Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Crossing Midnight v2 – A Map of Midnight

Mike Carey, Jim Fern, Eric Nguyen, Mark Pennington
Vertigo (vertigocomics.com)

The second volume of Mike Carey’s Crossing Midnight is much like any other middle volume of a trilogy – hampered by its lack of a concrete beginning, frustrated by the need for unresolved tensions to roll over into the third and final act. Yet for all that, A Map of Midnight is excellently realised, rich in style and character, and about as self-contained as it’s possible to get under the circumstances.

The twins Toshi and Kai Hara, born either side of midnight and each possessed of their own strange destinies, left their parents’ home at the end of Crossing Midnight’s first volume: Toshi, whom no blade can harm, pressed into the service of the Kami Aratsu, Lord of Knives; her brother Kai, immune to magic, to find his sister and break Aratsu’s hold on her.

The first of two stories told in A Map of Midnight, and the one from which the volume takes its name, focuses on Toshi as she learns her place in the Kami’s palace… and learns that even a girl immune to blades has something to fear from the strange and supernatural creatures which populate mythic Tokyo. Not that she’s really Toshi Hara; Aratsu has cut her past and future away from her, leaving only a creature of the present which he calls Hasharito. With no memory of her brother or her parents, she walks the streets of Tokyo on her master’s business, collecting ‘impressions’ cut from the fabric of sleeping mortals’ dreams.

Hasharito isn’t the only power to be plying their trade in the neon darkness, though. When her ignorance and temper blend, she attacks a servant of the Gleaner, one of the five faces of Death, and has to learn that her actions can bear terrible consequences.

It’s in the volume’s second tale, Bedtime Stories, that Carey really excels himself. Dragged to Tokyo on his sister’s trail, Kai finds himself caught up in a series of grisly murders. Someone or something is killing off the enjokosai girls – teenagers whose youthfulness and innocence fulfil a popular fetish in Japanese culture. They offer their company – and sometimes more – in exchange for the designer clothes and high-tech goods they could never otherwise afford.

Bedtime Stories is dark, mature and beautiful – both in terms of the art and of the story. It benefits greatly from the addition of Loretta, one of the aforementioned enjokosai girls Kai encounters. While Kai himself is neither as strongly characterised nor as fundamentally interesting as his sister, Loretta is a spiky, vibrant bundle of contradictions and the way the two of them strike sparks off one another makes for fun and fascinating reading. The narrative they inhabit is equally engaging, deftly treading the line between full-on detective fable and a sensitive, often disturbing examination of innocence. It’s a story not just supported but actively enhanced by Eric Nguyen’s expressive, nuanced art; images filled with cinematic tricks. Off-kilter angles and unexpected framings put an unheimlich spin on conventional scenes, granting them an implicit wrongness far more effective than the overt supernaturalism of this volume’s first tale, A Map of Midnight. And it has its humour, too; Nguyen seems to poke fun at the conventions of Manga art by sneaking the reader up-skirt shots of Loretta every chance he gets, even as the narrative considers the moral implications of Japan’s cultural obsession with school-age girls. Funnier still is a marvellously surreal collaboration between writer and artist in which Loretta’s eerie, nursery rhyme-esque dream is invaded by ‘generic detectives from [her] left hind brain’ in full noir get-up, who arrest her for spoileriffic crimes.

If Bedtime Stories concerns itself with matters of sex and sexuality, the theme running through A Map of Midnight is equally mature. Toshi Hara’s jaunt through the weird night of mythic Tokyo could be interpreted as a crash-course in taking responsibility for your actions, as her rash hot-bloodedness lands her in one scrape after another. If this tale is less fulfilling than its companion, that’s mostly due to the inherent structural weakness of the narrative. A Map of Midnight feels more like a loosely connected series of anecdotes than a proper story, as Toshi drifts through the supernatural world in the service of her new master and blunders her way through one strange encounter after another. The world Carey is building here is a wonderful and surreal one, aided by inker Mark Pennington’s lush, even lurid colouring, but for a narrative primarily concerned with questions of responsibility A Map of Midnight seems to take the easy way out on more than one occasion. The blades of Aratsu’s court are intelligent, magical beings in their own right, and the scissors Toshi chooses – or more accurately which seem to choose her – are the smooth-talking definition of a deus ex machina. They provide the means or the magic to get Toshi out of one difficult situation after another, rather diluting the effectiveness of the ‘cause and consequence’ theme which seems such a central part of the tale.

Jim Fern’s pencilwork doesn’t help matters much either, sketching the city in clean, simplistic lines which fail to do its complexity justice. While Toshi does admittedly work during the darkest hours of night, the sheer emptiness of the streets – no cars, no people, no life – seems unlikely in any major city, never mind one with Tokyo’s neon reputation, and prevents the reader from feeling anything like an authentic sense of place.  Or a sense of time, come to that; despite the midnight of the story’s title, much of the action could be occurring on a sunny mid-afternoon. Given the effort Pennington spends on bringing such surreal lushness to the city’s supernatural denizens, this bland, almost greyscale rendering of night-time Tokyo seems a peculiar choice.

Failures of the artwork aside, the story does at the climax at least allow Toshi to deal with the consequences of her decisions without supernatural aid. That climax is well handled, coming across as exciting and tense as the seriousness of the challenge – and the consequences of further failure – give the narrative greater emotional weight. It’s short lived, however, as the story’s resolution again feels as if Toshi has been given too many chances; together with the hand-holding she received earlier, this cop-out undermines the apparent severity of her situation.

A Map of Midnight isn’t bad; it’s merely mediocre, and suffers from the pairing with such an excellent work as Bedtime Stories. Nonetheless this second volume of Crossing Midnight is worth picking up just for the latter tale, and to further the narrative begun in volume one’s strong opening. Second acts are often the weakest part of any story, redeemed by the third; hopefully volume three can deliver on that promise.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com