Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #203: The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick and Art Huffman

If you had asked me "is physics more interesting than history?," I'd probably have to think about it. Both are fascinating in their own ways, full of convoluted intricate stuff that's fun to learn about or think through. It wouldn't be obvious at all.

So when I saw that Larry Gonick, author of multiple volumes of The Cartoon History of the Universe (and its follow-up, ...of the Modern World) had a book called The Cartoon Guide to Physics, created with physics teacher Art Huffman, I thought that was a book for me.

(And then it sat on my shelf for at least a decade, because that's what always happens.)

I finally read it recently, and it reminded me of something I learned back when I worked in publishing: a truism that I wanted not to be true but, eventually, accepted that definitely was.

The truism is this: Every equation in a book reduces its potential audience by half.

The Cartoon Guide to Physics has eight equations in the first chapter alone.

So this is a book primarily for people seriously interested in learning physics -- not learning about physics, or science in general, or general knowledge. It's for people who want to start with F=ma, understand what that means, and go on from there. My guess is that it's primarily used on the highschool level, and I could see it being a lot of fun for students who are learning this stuff anyway -- it's definitely more interesting and dynamic than a textbook.

But it's much less interesting and dynamic than, say, a random graphic novel, which is what it might be shelved next to. So if you pick up a Gonick Cartoon Guide book, take a look inside it -- they can vary a lot.

This one is divided into two large sections -- the first covers Mechanics, with the laws of motion, starting with speed and acceleration and moving on to cover orbits, momentum, gravity, inertia, collisions, and rotation (and several dozen equations). The second half of the book is Electricity and Magnetism, which has slightly fewer equations but just as many numbers and technical details.

I read this book casually, which really isn't the point. You should read each page carefully, think through the equations and implications, and only move on once it all makes sense to you. (I'm going to pretend that I already knew all of this stuff, and that's why I read it straight through. Yeah. That's the ticket.)

Gonick draws this is in a very loose, expressive style, and his main characters this time are a young woman (who is unnamed as far as I could see) and a Gonick-esque mustachioed man called Ringo. Like his other books, it's not really comics -- there are drawings on the page, but there's also a lot of words, mostly arranged in block around them, and the drawings only rarely form a sequence of action. But it's a first cousin of comics, and could be of interest to comics people for that reason. But the primary audience, again, is people trying to seriously learn physics, either as part of a regular course of study or just for themselves.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #202: Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and various artists (6 volumes)

I wouldn't say that all of modern mainstream comics comes from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. Frank Miller's work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight was just as influential, alongside the Claremont X-Men and the event frenzy kick-started by the Wolfman/Perez Crisis. And there have certainly been major developments in the thirty years since then. But our modern adventure-story comics world was formed in those days of the mid-80s when the Direct Market was strong and growing, when the outside world was reading "comics are growing up" stories every few months (with new examples each time), and the expectations of both readers and publishers started to bend to shocking revelations and long story arcs and Worlds That Would Never Be the Same. And that world was strongly molded by Alan Moore, starting with Swamp Thing in late 1983.

Thirty-plus years later, those Moore stories are both shockingly modern and shockingly old-fashioned: cold-eyed about humanity and the place of superbeings alongside it, but utterly besotted with their own wordy narration. These are intensely told stories: Moore in the '80s was the culmination of Silver Age style, all captions and explanations and background and atmosphere, cramming all of his ideas and poetic descriptions into each twenty-three page issue, exhausting every concept as soon as he introduced it.

Swamp Thing, the character, was a scientist named Alec Holland, working on a "bio-restorative formula" with his also-scientist wife in what looked like a barn deep in the Louisiana marshes. (This all made sense in the early 1970s, when ecology and back-to-the-land were huge.) The usual evil forces of international business sabotaged his work: his wife was killed and Alec, permeated with the formula and burning to death from an explosion, fell into the swamp. He arose, a few days later, as the slow-talking Swamp Thing, to stop those evil businessmen and battle weird menaces around the world for at least the duration of the early-70s horror boom. His first comics series ended after 24 issues of slowly dwindling sales and quickly increasing gimmicks to try to reverse the sales drop, and was revived about a decade later when a cheap movie adaptation came out. The same slow-death started setting in, with similar results, and the second series began to look like it would run only about as long as the first.

