Thursday, April 1, 2010


For Your Consideration: Scott Morse’s The Barefoot Serpent
By Chris Beckett
FRONT PAGE: Scott Morse is one of the most talented artists working in comics today and many of his creations are contemporary classics. One of his most experimental and ambitious graphic novels is The Barefoot Serpent published by Top Shelf. An amazing piece of art that rewards its audience with each subsequent reading, this is an important book that belongs on everyone’s shelf.
The 411:
Written & Drawn by Scott Morse
128 pages, $14.95
Full color & black and white with grey tones
What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):
Scott Morse is an amazingly talented artist, and in over a decade of creating comics, he has amassed an impressive body of work. One of his most ambitious projects came in 2003 when Top Shelf published The Barefoot Serpent. A unique graphic novel that combines a biography of Akira Kurosawa with a tale of a young girl’s family vacation on Hawaii, this creation is an important step in the evolution of comic storytelling. Rather than presenting these two stories separately as a typical collection, Morse combines them into a single piece. The tale of the haole girl (a term for white children in Hawaiian) rests in the middle of this book while the Kurosawa biography bookends it. To better differentiate these two narratives, Morse paints the biography with lush, vibrant colors formatting it as a children’s picture book while telling the Hawaiian tale as a black and white comic, albeit with Morse’s very individualistic comic book stylings. On the surface, these two stories seem to have little in common other than their settings falling within the greater Pacific Ocean, but a closer reading of The Barefoot Serpent shows that the fusion of these two tales actually proves the cliché of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”
Akira Kurosawa is a legendary filmmaker, having garnered tremendous critical praise and won multiple awards for films like Rashomon, Yojimbo, and The Seven Samurai. Despite his achievements, Kurosawa’s life was not easy, and even his success within the film industry was never assured. Kurosawa experienced terrible grief as a young man when his brother Heigo committed suicide. This weighed heavily on Akira, and he felt it imperative that he be successful and make his parents proud. He did not wish to suck them dry as they supported him in his creative aspirations.
Kurosawa eventually realized his dream of directing films and earned a reputation as a very precise filmmaker, and in 1951 his movie Rashomon received the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival. But fame is fleeting, and when Kurosawa joined with three other filmmakers – naming themselves The Four Knights – Akira made their first film. It was a disaster, and like his brother Heigo, he too attempted suicide. Luckily, his son found him and, along with Akira’s wife and daughter, nursed him back to health. Eventually, Kurosawa returned to moviemaking. Epitomizing the hope that was often found in his characters, Kurosawa went on to a long, prosperous life that was filled with great triumphs of artistic merit. Even today, Akira Kurosawa is considered by many film scholars to be one of the top two or three movie directors ever. His movies are instilled with a vibrancy and humanity that is almost unmatched by any other filmmaker’s, and the legacy he has left will live on for many years.
Settled between either end of this biography is the story of the young haole girl. As her Dad sits on the beach drinking Mai Tais and her mother goes off on her own, the girl must fend for herself and embarks upon her own excursion. Coming across a young boy carving a wooden mask, she latches onto him and discovers a reluctant guide. The boy complains loudly, and is chastised by his mother and uncle for his rude behavior, but the two kids eventually warm to one another as a friendship blossoms – one that the little girl needed.
The girl and her family ventured to this tropical paradise in order to escape the dark cloud hanging over them. Unwilling to speak about the tragedy they experienced, they choose to ignore their feelings hoping they might dissolve in the Hawaiian surf. But instead of distractions, the family finds themselves surrounded by their grief. In one part of the island, the mother encounters a dog that ignored one puppy as it walked in front of a moving car and her other pup as it starved to death. On the beach, the girl’s father awakes to an artist asking where his son – which he was painting as he stood beside the sleeping man – ran off to. And the young girl receives a visit from the Night Marchers, ancient spirits that walk the island. The second time the girl encounters the marchers she recognizes one of them as her dead brother. He took his own life, leaving the rest of his family with nothing but questions and a necessity to continue with their lives.
Contrary to the simple animation style that is a signature of Scott Morse’s work, The Barefoot Serpent is a complex and challenging piece of graphic fiction both structurally and thematically. Weaving themes of depression, sorrow, and ultimately – hope – throughout each of the narratives, Morse creates a multi-layered book that is touching and heartfelt. Each narrative thread relates back to the main theme of the book, but Morse refuses to talk down to his audience. He is talented enough that many of the thematic reiterations are hidden upon an initial reading. But when one returns to the book, it becomes evident that those thematic elements were sitting there all along. It is a special book that allows for equal enjoyment upon returning to it, and a more rarefied piece of fiction that is able to expand upon that initial reading with subsequent ones. This is one of those books.
An Interview with Scott Morse:
Chris Beckett: When Akira Kurosawa's brother takes his own life in your book I had to go back and re-read that page a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. The matter-of-fact writing style you used coupled with your animation-influenced artwork made that particular part of the story very jarring, and consequently it resonated with me long afterward. Is this intentional on your part or is it a happy result of your particular art style juxtaposed with the stories you wish to tell?
Scott Morse: This was completely planned through the aesthetic of the whole book. I wanted the book to feel like a children's book, an old Golden Book, through both design and writing styles, to juxtapose the impact of the issues at hand. With such a heavy issue as depression, and ultimately suicide, at play, I felt it was best to ease the reader through it visually and through the prose. So aesthetically, the reader would feel more comfortable "talking" about it on one level, and experience it through a sort of "haze" on another, much the same way some people react when they're given bad news. The overall effect has proven to affect people as a very jarring experience, unexpected, as a sort of dream that continues to linger through into the bulk of the main fictional story, where it's juxtaposed with the family.

