This is a very difficult graphic novel to review because there are many different aspects to the book.
First, the description. Even then is difficult because of the various parts to this novel. Here’s a portion of what the publisher has on Goodreads:
(Dave) Sim brings to life the history of comics’ greatest creators, using their own techniques. … Strange Death is a head-on collision of ink drawing and spiritual intrigue, pulp comics and movies, history and fiction. The story traces the lives and techniques of Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby), Stan Drake (Juliet Jones), Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), and more, dissecting their techniques through recreations of their artwork, and highlighting the metatextual resonances that bind them together.
A phrase like “metatextual resonances that bind them together” always makes me a little nervous.
What drew me first to the book was the name of Alex Raymond. Of course I knew of him as the creator of Flash Gordon, and that was probably enough. But a ‘strange death’ surrounding Alex Raymond? Was this true? Or was this bait to hook a reader?
It turns out that the death itself wasn’t particularly strange, but there are enough unusual (and not so unusual) circumstances surrounding Raymond that writer/illustrator Dave Sim (and Carson Grumbaugh) can make multiple connections from Raymond to a number of famous personalities (from Margaret Mitchell to, well, just about anyone with the initials “M.M.”)
What starts out as an interesting hypothesis and worth following (mostly because of the art, which I’ll come back to) slowly devolves into a series of speculations that would make even the most ardent conspiracy theorist raise an eyebrow. At one point (pun slightly intended) near the end of the book, Sim notes that in one of Raymond’s works there is an ellipsis that contains only two dots rather than the standard three dots. Now in Morse code, two dots is the code for the letter “I.” Clearly this is a sign of Raymond sneaking in the message that he is actually the subject of the story – why else would he put in a secret code saying “I”?
By this point I was already pretty much rolling my eyes as Sim kept making all sorts of connections. If you throw out enough crazy ideas or spurious connections, something is bound to hit and feel authentic to someone.
The artwork in the book is absolutely outstanding. Sim identifies a number of artists that Raymond worked with and influenced, or was influenced by, and Sim emulates those styles with remarkable detail. Even someone like me, who might not normally notice a difference in art styles, could see how different these artists’ styles were. I was particularly impressed with some of the really fine detail.
In the first quarter of the book I was highly excited to be reading this, and reading it quite closely. The presentation of material was terrific and I figured this was not only going to be a five star review but possibly my best graphic novel of the year.
But Sim inserts himself into the story, questions his own findings and what it means and we lose sight of where this story started and where it’s heading because Sim appears to lose sight, and what started on the high ground becomes a conspiracy theorist’s dream, with every name, every image, every error holding multiple meanings.
What started out as one of my favorite graphic novels (for the art alone), becomes something so convoluted that it’s hard to give it any positive rating. Hard, but not impossible. I’ll give this two and a half stars just for the art.
Looking for a good book? Prepare yourself for a psychedelic, metatextual trip of hidden meanings in art and story in Dave Sim’s The Strange Death of Alex Raymond.
I received a temporary digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
* * * * * *
The Strange Death of Alex Raymond
author: Dave Sim (and Carson Grubaugh)
artist: Dave Sim
publisher: Living the Line
hardcover, 320 pages