And then Alan Moore took over writing what was then Saga of the Swamp Thing from Martin Pasko with issue #20. His first outing was a clean-up effort, tying off "Loose Ends" from the Pasko run, like a concert pianist running a few scales to warm up before diving into the meat of the program. A month later, he delivered one of the most influential and iconic single issues of any comic, "The Anatomy Lesson," where he carefully explained that Swamp Thing's origin and explanation made no sense whatsoever, and started the path to what he declared was a better foundation for the character. (He was right, and he shouldn't be blamed that a thousand others have tried to do the same thing to a thousand other characters since then, with not necessarily the same level of rigor or success.)

Before long, the title had simplified to Swamp Thing -- the same as that original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson series a decade before -- grown the tag-line "Sophisticated Suspense," and quietly become the first Big Two comic to ditch the Comics Code seal. It was also a huge hit, both critically and commercially. By the time Moore ended his run on Swamp Thing with #64, almost four years later, the Crisis had come and gone, he was in the middle of Watchmen, and the landscape of American comics had been radically changed.

(As a sidebar, it's interesting to note that the editor on those early Moore Swamp Thing issues was Wein himself -- it's a fantastic example of a creator nurturing stories that reinterpret, even replace, the work he did earlier.)

That Swamp Thing run was one of the first to be collected in a comprehensive way soon after periodical publication, as the comics industry started to realize what the book industry had known for several generations: a creative property you can keep selling in a fixed form for years is vastly more valuable than creative properties that you need to refresh every month. The complete Alan Moore run is currently available as six trade paperbacks, under the overall title The Saga of the Swamp Thing, reprinting all forty-five issues with introductions by various people. (Not including Moore, though, as anyone who has heard about his contentious relationship with DC Comics since will expect.) If you're looking for those books individually, have some links: one, two, three, four, five, six.

The first thing to note is that the divisions between books generally make sense: they each collect eight issues, except Book Five has only six, and they tend to break at important moments. This is partially an artifact of comics-storytelling norms of the time: then, a three-issue story was an epic, and anything longer than that was remarkable. (Of course, subplots would run longer than that -- I mentioned Claremont up top, and he's one of the major originators of the throw-in-hints-of-the-next-four-stories-in-each-issue plotting style -- but the actual conflict in any issue would be done within fifty or seventy pages nearly all the time.) But Swamp Thing also tended to run to story arcs, more and more as Moore wrote it; it's one of the origins of that now-common structure. So it's partially luck, partially planning, and partially the nature of these stories that makes them break down as cleanly as they do into volumes. It means that a reader can come to this series thirty years later -- it's now impossible to come to it any earlier, if you haven't already -- and take it one book at a time, as her interest is piqued. (Or you can run through all of them quickly, as I did.)

Book One leads off with #20, "Loose Ends" -- not generally included in Swamp Thing reprints for the first decade or so, as DC presumably wanted to start with the bigger bang of "The Anatomy Lesson" -- and runs through the continuation of that story with Jason Woodrue and then a three-part story featuring Jack Kirby's The Demon. These are the foundational stories, in which Moore resets everything about the series: tone, cast, mood, atmosphere, even genre. (There were horror elements in the earlier stories, obviously, but Moore moved it definitively from "superhero story with horror villains" to "horror story with a muckmonster hero.") The Woodrue story also has a nice cameo by the Justice League, cementing Swampy's place in the "real" DC Universe. Swamp Thing, and the Vertigo imprint that eventually grew out of it, would have a complicated relationship with that continuity over the next few decades -- as that continuity itself got more complex and self-referential, in part driven by the work Moore did here and other writers did in a similar vein -- but, when it began, it was just the weird corner of the same universe.

