Monday, October 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #291: I Was the Cat by Tobin & Dewey

It's entirely possible to enjoy an entire work of art without understanding it, or figuring out why it exists at all. A reader could reach the final page of a book, with a lady-or-the-tiger ending, and realize that maybe it isn't even supposed to be a lady-or-the-tiger ending, that maybe that reader didn't get the point at all.

(On the other hand, it's also possible that a book is severely flawed and doesn't entirely make sense. But that's what we always assume first, so let's go the other direction this time.)

With that caveat out of the way, here's I Was the Cat, a new graphic novel written by Paul Tobin (of the similarly elliptical Gingerbread Girl and the more straightforward Bandette Presto!, both of those with his wife Colleen Coover) and drawn by Benjamin Dewey (whose work I'm not familiar with). It's smart and professional but has some elements that don't entirely work for me.

In London, American freelance journalist Allison Breaking is trying to eke out a living through some mixture of her blog Breaking News (which we never see at all, nor do we see her ever working on it) and ghostwriting books. London is an expensive city, but Allison is crashing with her friend Reggie, which certainly must keep the costs down. Don't worry: this is all asserted, and has nothing at all to do with the plot of I Was the Cat; Allison's supposed journalistic nosiness is in deep abeyance for most of the book.

Allison has been contacted by a mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs -- but it turns out that Burma is actually the world's only talking cat! Tobin resolutely refuses to descend into teleology; we never find out why Burma can talk or how he came to be. (There are also hints of "others" that go nowhere.) Burma is several thousand years old, which is also asserted rather than explained, and he can change his look and form somehow to become pretty much any cat he wants. Burma is rich and powerful and has spent most of his life in the Pinky-and-the-Brain-esque pursuit of Taking Over the World! Though he says he's had no luck so far, and has lost eight of his lives along the way.

That takes up the first twenty or so pages: after that, I Was the Cat intertwines three plot threads. First, Allison and Reggie sit and listen intently to Burma's stories, though Allison doesn't seem to be making much effort to take notes or organize anything. Second, there are the flashbacks to Burma's earlier lives, which of course are spent among the variously famous and powerful and mostly end badly. Lastly, there are some shadowy activities orchestrated by Burma in the modern day, meant to raise our suspicions about his real intentions.

So this is a deeply odd graphic novel: it's the realistically depicted story of a cat talking about his failed schemes to conquer the world to a pair of appreciative pretty girls, while his latest plot rumbles on in the background. It almost seems like a shaggy dog story without the punchline, as if it were all leading up to a specific moment that gets left out. Note: none of this is funny; it's all played completely straight, with tension and various hard men with weaponry sneaking around doing dirty deeds.

And then the ending just goes poof. I called it a lady-and-the-tiger ending, above, because I think Allison has a couple of choices. But that could just be me projecting: the book doesn't clearly give her any options, it just stops at a moment before the Big Moment.

I Am the Cat looks gorgeous and is full of cats for people who like such things. But it's also a very strange thing that doesn't entirely come into focus, and features the kind of London life that can only be depicted by two guys from Portland. I can't exactly recommend it, but it's definitely weird.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/18

Every week, I list here the books that came in my mail, because I feel guilty for getting free stuff and feel an obligation to tell whoever I can about those books. (I don't feel guilty enough to always be non-sarcastic about those books, though -- a man does have his limits.)

This week, that list is a null set, so I don't have any books to tell you about. This is mildly sad -- it's always better to get free stuff than not to -- but it also frees up some of my time on a Sunday or loafing or other activities, so it's nice on average.

I'll be back next week, when I'll probably have some books to write about. And, of course, Book-A-Day soldiers on: a post about yet another book will appear in about three and a half hours.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #290: Finder: Talisman by Carla Speed McNeil

Just as there are songs about how awesome music is, and movies all about the glamorous world of movie-making, there are books that celebrate book-reading -- not necessarily in the autobiographical mode, but usually about a young person growing up. They usually feature that young person fixating on one particular book, and nearly always also show said young person trying to create stories as well. (And there are bonus points for kids with big glasses.)

