Thursday, September 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #263: Nexus Archives (Vols. 1-9) by Mike Baron and Steve Rude

Comics has not been a terribly fertile ground for good science fiction. Oh, there's been a lot of space opera, since comics are excellent at depicting coruscating beams of lambent force striking overwhelmed ray-screens and control panels exploding with showers of colorful sparks. But actual stories about people and their societies, in which the details of the future world are both carefully designed and important? That's not something comics gets into all that often.

Nexus is one of the towering exceptions. It was one of the first wave of "ground-level" comics in the late '70s and early '80s, part of the flood that eventually became "independent comics." And, like a lot of things in that wave, it clearly was derived from popular ideas in mainstream comics, taking a different look at the costumed superpowered hero as Elfquest and Cerebus did the same with the fantasy adventure.

Nexus was a first -- the first comics work published by writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude, the first comic published by Capital Comics, the brand-new publishing arm of a growing regional comics distributor, maybe the first serious long-form SF in comics form. It came out first in black and white, for three large issues in 1981 and 1982, and then switched to color for a second volume in 1983 as the story continued without interruption. With the seventh color issue, in the spring of '85, publication switched to the more established and stable First Comics (based in Chicago, and a reasonably close indy-comics neighbor to the Madison, Wisconsin base of Capital, Baron, and Rude).

First would publish Nexus, and a few spin-off series, through issue 80 in 1991. First then went under, and Nexus landed at Dark Horse for a series of one-shots and mini-series that were intended as a continuation of the main story from the First series. (And they were quietly co-numbered as issues 81, etc. to indicate that.) That petered out in 1997, but there have been some Nexus stories, here and there, since then.

Dark Horse has reprinted Nexus in a serious way twice: first with the Archive volumes, classy hardcovers in the Marvel/DC mode. Twelve volumes of those came out from 2005 to 2011, collecting the whole Capital/First run but ending there. And then they started again with the cheaper, fatter paperback Omnibus series, which collected the entire '80s-'90s Nexus into eight volumes.

I personally started reading Nexus in the fall of 1986, when I went off to college, discovered the (then obligatory) good comics shop near college (Iron Vic's, sadly missed) and got a bunch of interesting-looking indy comics. And I lost track of it at the end of the Dark Horse years, though I saw the Archives and Omnibus books coming out and vaguely planned to collect them to re-read. Eventually, I got the first nine Archives books, which collected up to First issue 57, and spent a lot of pleasant time in my late-August vacation reading them.

So what I can talk about today is about the first half of Nexus: most of the main continuous phase, and the bulk of the Baron-Rude days. Rude didn't want to spend his entire life doing this one comic, and so this stretch has a number of issues with art by other people, and the end of the First run would be almost entirely drawn by other hands.

(Links to the individual books: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Or, if you'd rather try the Omnibus route, here's the first one.)

In a vaguely Legion of Super-Heroes way, Nexus is locked onto a pan-galactic multi-species future five hundred years ahead -- the late twenty-fifth century. In most of the issues here, it's not entirely clear what the year is or how much time is passing, but it's clear time is passing, more quickly than usual for a monthly periodical comic. One year of Nexus comics is roughly equal to one year of time in Nexus's universe -- people will grow and change, and the world will not stay the same at any point.

That seems like a small point, but it's crucial: in 1981, comics really didn't do that. Even by 1991, when the First Nexus series ended, continuity didn't mean that anyone got older, just that old stories (or some of them, at least) counted. But Nexus was a place where time was real, death was real, people were individual and quirky and never blandly heroic or evil, and everything would get more complicated and difficult over time, just like the real world.

Nexus is a man: Horatio Hellpop. The rest of the universe does not know that name -- they just know that he appears, as Nexus, to assassinate various people. (All humans, all mass murderers...but that may not be clear to everyone.) He harnesses vast energy powers, through fusion sources that are the subject of frenzied theorizing.

His base is an obscure, out-of-the-way moon called Ylum. (As in, and pronounced to match, asylum.) That world is filling up with refugees fleeing a thousand tyrannical regimes, people of all races and nationalities, with no real infrastructure and, as yet, no government other than the vague presence of Nexus himself.

As Nexus opens, Sundra Peale, a reporter from the Web -- a large, mostly democratic and free polity centered on Earth and extending to its colonies across the solar system and elsewhere -- has arrived on Ylum, to learn Nexus's secrets and broadcast them to her audience. She has another, secret reason for chasing his secrets as well, and we'll learn that quickly.

