insight into the original cover. You have to work hard to find the men in diving suits. The rest just leads the reader down the path of misdirection Verne engages in for the first seven chapters.

I've used a number of sources for my slides, and the above faux newspaper frontpage is from Gary Gianni's brilliant graphic adaptation of 20KL. If you're looking for a faithful and largely comprehensive graphic  adaptation of the text, Gianni's version cannot be beat. Here, he visually captures the mystery of Verne's opening chapters. The opening of 20KL is the first of many progressive slow-reveals Verne engages in: first, in identifying the "monster," and then in revealing the inside of the Nautilus, then finally, in revealing Nemo's mission and to some degree, his character. Of course, this is more than artistic skill: 20KL was originally published periodically, in magazine installments. Accordingly, many of the chapters end with a cliff-hanger, or a question to be answered. Where Verne shines above other serial-writers is that he strings out larger mysteries over the episodes, in the fashion popular television shows string their viewers along. I actually think 20KL would make a great season of television (sadly, it's mostly inspired abysmal made-for-TV movies).

More of Gianni's art - a two-page splash of the Scotia being struck by "the monster." This is a key moment in the opening chapter for many reasons, not least of which is that Verne references a real ship: and not just any ship, but a vessel of the Cunard line. As Verne puts it, "There is no one alive who has not heard of the celebrated English ship-owner Cunard" (7). Verne is already dropping clues to later mysteries, by revealing that "the Scotia had not struck, she had been struck, and seemingly by something not blunt but sharp and penetrating" (9). This initially seems like intent, but Nemo will later reveal this was an accident, a moment I playfully find rather dubious. My own recursive fantasy of this is that Nemo was seeking to cripple trans-Atlantic mail communication, but I say that tongue-in-cheek, in the same way I think Neil Gaiman intends when he says he can prove Dr. Seward is Dracula using Stoker's words!

Yet there's more to the attack on the Scotia than its British origins. Miller and Walter note that the Scotia held the record for running from "New York to Liverpool in 8 days, 22 hours" (7). demonstrating the speed of the Nautilus as matching or exceeding the speed of the fastest steamship of the day. I think its also noteworthy to remember that Verne was fond of referencing real-world figures and vessels, which makes him more analogous to techno-thriller writers like Michael Crichton than SF or steampunk writers.

The point at which the novel's narrator, Professor Aronnax, reveals himself to the reader is what caused Walter Miller to first think about an updated translation, since the poor translations erroneously state that Aronnax was "in the disagreeable lands of Nebraska," as though the good professor hated the Great Plains. What it should actually say is that he was in "the Nebraska badlands" (11). It's moments like these that have lead North American scholars to dismiss Verne as boys' adventure writing. Further, in chapter three we are introduced to Aronnax's manservant Conseil, whose only fault was utter formality, so that he "never spoke to me except in the third person, and to the point of aggravation" (18). This results in Conseil making statements like "Has master called for me?" rather than "Did you call?" However, poor translations used the pronouns in place of "master" or "monsieur," leading detractors to state that Verne couldn't write consistent characterizations.

 Aronnax is a brilliant man of science, the author of The Mysteries of the Great Ocean Depths, and unlike his portrayal in Disney's film version and later by Richard Crenna, is only forty years old. The above illustration of him was modeled on Verne. The atrocious made-for-TV version featuring Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey portrays him both as younger and far less competent, being forced to argue his theories about the sea monster rather than respected enough to warrant an invitation, in a typical pop-film idea of what passes for a character arc, or drama. I'm often chagrined at filmmakers (and a scholar or two) who state that Verne couldn't write compelling characters. The relationship between the four men of 20KL has much room for complexity without adding pop-psych elements, like the Dempsey-Aronnax's issues with his father, which create an excuse for his admiration for Nemo.

