Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #205: Love's Not a Three Dollar Fare by Terry LaBan

Before there were hipsters, there were slackers. (Though this is still after both hippies and bohemians.) Young people who aren't particularly interested in the rat race are always scorned and despised by the wider culture -- because if they can avoid the normal trappings of adulthood and still have interesting lives, what kind of chumps are we? -- but the label, and some of the specific mud thrown, changes over the years.

Terry LaBan's first comics series, Unsupervised Existence, was about slackers, or maybe whatever came just before slackers: the young and aimless and confused at the end of the 1980s. The spine of that 1989-1992 series was collected in 1995's Love's Not a Three Dollar Fare, which I just read semi-randomly. (My library system had a copy, and I've never read LaBan's comics -- I've seen his newspaper strip Edge City now and then, but that's a very different thing.)

Unsupervised Existence, as far as I can tell, had a large cast, and it looks like LaBan wandered out into the further reaches of that cast as time went on. (And then he moved on to other things, as we all do.) But the core of this book, and what looks like the center of Unsupervised Existence, is the young couple of Danny and Suzy. He's a wanna-be poet who drives a cab for a living -- probably not thirty, but not far away. She's the kind of "intellectual" for whom actually making decisions or taking care of herself is too much agida. (I have a lot less sympathy for characters like her now than I did when I was that age -- I want to yell at her to shut up, suck it up, and go get a job. But it's twenty-plus years later, so all of the real Suzies of 1989 have long since done all of that.) They're not central to all of the stories here -- Suzy's friend Annadette, who is even spacier and less focused than she is, get the spotlight for one long story, and Suzy's rebellious younger brother Bill ends the collection semi-randomly, since he didn't appear in any of the earlier stories -- but they're the core of this group of characters, and most of the stories here circle around them.

LaBan is clearly working in the tradition of the undergrounds -- the more realistic end, from Crumb's autobio stories to Art Spiegelman and Kim Deitch -- to spin out these stories, with a little bit of politics (strikes, abortion, women's circles) and a lot of twenty-something angst. Everyone here wants things desperately, and a few of them are even clear on what it is that they do want. LaBan cares about all of them, and extends his sympathy to all of the characters -- the jerks and the easily emotionally bruised, the teen stoners and the cabbie poets, the lesbians sleeping around and the old girlfriends showing up unexpectedly.

Mostly, he cares about and looks at Danny and Suzy: they're both nakedly emotional, either because they are that young or because they are of that milieu, or some combination of both. Love's Not a Three Dollar Fare contains an awful lot of talking about the relationship -- the relationship here is talking. If you can't stand that level of emotion and openness -- and a certain level of bohemian squalor -- early LaBan is definitely not for you.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #204: Booth Again! by George Booth

I've tried to review books of single-panel cartoons here before. Never works all that well: it turns into an attempt to define humor, or to retell someone else's jokes, and neither of those things are that interesting.

But here I am, in the middle of a year of Book-A-Day, and what I finished the other day is Booth Again!, a great 1989 collection of George Booth cartoons, almost all of them from the New Yorker. (There's a credit on the copyright page -- "Of the 97 drawings in this collection, 96 first appeared in The New Yorker" -- that makes me burn to know which is the one stray cartoon here.) Booth is still alive and working, thank goodness -- he's deep in his eighties now -- but this collection comes from his middle career, around twenty years ago.

Booth is a great cartoonist to read in collected form, since he has a whole cast of recurring characters and situations -- Basil and his flighty wife; Schisgall of the Pentagon and his explaining wife; Leon and his wife, who always strike me as aging hippies; and, of course, all of the quirky and odd dogs and cats running around them or staring, quizzically, out at the reader. In this collection, you'll run across each of them every few pages, like visiting old friends regularly.

Even for the New Yorker, Booth is fond of cartoons about a couple, but his couples, for all of their differences, run to one type: the man is taciturn and the woman is loquacious. Oh, Booth's men can chatter away, too -- there's a guy in his kitchen who appears a lot, some kind of aging crank with a lot of theories and obscure facts to explain to his dog and cat -- but they're no match for the Booth women they get paired up with.

