Alex Alice and The Terrorizing Scale of Beauty

Siegfried is a comic book adaption by Alex Alice of Wagner’s classic Norse Mythos inspired opera Ring of the Nibelung, it follows the titular Siegfried on his archetypal journey toward destiny. It has been published by Archaia and volumes 1 and 2 are available now wherever fine comic books are sold.

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The other day I got into a conversation online a bit about what I see are the intrinsic failures of digital comics despite their huge advantages of accessibility(anything that allows me not to go to the shitty LCS and get treated like a childish idiot is a good thing for my money and sanity).  Basically what I said was that for the most part because of the size of the tablets on which most of this work is displayed for the reader, much of the oomph and awe that a comic can produce has been removed.  I have a tiny first generation Kindle Fire that I read monthly comics on, and besides it’s questionable reproduction of color, any time there is a two page spread, I can barely read the thing.  I have to constantly zoom in to read the words on the page, which removes me from the majesty of the page as a whole, and also can cause me to lose my sense of space.  The digital format is largely animus towards the kind of wide square scale that makes up some of the great dramatic majesties the medium can produce.  

When I was writing this, Siegfried was one particular book I had in mind.  I read volume one of Siegfried on my small shitty kindle, and the experience was…okay.  It wasn’t kind of disappointing in some ways, and I couldn’t really understand what the big deal was.  Fortunately there was enough there that I did end up getting the first volume and later the second volume in their hardcover large european sized scaled versions–and it is a very very different experience.  There is a grandeur and scale to the world Alice has created in these books which is directly tied to the story itself and how it feels to you.  The act of physically moving your head to move from panel to panel allows an intense kind of immersion in the work that smaller floppy comics or digital comics have trouble replicating.  What’s more, a book at this size when you read it, it is so big that you can literally see nothing else but the book in front of you.  The book’s dimensions force you into it.

And what a world.

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This is sort of a tough review to convey because obviously my scans are also not really giving you a sense of what it is to really see this art.  Besides the colors not really popping as much, you have to understand that the bottom half of this page is as big as your face.  The sense of sublime beauty you get at a moment like this in the book where you turn the page and it just opens up in front of you.

The first volume of Siegfried takes place in a more clustered forest area, and a lot of what powers you through that first volume is Alice’s highly expressive character work.  But in the second volume, which is the best of the two volumes, the world opens up as Siegfried and Mime come into the world of the gods and giants.  Alice conceives landscapes themselves as monstrous sleeping giants, and he is constantly underscoring Siegfried and Mime’s smallness in proportion to these landscapes.

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Notice how small Siegfried and Mime are on that middle panel.  Alice conveys the sublime terror of nature arrayed against these two.  See here, with the foreboding and eerie greens behind the shifting mysterious shadows steaming up from the earth as the Giants begin to awaken.  Mime and Siegfried are trapped in a middle ground, as even the foreground arcs up out of the panel pushing them back into the thing which they are running from.  They are ON the thing they are running from.

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These three bottom panels because of the squared nature of book are given even greater panoramic sense than if they had been shoehorned into a more vertical format.  This sequence also points to another strength of this work by Alice, which is that his figure work retains it’s emotive qualities and strength even as it is just a spec in the wider scale of the world around it.  The way the Valkyrie sits perched on that cliff, her dress and hair reacting to the lightning crash in front of her.  This is something that you also see in artists like Nihei, where the magic of their scale is that they are able to bolt it down to really expressive character work within that environment.  The characters have their own weight within the larger panel which allows for a greater feeling of grandiosity.  It is our own weight in the face of unimaginable scale, which informs wonder.  Without that kind of dynamic figure work, you could easily lose these characters in their backdrops, and a large part of the story falls flat.

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The panel with Odin and the Valkyrie that makes up most of the left side of this monstrous page is an experience in and of itself.  Alice uses those wisps of storm and wind swirling about both to obscure Odin, and denote him as the force of wrath he is personifying–as well as a way to curve your gaze through the page.  This page also illustrates some of the jaw-dropping color sequences that make up both volumes.  Look how that red moves down the page, and changes weight and saturation from top of the page to final panel.  And those beautiful strokes of white in the Valkyrie’s hair that make her hair almost elemental in nature.  There’s also a wonderful shift from Odin as God in the long vertical panel, to Odin as father when he realizes what his daughter has done, and what he will have to do as a consequence of her decision if he is to remain true to his law. The humanity rushes into his cowl.  It’s fairly subtle, but it is extremely powerful.  And the pages after this are some of the most jaw dropping in the entire series so far.

These are the kind of comics that basically define the side of the medium that is almost beyond imagination.  These wondrous books by true masters treated with a real love and respect to their vision–these books that you can’t help but read as an artist, and get even hungrier to improve.  As an american who came up on mostly floppy sized format comics that were largely made to be very disposable, these kind of books represent a kind of comic’s culture that I think on some level I fetishize.  To read a comic as an artist, and think “never in a hundred years could I make something this beautiful” is a really special feeling.  And to think that this work would in some way be reduced or not even attempted because of the need to format for digital is something I have a hard time understanding.  There are specific qualities of these things as they exist now.  Scale is important in art.  A screenshot of a huge mural isn’t the same experience at all.  The physicality that art requires from you as it gets bigger, allows for a greater chance of finding a glimpse of true beauty.  I once had an ex talk to me about her experience seeing a particular sculpture from Dali in person for the first time, and how the experience was so overwhelming she was reduced to tears.  There are many many wonderful things about the digitization of art, and for many mediums the greater access it provides outweighs the slight modification of it’s form(for example music).  But for visual art, there is a side to this changes radically by your presence in relation to it.  A side that can move you in the same way that an amazing dawn can.  And basically what I’m saying is that I’m a fiend for the sublime, and some choices take us farther away from that than others.  Archaia’s decision to reproduce Alice’s work in this form is a choice that takes us closer to that unapproachable ideal.

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