And if you didn't hear R.E.M.'s "7 Chinese Brothers" playing over imaginary end credits when you finished the story, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din.
I am not better than you, Mr. Bacardi.
Though I have dim childhood memories of The Five Chinese Brothers, it was R.E.M. that filled my head as I read Seven Sons by Alexander Grecian and Riley Rossmo. When went through my head was not various tellings of an old folktale, but the unintelligible mumblings of the Man From Atlanta. I came into this remembering little beyond "seven chinese brothers swallowing the ocean", and read this excellent new AiT/Planetlar release with fresh eyes and mind. Though Grecian's wonderful essay that closes the book discusses the history of the story in all it's permutations, I did not come to Seven Sons with the baggage of childhood or political correctness.
What strikes me most about the book is the deep emotional power that Grecian and Rossmo wring from the triggering incident of the story. How have other tellings - children's books - glossed over the fact that this story hinges on the death of innocent children? In Seven Sons, that is brought to the terrible forefront in a sequence that's as riveting as any I've seen in comics. Rossmo's jagged art, filled with swirling blacks and expressionistic figures really sells the tragedy that lies at the heart of the story. He does so most notably in a beautiful panel that freezes time to show a single tear representing the struggle Brother One goes through as he tries to save both the children and their rescuers. It's a time dilation that brilliantly sets the emotional stage for the rest of the book.
Originally, this was to be called Seven Brothers, but the name was changed to separate it from the Woo/Ennis Seven Brothers at Virgin Comics. In a strange twist, this renaming points to most interesting and fully-developed individual in the book. The mother anchors this story from the opening pages all the way through to the explosive climax. She is in many ways the fulcrum of the book, a silent mover. The business-driven title change points to a fundamental theme of the book: these are sons, and that definition makes this a story about family in a way that the idea of adult brothers does not. It is tighter, more fragile, and more filled with passion.
If there's a flaw with Seven Sons, it is this: I don't know it ever manages to match the power of that triggering sequence. The biggest problem is one inherent to the source story: how to create individual brothers in a story that relies on them being indistinguishable? Though there's some beautiful storytelling, the brothers remain defined solely by their powers. We come to understand them as a unit, and feel their inner life as a group, but they remain interchangeable parts in a machine work plot. After that glimpse into the heroism of Brother One, we never get in again for am emotional closeup for any of the brothers. It's well written, and Rossmo keeps bringing fantastic art to every page ... and had they not played their hole card early, I might have had a different reaction to the book. When your opening gambit is a sequence as powerful as any I've seen in comics, you have to have one hell of a follow-through. I hope we see more from this team ... because once they can get that follow through, it will be something truly special to read.