Jazan Wild's Carnival of Souls (2005)
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Publication Date: October 2005 - Ongoing
Country: United Kingdom
Jazan Wild's Carnival of Souls #1
Awhile back, I went to my Friendly Local Comics Shop early on new-comics day, which meant that I got to pull my own box for the comics that had just come in that day. After I'd gone through the stacks piled across the countertops and nabbed copies of all the books I normally read, a cover at the end of the row, among the independent-publisher comics, caught my eye.
Two tigers prowled down from the top of the cover, flanking the figure in the centre: a long-haired man, crouching, his bare limbs striped with scars and his eyes glowing the same eerie green as the tigers'.
Intrigued, I picked it up, flipped through, then went back and read the first few pages to get a feel for the storytelling as well as for the art and the story's scope. And the story it tells is layered with mythology both ancient and modern, archetypes familiar to comics and pulp readers as well as someone who's never picked up either, all syncretised in a fascinatingly original way. To call CARNIVAL OF SOULS one part Batman, one part It, one part Pinocchio, one part The Jungle Book and one part Tarzan would imply, wrongly, that it is derivative or jumbled -- though fans of any of those other works will probably see elements this book shares with the others.
Jazan Wild is the name of both the character whose story is told in issue #1 and the man whose imagination spawned the Carnival of Souls concept, credited for "creator / story" on the title page. The scripter is Stephan Petrucha, and the art (both pencils and inks) is by Kevin Conrad, with colourists Jonathan Glapion and Dan Kemp. The same art team produced both the cover and the interiour art, which I find is especially helpful with new comics featuring unfamiliar characters; most everyone recognises Superman or Spiderman, whether they're drawn by Jim Lee, Scott McDaniel, Frank Quitely or Alex Ross, but it really helps an unfamiliar character design to have consistent portayal until a sense of who the character is has been established in the reader's mind.
As the comic opens with young Jazan is arriving with his mother at his very first carnival. Already, just on page one, Petrucha's script is giving us a number of the key elements of CARNIVAL OF SOULS: the freak show, including a stilt-walker and a hugely-muscled strongman; the Ferris wheel, which is one of a number of metaphors in the book for shifting perspective in ways that can feel, and be, at once both safe and dangerous; the conflation of the place/event of a carnival with the state of dreaming, complete with reference to Freudian psychology; and that creepy, creepy clown. The way the phrase "the inner wild!" explodes out of the narrative box, BO-O-OM, KA-POW, is somewhere on the edge between tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top, but if nothing else it's consistent with the intensity of the book's story and art style.
The clown is only more disturbing close up, and as he interacts at greater length with little Jazan. The art makes the boy almost a caricature of youthful innocence and enthusiasm, wide-eyed, beaming, sprinkled with Jimmy Olsen freckles. Young Jazan seems almost over-inflated with enthusiasm, his face composed of rounded shapes that seem stretched to their limits, as if he's a balloon that might burst from excitement. And speaking of balloons, Conrad's pen and pencil deftly gave even the actual helium-filled ones subtly sinister detail.
Jazan's narration tells us, "We raced from the bright lights, through muddy puddles, from one dream..." and continues on the following page, of course, "...into another": the plane ride back home. Jazan's mother had brought him across south Asia by charter flight just for the carnival. Even more than the clown-faced nemesis, here enters the most striking parallel between Jazan and the Batman archetype. The young son wants nothing more to go to a special event featuring a costumed character or characters he idolises, which event he and his doting parent(s) attend together; but on their way home again, the boy can only watch in helpless horror as his parent(s) die* before him, a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, circumstances brought about by his desire to see the performance that night; and that same evening, stunned by the trauma of being newly orphaned, the boy believes he is changed into something other, something more than he was, still human yet connected to something primal -- fearsome and animal -- by the night's events.
A parallel is drawn between Jazan and his mother, and two tiger cubs and their mother in the jungle below the plane's flight path on that fateful night. Jazan's narration tells us, "It's an animal thing, feeling safe with your mother. Biology compels a sense of serenity. Human or dog, cat or tiger. You think nothing can ever go wrong." And even as the storm rages and the plane's engines fail, a stereotypical, no, an archetypal Great White Hunter stalks the mother tiger.
In the midst of their incomprehensible loss, the cubs and the human boy find one another. But when they slip, exhausted, from consciousness, something else finds them. Is it really the carnival clown, or merely a representation of Jazan's unconscious? Did human and tiger blood mix, and could that make any difference? Especially if it's true, as the Hunter says (oh, we haven't seen the last of the Great White Hunter, not at all) that there is "big magic in children's bones" or that, as Jazan opines, he died that night? The comic doesn't answer those questions, not really; but that's no more a failure than the unanswered questions of how magic beans could grow into a beanstalk that reached to a realm of giants, or how a child with a bull's head could be born to a human mother so that he could guard that labyrinth in the first place.
The waking and dream worlds run together like the colours on a chalk drawing when it rains, and the three orphans grow up together. Like a dream, the story continues to move in cycles and spirals among symbolic and archetypal characters and events. How much of his life is "real" Jazan himself doesn't know. He snarls accusingly, at one point, "You surround yourself with skins, masks, surfaces, because you can't deal with what you are!" -- but we wonder who he means to throw those words at. The carnival freak show is always present in Jazan's dreams, however, waking and otherwise, and it shouldn't be a surprise when he returns to that shifting place in reality.
Since I only have the thumbnail-sized version of these last couple of pages available, here's how the text on these pages reads.
Panel 1: (narration) As the wagons creaked away, I heard Tara's voice. In another life, I might have thought it was just a dream... (speech bubble) Jazan! Wait! Wait! (narration) But that was before I realized I was the dream.
Panel 2: (narration) And dreams are just liked carnivals -- bright, exciting. (narration) If you don't look too close, you won't see the blood on the tickets.
Panel 3: (narration) Or the stilts holding up the world's tallest man...
Panel 4: (narration) Or the bruises on the strongman.
Panel 5: (narration) Here is the future...
Panel 6: (narration) Here is the past...
Panel 7: (narration) Garish and lively and naked to the bone.
Panel 8: (speech bubble) Pssst! (speech bubble) C'mere! Don't worry, kid, it can't hurt you! Not really! (speech bubble) And I'm about to show you the greatest act in the greatest show... fifteen years in the making...
Apparently, according to markosia.com / markosia.org.uk, CARNIVAL OF SOULS is going to be an ongoing bi-monthly series, which means issue #2 would be due to hit stores around New Years (#1 was released to coincide with Halloween). There's an excellent chance I'll buy the next issue, too, and add this title to my pull-list. But issue #1 works very well as a stand-alone story, to the point that I figured it was a one-shot comic until I read up on future plans at the publisher's website.
I can't help but be intrigued, however, by the idea of learning more about the other denizens of the freakshow, as interviews with the CARNIVAL OF SOULS creative team suggest their stories will be told in forthcoming issues. There's also a music CD being co-released with the comic. The "real" Jazan Wild is apparently a musician, heavily influenced by KISS, but I have a hard time dismissing CARNIVAL OF SOULS as "just" a tie-in or a marketing product; the efforts of Petrucha, Conrad and the rest of the creative team have produced a work of serial art that can easily stand on its own, particularly in the richness of the story it tells -- which is precisely where a promotional vehicle would be expected to ring hollow.
*Jazan's mother probably is dead, between the crash and her unscheduled bath, but some ambiguity later in the issue suggests that, in this title, it's unwise to count anyone deceased until their corpse has been disposed of -- and possibly not even then.
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Number of issues cataloged: 5