Book Two is anchored by the return of Anton Arcane, Swampy's greatest villain, who Moore made even more infernal as he threw Arcane into Hell and brought him (briefly) back. I'm not sure if this is the first time we get an extended look at DC Comics Hell -- there were a bunch of vaguely Satanic comics in the '70s, though mostly on the Marvel side -- but Moore's vision of Hell, as amplified and extended a few years later by Neil Gaiman in the early issues of Sandman, was the model for DC for a generation from this point. This second book also has the first visual breaks from the main look for the Moore run: the majority of the early Moore issues are pencilled by Stephen Bissette and inked by John Totleben, but they have a very detailed, intricate style and Swamp Thing also tended to have heavily designed pages -- which all added up to mean that getting twenty-three pages done, at that level and in that style, tended to take longer than the month between issues. So this volume has two issues drawn by Shawn McManus: the first a coda to the storyline of the first volume, the second a homage to Walt Kelly's Pogo. And another issue reprinted here brings back Cain and Abel, the mystery hosts from DC's horror-anthology comics of the early '70s, in a framing story drawn by Ron Randall to showcase the original short "Swamp Thing" comic by Wein and Wrightson that served as a tryout and model for the '70s series.

Book Three is the bulk of the "American Gothic" storyline, introducing John Constantine -- who has gone on to fame on his own, with a very long-running comic and a movie that was at least higher-budget than any of Swampy's -- and sending Swampy cross-country to see and confront growing horrors in the world: nuclear waste, racism, sexism, and (of course) aquatic vampires. Here the art continues to move around a small team: Rick Veitch pencils one issue (he also helped out on some pages in two issues in the first volume), Alfredo Alcala inks another, and Stan Woch pencils a third. The team is clearly moving resources around to maintain a consistent visual look and at the same time maintain that punishing monthly deadline. These stories are the heart of Swamp Thing as a horror comic: Moore is taking individual concerns of the then-modern world (mostly; the aquatic vampires aren't particularly emblematic of anything) and showing how they can be twisted and made horrible.

Book Four finishes up "American Gothic," which leads into the double whammy of Crisis and Swamp Thing's own fiftieth issue, which was explicitly positioned in the story as a crisis after the Infinite Earths one. (Evil South American wizards -- the same ones mentioned in Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, which I coincidentally read recently -- knew the whole "worlds will live, worlds will die" thing was coming, and planned to summon Primordial Darkness to take over Heaven in the tumult.) This is one of Moore's largest-scale stories, and from that era when he aspired to write big superhero-universe crossovers: Watchmen started out that way, and the aborted Twilight of the Superheroes project from 1987 was an even bigger take on the same idea. So Swampy almost becomes a supporting character in his own book, with the Demon and the Phantom Stranger and Deadman and the Spectre and Dr. Fate and John Constantine with a roomfull of minor DC magicians all demanding their time in the spotlight. It does all come together, and tells a strong story -- even if the ending is strangely muted, with characters explicitly saying things like:
Happened? Nothing has happened. Everything has happened. Can't you feel it? Everywhere things look the same, but the feeling...the feeling is different."
One can admire Moore's writing and plotting and still think this is a remarkably deflating denouement.

Book Five is another group of transitional stories. First, because the art team switches to Veitch and Alcala, except for one issue in the middle drawn entirely by Totleben. And, more importantly, because it moves from the aftermath of the "spiritual Crisis" through the arrest and prosecution of Swampy's girlfriend Abby in Gotham City -- and Swampy's subsequent assault on that city through a massive green-ification project -- before Swampy sets off, unexpectedly and not by choice, on his next story arc. At the risk of spoiling thirty-five year old stories, he's catapulted off into space, where he needs to learn how to modulate his wavelengths (more or less) to get back home.

And Book Six is when he does so. By this time, Moore was also working on Watchmen, and was getting to the point where he'd nearly said all he wanted to say with Swamp Thing. So this last volume has stories explicitly planned as transitions to the story-sequence that would follow: Rick Veitch would take over writing (on top of pencilling), and so he writes one story here. Bissette writes another, a sidebar set back on Earth, in which Abby is reunited, for one last time, with her ill-fated father. One issue has a quite experimental art style from Totleben, all chilly mecanico-organic forms, and the big conclusion is something of a jam issue, with art from nearly everyone who contributed to the Moore run: Bissette, original Saga penciller Tom Yeates, Veitch, and Alcala, under a Totleben cover.

