[This article was written by Shawn Pero.]
Back when you were a little kid (or before you were born, depending), The Jim Henson Company made a not-poorly-recieved film called Labyrinth. It starred Jennifer Connelly as intrepid-esque teen Sarah, a mincing David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, and a ton of Creature Shop Muppets designed by Brian Froud. It had some goofy costumes and effects (as well as some pretty decent effects, let’s be fair) and a good amount of genuine British humor, supplied, as you’d expect, by hardworking British people. I liked it then, and it’s okay now.
A few years ago Tokyopop, an American comic book company that usually specializes in translating and reprinting Japanese comics acquired the Labyrinth license, and set about making a graphic novel (more specifically, a Japanese manga) that would serve as a direct sequel to the original movie.
And I guess that was their first mistake.
When you pick up the book, you initially notice the very pretty painted cover by Kouyu Shurei. Tokyopop really wants you to notice that, in particular – along with the writer and artist credits on the cover, the cover artist’s name is there as well. Odd, that. But it is a Japanese name, and I guess it’s meant to distract you from what’s inside – no Japanese creators. See, the big deal about this being a Labyrinth manga instead of comic book is that manga is known among its fans as having very well-done, detailed artwork and interesting, character-driven plots by Japanese writers and artists. The Labyrinth manga, however, was written by Jake T. Forbes and drawn by Chris Lie. Now, I don’t know from foreigners, but that don’t sound too Japanese to me.
So really quick, let’s take a short detour and check out the creator bios in the back of the book for a second, okay? Now, it says here that Mr. Forbes has been an “English-language localizer for an unhealthy amount of manga”. Huh. When you use a word like ‘unhealthy’ in your own biography, what kind of expectations are you laying out for us, your audience? Well, whatever, I read an unhealthy amount of manga, so I should be cool with it. It also says he’s presently a “Quest Writer for massively multiplayer online games”. Oh. I see. So that’s what we’re dealing with here. All right. Well.
Let’s open the book anyway, shall we?
Okay, so the book begins with a recap of the original Labyrinth via the dialog of the play Sarah is rehearsing for at the beginning of that movie: “…In a kingdom far away, there lived a beautiful princess… through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered…” You should probably just go ahead and re-watch the first movie anyway, as it’s kind of vague, here.
Our story proper opens with Toby, the baby half-brother Sarah spent all of Labyrinth trying to rescue. He’s all growed up, a high school student, and he looks like a girl.
I should explain that the artist is clearly going for a shoujo look for the visuals, and what shoujo means to you, essentially, is “pretty, pretty lady”. Every character, male, female, hermaphrodite (yep, we got those here in Japanese-type comics) looks like either a pretty 15-year-old girl or a pretty 25-year-old lady. That’s it, save for the goblins. You say you want luxurious eyelashes? Brother, you came to the right place. I’m not really criticizing that aspect as much as I’m just making fun for the sake of it – the intended audience is pre-teen fantasy fans, and it’s an appropriate look. But more on the art later.
When we enter, we’re just in time to see Toby demolishing the school play he’s performing in. Flubbing his lines, setting the stage on fire, endangering lives. This quickly becomes a theme – Toby’s a loser. He’s no good at his schoolwork (he’s also not very bright, as it turns out), he’s kind of lazy and a procrastinator, as shown by his failing a test because he stayed up all night playing (surprise) massively multiplayer online games. I have no solid proof, but I’d imagine Toby regularly has at least a slight case of teenage B.O. You kind of start to wonder why Jareth even wanted to keep the kid in the first place.
One of the big missteps in the transition from the movie to the manga is the characterization of Irene, Sara’s stepmother and Toby’s natural mom. In the movie, a key point was that Sarah’s mother was harried and trying to be as good a parent as possible, but that Sarah was an ungrateful brat. They completely switched the character around for the manga – I guess years of having to put up with Sarah’s elaborate doll collections has made Irene bitter. She’s a total bitch in the book, and Toby’s dad is nowhere to be seen. The irony of the character’s perceived Cinderella situation has been turned into fact, making the story even more two-dimensional. Not only do his parents not go to watch to the play he destroys, but when Toby comes home, a note on the fridge says, and I quote:
“Toby – your father and I will be out until late this evening. Don’t go mucking about in the fridge for something to eat. It’s hard enough planning meals without you eating whatever you feel like. There should be some leftover soup in the freezer. If you really must eat, eat that. – Irene”
Damn. If you really must eat, I suppose, but I don’t like it. So this soup in the freezer, would it be next to the Ziplock bag you keep your heart in, Mom? Also, “signed Irene”? Recall that in the movie this woman is Sarah’s stepmother; but she’s Toby’s biological parent. Not to drag out the freezer metaphor, but cold. Mom and Dad are out for a night on the town, probably enjoying a nice swordfish steak, possibly with asparagus in some kind of cream sauce and fingerling potatoes, and her darling, cherished natural son gets frozen soup and resentment. Nice. And while we’re examining this note, “mucking about”? I’m sorry, but in the film Irene is not British, or even Australian, as far as I’m aware. I’m not sure what kind of weird personality she’s trying to affect here, but in the manga, she’s a frightening woman. I might have been too harsh on Toby earlier – clearly he has a lot in his daily life he needs to escape from, and his Kingdom of Goblins MMORPG must be like sweet heroin.