Beckett: What precipitated the choice of using color art for Kurosawa's tale and black and white for the haole girl's tale?
Scott Morse: I mixed it up to strengthen the juxtaposition. It's two stories that interrelate, and I wanted to show where the breaking points were, primarily, but on another level, I wanted to show the lush nature of real life versus the more theoretical "lessons" of the fictional tale. It's a stretch, I know, but aesthetically, I think it helped give the book a different tone than other books offered in the current market.

Beckett: Did you originally think the way in which you told this story, bookending the little girl's story with Kurosawa's tale, would work? Why, or why not?
Scott Morse: I had no idea...I knew it worked for me, and I was trained to believe in your gut instincts. "Selling" an idea of juxtaposition is always a trick, with the built-in problem of convincing the audience that the two subjects you're juxtaposing are at all related, especially to a degree that makes them worth the energy to use as examples. It comes down to a matter of opinion, and a hope that it wasn't too big of a leap for the audience to make. Upon reading various reviews, it appears to have worked on a larger scale than not...certain readers just didn't "get it", and in those cases, I hope the individual stories at least held enough entertainment value on their own to make the book worth it. If they at least enjoyed one of the sections (either the biography or the fiction), then I was at least partially successful.

Beckett: The story of the haole girl is quite intricate, and you reiterate the main theme through what might appear to be tangential incidents when we are introduced to the little dog at the shave ice hut or when we are shown the pond that would not give up its dead. Did you know the whole story of the haole girl before you began drawing it or do you just go with a vague idea and see where that takes you?
Scott Morse: I knew most of it, but certain "acting" scenes kind of wrote themselves. The one scene I surprised myself with is at the end, when the little girl kicks sand on her Dad's feet. Having things like that just "happen" while I'm thumbnailing is the real joy for me. The scenes you pointed out, however, were calculated, and based on research done in Hawaii. Ilio Mai is a real dog living half of each year on Maui, though Ilio Mai's story is fiction. The pond is a reflection of a story my wife and I heard on the Napali Coast of Kauai while visiting an archaeological dig in an Ali'i (royal) bath area, on the beach. Apparently, some archaeologists had discovered a gravesite in this area and exhumed the bones, only to experience hauntings almost instantaneously. They brought the bones back and reburied them, bringing in someone to bless them. The hauntings stopped. This is an especially odd tale seeing as how the Hawaiians never buried their it's unknown whose bones these could have been. The dig took place in 2000, and the bones were never dated, due to the immediate hauntings and need to put them back.

Beckett: What prompted you to adopt the "animation" style you have and how did that develop?
Scott Morse: Well, I've worked in animation longer than comics, actually. I trained at CalArts, and later under Maurice Noble, who worked on the first five Disney features, was Chuck Jones's main designer and art director on his Looney Tunes films, and designed other classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Dot and the Line. Maurice's teachings shine through in most of my work. I find the style lends itself better to immediate communication of story than some other, more intricate, styles. This medium is all about communication, and I play with pacing quite a bit in my comics. Animation and film are shown at a fixed rate of speed, whereas comics allow you to linger on still images if you wish. To keep a story flowing and "trick" the reader into experiencing it at an intended rate of speed is a trick I love playing with. So, the simpler the drawing, the less likely a reader is going to linger while reading...but appeal in the drawings is still incredibly important. It's a tough line to walk...

Beckett: Who are some of the artists and storytellers that have influenced you?
Scott Morse: I try to pull influence from everything around wife, my pets, my family and friends, places I visit, things I see. I was trained to base what I do on real life, to exaggerate and milk things for effect. Artistically, I'm looking everywhere...but certain artists that I always come back to include Maurice Noble, of course, as well as Mary Blair, the Provensons, Miroslav Sasek, J.P. Miller, Eyvind Eyrle, Ronald Searle...David Mazzuchelli, Baru, J Muth, Joe Kubert, and of course Jack Kirby. I'm incredibly fond of a lot of the Fort Thunder guys, as well as guys like Souther Salazar and Deth P.Sun. Anything that challenges me to think in a new way.

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