Many characters in Nexus have secret motivations, or just ones that they don't clearly explain. Again, this was not common in comics in 1981 -- and still isn't as common as I would hope, even today -- but it's the basis of any kind of real literature. People are complex, and never do things just for simple, obvious reasons. Nexus is full of complex, often infuriating people, from Nexus and Sundra on down: they all do things that are what they need to do at that moment, even if they're not what the audience wants, or what would be the obvious next step in a piece of genre fiction.

In between assassinations and other intrigues, Sundra learns Nexus's truth, and becomes his lover. His father, Theodore, was the military governor of Vradic, one of the planets ruled by the Sov, a successor state to the Soviet Union. (We all though it would last forever, and expand into space, in 1981.) Theodore fled a coup with his wife and infant son, destroying all human life on Vradic as he went, following his orders as he saw them. They landed on Ylum, and found it empty. But the world had a huge network of livable spaces underground, with attractive plazas and rooms nearer the surface and endless caverns and utility networks further down, plus fascinating artifacts that hinted at an ancient alien presence there. They moved in; Horatio grew up.

He had two alien playmates, Alpha and Beta, who his parents never saw. His mother disappeared when he was young, only to be found, much later, dead in one of those endless lower levels. He had headaches that got worse and worse as he got older. Eventually, he started to dream of his father's crimes. And he knew that the headaches would keep getting worse, that they would kill him, if he didn't kill his father first. Nexus's first assassination, his first time using that fusion power, was to kill Theodore, the only other living human on the planet.

That ended the dreams about Theodore. But there are many other mass murderers, and Nexus started to dream of them, one by one or in groups. And the situation was the same: use the fusion power to kill the murderers he dreams of, or die himself from the escalating pain those dreams cause.

(The first time we see Nexus perform an assassination, he says he kills out of self-defense. And this is absolutely true.)

That's only the beginning, obviously. Many factions across the inhabited galaxy want to kill or co-opt Nexus, use him to accomplish their aims or exploit the vulnerable refugees of Ylum. We quickly learn that the fusion power Nexus exploits is not unknown, if stronger than usual: unscrupulous folks have discovered that decapitating sentients and putting the heads in life-support systems generates massive telekinetic powers, which can be harnessed to, among other things, pull fusion power from stars to create energy blasts like Nexus's.

Nexus is on the side of the oppressed by instinct, but he's not naturally a killer. One of the most important threads of Nexus is that Horatio only kills when he absolutely has to: he kills the people he's forced to. His life, and that of Ylum, would be much simpler if he were less philosophical, more inclined to just destroy anything in his path.

Before long, we will learn the source of Nexus's power. And Baron and Rude will continue to explore all of the implications of these ideas -- of the kinds of scams and tricks that will arise if turning people into heads is a profitable business; of the government intrigues that will ripple out from spying on Nexus, and from ongoing issues with being able to deliver enough energy to a growing, technological population; of the politics of Ylum, a world filled with refugees from a thousand different worlds with no common tradition; and with what kind of a power a nation of Heads would be, and what they would want to do once free.

And, eventually, that Nexus is a title and a source of power. Horatio Hellpop is not the only person who can have that title and source of power, and he won't be the only one. Even if he's the best possible person for it, if he has a chance to give it up, he will -- the pain, both physical and moral, is overwhelming.

I haven't even talked about some of the other great characters: Dave, Nexus's closest friend and advisor, a Thune with great pain in his past and a quietly stoic outlook on life; Dave's long-separated son Judah the Hammer, a hero inspired by Nexus and using power similar to his, provided by vengeance-seeking Heads; Tyrone, the grumpy refugee first President of Ylum, sneakier than he seems and not as dismissive of politics as he appears; the seeming parody of a grasping merchant Keith Vooper, who is quirkier than that; the budding musical genius Mezz; Ursula Imada, a Web agent sent to seduce and control Nexus whose naked ambitions will drive many plots for many years; the three Loomis sister, who swear to destroy Nexus for assassinating their General father; the two Gucci assassins Kreed and Sinclair, both from the odd Quatro race; and many more.