Fortunately for Toby, he does have an ally – Sarah, who’s now an adult with an unflattering hairstyle and goofy hornrimmed glasses. But she knows what a pain in the ass Irene can be, and offers soothing words, support, sisterly affection, even cooks the poor sap a real dinner. And Toby shows his gratitude by exclaiming, when Sarah heads home for the night, “Thank God. I thought she’d never leave!” so he can cloister himself in his room and play his cherished computer games until the crack of dawn. I love Toby. Don’t you?
The next day, Toby gets caught not cheating on the aforementioned math test (it’s complicated, and further proof of Toby’s ineptitude) by his handlebar-moustachioed, be-Afro’d math teacher. He’s like a black Gene Shalit, this guy, and completely baffling character-design-wise. So Toby is sent to see the principal, where he meets Jareth, who’s disguised as a ‘guidance counselor’. Albeit a guidance counselor with really long nails and more eye makeup than you’d usually see on a male member of a high school’s faculty.
He then flirts with Toby a bit (so I guess, at least, that part’s true to life) and tells him about the goblin Honor Guard that he (Jareth) has set up to monitor Toby, and that eveything good that’s ever happened to him (Toby) is thanks to him (Jareth) including recieving stolen property and implied physical harm to others. Then (God, it just goes on, doesn’t it?) Jareth calls Toby an ungrateful little snot and jumps out a third-story window, which is pretty much what you’re hoping would happen by this point anyway. But the scene does serve as a decent explanation as to why Toby hasn’t been eaten by a bear or hit by a semi due to his own incompetence yet. I mean, I’d been wondering about it.
The little bitch (Toby!) goes home where he flails his uncoordinated, gangly teenage limbs around his bedroom, unplugging his computer and erasing the first homework assignment he’s ever actually worked on in his life. Luckily, he had enough foresight to print out his efforts before he went spastic, but (and don’t you hate when this happens) a goblin steals his homework, leads him through a Fraggle hole in his closet and into the world of the Labyrinth in a sequence that’s totally not at all like anything from either Alice in Wonderland or The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Or a fucking retelling of the original movie. Jesus. And that – mercifully – is the end of Chapter One. Oh, wait – Chapter One… of the six chapters in this book. You know what? I’m done.
So let’s see, what’ve we got so far? A cast of mostly unlikeable characters, and a hero I personally wouldn’t root for if I were a trained French pig and he were a gourmet truffle. I have to admit, this is basically where I stopped reading the book. I skimmed through the rest, enough to know what was happening. But by this point I’d been beaten up (emotionally and possibly physically) by the thing, and I was only about sixty pages in.
Let’s touch briefly on the artwork, seeing as it’s half of the experience. The artist, as I mentioned, is doing this story in ‘the manga style’. Except, um, he can’t. By which I mean he isn’t really very good. I’m sorry, but there it is, and it’s especially apparent when he tries to adapt Brian Froud’s original character designs. The biggest problem is it’s just sort of bland – it has the most generic ‘manga look’ to it – things are drawn fairly competently, but not interestingly, and that includes the Goblin City and Labyrinth scenes. If the original movie had anything, it had amazing sets – dingy and worn but fantastic and surreal. The manga somehow manages to make the art inspired by those sets look, well, boring, if you can imagine. Everything is really hollow and lifeless at best, unpleasant at worst.
Plus the art looks just plain rushed, which it probably was. In defense of the artist, working by yourself on a graphic novel is a pretty big strain, especially when you have to do several hundred pages of artwork over the course of months, not years. But still, when you see his portrayal of The Worm (of “‘Allo!” fame) – a likeable bit of Froud character design, and something people point to when they remember the film – you will wonder why, suddenly, a horrible zombie creature has taken that character’s place in the manga.
Just so you know I can put my money where my mouth is, I spent five minutes sketching, using the same photo it looks like Chris Lie used to base his drawing of the Worm on, and came up with this:
Not to toot my own artistic horn (well, maybe just a little), but tell me that isn’t a Worm you’d want to follow inside and have a cuppa tea with the Missus.
It’s all a shame, too, because this would have been a great opportunity to really go nuts with the Labyrinth mythos. Watching the movie, you get the idea that there’s a whole lot of stuff just behind the scenes they presented – there’s a lot that could be told about how things work, the history; the cockeyed, funny fantasy-logic that makes the thing tick. You get some of that in the Froud art books that accompany the original movie, but this is also supposed to be a new story. And since it’s a comic book (and you don’t have to wory about an effects budget), you could do so much more than serve up a warmed-over Cinderella plot with lazy-yet-rushed art.
It seems like Tokyopop got the Labyrinth license and wanted to rush something out as quickly and cheaply as possible before it got stale – how much could it cost, really, to hire a Quest Writer for a MMORPG? I’m imagining the story that could have been told if a team of really talented Japanese creators had been hired to do the book – there’s a specific flavor a lot of genuine fantasy and shoujo manga has that just isn’t captured here. And the artwork – well, it’s too bad that the cover has to act like a rabbit snare to get people to buy the book.
So in conclusion: Whiny, abused kids, mincing, fey rock gods and undead worms. I guess that about covers it! My suggestion is to read Return to Labyrinth if you have too much joy in your life, and need to be reminded of the darkness that lurks around the corner, unsuspected, waiting. Alternatively, if you don’t hate yourself, just watch the original movie. Or any other movie. Or do anything else. Don’t – don’t read this comic book.
You can discuss this article on the Tough Pigs Forum.
by Shawn Pero