Cartoon Alley: Reviews and commentary #15… Leo Hupert

The Amazon

Written and Illustrated by Steven T. Seagle and Tim Sale
Published by Dark Horse Books
Price $33.95 ($US14.99) Hardback
reviewed by Leo Hupert

Twenty years ago Steven Seagle and Tim Sale were moved to use their creative talents to draw attention to what was happening to the Amazon rain forest. Together they produced The Amazon, a three-issue mini-series, published by now defunct Comico.

It was a leap of faith for Comico, or for anyone at the time, to publish a comic with a political and environmental theme. Comico went bankrupt in 1990 but continued to publish a few titles till the middle 90s. Their main publication was Matt Wagner’s Grendel but their best publication was Mage, also written and illustrated by Wagner. Other publications included Elementals, Evangeline, Justice Machine and even a Max Headroom graphic novel.

Seagle and Sale had hoped, in contrast to a creator’s usual wish, that their work would by now be outdated and irrelevant. However that was not to be. Twenty years ago, they say, the Amazon rain forest was being destroyed at rate of nearly 270,000ha a year. Today 270,000ha are being lost every six months despite publicity given to the plight of the world’s major source of oxygen by politicians, rock stars, numerous magazine and newspaper articles and, of course, the odd comic.

I can’t help but feel that the story was then – and is still now – preaching to the converted. Without giving too much away, the story tells of a jaded American reporter going to the Amazon to investigate the disappearance of a fellow American worker, and he soon becomes absorbed in a mystery involving US timber and mining interests, industrial sabotage and odd events that the locals blame on jungle spirits.

Perhaps Dark Horse felt the message needed reiterating but really if that was the case a newer, fresher story would have been much more appropriate. Stories about devastation in the Amazon abound on the Internet and in the news media these days. We all know it’s happening but appear to be powerless to do anything about it other than agree that it has to be stopped and checking labels on any imported items we buy that are made of wood.

Some things are being done. Norway last year was to give the first installment (US$130m) of US$1b over the next seven years toward an Amazon fund aimed at conserving the region. Each year’s donation is conditional on a reduction of deforestation the previous year. How that ties in with the Brazilian Government’s recent approval of plans to build the world’s third biggest hydroelectric dam is anyone’s guess. This is the same dam James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver have recently protested about.

Africa donates an enormous amount of fertiliser to the Amazon. It is transported free of charge across the Atlantic by wind power. An estimated four metres of dust, containing iron and phosphorus, from the dried up bed of the 400,000 sq km Lake Megachad has blown across the Atlantic in the last 1,000 years. Lake Megachad is now 1350 sq km Lake Chad, but there’s still enough there to keep fertilising the Amazon and Central America for another 1000 years. Satellite imagery indicates that 20 per cent of the dust blown over ends up in the Amazon Basin.

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But back to the book. Sale’s art carries the story, the book and the whole publication. His control of light and shade is masterful and his attention to architecture and decorative detail in the Brazilian markets, villages and river scenes demands closer inspection. However I’ve got to say that there’s something missing – and that is the stifling tropical heat, the insect life, the humidity and all that comes with it.

There’s little of the intensity of the tropics, that wall of heat that envelopes you when you leave the air-conditioned airport. The humidity that needs to be swum through and at best waded through…. a very difficult task for an artist to convey, especially for Sale who works with distinct, clearly defined areas of light and dark. The tropical air is fetid, smelly and laden with moisture upon which all sorts of unimagineable bugs can almost walk their way to you. Away from the inevitably noisy air-con or fan one is bathed in sweat in seconds. Matt Hollingsworth did a superb job re-colouring, but it’s all very clear and clean, too clear and too clean. Nice – in fact, beautiful – but I doubt that anyone who has been to Brazil, the Amazon Basin in particular, would feel that it is a fair representation.

Seagle tells us a little about the Amazon River but as Sale’s art fails to convey the sweltering atmosphere of the tropics Seagle falls short by not informing us adequately about the river, the jungle or the country. Facts like Brazil, with a population of 190 million is the fifth largest country in the world. The size of the Amazon approaches the massive numbers game of China statistics. Manaus, where The Amazon’s main character begins his story, is 1600km from the mouth of the Amazon and is only 30m higher than where the river empties out into the Atlantic.

The Amazon’s fresh water plume carries 300,000 cu m of fresh water a second 400km out to sea. Manaus, with a population of two million, can be reached by large ocean going ships. In 2005, a single line of storms, according to Nasa, killed half a billion trees in the Amazon jungle. These immensities of scale don’t come across in Seagle’s and Sale’s book. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect so. But then again smaller things like leeches, ants, geckos on walls, toads in showers, spiders, butterflies, flies and mosquitos are absent. There is one snake and a few birds – but no macaws, not even the blue-and-gold macaw on every cellphone, no monkeys, hummingbirds, toucans, tarantulas, tapirs, vampire bats, sloths, iguanas, jaguars, anacondas and boa constrictors, and, of course, piranhas. It is the home of one in ten known species on Earth.

It is not surprising in the way of an explanation to discover in the interviews at the back of the book that Sale is colour blind. Sale says he can’t work with colour but can see some colour. The fact adds understanding to his work on Thieves’ World, Grendel, Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil and Hulk. He even collaborated with Joss Whedon on a 12-page Buffy the Vampire Slayer story. Oddly enough or perhaps intentionally a lot of his work has the name of a colour in the title: Tim Sale: Black and White, Batman: Black and White, Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, Hulk: Gray, Capt America: White, Grendel: Black, White and Red.

The Amazon is a beautifully produced hardback book, even if it is printed in China without a disclaimer concerning the origin of the paper used. I enjoyed reading it, holding it and savouring Sale’s art. As far as the Amazon is concerned I hope it survives. It still has the uncanny ability to quickly reclaim areas that are left for only a little time.

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