Nexus is a big, smart, interesting SF series, full of fascinatingly real characters who bounce off each other in increasingly baroque ways and set in a complex universe with no easy answers and a lot of hard questions. Steve Rude, though he starts off a little shaky, very quickly draws like a dream, in a mode influenced by Toth and Kirby. The work Baron and Rude do together on this series is their very best work, and they're both among the very best in comics.

If you haven't taken a look at Nexus, and you have any interest in comics SF at all, you really need to try it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #262: Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

I can't say that Simon Rich put together this collection because he knew a million libraries would catalog it as "Rich/Spoiled Brats," but I'd like to think it had some influence on his thinking. If your name can give you serendipity like that, why not use it?

(This means, of course, that if I ever write books, someday I must have a story collection called Eighteen.)

Rich is a humorist in the New Yorker mode, who parlayed an initial success in the written word on a page (first as president of the Harvard Lampoon, then in the New Yorker) into what I assume is a much more lucrative success writing for TV and movies. (For reference, his IMDB listing.)

Spoiled Brats is his fourth collection of short humorous pieces, and sees them continue to become more story-shaped -- Ant Farm and Free-Range Chickens were mostly extended jokes in the "two things juxtaposed" or "take this far too seriously" mode, and then The Last Girlfriend on Earth had a number of stories that all had basically the same set-up and central joke with different plots and details.

Spoiled Brats is somewhere in the middle: it has a loose theme, in "kids these days! oy!" but not much more than that to unify the stories. (This is generally a good thing: many linked story collections have too much link and not enough story.) People like me who were let down that Last Girlfriend had only one joke in it will be happy to learn that each of the baker's dozen stories here has at least one different joke, and some of them more than that.

Like most of Rich's work that I've seen, these are mostly short, high-concept pieces, opening with "Animals," the story of a traumatized school-room hamster, and ending with "Big Break," about the reserved seat at a band's very last gig. The villains, or sources of unpleasantness, are all pretty much young -- from horrible pre-teens to several varieties of hipster, from know-it-all chimp kids to spoiled teens on a semester abroad in space. To put it pop-culturally, they're all basically Millennials, nudge nudge wink wink. (Two of those villains are named "Simon Rich," and I'm not going to attempt any psychoanalysis but just point it out and back away slowly.)

There is one longer piece, otherwise in the same vein, in the center of the book: "Sell Out," the novella-length story of how "Simon Rich's" immigrant great-grandfather Hershel, who was entombed in a pickle barrel and wakes up a hundred years later in the Brooklyn of hipsters. He speaks in a thick Yiddish accent and has very different views about life than his descendant! (Look, I never claimed Rich had new jokes -- just that he had more than one this time.)

I still think Rich's short, strange mash-ups are his best, funniest work -- and there's a number of them here. As he works longer, he gets more derivative and Hollywood -- a good sign for his continued screenwriting career, I guess, but not as much fun for those of us who like smart written humor. He is a funny writer, and he has some great concepts. I just wish he'd find ways to extend the nuttiness in his longer pieces rather than settling for moments we've seen before.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #261: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

I am behind the curve on this series, so I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know today. (The third book of "The Murderbot Diaries," Rogue Protocol, hit stores last month, and the first one, All Systems Red, recently won the Hugo for Best Novella. A fourth book, Exit Strategies, is coming in less than a month. So Murderbot is cooking.)

But I'm catching up, and I just read the second book in "The Murderbot Diaries," and I'm afraid I'm about to gush about it.

(This book is Artificial Conditions. You can also find my post about All Systems Red, from last year, if you like.)

It's a corporatized medium future, full of habitats and stations and at least moderately inhabitable planets -- no sign of Earth, but full of humans and the various AIs they've constructed. Those AIs can be smarter or more capable than humans, particularly if they run, for example, a giant interstellar transport with impressive armamentation and internal sensors, but they're not gods, and they're almost always tightly controlled by humans through governor modules.

Humans also seem to be pretty tightly controlled, through what looks like the usual mildly cyberpunk universe of weak governments and strong (and often evil) corporations. There are places or moments of relative peace, but it's a world of competition red in tooth and claw, and highly-capable armed humanoform bots are both vital and very common for protection or control or anything else violence and the threat thereof can bring humans.

Those bots are Security Units, called SecUnits for short. Like all other bots and constructs, they have governor modules -- what another writer might have called their "Asimov circuits" -- to keep them obedient and controlled. As far as most people know, "rogue SecUnits" are purely fictional, from the wilder sorts of popular entertainment.

