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Spotlight on: The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse

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The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse Scott Morse, The Barefoot Serpent

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a graphic novel aficionado. To begin with I've never even seen a Sandman or anything by Alan Moore, and when I read Road to Perdition recently, it was the film novelization which, although by the same author (Max Allan Collins), doesn't offer near the same experience absent the artwork by Richard Piers Rayner. In fact, the last illustrated narrative of any kind that I read -- other than newspaper comic strips -- was Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth which, with its intensely depressing storyline, was apt to turn some like me -- who seeks hope, not despair, in his escapism -- off of graphic storytelling for good.

So it was not necessarily with pleasure that I found Scott Morse's The Barefoot Serpent lying on my office chair with a sticky note attached reading "Please review this" from my editor. Further down the note, however, she appealed to my vanity and love of movies. She said she didn't want just anyone reviewing this combination Akira Kurosawa biography and Hawaiian inspirational fiction (with elements lifted from the great Japanese filmmaker's work), but someone familiar with said director's work. If there's any way to get a writer to do you a favor, it's to treat him like the resident expert -- like he's the only one who can do it justice. (Actually, that's probably the way to treat men in general and, although I can see right through it, I still fall for it willingly.)

The title of The Barefoot Serpent refers to depression which, according to Morse's afterword, afflicted Kurosawa (referred to in the book only as Akira) throughout his life, eventually leading to a suicide attempt. But Morse's colorfully kinetic paintings also illustrate the other aspects of Kurosawa's timeline, from his artistic childhood (in a family of samurai) through his development of the passion for filmmaking that saved his life.

The Barefoot Serpent is designed with the monochrome fiction sandwiched between full-color reality -- like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. The wild lines of the Akira part sharply contrast with the soft comforting curves of the girl's story -- Morse's way, perhaps, of focusing on the source of his inspiration rather than the creative result, although it certainly is this inspired story that is the centerpiece of the book.

Following the suicide of her teenage brother, a young girl's family takes a much-needed vacation to Hawaii, their sadness and distance presented in heavy silence. But when on the beach, this haole ("those who do not breathe," used to denote white people because only the dead could have such pale skin) girl witnesses the legendary Night Marchers (the spirits of dead warriors, often seen walking into the ocean). This starts her on a small-scale adventure where she finds her own savior/samurai in the person of a mask-making native boy, who is at first antagonistic but soon develops into a friend, allowing the girl to release her sadness and, in turn, help her family reclaim what they had before.

The Barefoot Serpent is such a beautiful and layered story that I find myself appreciating it more with each reading. How Morse has peppered his work with references from Dreams, Yojimbo, High and Low, Ikiru, and others enhances the experience. A reader who appreciates how Kurosawa's characters remain hopeful and virtuous, even in the face of despair and temptation, would most appreciate what Morse is trying to do here. However, lack of knowledge of these films would not detract from its purity of emotion or its sheer entertainment value. It looks like I may be visiting the graphic section of the bookstore with some frequency, after all.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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