I won't try to analyze too deeply as to why Booth is funny -- some of it is his drawing, since he has the knack of drawing funny, making pictures of things that look almost normal, all fat dogs and scrawny cats and scraggle-haired people and dumpy kitchens. The rest, as usual for a cartoon, is in the caption -- elliptical in the New Yorker style, often not clearly about anything in particular, full of standard phrases turned just a bit to make them that much more interesting.

This book also has the quintessential Booth cartoon -- come to think of it, this is probably the one that's not from The New Yorker -- the two-page multi-panel extravaganza "Ip Gissa Gul." I won't say any more. Booth is a treasure, and needs to be discovered fresh.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #203: Willie and Joe: The WWII Years by Bill Mauldin

This is possibly another cheat: I read the hardcover edition of Willie and Joe: The WWII Years back in 2008, soon after it was published, as part of my whirlwind Eisner-judging weekend that year. I wrote a few words about in in my monthly round-up a couple of days later. (I also reviewed the post-war collection, Willie and Joe: Back Home, in 2012.)

But a less expensive paperback edition came out three years later, and another three years after that I finally got a copy. (Which isn't that bad; if I'd gotten it immediately, it would have been one more thing to be destroyed in my flood of '12.) And so I read it again.

There are probably other forms where you can see a creator growing up and getting substantially better over the course of a single work -- a chronologically organized short-story collection, for example -- but comics provides some of the best examples, since every page or panel is a concretized piece of time spent at the craft, its own set of lessons and ideas and thoughts. Any largish book that collects consecutive work by a young creator can do this, but it's clearest when there's a story or other through-line to all of that progressively more impressive work. The first big volume of Dave Sim's Cerebus is a great example of that -- you can see Sim learning what he can do, how to structure jokes and stories, and moving from a Barry Windsor-Smith imitator towards his own style, over the course of the first twenty-five issues of that series.

Willie and Joe: The WWII Years has precisely the same arc, though it goes even higher by the end. Mauldin started the war as a talented but green young man from the sticks, drawing pictures of the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the local, mostly-Native soldiers, with big panels crammed full of captions and lots of little jokes to make it all go over. Over the next five years, his style got both looser and more controlled, with slashing black lines that exactly defined all of the very concrete parts of a soldier's life: mud, gear, men, dirt, bullets, grenades, death. And his writing got equally controlled and specific: one short caption, one line of dialogue for each squared-off cartoon.

Mauldin ended the war as possibly the best American editorial cartoonist working, even though his matter was the most constrained of anyone in the field: not just men at war, not just the infantry, but the front-line infantry soldiers that he actually saw and knew and sketched alongside (mostly in Italy). For yet another thing that Mauldin is an exemplar of, it's the idea of finding your garden and hoeing it assiduously: if he'd tried to cover the "whole war," with cartoons for the point of view of sailors and generals and aviators and REMFs, he might have shown a wider view, but it would never have been as strong as what he actually did.

So this is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American cartooning -- or this book contains that masterpiece, which makes up about the last half of it -- as well as an vital and gripping first-hand account of a harrowing and important war. And it's full of just plain great cartooning, too.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #202: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

A memoir about the death of one's parents is supposed to be wrenching, deeply sad, and entirely laudatory about the dead. Good thing no one ever told Roz Chast that.

Chast had an odd family to begin with: she was the only child of an inseparable -- and deeply New York, in the cliched neurotic, overbearing, and co-dependent ways -- couple who were in their early forties, and already sixteen years into their marriage, when she was born. She doesn't precisely say here that she was an afterthought or a third wheel, but I imagine she must have felt that way many times. And, as it usually happens, Chast herself is a bit odd -- at least that's how she presents herself, focused on minutia and the kind of ex-New Yorker who barely learned how to drive (and still doesn't do it well).

The title sets the tone: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? It's spoken by Chast's parents to her, at one of the rare times she actually tried to lead them into a discussion of "that stuff" -- what she should do if they get sick or die. The elder Chasts ignored that discussion as long as possible, and they did better than most: Elizabeth Chast's first serious fall -- it's a cliche, but it's true: old people are very often fine until that one fall at the wrong time or place -- was in late 2005, when she was already 93.