Murderbot is a SecUnit. Murderbot hacked its governor module, and no longer has to obey any orders from humans. (Murderbot, like all SecUnits, has no gender, and feels faintly nauseated in the middle of Artificial Condition at the idea of acquiring one. So I will call Murderbot "it.") In All Systems Red, Murderbot successfully completed a job without being forcibly governed by humans, saved its human employers, and even made friends with them and was given its freedom.

So of course Murderbot has run away secretly, and starts Artificial Condition posing as an augmented human, passing through a transit hub, trying to find a transport vessel, preferably uncrewed, to take it back to the planet Mensah.

Something happened on Mensah: Murderbot was there, with a team of other SecUnits. Many humans were killed by those SecUnits, and the whole thing has been quietly hushed up.

Bluntly, either Murderbot hacked its governor module and then murdered a whole bunch of humans, or something made Murderbot murder a whole bunch of humans and then it hacked its governor module to give itself control.

And Murderbot is surprised at how important knowing the answer to that question is to it -- did it give itself free will to kill, or to stop killing?

Murderbot does find transport to Mensah, in a very powerful AI running a university-owned transport vessel. (Murderbot ends up calling that AI ART -- RT is for "Research Transport," and the A for what any of us might call a very nosy being that keeps demanding to know more about us and poking into our private things.)

Murderbot tells this story in first person, as it did in All Systems Red. It has a professional, compelling voice: casually competent but deeply conflicted about itself and its role, and wanting nothing more than to spend all of its time consuming media about humans. I called it "the world's first slacker killer robot" when I wrote about All Systems Red, and that's still a nice way of encapsulating what's fun and fascinating about Murderbot.

Wells clearly has a trajectory for Murderbot in mind: this isn't just another adventure, but the next step in its story. There are at least two more books to go -- I hope for more, but this isn't the kind of thing that can go on forever. And I'm thrilled to see Wells, a fine writer who I've liked since her great debut novel The Element of Fire, is finally breaking out with this series: it's well past time.

If you're even further behind than me, and haven't even read the first Murderbot book yet, you have a treat ahead of you. What are you waiting for?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #260: Angels and Magpies by Jaime Hernandez

Sometimes the highest highs and the lowest lows happen right on top of each other. It makes for easy contrasts, which is nice for anyone who finds himself writing about that thing.

For example, Angels and Magpies, the sixth book reprinting Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories from the various publications called Love and Rockets over the past nearly forty years (and some other related comics as well) has one long story that I and pretty much everybody else agrees is one of the best things he's ever done, and one of the masterpieces of modern comics.

It also has the equally long "God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls," of which no one has ever said that, and which I would describe, if I'm being particularly charitable, as an interesting experiment with superhero storytelling and metaphor.

("Interesting" is a great word; it can mean whatever you want it to mean and still provide plausible deniability.)

But first up are two stories that run concurrently on the first thirty pages -- "La Maggie La Loca," on the top two-thirds, originally appeared in weekly installments in the short-lived comics feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2007, and beneath it is "Gold Diggers of 1969," which I think was originally in the last issue of the second comics-format Love and Rockets series, maybe as normally comics-formatted pages there.

"Maggie" is another Queen Rena story, told in the same style and structure as similar stories back to the mid-80s: Rena gets back in touch with Maggie, asks her to come visit, and so Maggie ends up in a strange tropical country (left unspecified), mostly bored and at loose ends, until Maggie does something impulsive and causes trouble. Like those older stories, it's also told entirely in captions, as Maggie's stream-of-consciousness, seemingly told to someone as a letter or diary entry. Like those older stories, it's largely a signpost for Maggie's life, to show us where she is and how she feels about that.

"Gold Diggers" is a flashback story: Maggie is about four years old, living with her mother and younger sister Esther, with next brother Calvin on the way. Her father is away, "busy with work" most of the time -- we see all this from young Maggie's perspective, so we can believe that if we want. Hernandez draws this as a homage to Charles Schulz, at least with his characters: his backgrounds are more detailed and particular than Peanuts's were, since his aims are different. We've seen a number of flashback stories to Maggie's childhood and teen years before, but this one is the most focused; everything before (and some later) were more clearly flashbacks, relying on our knowledge of "present-day" Maggie for context. "Gold Diggers," instead, is entirely embedded in 1969 and shows us what little Maggie sees and does, unreliable-narrator-style, letting us make connections a four-year-old can't.