It all ends on a happy note: Swampy is back where he belongs, having learned more about himself and the universe and having found something like peace. If the series had ended there, it would have been an ending -- but popular comics didn't end in 1987 just because they had a good place to do so.

Instead, the next month there was a Veitch-Alcala issue, launching a new plot arc. Veitch continued the concerns and manner of the Moore run -- though with somewhat less of the overwrought narration, which was becoming outmoded even in the late '80s -- but ran afoul of DC brass a little over a year later, during a time-travel storyline that was to culminate with Swampy meeting a certain religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine.

But that's all another story: a story not collected in the books I'm writing about here, and in fact never collected, since it was cancelled and twisted and broken in the process.

Moore wrote forty-three issues of Swamp Thing over a four-year period, including at least three double-length issues (and, again, Veitch and Bissette also each contributed one script as part of the overall plot line). He worked with a team that ended up being fairly large -- Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, and Alcala most of the time, McManus and Randall and Yeates and Dan Day stepping in here and there. But the whole thing does hang together -- it's not quite one story, but it's a closely related cluster of stories, with consistent themes and concerns, that took a fairly conventional "weird hero" and turned him and his world into something new and strange in American comics.

Others have built on this foundation since then: most obviously, Neil Gaiman with Sandman, who got the luxury of a real ending and who was able to take a stronger hand at choosing art teams to go with specific story sequences. But Sandman could not have happened without the Moore Swamp Thing, as a thousand other comics could not have happened -- all of Vertigo, for example, and most of what Image currently publishes, and Mike Mignola's Hellboy universe, among many others.

Modern readers might find the Moore Swamp Thing much wordier than they expect: he was the last great Silver Age writer, a decade or two out of his time, when he wrote these comics. They're all good words, deployed well and to strong effect -- but we have to admit there are a lot of them. The coloring is also clearly '80s vintage: very strong for its time, and pushing the limits of what could be done with newsstand comics in those days long before desktop publishing, but still clearly more limited and bold than what we're used to today.

All those things are inherent in reading older stories. And all stories are "older" before too long. The strong stories are worth the effort -- frankly, even new strong stories require some effort, since that's one of the main things that makes them strong.

You should read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, if you have any interest in comics or horror or superhero universes or ecology in literature or spirituality or transcendence. If you're not interested in any of those things, well, it sounds like a dull life, but good luck with it.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #201: How To Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr

I'm mostly reading books I can be serious about for Book-A-Day this time. That's mildly surprising; when I've done this in the past, it's often turned into my reading the silliest and most frivolous books I had on hand and dashing off something quick about them so I could get back to whatever else was going on in my life at the time.

But today I don't think I can be all that serious. Because today the book I have is How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr, which seems to have grown out of the author's involvement with A Prairie Home Companion back in the '80s but turned into its own cottage industry once the first edition of the book was published in 1987. (What I read was an expanded anniversary edition from 2012.)

My excuse for reading it is that I'm spending a lot of time either in Minnesota or with Minnesotans these days; the "mothership" for my division of Thomson Reuters is in a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, and I'm out there several times a year. Most of my close colleagues are housed there, too -- I work with one person who sits next to me in Hoboken, another one who works from home in Connecticut, and then a whole bunch of Minnesotans.

So I clearly want to understand these strange people, right?

Well, there's two problems with that. First, they're not actually all that strange -- sure, they do care a lot more about the State Fair than anyone I've ever met on the east coast, and food plays a much larger part in office culture there than it does here. But those are pretty minor differences, and the others I've seen are on that level.