Finder: Talisman is a middle piece of a longer series of science fiction stories by Carla Speed McNeil -- all published under the umbrella Finder title; these days originally online -- but it also hews very closely to the standard books-are-awesome story. Of course, I agree that books are awesome, and, if you're reading this, you probably do, too.

I've seen Finder described as a far-future story, but I think that's by people who don't understand just how much future there will be. It's set on a planet named Earth with mostly normal biological humans, and I doubt it's more than four or five thousand years up the line at most. (For me, you don't hit far future until our sun has noticeably changed in size or demeanor.) There are urban types, who are organized into tight occupation-based clans -- much like medieval guilds, but just different enough to be future-y -- and the more salt-of-the-earth folks who inhabit the rest of the world. (There's at least one apocalypse -- slow or quick -- in the past, and the world population is far below our own. Technology is pretty much where we could be in ten years, give or take. Governance also seems to have mostly devolved to the clan level or disappeared entirely.) When I've seen this world described, it always seemed unpleasant, like all of those YA dystopias where all of the special snowflake sixteen-year-olds have to be brainwashed to fit into one of a set of three life-choices. But Talisman shows a world more complex and interesting than that, centered around a family who all seem to have made unusual choices and still function just fine in their society.

The main character -- the girl who discovers books -- is Marcella. She has two older sisters -- one of whom is male; one of the odd touches of culture which McNeil doesn't explain here -- a mother who does some sort of work that entails direct brain connection, and a screaming, insane, bed-bound father. (Psychiatry seems to be somewhat less advanced in this world than in ours.)

That's the world Marcella lives in, but the world she wants to live in is that one special book, given to her by her mother's occasional lover Jaeger (also the central character of the larger Finder series). But Jaeger is the kind of man who instinctively tells perfectly-formed stories to women to make them like him, so the story he read to her -- ostensibly from that book -- is not the story in that book. To get the story she wants, she'll have to make it herself.

Again, the story here will not surprise anyone: it's the standard fictionalized how-I-became-a-writer story, starting in early childhood and ending just before Marcella actually writes anything worthwhile. (Or, at least, I hope that's what she's about to write at the end.) McNeil tells that story cleanly and well, with a strong sense of Marcella's voice -- she narrates this book, in many more caption boxes than you're used to seeing in modern comics -- and lovely precise drawings that are particularly good with faces. The worldbuilding details in the background are more individual and interesting -- I'd like to see what kind of writer Marcella becomes, and how that fits into her society.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #289: The Potpourrific Great Big Grab Bag of Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley

During the last run of Book-A-Day, four years ago -- it was Day 155, actually -- I covered a treasury collection of Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy newspaper strip.

(Return with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear!)

At the time, I noticed that I'd somehow missed the prior book, The Potpourrific Great Big Grab Bag of Get Fuzzy, which collected strips covering 2005 and some space either side. I'm not as up-to-date in my strip-comic reprints as I used to be -- there was a while in the '90s when I was seriously collecting all the back Doonesbury books, plus buying the new collections from three or four other strips -- but I guess I do fill in the holes eventually. So I've now finally bought and read the Grab Bag, which is as amusing and character-based as all of Get Fuzzy -- though the few elliptical topical references are a bit odd almost a decade later.

Pretty much everything I could say about this book I've already said about the fifth and sixth treasury editions -- I also looked at The Stinking, number six, about a year ago -- so this will be short. Get Fuzzy is the chamber comedy of modern comic strips, set almost entirely in one apartment with three characters; Rob Wilco, the vegetarian, vaguely nerdy, rugby-loving ad copywriter; Satchel, his good-natured, optimistic, and entirely dim dog; and Bucky, the scheming, sociopathic, and luckily almost completely incompetent cat. Occasionally other characters wander into this triangle, and even less occasionally the three venture outside -- there's a vacation trip to Maine covering a couple of weeks of the middle of this book -- but the core of the strip is as stark as a Beckett play.

