DC Comics / Vertigo Comics
(a) Dave Gibbons
BW, 160 pgs, $24.95 US / Higher in Canada
As a graphic novel both written and illustrated by comic book veteran Dave Gibbons, The Originals can be appreciated on a number of levels. First and foremost, it’s a testament to Gibbons’ skill as a storyteller, told through a concise narrative and stylized black and white layouts. Looking beyond the book’s pages, it’s also a semi-autobiographical tribute to Mod culture, a personal story fueled by the creator’s adolescent memories and passion for the subject matter. When it comes down to the actual story, however, Gibbons relies a bit too heavily on contextual relevance, and without prior knowledge of his background, The Originals is a typical coming-of-age story that has a hard time living up to its name.
Lel is fresh out of school, and full of unfounded resentment toward the world around him. Detesting the idea of conformity, his only goal in life is to join The Originals, an elite hover scooter gang that epitomizes style and exclusivity. Before long, Lel and his best friend Bok are part of the in-crowd– popping pills, buying expensive clothes and hitting the clubs with the coolest kids in town. Being at the top of the social hierarchy is a precarious position, however, and when Lel gets in over his head, he risks losing his friends, his girl, and even his life.
It’s a simple story, and one that makes The Originals somewhat predictable. A kid fights his way to the top, joins an exclusive group and lives the high life, gets blinded by pride and loses sight of what’s truly important, takes a fall, and the people around him get hurt along the way. It’s basically Goodfellas meets The Outsiders with just a touch of after-school-special. Even forgiving the lack of innovation, Lel doesn’t make for a very likable or even interesting character. He’s arrogant, pretentious, self-absorbed and antagonistic, and his only discernable motivation is in being an Original. The idea of eschewing conformity by conforming to a gang that dresses exactly alike is silly in its own right, and while I realize that’s sort of the point, as well as a reflection on the subculture, it certainly didn’t provoke any sympathy for the character. As a result, when Lel finally falls from grace, I was left feeling that he didn’t fall nearly far enough.
The real strength behind The Originals lies in its presentation. This is a graphic novel written by an artist, and every page showcases Gibbons’ mastery of the medium. Two-page spreads and splash pages are mixed with simple comic strip layouts, while clean line work, wide black margins and negative space are used to their fullest advantage. Adjacent pages are connected by location or conversation, echoing each other and creating a sense of symmetry throughout the book — told entirely in black and white, The Originals is a visual work of art. The strength of the artwork almost alleviates the need for a written narrative, but Gibbons’ writing skills are nearly as noteworthy as his pencils. Light on dialogue and narration, the story reads fast and slick, with as much style and British vibe as the culture he idolizes.
It wasn’t until well after I finished this book that I began to appreciate it. That’s when I read Gibbons’ introduction, as well as an interview with the creator. Amongst the angst, f-bombs and routine storyline, Gibbons has a very real attachment to this project, based on his own life growing up as a young Mod in London. He rode an expensive scooter, partied in the coolest clubs and wore all the trendiest imported fashions. Knowing more about the man made his work stand out as a meaningful and resonant retelling of his own life. It suddenly made sense that he handled all of the creative duties himself, and that he created his own retro-futuristic setting rather than directly recounting his experiences. Like a Jackson Pollack painting, The Originals reaches its true potential only when you know the story of the person who created it. Still, it’s hard to ignore the story’s shortcomings when you’re forced to separate the art from the artist. (Dave Brennan)