Second, Mohr's model Minnesotan is male and rural -- very specifically as opposed to those citified Twin Cities types -- and of a generation at least comfortably middle-aged in the mid-80s. We've all changed since then, and Minnesotans are no exception. Most of the people I work with are from later generations -- my own, and the ones after -- and most of them are women, as well. Now, Mohr does cover Minnesotan women here, but the bulk of his material is about that laconic, semi-rural Midwestern male with an origin sometime around WWII.

So this book was, not all that surprisingly, not a very good guide to the culture of my co-workers, even granting the usual exaggerations inherent in a book of humor. It actually reminded me more of the brief period when I was a fan of the Red Green Show -- it's that same kind of gentle real-guy humor, focused on fixing things, vaguely manly pursuits, and avoiding talking about emotions at all costs.

I'm sure the specific manifestations of Upper Midwest Manhood here are peculiar to Minnesota -- I'm not saying this is the same as the Canadian or Michigan or Wisconsin versions -- but they all rhyme to a certain degree. (And that familiarity, of course, is the basis of humor -- you only laugh at something you recognize.)

But How to Talk Minnesotan is a good example of that kind of gentle, self-deprecating male humor, with long disquisitions on how to wave while driving a car (the most advanced practitioners can use a single finger), what "a little lunch" is and how often you'll be eating it, and how to use those staples of conversation, "you bet" and "tell me about it."

You do not need to be Minnesotan to enjoy it, though the younger, more female, and/or more urban you are, the farther it will be from your experience of life. It is amusing rather than trying to be hit-you-over-the-head funny, with a lot of fake ads and other things some readers will find faintly redolent of the Dad Joke. And, in a sense, How to Talk Minnesotan is, at its heart, one long dad joke.

I am a dad, if not really this kind of dad, so that was OK with me.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #200: Pocket Full of Rain by Jason

There are two ways of discovering beginnings. If you were there at the time, you see it as it happens, and watch as it becomes itself and turns into middle. But most of us aren't there at the time, particularly for creative works -- the point of beginnings is that creators come out of a vast pool of humanity, and can be anyone, anywhere.

So, most of the time, we see beginnings retrospectively, through the lens of what happened later. And that tends to make them into Just-So stories, the same way we judge old SF by how it predicts the present day -- in both cases, the assumption is that Now was inevitable, and we're just looking to see the proof of that inevitability.

But Now was not inevitable. Now is contingent and semi-random, based on a million choices and random accidents. And we need to remember that, whenever we look back. We could have been somewhere else; we could have been other people; we could have been almost anything.

Pocket Full of Rain collects basically the first decade of the Norwegian cartoonist Jason's career -- the album-length title story, a couple of dozen other pieces of various lengths (including one daily strip), covers from his self-published comic Mjau Mjau. It was published in the US in 2008, translated by Kim Thompson, in the wake of several album-length Jason books over the previous few years. All the material here was originally published from 1992 through 2003, I believe primarily in Jason's native tongue Norwegian, though the bulk of the material is from 1997-1998, with the title story coming in 1995. (At some point, Jason started publishing initially in the larger Franco-Belgian market, and even later than that moved to France himself. But I'm not sure when that was, or if it was in the middle of this material or later.)

Some of the work looks like his later books: deadpan animal-headed characters, absurd moments, random genre borrowings. That doesn't mean his later career was inevitable, though. History has no vector, particularly personal history. Jason could have become any of a dozen other potential cartoonists; had a dozen other possible careers.

The title story is skittery, like melting butter on a hot skillet, full of moments that cohere into a narrative eventually but look separate when they appear. At the center is Erik, a young police sketch artist, and the girl he meets and starts dating. Her ex is an deeply possessive international assassin, who is himself being stalked by one of his surviving targets. Jason draws all of the people realistically, but their world is not always so: one date with Erik and his girlfriend seems to be a picnic on the moon,and several of the criminals he sketches are cartoonish monsters. In the end, there's a mostly Jason ending: first the appropriate one for the genre, and then a coda to deflate it.