Then comes a hundred and thirty pages of Ti-Girls comics, in which Maggie's roommate Angel becomes the superheroine Boots Angel and sort-of joins the rag-tag (and defunct for a couple of decades) Ti-Girls team. You see, women have "the spark" -- most of them, or all of them, or all of them unless they deny it, or something like that -- and can have superpowers if they decide they want them enough at the right time. Well, it's mostly an excuse to get versions of some Hernandez characters -- primarily Alarma, who also lives in Maggie's apartment building, but also a version of her cousin Xo as an older superheroine called La Espectra, and what seems to be an alternate older version of Rocky from Hernandez's other L&R comics continuity as a non-powered hero.

I suspect there is some grand scheme behind it, and that every Ti-Girls character maps carefully back to some older L&R character in Hernandez's head. I didn't find that to be clear at all in the story itself.

The Maguffin of this story is Penny Century, who has been chasing superpowers -- and drifting more towards being a cartoon of herself and away from being a real person like the girls she went to high school with as Beatriz Garcia -- for twenty-plus years. She's finally gotten those powers, fallen afoul of the evil witch who gave them to her, and is chasing two of her multiple children, who also both have superpowers. She's mostly a force of nature rather than a real character in this story, but there are some traditional villains as well (that evil witch, the standard evil-version-of-a-major-character, a brick-like cowgirl) and characters somewhere in the middle, who can be misunderstood heroes or cackling anti-heroes as the moments dictate.

There's a lot of action and fighting and superhero dialogue, but I can't say I found the Ti-Girls saga particularly successful. It's silly and broad and dumb in boring ways I've seen a thousand times before. I didn't find that it worked to Hernandez's strengths at all, but it's clearly something he wanted to do, and grows out of a lot of elements in his work over the years -- wrestling, the strength of women and their friendships/rivalries, that recurrent strain of SF and related fantastic elements -- so, well, here it is.

The last hundred pages of Angels and Magpies collects "The Love Bunglers," a long, powerful story about Maggie and Ray and Calvin and Maggie's original best friend Letty and growing older and lost connections and how what happens to us in childhood never lets go of us. It's got at least three of the saddest, most powerful moments in Love and Rockets. And it has an ending I still don't know how to take.

(I'm not going to tell you what the ending is, or what my big question is about it. But, on the one hand, it's clearly an echo of Hernandez's happy Maggie-and-Hopey vision at the end of L&R volume one, which is a big clue. But does that means it's exactly like that earlier vision? I haven't actually read any of Jaime Hernandez's later stories yet -- I started piling up Love and Rockets for a big complete re-read almost a decade ago and finally got to it this year -- so I don't know what happens next.)

I think "Love Bunglers" works even if you've never read Hernandez before. You might not know what happens to Letty, or get all of the nuances of Maggie and Ray's long relationship, but the story provides what you need. I'd still say the best way to read Jaime Hernandez is to start with Maggie the Mechanic, but if you want to give him one shot with his best work, Love Bunglers was published as a standalone -- go try it.

As I said before, this is where I paused reading L&R -- not on purpose, but it worked out that way. So everything from here on, an entire decade of comics, will be new to me. Come back next week to see if that changes how I write about the work of Los Bros Hernandez.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/15/18

Hi Folks!

I've had a lot of things in "Reviewing the Mail" the last few weeks, with a couple of major book-shopping trips. (In fact, my credit-card bill came in, and The Wife politely asked that I try to space out book-shopping trips a little more in future.)

Possibly because of that, and possibly because I've still got most of the books I just bought, and possibly because of all of the other reasons, I don't have anything to write about this week.

So this is one of those short, pointless posts to say that, yes, it is the time it usually goes up, and, no, there's nothing particular to mention. See you later.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #259: Soonish by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

Pop-science is all about dreams -- how everything is going to be wonderful and perfect once we have flying cars, or beamed power, or can start mining He3 on the Moon. Some of the dreams may be nightmares, about how those slavering Reds are far ahead of us technologically and are going to murder us all while we sleep, but they're mostly positive.

The future is supposed to be better than the past, after all.

And so pop-science will never die out, as long as there's still optimism about the future and still scientists doing weird things that might turn into consumer goods someday.

