January 26, 2011

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The Ray Bradbury Chronicles 1-3

Written by Ray Bradbury
Adapted by Various Creators, including Dave Gibbons, Bernard Krigstein, P. Craig Russell, Tim Truman, John Van Fleet, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood
Bantam

After a few frustrating reading sessions with Ray Bradbury, I figured I needed to see if it was the stories or the author that was the problem. Bradbury had been one of my favorite short story writers, and now I was starting to feel like maybe my taste had moved on.

A little while back, I picked up these comic adaptations and figured they were worth trying. I'd either enjoy them, and feel that I'd just hit a bad batch of writing from a creator I like or I'd find them to be mediocre and just move on.

So which was it?

The truth is a little bit complicated. I definitely liked these a lot better than the collection of new short stories, but after finishing all three together, I also came to realize that Bradbury may be an author that's best in small doses for me these days.

The problem with Bradbury is that since he is full of so many ideas, once you start reading too many of his tales together, its' clear that a pattern emerges--he doesn't really stop to polish or finish them. I tend to suspect Stephen King of the same thing. They get an idea, and plow on for however many pages the story requires to hit an ending, and bam, they're off to the publisher.

Bradbury actually confirms this, talking about how one story was written in two hours. Two hours. You don't stop to revise something that was written on a typewriter in two hours. It's just not possible. As a result, the quality is extremely uneven, a trait that bothered me a lot less in the past but comes to my mind now. Like King, the idea either hits or it misses. When it hits, it's amazing. When it misses, look out.

There are some definite hits in these collections. What I noticed was that my favorites are the ones that go outside of Bradbury's comfort zone while still keeping his general theme of the positives of life. Marionettes, Inc. (adapted by Ralph Reese) uses robots as a way to avoid the drudgery of life. What happens when that robot wants a life of its own? The results are predictable to anyone who reads fiction like this on a regular basis, but the way it's presented by Bradbury makes it stand out. Similarly, The Toynbee Convector (adapted by Ray Zone and Chuck Roblin) explores what happens when a man with a positive hope uses lies to get us to a better place.
But here's the thing. We get similar ideas in the stories Punishment Without Crime (adapted by Ralph Reese), also about a robot taking the place of a human, and A Piece of Wood (adapted by Mark Chiarello), also about making the world a better place through some deception. I liked those stories, too, but they echo just a bit too much of ones already adapted in this series. Was this a bias on the part of the editor or a sign that Bradbury repeats himself?

Though most of the stories here do feel comfortably familiar (sometimes too familiar), two stories in the third collection stand out as being darker than usual for Bradbury. The Aquaduct (adapted by Bruce Jensen)is about a city that relies on tragedy to keep it alive. In a telling introduction, Bradbury notes he's not even sure he likes the story! Similarly, the Veldt (adapted by Timothy Truman) has a rather gruesome end for absentee parents, though of course the theme of the need for family is vintage Bradbury.

Most of the other stories revolve around Mars or the wonders of space. They involve whimsy, nostalgia, and a general fear of losing the past. No matter how young he was when he wrote these stories, Bradbury always was an old man at heart. That may be part of why I liked him more in the past. As I've chosen to live more in the now, stories that revel in what was don't appeal to me the way they used to do.

I've spoken a lot about the content of the stories, but not as much about the adaptations themselves. They appear to be extremely faithful, based on the few I already know. Some use a lot of text boxes to incorporate Bradbury's prose, while others (usually the better ones) try to make things feel more like a running dialog. The editor clearly wanted people who mostly worked in the style of P. Craig Russell, as a lot of the art has the same feel--though obviously not the same skill--as his contribution. I like that a lot of them gave us an old-school splash page that hearkens back to the days of old pre-code horror comics (Dave Gibbons probably doing this the best of those who tried). John Van Fleet's adaptation is of course quite different, making it stand out from the rest. I love the pasted-on feel of his lettering.

Overall, the results are solid if unspectacular. It was a cool idea to include one EC adaptation in each volume, and Wally Wood's interpretation of There Will Come Soft Rains totally blows the modern one (by Lebbus Woods) out of the water. It's never a good idea to try and beat a master at their own game. Like Bradbury's prose, these adaptations tend to play it safe. I wish they'd gone for more variety, but given that Bradbury talks about how proud he is to collect the BC daily strip, I'm not sure a more challenging approach to his work would have been authorized.

For comics readers who are also fans of Bradbury, these are definitely worth seeking out, as they stay close to their source and have the same sense of wonder and whimsy, with the occasional dark edge. If you want your adaptations to be more radical, or find Bradbury boring, then this is not for you. In my case, with three sets of Bradbury stories in a little over a month, I'm probably okay with letting this author rest for a bit. I still enjoy the man's work, but not in the way I once did. Unlike Bradbury, I don't think we were better off in the past.