Everything else is shorter: some only a single page, the longest only five. They're very different in style and subject, as you'd expect from anyone's early work. Jason was clearly trying out different things -- autobiography, parody, slice-of-life, several different varieties of surrealism -- and finding the parts of each that he liked and wanted to work more with. The art is also quite varied, from pieces that look just like his mature style through less refined versions of that look to realistic people to one story, "Papa," that looks to my eye like he's trying out a version of Dave McKean's style from that era.

The back of the book has a collection of non-narrative art: covers for Mjau Mjau and other things, posters, an ad or two, a Christmas card for Fantagraphics. This is even more varied -- and less "Jason looking" than the narrative pieces, and maybe more interesting because of that.

This is the beginning, but is this the place to start with Jason? Well, it was good enough for whoever was reading Mjau Mjau back in the '90s, so it's not a bad place to start. But his standalone books are probably easier ways to "get" what it is he does in his mature work -- something like I Killed Adolph Hitler or Hey, Wait or The Living and the Dead. Jason is worth reading, though, wherever you start -- as long as you like genre materials subverted, dreams dashed, and endings twisted.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #199: Hostage by Guy Delisle

Critics and reviewers love artists whose work falls into distinct "periods" -- it makes our job that much easier, and who wants to work hard on purpose?

I like Guy Delisle's work for other reasons, of course, but he's got a great career for a lazy reviewer to write about, too. First a couple of quick books basically about sex and gender; then the "I lived in this strange place" period, from Pyongyang to Jerusalem; then the three "Neglectful Parenting" books.

I can't say what the shape of his next period will be -- it takes at least two points to define a line -- but Hostage clearly starts a new period of one kind or another. It somewhat connects back to the travelogue cluster, being set in a foreign country and having a Médecins Sans Frontières connection, but here Delisle is telling someone else's story rather than recounting his own experiences.

Christophe Andre had been working for Médecins Sans Frontières for three months in the small town of Nazran (in Ingushetia, the Russian republic just to the west of Chechnya) in 1997, running finances and administration. He was the only one sleeping in the mission that night when a group burst in, yelling "police," in the early-morning hours. He assumed at first that they were there to steal the payroll, but he quickly realized they were there for him: he was kidnapped and dragged away.

About a day later, he was handcuffed to a radiator, shirtless and barefoot, in a dingy room somewhere in Chechnya. And he stayed there much longer than he expected.

I won't tell you how long Christophe was a hostage, or how that ended -- you should read the book to find out -- but I will tell you that the very first page shows Christophe telling his story to Delisle. So we all know, from the beginning, that he did get free, and that there's a happy ending to his story.

That's good to keep in mind, since it's not a happy story: Christophe was alone, confined, in various dingy uncomfortable Chechen rooms until he finally got out of there, and Delisle makes all of those tedious, frightened, anxious moments real, using a day-by-day structure that follows Christophe's attempts to stay sane and keep track of how long he's been captive.

Hostage has no larger political points to make; no agenda. We don't know, in the end, what the aims of Christophe's kidnappers was -- they ask for a big ransom, but we never know if they grabbed him for pure greed or to fund some militia or army.

What we have, instead, is Christophe's day-to-day experience: tied down, controlled, in someone else's power, in an unknown place in a country where he doesn't speak the language, forever thinking about fighting back or escaping but wondering if he would have any chance if he tried.

It's a tough book to experience, but worth it. Delisle has expanded beyond his own personal life to show us something larger, for the first time, and done it brilliantly.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #198: Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto & Marco Videtta

The corrupt town is traditionally a small one in fiction. It may be a city, it may be a local powerhouse, but it's not the center. The rot may be pervasive and all-encompassing, in the darkest noir, but it's still contained. Telling the same story in a world capital would be too depressing -- too much like the news.

Poisonville, a noir novel by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta, is set in a deeply corrupt city in Italy's booming Northeast, about a decade and a half ago. The city is never named: it can be any one you want it to be, or all of the region collectively. Call it Personville, if you want to be cheeky. (Poisonville as a title is new for the English-language edition; the Italian original was named the more straightforward Nordest. The reference is to Hammett's Red Harvest -- possibly the first major corrupt-town story -- in case you missed it.)