Something More Pleasant begins in 2001, with Roz Chast's first inklings that her parents were getting too old to take care of themselves and their apartment. And, as she shows was usual, her concerns were steamrollered by her mother, who had never lost an argument (or, apparently, a discussion or even simple conversation) with her daughter in her life and wasn't about to start in her nineties. Then things start getting bad with that fall at the end of 2005, and the bulk of the book covers the period when both parents -- they were essentially the same age, born ten days apart in 1912 -- began seriously declining and Roz Chast had to start having all of those unpleasant talks and then to start taking on more and more responsibility.

(I think anyone will find Something More Pleasant touching and bittersweet and thoughtfully true and funny in unexpected and serendipitous ways, but I may have reacted to it more strongly because there was one of those falls in my own family this year. My father-in-law and mother-in-law both had major medical problems within two days of each other -- it's horrible but true: health problems for old people build up quietly for a while and then burst out all at once at the worst possible time -- and only one of them made it through. It's not my story to tell, though, so I'll leave it at that.)

All of this, of course, is told the Roz Chast way: sometimes in comics panels, sometimes with actual photographs with captions (as when she had to clear out the apartment her parents had lived in since 1959), sometimes with pages mostly made up of Chast's hand-drawn lettering with a few illustrations. It's a cartoon memoir, to stand alongside Stitches and Fun Home and Marbles, and it's at least as good as any of those. Chast has been turning moments and thoughts into single, laser-like cartoons for decades now, it's fascinating to see her turn that same ability to a much larger concern and a bigger relationship: the same precision and emotional truth are there, but embedded in a much deeper and larger context.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/19

Every week, I list the stuff that came in my mail, since I'm lucky enough to get books show up in my mail unexpectedly for free. It's that time again now.

I haven't read any of these books yet, but I'm trying not to let my preconceptions about them color my descriptions too much -- unless I think I can be more amusing that way. As always, I hope you'll find something intriguing that you wouldn't have known about otherwise.

First up is a standalone single-volume manga -- you could call it a graphic novel if you wanted; that works, too -- by Moyoco Anno. In Clothes Called Fat was one of her first works, a black comedy of manners that I suspect centers on body image and eating. It's available now from Vertical, who also published Anno's super-geek story Insufficient Direction earlier this year.

Also from Vertical: From the New World, Volume 5 with story by Yusukue Kishi and art by Toru Oikawa. It's adapted from Kishi's popular dystopian novel, about near-future teens in the usual crapsack world, living under arbitrary and capricious rules of the adults that constrain the vast and amazing powers of those kids. (I reviewed the second volume of the manga adaptation earlier this year.)

Also also from Vertical is Mitsubisa Kuji's Wolfsmund, Volume 5, continuing the bloody retelling of Guillaume Tell and his battles to free one small piece of Switzerland from the heavy, bloody hands of the evil Hapsburgs. (I reviewed the third volume back in February.)

There's a Maze Runner movie coming very soon, and I got a small stack of books related to that. Most obviously, something called Inside the Maze Runner: The Guide to the Glade by Veronica Deets (who doesn't get cover credit). It's a small paperback explaining the set-up of the series: a group of teen boys stuck in a "glade" in the middle of a gigantic ever-shifting killer maze that none of the boys have ever escaped from. (If original author James Dashner ever read Rogue Moon or The Man in the Maze, I will be greatly shocked.) This book seems to mostly focus on pictures of the young men, all looking very Twilight-cuddly and making me think the audience for the movie is mostly teen girls. This is from Delacorte, which also publishes the original Maze Runner novel and sequels.

And speaking of that, Delacorte also has two new editions of The Maze Runner, and they were nice enough to send me copies of both of them. (So I really shouldn't make fun of their property.) Both the $17.99 hardcover and the $10.99 trade paperback feature the movie's poster art on the front and an eight-page insert of photos from the movie in the middle. The novel itself is clearly the same as it was when it was originally published in 2009, but movies always attract new audiences, and these editions are poised to aim those audiences to exactly the book they're looking for.