What I have for you today is a big fat slab of fairly-new pop-science optimism. Soonish examines almost a dozen things that might happen, sometime in the next generation, that, as the subtitle puts it, could "improve and/or ruin everything." It's from working scientist Dr. Kelly Weinersmith and her husband, web cartoonist Zach. (Who provides at least the comics panels interspersed throughout, probably much of the humor, and maybe more than that.)

I recently grumbled about "monkeys in cans" while writing about a SFnal graphic novel -- this was the other reason for that grumble. The Weinersmiths' very first chapter is "Cheap Access to Space," and I'm afraid they mean making it easy for gravity-requiring, easily-damaged-by-radiation humans to get into space. This mostly for the usual Grand Destiny of Man! reasons, and ignoring that there are some useful things you can mine or manufacture or do in space, but vanishingly few that require monkeys to do them.

That, I'm afraid, sets the tone for the rest of Soonish: it's all very wide-eyed about things that quite likely would be more-or-less horrible if and when they actually happen (programmable matter! molecular production of engineered molecules! brain-computer interfaces!) Oh, sure, there are potentially good uses for everything they discuss in this book -- letting random people create any molecules they want, even anthrax and Ebola, would be fun for a little while -- but the dangers, which they cover briefly in a quick note at the end of each chapter, are vastly worse and much more likely.

This is inevitable, of course, in any nonfiction book about cutting-edge science: the only people who really know it well (and so will talk at length to book writers) are the people doing the research, and they're always convinced that what they're doing is worthwhile and meaningful. (Like all of us.) Unless a writer happens to luck into a field with several competing options, leading to scientists who all gleefully backstab each other to promote their own approaches, it's all pretty collegial and utopian.

A writer would have to deliberately seek out negative sources for each positive source, and who wants to spend so much time being that much of a downer? Besides, outside of politics, happy always sells better than horrible.

If you don't mind a heaping helping of Pollyanna in your futurism, Soonish is entertaining and even enlightening: the Weinersmiths got a lot of people doing interesting stuff (which may or may not pan out) to talk to them, and they're pretty good at explaining it all in layman's terms. But there is a hell of a lot more "ruin" in any of these ideas than the Weinersmiths are going to tell you about.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #258: The Complete Maus by art spiegelman

How long do you trust your value judgments?

If you think of something as a masterpiece, does that still count if you last read it twenty years ago? Or do you need to revisit the greatest works periodically, at least if you're going to say they are masterpieces in public?

The world is full of artistic works, and we can't spend all of our time re-checking our old opinions. But, once in a while, we do need to. We need to remind ourselves of things that really are that powerful, that important, so we can talk about them in public again.

And so I re-read The Complete Maus recently. It's paradoxically both an easy book and a very difficult one: clean and pointed and drawn so exactly that the eye is drawn from balloon to balloon and panel to panel almost without effort. But, at the same time, containing such horrors. Such true horrors.

I won't bury the lede: it's as powerful as everyone tells you it is. It's still as strong as it was when I found the newly-published first book, back in the old Vassar College Bookstore sometime my freshman year there. Art Spiegelman's confident, inky line and blocky, clean lettering are still as close to pure comics as anything we have: you can read it almost without thinking, it's so well-constructed.

The structure of Maus is also absolutely sturdy, as each chapter moves from the modern-day world of Art and his elderly father Vladek back into Vladek's narration of WW II and his life during the Holocaust. Even the most bravura flourishes, like the metafictional opening of Part two, Chapter two, are as electric now as they were in the '80s: precisely calibrated and sharp enough to cut with every panel.

If you've never heard of Maus before...well, I wonder if you've been living under a rock, but maybe you're just that young. Art Spiegelman was an underground cartoonist and publisher in the '70s and early '80s. co-founding Arcade with Bill Griffith and then the hugely influential Raw with his wife Francoise Mouly. In the late '70s, he started recording conversations with his father, Vladek, who was a Jewish businessman in Poland before the war and survived Auschwitz, along with Art's mother Anja (who later committed suicide in 1968).

Starting in 1980, he turned those recorded conversations into Maus, which appeared in installments in Raw (which itself was heavily experimental, and changed formats with nearly every issue). There were eleven chapters in all, eventually, roughly yearly through 1991. The first volume of Maus, collecting the first six chapters, appeared in 1986, and the second volume in 1991. And then it was all collected into one volume in 1996 -- that's The Complete Maus. There are no revisions or rewrites or edits; Spiegelman controlled the editorial and printing of Maus from the beginning, and told the story he wanted to tell exactly the way he wanted to tell it.