A gorgeous young woman, Giovanna Barovier, is about to be married to rising young lawyer Francesco Visentin. But she's having an affair with another man. She meets him, has sex with him for what she knows will be the last time. Afterward, she tells him that she has to tell everything to her fiance -- and her lover drowns her in a bathtub to keep his secrets hidden.

The wedding, obviously, does not happen. Francesco is devastated -- almost as much because his fiancee was having an affair as because of her death, and maybe even more so because she had dark secrets in her life he didn't know about. Worse for him, he's initially accused of the murder: she was found in her bathtub at home, and his alibi for the time of death is vague. (We know he didn't do it, because we know her lover killed her -- but we don't know who her lover is.)

Carolotto and Videtta roll out the plot from there, with a medium-sized cast of mostly the prosperous and successful elite of this city -- though including Giovanna's disgraced father, who went for jail for burning down his business for the insurance and incidentally killing a few people in the fire. A few, including Giovanna's best friend Carla, are trying to trace and fight the corruption, but most are at least mildly complicit in it.

Francesco's father Antonio and The Contessa -- head of the other most prominent family in town -- are spearheading a semi-secret plan to move the Torrefranchi Foundation, some vague consortium of local businesses, from Italy to Romania, where labor is much cheaper and regulations much laxer. For the time being, someone is dumping toxic waste near the city, which Carla is trying to trace.

This is not a mystery. Francesco is cleared of suspicion in the murder not because he investigates anything, but because his father fixes it. He does snoop around a little with Carla, but that doesn't accomplish much.

It is a noir novel, and so the accumulating pages are devoted to showing, from all sides, just how corrupt this town is and just how deep the rot goes, through nearly all of the characters.

In the end, we learn both the plans for the Foundation and the identity of the murderer/lover -- and both are, as they must be, the worst possible ones. And, because this is a good noir novel, they are related.

This is a very place-particular noir; the authors spend a lot of space talking about how horrible and corrupt the Northeast is in general terms. Noir often has that kind of rhetoric, either from a particular character or the narrative voice, and it often is about the specific place. But, for most of us, Italy's Northeast isn't a place we know much about, or can conceptualize clearly, so it can feel like stridency or monomania. ("OK, we get it -- it's a rotten area full of rotten people.")

It's also entirely a Girl in a Fridge book: Giovanna exists to be beautiful and loved and at the center of mysteries, and has to die on page 20 so a man can get angry and upset and engaged. I enjoyed Poisonville, and it's good at what it does, but I wish it had been Carla's story -- she's an outsider, almost entirely innocent of the Northeast's corruption and not tied to these intertwined families, plus a woman, plus the dead woman's best friend. She has the most reason to want the truth, and the best standing to force it out.

Ah, well. It's futile to mourn the novels that weren't written. This is the one that exists, and it's deeply noir in the best and most unfortunate ways: know that if you decide to read it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #197: Human Diastrophism by Gilbert Hernandez

Heartbreak Soup set the stage in Palomar, a sleepy Latin American town -- probably Mexican, though creator Gilbert Hernandez has been at pains to never say definitively where it is -- and introduced us to a large cast. Those stories came out over a roughly five-year span in the early '80s, and we probably expected Hernandez would continue with more of the same: move somewhat backward and forward in time, telling more stories about the complicated lives of that large cast.

But Human Diastrophism shows that Hernandez will always push to make his stories more complex, closer to life -- all families and towns are more connected than any fiction can show, but he'll keep trying. And this slightly shorter book collects stories from a ten-year span, implying Hernandez was busy with other things during that time. (We'll see some of those things, in later books in this series. And some of them, I'm sure, are the usual distractions of life.)

This book opens with the long title story -- the longest "Palomar" story Hernandez has made, even now -- a near-apocalyptic story of political radicalization, rampaging monkeys, the toxic mix of hate and love, and the coming of a serial killer to Palomar. As long, intense stories must, it changes many dynamics in Palomar, for many of the characters, and has a devastating ending.

