Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #324: Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk

When I snagged this book from the library a few weeks ago, I had a snarky comment about "I don't think it's about a group of teen girls who decide to build the perfect best friend in science lab, but it would be awesome if it was." Well, guess what: I was more right than I expected, and Making Friends is more fantastic than I thought.

(Yes, "fantastic" can be taken two ways: either one works here.)

It's not a group of girls, but one: Dany. She's in seventh grade, early in the year, and is finding the transition to middle school tougher than she expected. Her old friends have a completely different schedule, and making new friends is not working like she hoped.

But she has a sketchbook from her recently deceased Great-Aunt
Elma. And when she draws in that sketchbook, what she draws appears in the real world.

That obviously makes more sense than my confused snark: who needs to make a friend the most? Not people who already have them. Someone who feels all alone, overwhelmed in a new place and wishes things would go back to the way they used to be.

So Dany draws Madison Fontaine, who will be her best friend, does all of the things she wishes she could (quick with a retort, expert at hair and makeup, cool and fun and comfortable with herself). Madison just moved from NYC, and will be in all of Dany's classes.

(Before that, before she knew what the notebook could do, Dany sketched the head of Sailor Moon Solar Sisters villain Prince Neptune, and so she also secretly has a manipulative, sneaky superpowered head lurking in her backpack and calling her Princess. Let's not forget about him, giving Dany advice that sounds good but will only turn her into another cruel bully.)

At first, Madison is perfect: she is Dany's best friend, and having her around helps Dany fit in better at school. But Madison starts to wonder about the things she can't remember -- surely she must have parents somewhere, and isn't supposed to stay at Dany's house forever, right?

Making Friends doesn't belabor the lesson. But Dany does learn that doing things the easy way isn't always right. Oh, and she also learns to turn her friends into a Solar Sisters team to stop a supervillain intent on destroying the school and conquering the world (in that order, obviously).

Kristen Gudnsuk has the same kind of sly humor and love for semi-cheesy media tropes here that made her supervillain story Henchgirl so much fun. In Making Friends, it's pitched at a younger audience, and she's pulled back on some of the random goofiness of the world (which I kinda miss, actually -- I found it a distinctive Gudsnukian [1] touch in Henchgirl) -- but it feels like the same kind of story, and Dany could grow up into a henchgirl herself, if things went really badly for her.

Luckily, things do not go really badly for her, though it looks dark a few times.

Making Friends is another one of those books designed and marketed right at an audience of middle-school girls. But, as I find myself saying a lot these days, that doesn't mean the rest of us need to ignore it -- and we shouldn't.

[1] I want to live in a world where Gudsnukian becomes a commonly used adjective for certain kinds of comics. And it could happen!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #323: Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez

I spend more time than is reasonable worrying if I'm doing things right. Even worse, often what I mean by "right" is "fitting the rules I made up myself, which I haven't bothered to clearly codify."

Obviously, a healthy person would not spend time on anything like that, but I am a blogger, and so clearly not that healthy.

So my first question after reading Gilbert Hernandez's standalone 2013 graphic novel Julio's Day was whether it really counts as Love and Rockets. Oh, sure, two excerpts from it appeared first in the New Stories paperback series, but most of this story didn't, and it has no connections with any of his other L&R work. (On the other side of the argument: a lot of his L&R work has no connection to the rest of his L&R work; he's been more likely to go off on tangents than his brother Jaime.)

Since I'm writing this here now, you've probably already assumed that I decided it counted. And I did. But I had to worry the issue for a while first.

The next big question is whether it's way too reductive to call Julio's Day the story of the hundred-year-life of a completely closeted Mexican gay man. And that's a nice label, but it doesn't reflect what the book is actually about. Julio himself isn't really all that central to his own story to begin with: he's pretty colorless for a Gilbert Hernandez protagonist, overshadowed his entire life by the more vibrant members of his family.

As usual for Hernandez, "vibrant" is not at all the same thing as "positive." Julio's uncle Juan is one of the most distinctive characters here, and he's a deeply damaged person, compelling to sneak away with baby boys and do unspecified things with them. The rest of Julio's family, and the few others they interact with, are quirky in similar Gilbert Hernandez ways, but Julio himself remains transparent, the void at the center of his own story.

Like Palomar, this town is somewhere in Latin America. Also like Palomar, Hernandez will not be any more specific than that. Julio's life matches pretty closely to the twentieth century, from small bits of internal evidence, but that's all background: Julio is not involved in any great issues, and barely any small issues. He just lives here, for a long time, while other things happen around him, mostly far away.