Conley wrings dependable humor out of those three characters, and has something of Charles Shulz's ability to ring small changes on the same concepts to generate new permutations. This particular book is a good example of the strengths of the strip in its mature mode: those topical references are pretty rare, making Get Fuzzy relatively timeless. This is a strip only a little over a decade old and still by its original creator -- that counts as blinding originality and bleeding-edge newness in the ossified world of the newspaper strip. More importantly, it's funny and Conley has a nice precise line.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #288: Alone Forever by Liz Prince

Somewhere there must be confident people: self-assured, steely-eyed, always knowing exactly what they're doing right now and what will come next. But I don't think I've ever met any of them.

Most of us instead are neurotic, confused, self-conscious -- sometimes verging on self-loathing -- and the only thing we're ever sure of is that what we're doing now is completely wrong in ways we can almost explain. Luckily, that can be pretty funny when it happens to someone else.

Liz Prince is like most of us: geeky (about comics and punk music), self-conscious, awkward, in her own way too much of the time. But, unlike most of us, she's self-possessed enough and disciplined enough to turn those awkward moments into comics, where the rest of us can laugh at them and where they turn into art instead of the cringe-worthy moments of a life.

Alone Forever collects a loose series of comics by Prince on the subject of love and relationships and dating; they originally appeared on her website irregularly over the course of three years and were turned into a book in time for this past Valentine's Day. (So I'm getting to it a little late: that just means I'm giving you a lot of notice for next Valentine's Day.)

The whole point of the strips here is that Liz is alone and undateable, so there are strips about her cats, about the strange faces she makes when trying to flirt, about her crushes on young men in flannel and beards, about her travails on OKCupid and similar sites, and her borderline stalkerish behavior. Of course, it's Prince herself telling us about all of these things, so we might suspect she's exaggerating slightly. But that doesn't matter: what matters is the character of Liz Prince that she creates in these strips, and that character is wonderfully specific and distinct.

Prince has a quick, sketchy, indy-comics style; her strips fall squarely into that shoe-gazing style of autobio comics epitomized by James Kochalka and including Julia Wertz and Jeffrey Brown. It's informal-looking and conversational, with rough panel borders (where they exist at all) and pen lines of all the same thickness. But she has a great sense of humor about herself and well-honed sensibility for turning the small awkward moments of her life into comics. No one ever needs a book like this, but if you are or know someone awkward in love, this is a great book to have on hand.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Twitter Lovecraft Rant

Another one of those chin-stroking pieces about the World Fantasy Awards set me off a little while ago, and that made me decide to test out embedding Tweets here.

So this is one-half to save my not-really-deathless thoughts, and the other half testing out a bit of functionality I haven't used yet:


















And that says what I wanted to say, I think.

Book-A-Day 2014 #287: August Moon by Diana Thung

At this point in the year, I've run out of clever openings for these posts, especially for a book by a new creator. That's not necessarily a bad thing: you could say that Diana Thung's work has left me speechless, and that wouldn't be too misleading....

August Moon is the second graphic novel by Thung, whom I believe is still pretty young; her first was Captain Long Ears, which I haven't seen. She was born in Indonesia, now lives in Sydney, Australia, and went to art school -- some of that is semi-standard, but the Indonesia-to-Australia (with a long stopover for childhood in Singapore) gives her a different perspective on the world than most of the graphic novelists we see in North America. And that's lovely to see; this book takes it time getting where it's going, and spends its time creating a sense of place more than feeding a tediously linear plot.

August Moon is clearly influenced by the films of Hayao Miyazaki, but that's not an influence we've seen a lot in comics: everyone likes Miyazaki's work, but telling that kind of mostly quiet story about the numinous and indescribable through imagery and allusion is less common. It's set in the small town of Calico, somewhere on the outskirts of a large and peaceful and relatively rich country -- it could be Australia, or Indonesia, or even China. Or none of them, or no defined nation. It's the town that matters.

