‘The Chenoo’ by Graham Nolan – a review

I love a great idea. When I saw the promotional video for The Chenoo, it got my strict attention. I’ve seen quite a few promo videos for ComicsGate projects. The funniest was the one for Cash Grab, made by Scotty Richard. But the one for The Chenoo had depth and instantly created a great atmosphere, even if I thought the chosen music felt overdone. This book surely has promise, I thought.

The promotional video for ‘The Chenoo’

I received the book not that long ago – the middle of January 2021. I had no problem waiting, as that is the nature of crowdfunding. The benefit of backing a comic book project is that you know that some time in the near to mid term future, the book is going to arrive. You will get emails which keep you up to date about the state of the book, which does take away little of the surprise. But, it’s still rewarding when the finally receive the book in the mail.

Graham Nolan packed the book very well. Really, if there is any further protection that he could have given the book it would have been redundant. My copy arrived in mint condition. It came in a Gemini mailer, which a lot of ComicsGate publishers prefer. Inside, the book was further protected in a plastic sleeve with a piece of white cardboard behind the book.

Included in the package is one trading card, a rather odd bookmark, a sticker, and a letter from the author thanking the backers. The trading card is great, and is printed very nicely, but it should have been a bit thicker. The piece of backing card could have been printed with Chenoo themed art, or something similar.

Graham Nolan always remembers that it is the customers who make his work possible

You really could spend hours and hours fantasising about what extras could have been included with any given book. Foil stickers, keyrings, a full set of cards, what have you. We can hope that with each new book that the author releases, we will get more extras, and that they will be more sophisticated.

The book itself is the most nicely printed comic book I have yet seen. Not that I have handled very many comic books, much less premium ones. But without anything to compare, I am impressed. This is in stark contrast to the disappointing design of That Umbrella Guy’s first book, The Case of the Littlest Umbrella (which I reviewed last year).

This book is perfect bound, which means that it has a spine. I don’t have any issue with this, but the book isn’t thick or long enough to warrant perfect binding, and I would have preferred it to be stapled like a traditional comic book. The cover is a lovely satin finish, with the title being printed with a special glossy plastic. The pages are also of high quality stock.

One of the problems of perfect bound books is that you can’t always lay them completely flat. In any case it presented no challenges to handling. One aspect I find odd is that Nolan’s signature appears twice on the cover – once as part of the print file, the other done by hand. There is no need to have a signature on a cover more than once. If a CG artist is also the author, and they are signing the cover by hand, there’s no need to include their signature in the print file.

I had high expectations for this story, and I wish that I could say that they were met. The promo video was so well done that I got a feeling of being immersed in a rich environment with varied characters and lots of background.

But the story did not do justice to the idea. Nolan obviously could not spend 20 pages establishing a prologue. He set himself a limit of so many pages, which is logical, as he wanted to get the book out in a timely manner and with a reasonable cost.

But that is the problem here. The book isn’t ambitious enough. There is no room to develop a build-up, rich character history, or anything like that. Perhaps my expectations are much too high, but I stand by those expectations. I do not see the comic book as a trivial story telling medium.

I have read two of Alan Moore’s graphic novels, the most important being From Hell. I’ve also read pretty much all of Michael Crichton’s novels, and all those of Dan Brown (though his recent one, Origin, was a dud). Recently I’ve been reading more novels of the ‘outback noir’ genre.

I’m used to grade A storytelling, and I am beginning to question whether comic books of such short lengths can offer anything challenging or satisfying. The Cyberfrog saga is spread over four books, which is probably going to be a total of something like 200 pages or more.

The Chenoo contains 57 pages of story plus a few pages of art, and a list of names of every person who backed the campaign. Nolan is a professional who is considerate to his audience, and who knows how to present a finished product.

57 pages sounds like a lot, but it is paltry, even when compared to a short story or a one-act play. That’s mainly because comic books do not have a large number of words on the typical page. Short stories are a very different animal to comic books. The comic book is primarily visual and is itself a product. The short story does nor require a specific medium to exist. You could print it in your office, copy it out by hand, read it aloud, put it up online, broadcast it, publish it in a magazine, whatever. Comic books exist in a particular format, and must be physical (digital comic books are not popular).

What a good short story has is depth, immersion and hopefully engaging characters. Truman Capote was very good at this. Usually, an adapted screenplay is based on a novel. But the movie Blow-Up was loosely based on a short story by Julio Cortazar – you can find it online as a PDF, and I recommend it highly.

Nolan has fewer than 60 pages to work with, and that doesn’t leave much room for character development. The characters are fine as they are, but we don’t know much about them. And if we don’t know much about them, we can’t empathise with them as much as we could.

In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock spent almost 20 minutes establishing the background and motivations of Marion Crane. That’s a large part of the script, and it’s longer than it takes to read The Chenoo. You see the problem here.

Alfred Hitchcock gave the audience plenty of time to know Marion Crane’s character in ‘Psycho’

You can of course achieve a lot in a short time or space. I refer you to the short story Blow-Up which I mentioned above. But there is usually no substitute for the time necessary to establish characters. If you’ve seen the film, 30 Days of Night, you’ll remember that it took some time to establish some kind of background before getting into the meat of the story.

In the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, we get a terrifically written and performed introduction to FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. In contrast, we don’t know very much about Laura Palmer until later episodes. But she is enigmatic in any case.