After that, the focus shifts, first as several younger Palomar characters move to the US (Southern California, precise location not quite explained clearly). Then Hernandez throws in additional complications: living in the same region is a previously unchronicled side of Luba's family. He moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the borders between the US and the countries south, to sketch the life of Maria, Luba's mother, and her previously unknown, and much younger, daughters Petra and Fritz. These stories tend to circle Gorgo, a now-aged mob fixer who was ferociously loyal to Maria, in his quiet way, and who protected her and her three daughters from various mobsters (we assume; this is all vague) over decades, mostly by hiding them away from each other and the mobsters.

That all gives Hernandez a chance to build out a new dynamic: Palomar is a community of people who are sometimes related, but the connections there are more often of love and friendship, marriage and rivalry. Maria's family is a family, even if the two sides of it -- Luba and her many daughters on one side, Petra and Fritz and Petra's young family on the other -- were unaware of each other's existence for more than two decades. So the stories later in this volume work through those family dynamics, and through the secrets Maria and Gorgo kept for so long. It does mark what we might think of a shift from "Palomar" stories to "Luba's family" stories -- never complete, and not a clean distinction, but definitely a shift.

The timeline is still a bit fuzzy -- the "now" stories with Gorgo, after Maria's death, are probably taking place in the early 1990s, when Petra and Fritz are in their late twenties and Luba is somewhere in her forties (with children from nearly as old as Fritz all the way down to barely out of diapers). Those Gorgo stories are mostly from '93-95, coming out in a burst, maybe a flood of new ideas after all the time spent on "Human Diastrophism," maybe after time off after that story was complete. (Many of the shorter stories here are dated something like "'93-'94-'95," but "Human Diastrophism," all 105 pages of it, are dated 1987, and I'm sure it took longer than that.)

As always, Hernandez revels in the messiness of life: his people have complicated lives and motivations, and bounce off each other in unlikely but always believable ways. Some of them are deeply misguided or self-destructive, or weaker than they need to be, or deeply unhappy with things they can't change. None of them are villains; none of them are heroes (except in their own minds, where everyone is the hero).

This book has one of his single best stories, the title piece. And it showcases a massive opening up of his world, with the beginning of his incorporation of crime-fiction and B-movie elements as well. If you're serious about comics at all, this s a book you should know.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/14/18

Earlier this year, I switched up these Reviewing the Mail posts so that they include books that I get from ways other than the mail. The positive side is that there are many fewer "hey, nothing came in the mail this week" posts. Burt the potentially negative side is that I now have to explain where the different books came from.

(Not a particularly major negative, I'll admit.)

So the four books I have this week all came: from the library. And I expect to have more library books next week, since several are already on hold for me in the closed-for-the-weekend library building.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II looks like a World Cup score (Ms. Marvel advances!), but it's just another superhero crossover. This series -- written by G.Willow Wilson, with art this time out by Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa and Mirka Andolpho -- is generally listed as one of the superhero comics of interest to people outside the usual audience. In this case, I think "outside the usual audience" means younger, less WASPy, and more female, and possibly "more liberal" and/or "interested in less cliched stories." I've been reading it in fits and starts, and have not been as impressed as the hype led me to believe. But I'm reading a book a day this year, which means finding more more more to read.

I'm pretty sure I read Formerly Known as the Justice League in floppy-comics form, when it was coming out in 2003, but that was before this blog started and I lost all those old comics in my 2011 flood. And I did like the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis/Kevin Maguire incarnation of the Justice League, since, frankly, you can't take superheroes all that seriously anyway.

Soonish is a book I thought was comics, but it seems to be mostly prose. So it may not end up getting read before it needs to go back to the library, sadly. It's a nonfiction book about various technologies that don't quite exist yet but probably will soon, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith -- she's a biology professor/researcher, and he's the cartoonist of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

And Imagine Wanting Only This is an autobiographical graphic "novel" by Kristen Radtke, which I've actually already read as I type this. (Book-A-Day makes me get to things quickly.) It's good and distinct and interesting -- look for my post about it on the 27th.