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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rebirth: Thoughts on South Africa's most hyped graphic novel

Yes, I know Rebirth, brainchild of Josh Ryba and Daniel Browde, was released a month or so ago, so I'm a little late to the party here, but I only finished reading Rebirth this morning whilst sitting in bed with my coffee.

With all the hype that has surrounded the production of this graphic novel, at least in the circles I move in anyway, I was expecting the story to blow me away. The concept is a pretty unique one - it combines the supernatural with the South African history that was drummed into us as children, the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck off the Cape of Good Hope.

This combined with the idea that the HIV virus is attacking vampires, is a completely different take on our local history and the socio-economic problems that plague South Africa. Rebirth combines locations as well, and jumps backwards and forwards in time between Jan van Riebeeck's arrival in Cape Town and the present day in Johannesburg.

Unfortunately none of these pretty amazing ideas can save this graphic novel from being forgettable - which make no mistake, saddens me. I tried very hard to like it right from the beginning, but my first impressions after a mere 10 pages were that it was rushed, and the concepts could have been developed further.

Let's begin with the quotes at the front of the book. Like so many works of literature these days, there are quotes from notable figures expressing their admiration for the work. Fair enough. What baffles me however, is the choice of people these quotes are taken from. Ok, not all of them, there are some very relevant quotes, but somehow including Rasty, a (granted well known) tattoo/graffiti artist and Jacques Moolman, leader singer of Shadowclub doesn't bring credibility to your work.

These people are very cool certainly, and I know them, they're interesting, intelligent and funny, however they have absolutely nothing to do with graphic novels, comic books or writing and in my opinion are simply not qualified to be talking about a work of this nature. Lauren Beukes would in my mind have been an excellent choice - she's worked on graphic novels with Bill Willingham and she's one of South Africa's most well known science fiction writers. There are some film makers there that I feel work, as this is a story that could translate well into film, but being more selective in your endorsement choices makes all the difference when trying to recommend your work unless you're merely trying to sell it on celebrity endorsements.

Next I'd like to discuss historical accuracy. I'm going to try and avoid spoilers here, as there is a pretty big one, but if I seem vague at this point know that I'm trying to protect you.

Yes, I know this is a vampire novel, yes I know it's not real. That said, if you're going to bring in historical figures as a major selling point of your story, you'd think that there would be key factors and moments in that persons life that you would need to adhere to in order for it to tie in at least tentatively to the facts as we know them. Rebirth does this in the most cursory of manners.

Maybe it's just me, but surely you should attempt to tie in the historical context in some manner, otherwise there's no real point in having an historical character at all - Jan van Riebeeck could just as easily have been a random settler that came to the Cape aboard one of the boats. Nameless, but more easily assimilated into the story.

The story itself starts off a little clumsily and battles its way through, jumping through time and focusing on a couple of different primary characters. At this stage there is no real indication of what drives the characters. You get hints of their background and motivations, and I would hope that this is something that will develop in Book 2 (is there one? I don't know yet).

My major issue with Book 1 was that by the end of the book I felt the story hadn't really developed very much, which is surprising considering how thick it is. You're halfway through when you realise that the story is really only in its infancy and there is no possible way it will progress much further by the time you're finished.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy Rebirth, I just feel the storytelling and narrative motivations could have been tighter, the characters could have been more developed, especially Jan van Riebeeck, who I personally would have loved to have seen more of. In all the tweets and comments I saw promoting Rebirth the key selling point was "Jan van Riebeeck as a vampire!" and yet this is such a small part of the story that it's really a let down by the end.

Apart from the writing, the other key focus of any graphic novel is the art style, and this is also something that is inconsistent. At times the characters and environments look beautifully rendered, with crisp lines and at other moments it looks as if two different people have drawn the characters. There are moments where they look incomplete and rushed, the outlines suddenly get thicker and blurry, and the lack of consistency is a little off putting, with characters vacillating between a clean, angular feel and a rounded, smudgy one.

I need to reiterate that it's not that I didn't enjoy Rebirth, but my biggest criticism overall would be that the entire product looks rushed.  I saw so much hype about it in the months leading up to release that although I didn't rush out and buy it immediately, it was high up on my "to read" list.

If I had to recommend it to others I would still have it on that list, perhaps just slightly lower down than it was before.

Rebirth is ambitious, and there are bound to be some teething problems. I'd definitely like to see a follow up, perhaps even more than one, and if you're as hopeful as I am about an original story that is set against the backdrop of places you know and a city you love, then even with the criticism Rebirth should still be in your collection.

See what the authors had to say below:

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