In 1987 at what was arguably the height of his run on Marvel Comics X-Men, writer Chris Claremont branched out and tried his hand at producing a novel. Like many people I knew at the time, I enjoyed what Claremont was doing with the X-Characters (he ended up handling a LOT more than just the X-Men) so I picked up a copy of First Flight, hoping to get a novel-sized dose of Claremont magic.
What I got was an object lesson: different media have different needs. Claremont’s run on the X-Men lasted something like sixteen years, and arguably reshaped Marvel into the behemoth it has become today. Claremont’s novel was – well, pretty generic. It didn’t catch my interest, and until I looked it up for purposes of this review, I didn’t even realise there were two sequels.
All of which brings me to Jason Franks, and Bloody Waters. Franks has been a stalwart of graphic media in Australia for some time, through Black House Comics. Given the chance to read his first novel I recalled Claremont, and experienced a touch of trepidation: what if Franks’ effort turned out to be just as blandly generic?
I really needn’t have worried. Bloody Waters is an interesting, fast-paced work made all the more fascinating by the fact that it’s stripped back to the minimum. Franks doesn’t get lost in the frills and fripperie of the novel length, opting instead to drive the plot forward as relentlessly as the hardcore guitar riffs the book references.
Clarice Marnier is born to rock. Bloody Waters follows her from a young, guitar-obsessed girl through to adulthood as the world’s premiere guitar goddess. She’s a woman of few words, preferring to let her music do the talking – and it’s patently clear from Franks’ writing that he’s working in a space that he loves when depicting the world of hard-edged, rough and ready rock music.
Clarice’s nascent career meets a problem early in the piece, however, and after the manner of the classic rock/blues legends, she makes a deal with the Devil himself to see her way clear. Herein begin the real troubles: magic, rivals, monstrous enemies, and of course the usual rock-and-roll issues of sex, drugs, and dodgy drummers.
Franks plays to his strengths. Bloody Waters is episodic in nature, and despite the action and the pace, it is strongly dialogue-driven – as one would expect from a writer of graphic novels. The dialogue represents the best of the work, full of sharp lines, wit, clever references and zippy stingers that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic 90s action film.
It’s not your regular novel: don’t make that mistake. But it’s fast and it’s fun, and Franks’ love of rock-and-roll shines like a beacon, lifting the characters and the plot out of simple generic stereotyping into the realms of a genuine homage as well as sly parody. Most of all, the graphic-novel influence is very real. This isn’t Claremont, tepidly stepping into the realms of narrative prose: Franks is in no way ashamed of his work in graphic media, and he does a fine job adapting the strengths of that form of writing, rather than abandoning them in favour of more conventional technique.
The punchy, episodic nature of the writing means this book is ideal for the new world of digital readers. You can take it in bite-sized chunks: read chapters on the way to work, or between classes, or over breakfast. It’s a lot like having access to the entire run of your favourite comic book series, without all the flimsy pulp and the advertising.
The upshot? Bloody Waters isn’t by any means a conventional novel, but it may well represent the shape of things to come. And in the meantime, it’s a lot of fun to read.
You can find Bloody Waters on Amazon, via this link: Bloody Waters