Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Books: Three Fingers

The 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit imagined a world in which beloved cartoon characters from the past co-existed side by side with humans. Cartoons had appeared with humans for scenes in films before - Tom & Jerry in MGM musicals, for example - but Roger took it to the next level by building an entire movie around the premise, as well as crafting a more three-dimensional look and feel to the cartoons themselves.

When Rich Koslowski tackled a similar notion for his graphic novel Three Fingers, he went even further by giving cartoons a history, a culture, and deeper personalities - in effect, making them a species unto themselves. Like Roger, the "toons" are presented as Hollywood actors in a story set during the Golden Age of the industry. Unlike Roger, these toons are thinly - and I do mean thinly - disguised versions of the genuine articles (Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc.). Some of the altered names are way too on-the-nose for my taste, but fortunately, most of them are only used once.

Three Fingers is told in the style of a Ken Burns-like documentary, centered around the history of the Mickey Mouse counterpart, "Rickey Rat," and his producer/director throughout his career, "Dizzy Walters." In this alternate history, Rickey was the first toon to succeed in Hollywood as an actor, under Dizzy's guidance, and he was the biggest toon star of them all. He was also unique in that he happened to have three fingers (plus opposable thumb) on both his hands; a genetic defect. Through historical "photos" and "interviews" with toons and humans, we learn that Rickey's success, which was over and above that of other toons, was a mystery. How the toon actors interpreted that mystery, and what they did to compensate for it, lies at the heart of the story.

Koslowski's black & white art style leans toward the realistic. For the "photos," it looks like he took real Hollywood photos and altered them to fit the story, so we see Rickey Rat's name appearing on real posters and marquees, we see him with real human producers and actors, and it looks more or less authentic - as authentic as a cartoon character can look next to realistically rendered humans. Classic film fans will get a kick at the Easter eggs, including familiar movie posters with animal toon characters (Jeanette MacDonald as a camel?)

The toons look just different enough from their real life counterparts to avoid a lawsuit - barely. In the "interviews," they're significantly older looking, which helps. Some wear glasses, some are in wheelchairs, and some, like Rickey himself, are in identity-concealing shadow, to further sell the documentary-like feel of the graphic novel. They have the exaggerated style of cartoons, but the light and shadow, combined with the rougher linework, gives them dimension that's different from what we see in Roger Rabbit. They don't look like they've just bounced off of the film screen and into reality; they look like they've always been part of reality, which is a crucial difference in terms of the story's tone...


Rich Koslowski
...because Three Fingers is a fairly dark story, much more so than Roger. Many of the toons here are jealous, bitter, cynical, stuck-up and demented. (The Foghorn Leghorn counterpart in particular is REALLY disturbing, full of dark humor.) Rickey is full of remorse and self-recrimination, blaming himself for the events that happened as a direct result of his success. His is a sad story, and as the story unfolds, we see exactly how sad it is.

I like the pacing. As in a documentary, Three Fingers goes back and forth from narration to talking head sequences in the "interviews," and Koslowski does an excellent job of cutting from one talking head to another for contrasting reactions. Someone makes an accusation, then he cuts to someone else who denies the accusation. Someone makes a statement, then he cuts to someone else who undermines the previous statement in an ironic way. Koslowski gives us just enough of the story to leave room for doubt as to where the truth lies, which makes the book much more like a documentary film.

Three Fingers covers decades of film and world history, and there are cameo appearances from humans like Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Marilyn Monroe (who plays a key role), the Kennedys, the Reagans, Martin Luther King Jr., and more. As I said, toons here are a separate species, and their actions have consequences in the rest of the world beyond Hollywood, which makes them even more realistic in the context of the story. Anyone who loves animation will get a big kick out of this graphic novel.

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Previously:
Main Street
Silent Stars

4 comments:

  1. Sounds fascinating. Don't know if I'm ready for a "disturbing" Foghorn Leghorn, but I should be made of sterner stuff.

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  2. He's really really old and bawdy and he talks about things like having sex with humans in his younger days.

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  3. I wonder if I'd like it better than Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That one left me cold and turned me off of Robert Zemeckis movies for decades.

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  4. Like I said, it has a different tone than 'Roger.' It also has stronger ties to classic Hollywood and it involves more of the world beyond it. I think you'd like it but I dunno. I still can't believe you hated 'Roger' as much as you did.

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