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Friday, April 12, 2013

ON THE ROPES by Vance & Burr

ON THE ROPES is the new book by James Vance and Dan Burr, a continuation of the story of Fred Bloch  from their earlier book KINGS IN DISGUISE.

KINGS was serialized in six parts from Kitchen Sink in 1988-1989, and collected, along with a short story from DARK HORSE PRESENTS #42, in a single volume in 1990. In that 1990 book, Vance outlines the genesis of the book in a stage play he wrote in 1979:
The result was a bizarre pastiche of Depression-era leftist melodrama called On the Ropes. Set in 1937, it was crammed with characters drawn from the icons of that period:  WPA artists and performers, labor agitators, messianic Communists, sociopathic strikebreakers, and the inevitable tough-but-tender-hearted female journalist. To make things more frenetic, I threw in an escape artist with a death wish, and more onstage violence than any two Jacobean tragedies.
Fred Bloch was a secondary character in that play, and Vance's desire to expand the character led him to write KINGS IN DISGUISE, first as a play, and later as a comic, featuring the character in 1932, a poor boy from California who winds up on a journey across the early Depression-era America with a hobo named Sam who claims to be the King Of Spain in disguise.

KINGS was a great book, so I was glad to hear that Vance had decided to go full circle and return to the ON THE ROPES story for a sequel, presumably greatly modified since Bloch is definitely the main character now (but all the elements described above are present), along with Burr on the artwork. Maybe slightly wary in addition to glad, since the track record of creators returning to a beloved world after decades away isn't great, but maybe somewhat surprisingly I always lean towards the optimistic side.

This might be one of the few times that such a return results in a superior book to the original. I'm not prepared to say that definitively yet, since I've only read it once, but it definitely stands with the original. The writing is sharp, capturing the various "icons of that period" in a complex story involving real events of the labour movement of that era, not sugar-coating some of the harsh realities of that time.

Burr's artwork is definitely much improved from the already high quality he showed back in the 1980s. His characters are a lot more natural and less stiff than in the earlier book, and the facial expressions get a lot of emotion across in more subtle ways than they did before.

Definitely worth taking a look at, whether you've read KINGS IN DISGUISE or not (it was republished a few years ago in an inexpensive updated edition with an introduction by Alan Moore. I didn't pick it up before, but seeing how nice a package W.W. Norton puts together I'm tempted to upgrade). Vance mentioned in his introduction to KINGS that the evolution of the story included a brief attempt to write a story of Fred Bloch fifteen years after these events, so maybe someday we'll see another book. Hopefully in less than a quarter century.

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