And last for this week is a picture book -- the oversized, fully-illustrated books most associated with smaller children, for those of you not up on publishing lingo -- from Ben Hatke, creator of Zita the Spacegirl. Julia's House for Lost Creatures is published by First Second, and it's a sweet little story for kids, as you'd expect from the format, with lively watercolors and a gaggle of interesting and odd creatures coming to the title establishment.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #201: The Imperial Way by Paul Theroux with photos by Steve McCurry

It's a surprising and disconcerting thing to discover that a book is substantially shorter than you expect, like climbing stairs in the dark than end a few treads before you're ready. You hit the end and say, "what, already?"

The Imperial Way ended like that for me: it's a minor travel book by Paul Theroux (slightly more minor than I expected, even) with extensive photographs from Steve McCurry. The book itself is coffee-table sized and under 150 pages; originally published in 1984 and not, I think, reprinted since. Imperial Way chronicles one journey across "the sub-Continent:" from Peshawar in Pakistan, across the top of India, and ending in Bangladesh at Chittagong. It's a route covered in part of Theroux's first major travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, a decade before.

I didn't expect a long book, but I thought it would be the equivalent of a couple of chapters from one of Theroux's longer books, with McCurry's photos interspersed. But I'd forgotten how radically desktop composition changed the layout of coffee-table books, and how this book predated that. So Imperial Way instead starts with all of the Theroux upfront -- his entire text, running from page 7 to 30, on what seems to be the same weight paper stock but was probably printed somewhat separately for obscure ways-we-printed-then reasons -- and then dives into the McCurry pictures, with captions that I suspect were written by someone other than Theroux.

This is not one of Theroux's more discursive books: his text is basically a long magazine article, and keeps closely to the actual journey by train, without his usual stops and side excursions and overgrown grumping. He paints a clear picture of what it's like to travel by train across India and nearby points -- or what it was like in the '70s and '80s, in the unlikely event that it's changed much -- but doesn't spend time or pages doing anything else substantial. So Imperial Way is thin, even given its scope, compared to Theroux's other works.

McCurry's pictures, though, go a long way to make up for that, showing the faces and places and landscape of this time and place. (Though, even there, roughly half of McCurry's photos are copyright to his then day-job at National Geographic, which I suspect means that they were not taken as part of the Theroux expedition. Does that matter? Probably not.)

If you want to know what Theroux's full-length travel books are like, I've covered his last two -- The Last Train to Zona Verde and Ghost Train to the Evening Star -- here, along with a more diffuse view of The Pillars of Hercules in 2011. This particular book is probably best left to Theroux fans, railway fans, collectors of objects related to India (what would that be called? the word "Indiana" is already taken), and maybe fans of McCurry.

(He might have them, after all. I hope he does. I hope everyone has at least one true fan, somewhere in the world.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #200: Saga Vol. 1 by Vaughan & Staples

There are two mutually exclusive ways I could go forward with this review, and I'm vacillating between them. On the one hand, I could moan about how I've seen a lot of mediocre to crappy SF in comics form lately, and then gush about how wonderful it was to see Saga dive straight into smart space-opera territory, make no excuses for itself, explain no more than it had to, and charge forward to tell a great story that also was very good (if also very soft) SF. But the other hand remembers how I was equally thrilled and energized by writer Brian K. Vaughan's series Ex Machina, back when it started in 2004, and how that whole machine trundled on too long, wandered down too many blind alleys, and ended with a deflating, side-stepping whimper.

What I'm saying is that I'm almost excited enough to forget that Vaughan got me this excited once before. There's all kinds of metaphors for that feeling, nearly all of them inappropriate. But I'm cautiously optimistic that Saga won't fall into the snares that hobbled Ex Machina, and that Vaughan both has a real ending in mind this time and will get there.