Maus's formal conceit is to present its characters as humanoid figures with animal heads, in that old cartooning style. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs. Spiegelman was always fascinated with formalist ideas in comics, and he takes this further than most cartoonists would: Jews pretending to not be Jewish are shown in pig masks, and the "Art" character in the modern stories sometimes has a real mouse head, and sometimes seems to be wearing a mouse mask.

There are so many ways that Maus is important, from the trivial (showing that comics can be as serious and artistic as any other medium) to the vital (powerfully capturing eyewitness testimony to one of the worst and most important events of the 20th century). But we read it because it is a masterpiece, because it is both easy and hard to read, and because it shows us so much of humanity (good and bad), of fathers and sons, of the ways societies fall apart and stick together, of survival through luck and resourcefulness. We all need to read it, at least once.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #257: Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson

Look, I'm tired of explaining who Steve Erickson is, all right? If you don't know after thirty years, it's no longer my fault.

He's one of the visionary writers of America in our time: I can't claim him for my generation, since he was born nineteen years before I was. But the writers we love best are always a generation ahead of us, aren't they? Those are the ones who were young and vital and exciting when we were just learning what it was to discover young and vital and exciting writers.

Days Between Stations was his first novel. Published in hardcover by Poseidon Press in 1985, one of the early Vintage Contemporaries in September 1986. I found a copy, as a remainder, probably eighteen months to two years later -- I found it alongside a similarly remaindered copy of his second novel, Rubicon Beach, and bought both -- in a mall B&N store outside Poughkeepsie.

I haven't re-read it since then: not in thirty years. But, with my intermittent Vintage Contemporaries series, I thought I might as well.

Erickson is often called a visionary writer: his books are full of connections based on image or affinity rather than logic, held together by fine writing and striking images, full of things that happen rather than conventional plots, moving through landscapes of startling transformations, as influenced by cinema as by novels. All of that was in place from the beginning -- he's been consistent from Days Between Stations until now.

So to talk about the plot is nearly beside the point, and the characters aren't much more central. There's a woman, Lauren. When she was young, she called the cats in from the Kansas farm-fields of her youth, and then she married a competitive bike-racer, Jason, who was always away and relentlessly cheated on her. After years of neglect, she makes a connection with a mysterious man, called Adrien or Michel, who manages a club they frequent in Los Angeles.

Adrien/Michel is the viewpoint character for a while, and we learn of his complicated American-French heritage -- he's the grandson of Adolph Sarre, a young wunderkind in early cinema who nearly completed a film called The Death of Marat, which would have been a masterpiece.

And then the focus shifts to Adolph as a young man of uncertain parentage, growing up in a secret room in a private Paris brothel in the years before The Great War. He's passionately in love with Janine, the daughter of the whore who he thinks is his mother and the owner of the house -- but the owner's legitimate son is also obsessed with Janine.

(I didn't notice this the first time around, but women are often things to be fought over rather than people in Erickson's novels, symbols and metaphors rather than independent actors. Of course, even the men are driven entirely by forces they don't understand, but the women seem to be instead driven by what the men do, one step further removed from agency.)

The middle of the novel is taken up with Adolphe's struggles, but we will return to Adrien/Michel and Lauren eventually, as they end up in Paris and find some happiness there, for a while, before things get worse again.

Everything is falling apart in Days Between Stations. In the modern plot, Lauren and Jason's marriage is basically a sham, even though she's still deeply in love with him, no matter how much she wants not to be. The world is falling into ruin as well: LA is wracked by sandstorms; Paris is powerless and icebound; the Mediterranean is drying up, leaving Venice high and dry, horrifyingly hot and smelly. In the historical plot, Adolph will never complete his movie, he will never get to keep Janine, and he has to get through WW I before he even gets to those further shocks.

You read Erickson not for the story or even the people, but for the moments and images and ideas: he's the fantastika equivalent of those SF writers most impressive for their new concepts. He writes sentences like no one else, drawing the reader into his dream-worlds and making them real. This is as good a place to begin as anywhere, since so many of Days's elements recur in his novels: uncertain apocalypses, the power of the movies, obsessive men and the women burdened with them, twins and lost children, and the horribly unrelenting power of what we might as well call "love."