North Adams Transcript
by Nate Neal (Fantagraphics)
In "The Sanctuary," Nate Neal traces back the history of manipulation, power battles and betrayal to a single cave, thousands of years ago.
The story unfolds entirely in a Paleolithic language Neal created, rendering the action subtle as a tribe careens toward possible chaos amidst the battles contained.
At the center of the story is the cave painter, who lives on the fringes of the tribe. He spends his day adorning his section of the cave with drawings that are dismissed as piffle by his fellow cavemen but are soon revealed as a political and social history of the group.
At the moment when these beings are making the move from animal to human, there are two mandatory qualifications that will help them bridge that divide -- history and perspective. No longer are they wild children enacting their momentary rages -- they are becoming creatures of thought and memory, and the cave painter is the spark that begins to light the fire through the tribe.
The moment of real transformation begins with the arrival of a nomad girl, dumped with the tribe in a trade for furs and left to make her own way traversing her new family. The cave painter is kept alive largely due to the clandestine charity of the current leader of the group, and the nomad girl takes note.
At first, she reacts to the cave painter as a weirdo, just like
Neal’s tale unfolds with an immediacy that is balanced with a delicate touch, so much so that it will take a couple readings to really grasp the interaction of the players and the drama as it moves along. Caveman language means no extrapolation of plot.
When you’re dealing with the archetypes of normalcy, however, long explanations might do more damage than good. In the dynamics that Neal presents, you can see your country, your town, your work place and your family, all rolled into one cautionary tale.
In stark black and white, Neal’s art exhibits much sophistication, while still maintaining a required roughness, given the time period and level of civilization he’s portraying. These are disheveled, rough players, and Neal’s art imbues them with those qualities even as it also reveals depth and emotion in our most simplest of ancestors.
"The Sanctuary" is also a story of the power of art -- and even performance. It’s a testament to how we take in information -- and how we ignore it, depending on our personal circumstances. It’s a meditation on the fact that sometimes the subtle doesn’t work with mobs, and that’s why bombast and cheap emotions will often move people to action.
Neal’s book digs deep down to the core of our humanity that almost requires manipulation for movement, but suggests that sometimes there are victories for us even if we do require a shifty style of prodding.
For a perfect example of something that sounds dreadful when you read about it and dashes all your hopes of disappointment when you actually watch it, look no further than "Sherlock." The show premieres on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery this Sunday, Oct. 24, at 9 p.m., and runs for the two weeks following.
It is unexpectedly one of the best mystery shows in years, shining with its seamless blend of old-fashioned whodunnits and modern-day crime fiction.
The three-part series has a dubious sounding set-up. Imagine, if you will, Sherlock Holmes is a dysfunctional, reclusive loner obsessed with consulting with the police on tough cases, despite a dim view of his sanity taken by some officers. One day, he needs a roommate, and in walks the war-scarred Dr. John Watson, who becomes entangled in Holmes’ shenanigans as they give him a new lease on life -- and also something to write about in his blog and someone to bicker with.
The ingredients that make the premise work on screen include some smart acting and equal storytelling.
In England, writers are very much the stars of television, and audiences still drift from project to project based on who has scripted it. One of the biggest sensations of that scene has been Stephen Moffat, who, in conjunction with Mark Gatiss, functions as show-runner -- he also wrote the first episode, and Gatiss wrote the third.
Moffat displays the same clever delivery he has displayed in his work on the revival of Doctor Who. In "Sherlock," though, Moffat practically reinvents the crime show by merely looking backward. It’s a genre that has become overburdened with lurid sex crimes and bad-boy gangster shenanigans, but Moffat has dispensed of lurid modern affectations by riffing on original Holmes stories to craft intricate adventures that hinge on a variety of wrongdoing -- a string of suicides, an antiquities smuggler and a manipulative bomber.
The gift of Moffat’s "Sherlock" is that a family can set together and watch it -- and it’s not even remotely pandering or corny. Imagine the thrill of a crime drama not made to automatically exclude some younger viewers, while neither whitewashing the plot.
The series wouldn’t work, though, without Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman, from "The Office UK" and "The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe," as Watson. The two provide their characters with down-to-earth personalities you can latch onto, even though the essence of these roles can traditionally feel like a list of characteristics.
This is particularly a triumph for Cumberbatch, whose Holmes seems almost like a high-functioning autistic, so sensitive and disconnected is he from standards and conventions.
It’s the combination of the two types -- Freeman’s Watson is a by-the-book, no-nonsense sort of fellow who’s being dragged down to the reality of the imperfect and rather messy world -- that draws the audience in.
They are guides to each other’s world, and the implication is that we all build our own intrigue within our own circumstances. All you need is the focus of Holmes and the open mind of Watson.
John Mitchell is the Transcript’s arts and entertainment editor.