That town has a tradition that "Soul Fires" -- the spirits of their ancestors -- can be sometimes seen in the skies. Skeptics thinks it's just fireflies. But we know the truth: those are lanterns held by round, fuzzy creatures -- like teddy bears with rabbit ears, or like Totoro. And a company named Monkey -- whose employees all look identical, wear the same suits, and carry handguns -- has just bought a shop in Calico, with plans to take over in an underhanded, supernatural way, and kill all of those creatures along the way. We don't know exactly what they're doing, but we know it's bad, and we know they need to be stopped.

Calico has an unlikely champion: the street kid Jaden, who may be from the moon and may be from the tribe of rabbits. (Eternally opposed to the monkeys, of course.) And it has the scientist, Eric Gan, called in to do an autopsy on one of the creatures killed the night the monkeys began their plan -- or, more importantly, his daughter Fiona, just eleven years old.

Thung doesn't explain the rules of her world, but it's clear that adults aren't supposed to see the creatures -- though Jaden does, all of the time, and he leads Fiona to them in his elliptical, distracted way. And it's the two of them who will have to save Calico from the monkeys, if it's to be saved at all.

Thung has an indy-comics drawing style, just a hair cruder than you'd expect, and shows facial expressions through tiny changes -- her people, especially her adults, look serious to the edge of stoic, making the laughs and nonsense rhymes of the kids stand out that much more. August Moon would make an interesting and evocative animated movie, if a Miyazaki could be persuaded to make it -- and it's already made a lovely and creepy graphic novel, the story of the mysteries of childhood and the joys of a hometown.


Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #286: Fran by Jim Woodring

I don't think men have actually gone mad trying to review Jim Woodring's books -- but if I said so, you might well believe me: that's how phantasmagorical and elusive those stories are. Usually, we just point at a Woodring book and make appreciative noises, like the apes around the monolith in 2001: we know it's an impressive object, carefully constructed for a specific and complex purpose, but all we have are bones and our poor brains to make sense of it. (See my review of Woodring's 2010 book Weathercraft for one example.)

Woodring's new book in 2013 was Fran, a companion or expansion of his previous book Congress of the Animals (of which I've only read a preview, if that makes a difference; I don't necessarily find that I understand a Woodring book better after reading all of the pages). Like most of his work for the last two decades, it's set in the same bucolic/horrific landscape, a place where relative innocents frolic and strange creatures lurk to do literally unspeakable things.

You see, everything in a Woodring book is unspeakable -- mostly because his books are all wordless, but also because they are so clearly individual and rooted in Woodring's view of the world than any words the rest of us to describe it will inevitably be wrong and twisted. (What I'm doing now is very nearly pointless: writing words about a Woodring book is not a useful response.)

Frank is the central character, a beleaguered Everyman prone to fits of anger, fear, and jealousy. He lives with two friends/pets, the four-legged Pupshaw and Pushpaw. Other creatures or places appear, and sometimes the book's packaging tell us who they are -- the piglike Manhog, for example -- and sometimes not.

But this book focuses on Fran, who I take to be the anima to Frank's animus: his lover or female friend or mirror. The book begins with the two of them walking up in bed -- which would be suggestive if they weren't drawn so asexually, and if Woodring's fleshy concerns didn't tend more to the horrors of losing control of one's body. They play and gambol, happy until an encounter with a hideous little creature leads to Frank's discovery of a treasure-trove of strange things in an underground cave.

One of those things is a device that projects memories onto a convenient sheet: Frank uses it, showing us the events of the beginning of this book and much of Congress in reverse. He then tries to pass it to Fran, but she violently refuses, smashing the device. And so Fran leaves -- and, along the way, we see that she is not the weak quiet creature Frank is; she's confident, powerful and sure, as the projection of Woman usually is in an allegorical story made by a man.