One more example of how to establish character: Rear Window, another masterwork by Hitchcock. Note here also that Hitchcock does not rush into the story – he lets things settle and evolve first, and as a result, the audience is immersed. Feature films don’t offer the same scope for character as novels do, but there is enough room to work with, especially for a top class writer.

Films like ‘Rear Window’ give the audience time to settle in before launching into the plot

In the beginning of The Chenoo, the two characters aren’t really that interesting and have nothing about them which could elicit curiosity. We just don’t know that much about them. One way that Nolan could make us empathise with the two men would be to make one of them homeless. Or an army veteran getting back on his feet after years of struggle. Or we could have seen the beginning or the end of a relationship between two disparate characters, such as a rich man and a poor man.

Overall though, the art and panel layout are top class. Nolan has drawn the entire book in grayscale, rendering only blood in colour. This device works well enough. It would ruin a book of photographs, but for a comic book it is certainly valid.

Panel layout is well disciplined. Where necessary, Nolan takes some creative liberties with the layout that work very well, given the context. Nolan also knows how and when to use full page panels. I’m not a fan of overlapping panels or odd panel shapes, but it’s a testament to Nolan’s skill that I really didn’t notice until after I had finished the book.

Lettering is supposedly by someone named Carlos Mangual. The lettering is very neat and legible, but all of it looks like it was typeset. This applies to the sound effects, too – it looks like they were taken from stock effects. I see no evidence of hand lettering in this book. There’s nothing wrong with using fonts in comic books, as this is exactly how every other form of text is published. But if you are using fonts or stock sound effects, then state as much.

Nolan used stock SFX, as well as a lettering font, both of which should have been done by hand

Speaking of SFX, I find that they are often overused. I recall seeing page of Jawbreakers: Lost Souls that had a sound effect that was not only redundant, but it weakened the effect that it was supposed to impart. I strongly believe that the sound has to come from the imagination, triggered by the art. Comic books are a visual medium, so the visuals should be allowed express themselves. In The Chenoo, there are many SFX that don’t need to be there, although for some reason this is only a problem in the later pages of the book.

There is one moment right near the end of the story, where one character utters a statement which is way too expository, and this takes you out of the story. But Nolan is in good company here. Interestingly enough, it is his namesake, director Christopher Nolan, who makes this boo-boo on several occasions in his otherwise terrific film, Dunkirk. Dialogue which is obvious in its exposition is clumsy and drawn attention to itself. Expository dialogue is useful and necessary, and is very important in theatre and cinema, but good writing hides it.

The basic ending of The Chenoo is, in principle, quite good. It’s solid compared to a decent Hollywood script. But there is no foreshadowing. Good storytelling usually features several mechanisms. Confict is one of them. Foreshadowing is another, as well as the anti-climax, the denouement, the red herring, etc.

The Chenoo seems to lack all of these elements, and comes across as very one-dimensional. Sure, there are moments where you might identify conflict here and there, but not in a meaningful way. You may think that there is a lot of conflict in this book – after all, we have a monster that is chasing down the main characters, right?

Think of Jaws. Where is the conflict in that film? Between the main characters and the shark? Between the characters? Both? What about other monster or horror movies? I’ll let you think about that one.

I do not consider myself a dramaturge, but if a story doesn’t grab me, I can usually figure out why. Not all good stories have obvious traits that you would expect. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – the story by Truman Capote – is extremely compelling and yet I cannot recall any obvious conflicts. The only conflict I recall is implicit: one day Holly Golightly was here, and then one day she wasn’t, and nobody knows if she will ever return. One of the keys to great drama is when characters face obstacles in getting what they want.

As far as conflict goes, a lot of David Lynch’s short films and TV commercials don’t have any obvious conflict either, although in many cases you cannot resist playing them again and again. Sometimes there’s a magic to a story that you can’t easily explain.

When you’ve read some of the world’s best novels and short stories; when you have seen some of the greatest movies; when you have read the greatest graphic novel ever written; when you’ve seen some of the most famous and celebrated stage plays, you have high expectations when it comes to storytelling. The Chenoo is a terrific idea. It could have been written with enough depth to create something that could have attracted a long term following.

Finally, there are two events in the story, occurring near the end, which are internally inconsistent. Needless to say I will not be specific. But they are so obvious that I am amazed that they are there. One of them might be excused because Nolan has only so much room to work with, but by this point I was just frustrated and disengaged completely.

Graham Nolan deserves high praise for his attention to detail as far as presentation goes. And he never forgets that it is the customers that justify his work. His book, as an object, is an example for other creators to emulate. He made sure to have it printed in North America, too. It’s a shame that some ComicsGate creators went for the cheap option of having their book printed in China. Nolan may not have written great fiction but he proves himself to have very high standards as a publisher.

So, do I regret backing this campaign? No, I absolutely do not regret it. The more comic books I read, the more I can figure out what they lack, and what they need to be truly engaging. I have a few ideas that I want to realise one day. One thing I need to do, as an aspiring author, is to get a feel for what’s being created, and how. In addition, ComicsGate people are just terrific. I am happy for Graham that his campaign has been a success, in the same way that I am happy for That Umbrella Guy that his two campaigns have been successes.

I hope that Nolan’s next book, Alien Alamo, is written with the care and attention that the best scripts are given, whether they be stage or screen. Because otherwise, his art and ideas and standards of production quality will all be for naught.

The Chenoo on Indiegogo

Alien Alamo on Indiegogo

grahamnolan.com

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