Anyway, Saga, Vol. 1 collects the first six issues of the series of the same name -- the biggest success in comic-shop comics of the past couple of years, more or less, and definitely so if you use a "not Big Two" special pleading. It's written by Vaughan, who'd been away from comics writing things with real people standing in front of cameras for a while. And the art is by Fiona Staples -- no one else is credited, so I believe she laid it all out, drew all of the lines, and chose the colors as well. (It's a modern standard comic, so the palette is large and flexible -- unlike the image of old newsprint comics in garish four-color.) Staples' work is entirely exemplary: she reminds me just a bit of Mark Buckingham on Fables, with an equal ability to visualize anything Vaughan throws at her, making it look real and solid and entirely part of this world from the instant it appears.

Saga is a space opera, set in the middle of a galactic war. The combatants come from a world and its moon -- I don't think Vaughan means the echo of The Dispossessed, but I could be wrong -- but their battle has spread across countless stars and involves millions of troops. On the planet Landfall, the regular folks all have wings and the nobles are TV-headed humanoids with "Robot" in all of their names. (Again: Vaughan may explain everything eventually, but for now he's telling a story, so things are as they are, and the reader has to pick up hints and put the bigger picture together himself.) On the moon Wreath, everyone has horns, and they seem to mostly use magic rather than science. (Another thing to make me uneasy, but so far Vaughan is using it for color and atmosphere rather than some metaphor about science vs. magic.)

In a hard SF story, Vaughan would have to explain how both worlds could send ships outward from their home system -- there does seem to be something like a truce for ground combat at home, but, still, I would expect major space-naval battles on a daily basis -- but this is very far from hard SF. There are two neighbors fighting a proxy war across the galaxy, or perhaps a hundred thousand smaller proxy wars. In the middle of all that, on a planet named Cleave, somehow a girl with wings named Alana met a boy with horns named Marko: two soldiers on opposite sides, conditioned to hate each other forever. Instead they fell in love, and the first page of Saga has Alana deep in labor with their daughter, Hazel.

For reasons Vaughan never quite specifies -- probably because he can't blatantly say "it makes for a better story" -- both societies want their respective deserters dead or worse, precisely because they made a baby together. So Alana and Marko are on the run, at first on a world where both sides are fighting, with a newborn in tow. (Alana, even for a highly trained soldier in excellent shape, is ridiculously active in this period.)

What's brilliant about that is that Vaughan jumps over the whole Romeo-and-Juliet moony phase: his protagonists are a family with a baby to protect, not just star-crossed lovers. To hammer that home, the narrator of the series is Hazel herself, looking back from some as-yet-unspecified point in the future. (Though Hazel's narration does sometimes introduce events that it would be difficult to explain how she knew about -- Saga's central focus is on the family on the run, but a secondary focus is on the various people chasing them.)

So we have a big, exciting universe full of wonders and strangeness -- most of the characters so far are Star Trek-y humanoids who could be created with makeup and prosthetics, but not all of them -- and a good-sized cast of engaging and interesting people, including an intriguing "freelancer" (bounty hunter) named The Will. It is more than a little derivative of Star Wars, certainly -- but derivative of the early Star Wars, where there were more questions than answers, not the stuffy and dull Star Wars of the last decade. Vaughan claims to have a real ending in mind, and I have no reason to doubt him. I just hope he can keep the story as simultaneously grounded and high-flying until he gets to that ending.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #199: Miracleman Vol. 1 by Moore, Leach, and Davis

Apparently, this book wasn't cursed after all, since it finally was re-published, despite the best efforts of Alan Moore and Todd McFarlane and bankruptcy laws and those old confusing comics contracts to bury it so deeply that it would never appear again. And it looks like the rest of the old Warrior/Eclipse series will be reprinted as well and maybe -- just maybe, if we're both lucky and good -- the long-promised Neil Gaiman/Mark Buckingham stories will finally appear as well.

