The Moon Moth by Jack Vance; adapted as a graphic novel by Humayoun Ibrahim
My favorite Jack Vance story is “The Moon Moth,” so when I heard that First Second had a graphic novel version of the story, I was extremely excited. However, I also was nervous, as one is when a favorite novel is made into a movie: Will the adaptation live up to my high expectations? In this case, I’m pleased to report that Ibrahim’s The Moon Moth, while obviously incapable of employing Vance’s rich language throughout, has, at the same time, an advantage to the original prose-only story because it shows us the images of a highly visual work of literature.
The basic plot of The Moon Moth is that our main character — Edwer Thissell — has been sent with little notice to Sirene to act as “New Consular Representative of the Home Planet.” We are told the position is dangerous since the last person who held it was killed. Thissel finds out that everyone must wear a mask and communicate by singing to the accompaniment of a wide-range of instruments that mark one’s intentions and place in society, as well as the listener’s social rank, among other nuances. To make matters worse, one can change masks regularly, but in doing so one can easily offend other inhabitants and be killed immediately for such offenses. Two other aspects of communication cause the newcomer problems: Direct questions are frowned upon and one is to go around and just take what one deserves in life since money is not used. Subtle violations of complex, unstated social rules, once again, can lead to death.
Thematically, the story deals with issues of our world, of course: Sirene is Earth. How much of our various communication systems (verbal and nonverbal) are so nuanced that it takes years of living to actually learn the subtleties of a particular culture or subculture? How many different masks do we wear? Do we ever take them off? Can we ever take them off? On Sirene, one can wear any mask that one can make “stick.” What Vance calls “Strakh” is one’s sense of self or prestige or Face. In other words, the mask one wears represents one’s face, using the word face in the way we use it in the phrase “To lose face.” Ironically, to show one’s true face, one’s true self, is the ultimate loss of face! Is life on Earth that different from life on Sirene?
The final aspect of the story I love is that it blends science fiction with crime fiction. There’s a killer on the loose, and Thissell has to act as Sherlock on Sirene. The story is very complex for such a short one, and Ibrahim does an excellent job of presenting this complexity, building suspense, and taking the reader through the wonderfully surprising twists and turns of The Moon Moth. On top of all this thematic richness, genre blending, and complex narrative, there’s even an O. Henry ending. What more could one want from a story? Perhaps to have it illustrated. And that’s why I’m so pleased that Humayoun Ibrahim decided to turn it into a graphic novel.
Ibrahim certainly presses visual aspects of the graphic novel to his advantage as you can see in the included images. The two most interesting aspects of Vance’s story that one wishes most to see are the wide variety of musical instruments used to communicate on the planet of Sirene and the unique, highly individualistic masks worn by inhabitants of Sirene. The masks and instruments are not only beautifully detailed and original, but also rich in fantastic colors that make one know he’s entered another world. I love the way Ibrahim introduces us to the complex system of communication by including before the start of the narrative a two-page spread of the instruments and their uses. In just two pages, without any storytelling, the artist allows us to see how stratified the culture is and how that stratification is reflected in the linguistic use of instruments.
The images that are most original, however, are the ones that include singing. When we read comics, most of us don’t notice word balloons much more than we do punctuation in a prose-only story, even though we certainly should. Word balloons are sometimes quite routine and simplistic, but more often they convey a good amount of information. However, they are rarely as elaborate and ornate as are Ibrahim’s in The Moon Moth. As you can see in the images, it’s impossible not to notice when the characters are singing and how that singing reflects the color of the instrument and other nuances of the linguistic exchange.
I’ve written far more than I expected to in this review, but I know there are many Jack Vance fans who visit this site, and I can’t imagine their not wanting to know whether they’ll want to add this gem to their Vance library. The answer? Absolutely! If you love Vance, how can you not want this rarity? And those of you who are new to Vance? This story is a great stand-alone work. And perhaps it will get you to read more Vance. We here at Fanlit would like that.