I feel somewhat guilty writing a lukewarm review of Terrible Means, and I’ve been trying to understand why. It is after all a professional, purchase-able comic, so to have an attack of taste or conscience on this front runs a risk of sounding condescending. But different artworks are offered up to the world with different attitudes and those attitudes affect the kind of criticism that feels appropriate. I’d never bust onto someone’s personal Instagram, or fan art blog and complain about how they’re taking pictures of their family and drawing their favorite characters and what about what I want to see, huh? There’s an understanding that those creations are the artist experimenting or expressing themselves, not things that are making a case for how good they are. They were created to be either enjoyed or ignored. By comparison, there are works that clearly have a goal, and invite you to judge them by their success at achieving it. I’d have no guilt about disparaging a given Netflix Original or Star Wars outing, because those things claim to be entertaining, and try to earn the mass-adoration (well, patronage) of their audiences. I might not think that judging those things is particularly worth my time, because trying to convince a major studio that their art is bad is like trying to earn the affection of someone who hates you. But I’d definitely feel allowed.
None of which is to say that Terrible Means is bad, exactly. It has a gentle, vibrant sincerity, and welcome visual originality. It’s the second of B. Mure’s stories set in the fantasy world of Ismyre, a place where magic is real and ships fly and color seems to burst from every corner. It’s also a noticeable improvement, craftwise, over the book that came before. Ismyre, like Terrible Means, was full of lovely images on a page-to-page and panel-to-panel basis, but was hampered by unclear, almost random-feeling coloring and composition that got in the way of the book’s attempt to tell its story and create coherent moods. In general, Ismyre left me with a feeling of muddiness. Like I hadn’t been told a story, so much as there was a story there that I could figure out if I liked.
Terrible Means, by contrast, demonstrates a much stronger command of image and pace. Scenes have particular schemes, with particular moods. These tonal shifts lend clarity to what’s happening, and are thematically relevant to boot. The story is a relatively simple morality fable about environmental exploitation, and the need to speak up about it. The wealthy elites of Ismyre’s capital discover a kind of crystal that will enhance any user’s magic, and are eager to use it to beautify and entertain themselves. Meanwhile, crops are failing and rivers are turning black. Only a disgraced professor and a rabbit from the country have the nerve to defy the government and point out that something is wrong. The book sets up nice visual contrasts between scenes in the city, which are full of bright pinks and purples and other jewel-y tones, and the washed out, more natural colors of the country.
Other images have a solid sense of worldbuilding and drama, and make you feel both the scope of the world of Ismyre and the scale of the environmental problem:
So clearly B. Mure has a strong sense of how to draw an attractive comic. The problem with Terrible Means is that it occupies this strange middle ground between being a children’s book and being a rich, longform fantasy story, but has none of the benefits of either.
I mention children’s books because in theory, I don’t have a problem with how simple the story in Terrible Means is. In theory, I don’t mind how obvious it is that of course harvesting the magic crystals is causing the land to fail, or how neatly the bad guys get defeated and the crystals saved. I don’t have a problem with the book wearing its environmentalism on its sleeve either. As a kid I loved The Lorax and The Wump World, and you can’t get less subtle than a race of world-ruining aliens called “Pollutians”. In my adulthood I still love Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, two of Miyazaki’s more blatantly environmentalist movies, and I’d watch Wall-E any day of the week.
The thing is, the pleasure of fables, fairy tales and picture books lies largely in their concision. They tend to get to the point and be up-front about their premises. They’re exercises in making simple ideas accessible and engaging, and often have an almost joke-like structure. They’re punchy. The Lorax is fun to read because it teems with energy and whimsy, in addition to having a laser-focused story. The art in both The Lorax and The Wump World has the compact expressiveness of a good cartoon, and conveys real, persuasive pathos as a result.
The pleasure of longer-form narrative, in turn, is the opportunity for complexity. In Spirited Away, the revelations that a stink spirit is really the spirit of a polluted river and that Haku is the spirit of a river overrun with apartments are only small parts of the story. They fit into larger themes about excess, greed, and identity. It’s significant in Spirited Away that both the parents in their Western, materialist apparel and the traditionalist bath house employees are portrayed as corrupt in their own way. It’s significant that corruption leads many different kinds of characters lose themselves or forget who they are. When Chihiro’s love for Haku frees her from her curse, it’s not just about loving the environment, or loving Japan, or rejecting capitalism, or what have you. It’s about her growing up and claiming her identity, a loving identity, in the face of forces that want to warp or suppress what she really cares about. That’s a complicated and moving idea. One that’s both nuanced and reinforced by a hundred different aspects of the movie.
So if Terrible Means were witty and concise, I’d forgive it its simplicity and barely-diluted moralizing. There’s an art to good propaganda, and I’m happy to appreciate it. Similarly, if the book used its extra space to add depth or plot or suspense, I’d be on board with that too. But instead what you’re left with is a comic structured like a typical narrative, where events and characters unfold progressively instead of with the fable-y foregone-conclusion framing of, say, a Twilight Zone episode. But the content of the story is so spare, and so predictable, that it’s hard to get any enjoyment out of it—as a story. How much more interesting would Terrible Means have been if, for example, it wasn’t just rich people getting superficial use out of magic-enhancing crystals? What if our plucky country bunny had a sick relative that could have been healed by them? What if poor people in the city could suddenly make themselves money? What if a child bullied for their appearance could have made themselves look different? It’s easy to make heroic characters look good when heroism has few downsides. In the real world, people aren’t lazy about environmental damage just because those in power might go after them for bringing it up. They’re also lazy because it’s nice to be able to buy cheap clothes, take long showers, or get places quickly. But even if Mure did simply want to tell a straightforward story about speaking truth to power, and getting over one’s fear of doing that, I can’t help but think that there are so many ways they could have made that story more exciting and emotionally immediate.
Terrible Means feels caught between the “storybook” and the “fiction” mode in more than just story, too. I don’t expect Arthur to have much logic about why certain characters are certain animals and others aren’t, for example. But Redwall does, and Zootopia does. Heck even Disney’s Robin Hood has some alignment between animal “type” and character “type.” And because Terrible Means feels more like Zootopia than Arthur, I expect those choices to have significance. But they don’t seem to.
Yet--to bring this back to the beginning--I feel somehow rude for voicing these criticisms, because I’m not sure the book cares about succeeding in the ways I care about things succeeding. It feels like Mure wanted to express the things they believe in in the style they enjoy drawing for other people who also believe those things and enjoy that style. Which may or may not be true. If it is true, that’s not a bad thing. I’m happy to see more sincere, expressive art made by clearly talented people (as B. Mure absolutely is). But it does make that art feel vaguely amateur. When “amateur” things like fan or outsider art are great they’re powerful in their authenticity and commitment to artistic vision regardless of audience priorities. When they’re bad or even merely good, they betray a lack of understanding of how to be effective on some pretty basic levels.