You can find stories of its long journey through the combined underbellies of publishing and the law elsewhere -- Padraig O Mealoid's not-quite-complete serialized book Poisoned Chalice is the longest, most detailed, and best account -- but the important things to know are these: Miracleman was originally Marvelman. Marvelman existed because Captain Marvel (the original, the Big Red Cheese) existed, and because there still was a market for stories very much like Captain Marvel in the UK after DC's lawsuit shut down the original in the US. So it was an authentic property of the Golden and Silver Ages: made for a market, hacked out cheaply, that disappeared quickly when that market shifted. And then it came back, because of nostalgia and the arrogance of youth: young writers and editors and artists thinking they could take something childish and re-mould it into something serious.

They succeeded: the relaunched Marvelman stories were the first major revisionist superhero stories [1], the first to plumb the previously ignored Nietzschean depths of that word "superman." It's not overstating it to say that every revisionist superhero -- from The Boys to The Dark Knight Returns, from Watchmen to Kingdom Come -- descends directly from these Alan Moore stories. The Marvelman stories catapulted "The Original Writer" -- as he's credited here -- into superstar status, and helped Alan Davis get major work from DC as well. And then the series went through tumult and turmoil for nearly another decade, on both sides of the Atlantic, until one last calamity finally put it into the grave -- or so we thought.

But now Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying is out in a new spiffy hardcover from the biggest comics publisher in the world, collecting those stories written by Alan Moore (I will say his name several more times, whether or not he appreciates it) and mostly drawn by Garry Leach and Alan Davis. (There will be several other artists before the original run of Marvelman/Miracleman stories are done, some excellent and some less than excellent.) These are serial comics, just coming out of the '70s style and groping their way toward more novelistic forms, so this book doesn't have a real ending. But it does still pack a serious punch, even more than thirty years later.

It opens with a 1950s story (a new 1950s story, though, written by Moore and drawn by Leach and Davis in 1982) of the Miracleman Family -- adjectiveless, Young, and Kid; who ape the main Captain Marvel characters without that yucky girl -- battling invaders from the future, in their sunny and weightless way, in a world where all endings are swift and happy and where evil is always easily defeated by the clear forces of good. Then the main story begins: it's 1982, and Mike Moran is a struggling journalist on the edge of middle age, heading to a minor freelance assignment covering a protest at a nuclear-weapons site.

There, through an accident, he remembers who he was: Miracleman, a superhuman who changes from his weak mortal form by saying a single word. He foils, almost incidentally, an attack by a couple of local idiots attempting to steal plutonium to sell to the highest bidder. He remembers his origin, in which an superpowerful time traveler with a silly name gave him the word to protect the world -- and now he realizes it is a silly, thin story, only worthy of those childish 1950s stories.

And yet he has powers. And he remembers a bit of the day he and his two younger companions were lured into a death-trap. And then it turns out that one of those younger companions -- or a grown man with the same name -- is alive and well. And Miracleman's return is noted by a secretive government department, which puts into action a long-delayed plan they hoped never to use.


This was Moore's first big layers-of-the-onion story: he would do something similar with "The Anatomy Lesson" in Saga of the Swamp Thing soon afterward, but the Miracleman version is a purer, more direct frontal assault on the received superhero pieties of the day. Not all of the layers are peeled away by the end of this volume, of course -- Moore had a lot of story to tell, and a joy in telling it, both the wonders and the terrors.

This is an early 1980s story: it's full of captions and dialogue and small panels, in a style that may seem dated to an audience brought up on newer comics. But that also means it packs a tremendous amount of story into its few pages: the main story takes up barely half of this book, just 85 out of 176 pages. (The rest is taken up by a semi-apocryphal flashforward story, a two-part story about the alien Warpsmiths, who will enter the main story substantially later, and a lot of pages of Leach and Davis art. There are obviously no script pages, which a book like this would normally have, since they would require saying the Forbidden Name.)

A Dram of Flying is an important historical document, a major milestone in the flashy superhero story. It's also, still, a gripping and intensely told story of great power and great mysteries, about morality and eschatology and that essential Nietzschean abyss. It hits targets most superhero stories don't even realize exist, and does it with style and a crackling, apocalyptic energy. If you read superheroes and don't read Miracleman, there's something seriously wrong with you.


[1] With the possible exception of Frank Miller's Daredevil, which began slightly earlier, but was doing very different things.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index