Frank follows, as best he can. Fran has returned to an older home, to a friend/lover/husband, whom Frank of course tries to attack. And then Frank goes through less definable scenes until he returns home -- as usual, Woodring works with dream-logic and dumb-show imagery, leaving the reader to find meaning in enigmatic events.

Woodring's lines are sumptuous and glorious as ever, and the events those lines depict as clear or dark as ever. There is no one else like Woodring; no other cartoonist works so directly from his own unconscious and id. You don't have to read Woodring, the same way you don't have to see Beckett or listen to Mahler -- and it's not Woodring that is lessened by that choice.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #285: Minimum Wage, Vol. 1: Focus on the Strange by Bob Fingerman

If there's anything the pop culture of the late 20th century has taught us, it's that there's always an audience for the old stuff. Classic rock radio, throwback cable TV stations, retro fashions -- getting the band back together for a reunion tour is almost always a good financial deal, and sometimes it's the only deal you can get. So it's not surprising that cartoonist Bob Fingerman has gone back to his most famous and durable property, the mid-'90s semi-autobiographical stories of "Rob Hoffman," with a new Minimum Wage series.

For Fingerman, it's been nearly twenty years: the first series of Minimum Wage ended in 1997 with Rob's marriage to his girlfriend Sylvia. And we hit the ground in these new stories -- the first arc collected as Minimum Wage, Book 1: Focus on the Strange -- with some time passing for Rob as well.

But for him it's only been three years -- Rob is now 25, and it's the beginning of the summer of 2000. He's divorcing from Sylvia, for complicated reasons that aren't limited to her probable infidelity and their increasing clashing about having children -- but those are the explanations Rob can explain to his friends and himself. He's moved back in with his mother in Rego Park. He's still mostly drawing smut comics -- these days for Gander magazine -- though the winds of the Internet are starting to put that business model to the test, and will destroy that market niche before long.

Rob is still morose, depressive, and relentlessly negative about himself: this book is somewhat autobiographical, but Fingerman is clearly not making his stand-in character the hero of his own life. He still has the cluster of jerky and generally inappropriate mid-20s friends: though they all have jobs, they all feel incredibly young, which is only exacerbated by Fingerman setting the series a decade and a half ago. (He's also going to have to deal with 9/11 eventually, if he keeps going -- any story set in New York around 2000 has that looming over it ominously, no matter what kind of story the creator is trying to tell.)

This story arc, though, is primarily about Rob getting back into the dating scene. The cover unsubtly depicts him with the three women he dives into bed with over the course of the book: his first rebound girlfriend, an older woman he has a brief bizarre fling with, and an editor at one of Gander's sister publications. Rob, though, can't quite be happy with any of them, because he's the kind of guy who has trouble being happy at the best of time -- and this is definitely not the best of times, as he's depressed about his failed marriage and dreaming about Sylvia at every turn. The first run of Minimum Wage seemed to be about how Rob was finding ways to be happy, but this second series throws him back to a worse point that we ever saw him the first time around.

Fingerman's writing is smart and colloquial: this is a book with a lot of dialogue, and it's funny, zippy, big-city-guy dialogue, with quips and veiled attacks flowing in every line. And his art is still lumpy and very physical -- he has a bit of Corben-esque flashiness to his figures, though he works in pen and ink, mostly, not in paint as Corben does -- which works well for his very fleshy concerns here.

There's no hiding that this is a revival or cover tune, and that it's a very late entry in the '90s poor-me autobio genre. Fingerman has given himself fourteen years worth of time to work with, though, and has expressed an intention to write Minimum Wage in six-issue arcs. So I have hopes that he's not going to just plod slowly forward from August of 2000, stuck with a mid-twenties Rob trapped in that same moment. (Interestingly, Fingerman is himself almost exactly a decade older than his creation -- he might be having Rob do many of the same things, but they're not in the same sequence or connected to the same cultural moments as they were in Fingerman's own life.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index