Once Aronnax and Conseil set out aboard the steamship Abraham Lincoln in search of the "monster", they are introduced to master harpooner and Canadian, Ned Land. I was amused as an adult to read Ned's heritage, since modern perceptions of Canadians are far from the robust, frontiersmen-like aspect Ned strikes. The casting of Ned Land in film versions of 20KL is an interesting commentary on the character and the development of the Canadian stereotype. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Canada was still a vast, untamed frontier - so to have a "manly-man" like Ned Land hail from the Great White North made sense. Kirk Douglas's performance as Ned in the Disney version is more happy-go-lucky than the Ned of Verne's 2KL, but he is a far cry from Canadian Peter Gross's pretty-boy in 1997, the same year Australian Bryan Brown played Ned in the McDreamy version. Brown's portrayal is truer to Verne's Land, but was undercut by the inclusion of an African-American character Cabe Attucks, which was sheer racial tokenism, as the character, intended to replace Conseil, actually ended up mirroring Ned Land as a second man-of-action in the storyline. To be cliche, there ain't room aboard this ship for two men like that. Ned Land acts as the physical foil to the mental prowess of Nemo, and adding another such character turns the tale into a cheap adventure story, which contrary to popular perception, it is not. I will add here that I love reading Ned Land as a French-Canadian, since lines like "Open up there, you antisocial navigators!" sound way funnier when you give them a stereotypical French-Canadian accent.

In the above image, you'll see the original art of Ned Land, as well as the wonderful cartoony line drawing by French artist Brüno in his magnificent Nemo, available both as a four-part series in colour, or as a single volume in black-and-white. While Brüno does make some significant digressions from Verne, he seems to be playing off the tradition of 20KL in both print and film, rather than seeking to adapt the original work. His Ned Land is my favorite rendering, a symbol of physical might defined with spartan line art. Below, observe the stylistic differences in approach between Brüno's modern automatic weapon on the deck of the Abraham-Lincoln-as-battleship, and Gianni's historically accurate cannon-fire.

The Abraham Lincoln's chase ends with its crippling by the monster. Here again I must stress that many modern readers are unfamiliar with 20KL, and that covers that show the Nautilus, or children's versions which render the image of it early on as clearly  man-made ruin the surprise Verne has worked so hard to deliver to his readers (ostensibly, so have I in this post, but I'm not putting out a new edition of 20KL. One has to anticipate spoilers in commentary). I think the assumption readers will know its a submarine is a false one, a theory my reading of Arthur Slade's The Dark Deeps: The Hunchback Assignments Volume 2 seems to corroborate. Slade's pastiche of elements from 20KL does not assume readers are familiar with Verne's text. Instead, he almost seems to be seeking to write a new version of 20KL for modern readers, and approaches it with the same slow reveal process that Verne does, while simultaneously adding new twists for old Verne fans like myself.

I will digress for a moment to highlight Conseil, who is both comedy relief as well as deliverer of scientific exposition, and foil to both Aronnax and Ned Land. He is like some sort of middle-child, even though he is younger than both the other men, seeking always to be agreeable. The reader sees clearly what kind of man Conseil is when Aronnax is thrown into the sea, a moment that has never been capture well in film versions: Peter Lorre's Conseil panics often, and seems conflicted about the decision to go into the drink after his master, while in both 1997 versions, he has been replaced: in one, by Aronnax's daughter (the better to have a love-triangle between Ned Land and Nemo, my dear), in the other, by the aforementioned freed slave Cabe Attucks. When I have asked students to "cast" 20KL, they are challenged most by Conseil, which strikes me as a commentary on how often we see a loyal, faithful servant and friend portrayed in modern film (students almost always resort to Sean Astin as Sam in Peter Jackson's LOTR). Conseil's unhesitating leap into the Pacific to help his master stay afloat is a defining moment for his character, especially when he replies to Aronnax's panicked calls with "Did master ring for me?" as though he were in the parlour, instead of swimming in the middle of the ocean, likely to drown.

Keeping in mind that Verne's original readers experienced 20KL as a serial, we should tip our hats to Verne for his next move. He reveals the secret of the monster as a man-made submarine vessel, only to have "eight strapping fellows, with faces masked" emerge "quietly" and drag Aronnax and his companions "down into their formidable machine" (49). This is ultimately why I think 20KL would make a wonderful television series, since it works off the same tensions of stringing out mysteries and resolving them, only to introduce new ones, that many of today's television series work from. It is on this mysterious note that our first "lesson" on 20KL ends. If you're reading along, make sure and have chapters 8-14 ready for next class! ;)

Huge props to Adam's Wallpapers, home of the animated steampunk book I used for these slides. I have no idea if Adam made it, but if he did, it's pure awesome.
There was an error in this gadget

My Blog List