There's a hundred pages of incidents and no real overall plot: this is a story of episodes, moments over a hundred years when Julio was there to witness them. (Or was somewhere else: the two pieces published in L&R follow other members of his family on journeys, first his father and then his grand-nephew.)

In typical Hernandez fashion, there are bizarre, horrifying diseases and deaths, and many random, mostly unhappy events -- a long life in a Gilbert Hernandez story is a sequence of sad and shocking moments, ended only by death.

The title is ironic at best, as well: not only is this the story of a hundred years, not a single day, but Julio never really had a day, either literally or metaphorically. His grand-nephew poses that question to him near the end, and that's the source for the title -- but Julio was never in the right time or place to seize that day, and maybe was never the person who could have seized that day.

Does that make Julio's Day a cautionary tale? It's not focused enough for that, and I think Hernandez would deny that impulse -- he's never been one to make a single lesson with a story. Gilbert Hernandez stories aim for the complexity and confusion of real life: too many things happening to too many people to turn it into a single narrative, and all of the lessons possible in there somewhere.

And I suspect Julio's Day is the kind of book that rewards multiple readings, to trace the connections, personal and visual, over this long century, from the moment Julio opens his mouth to be born until the moment his mouth hangs open in death.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/17

Another week, another single book from the library -- honestly, I really don't plan it that way. I regularly request half a dozen or so books from the library; it just takes 3-4 weeks (or longer) for them to all trickle in. And right now I'm carefully planning the end of the year, so I can read as much as possible of what's on my shelves, still have posts to write everyday, and end Book-A-Day the way I want to.

But here's what I got this week: some comics I haven't read in about thirty years.

Justice League International, Vol. 1 collects the first seven issues of the 1987 series written by Keith Gifdfen and J.M. DeMatteis and drawn by Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon. As I recall, it wasn't in bwah-ha-ha funny mode to begin with; it started out to be a serious reboot of the JLA but Giffen and DeMatteis realized, bit by bit, that these characters, in their hands, wanted to be funny and just went with it. I'll see if that memory was correct.

The book I have is a nice hardcover, published in 2008. Looks like this reprint series continued to a sixth volume, which seems to be the point where the book fissioned into Justice League America and Justice League Europe -- both went on for a few years after that, but I don't think those are reprinted. (There's also the inevitable Omnibus, but it's "only" a thousand pages, so at best it has everything in the smaller Vols. 1-6 and still nothing later.)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #322: The Martian Confederacy, Vol. 2: From Mars With Love by Jason McNamara & Paige Braddock

I read the first volume of Martian Confederacy nine years ago, around the time it came out, but clearly didn't love it enough to jump into the second book any time quickly.

But time wounds all heels, and, during a business trip recently, I remembered that I had The Martian Confederacy, Vol. 2: From Mars With Love on a device, and so read it to keep the Book-A-Day streak going. (If you think that "streak" is filled with the book equivalent of a lot of bloop singles, well, you're not wrong.) As with the first book, it's written by Jason McNamara and drawn by Paige Braddock, and both of them will probably be very surprised to see this post pop up if they have the usual Google ego-searches active. (I'm sure they've done plenty of other stuff since this, and I like to believe that everyone gets better, too.)

Martian Confederacy has a veneer of seriousness and drama, but it's a loose, ramshackle construction that fights against that seriousness every step of the way. (I called it "the Dukes of Hazard on Mars" the first time around, and I stand by that.)

As the cover gives away, central this time is a love story between our somewhat lunkish (but good-hearted) hero Boone and Lou, his android roommate (platonically, up to this point). They set off to investigate the abduction of the children of a friend of Lou's -- there's a big hole in the side of their trailer and everything -- and end up being shanghaied by the Alcalde into investigating a wider problem, and breaking his rules to get off the planet and find the culprits.

You see -- and you'll want to be sitting down for this -- there's a planet-wide child theft ring, which nobody has heard about for some reason, and the Alcalde (corrupt, the only law/government on the entire planet, no apparent thugs to actually enforce his edicts but he acts like someone will do what he decrees) tells Boone and Lou that they need to solve the problem before he (the Alcalde) comes back from his honeymoon. Oh, and they're specifically ordered not to leave the planet, though the instant they start to think it about, it's clear the kids were all kidnapped to somewhere other than Mars.

That's how From Mars, With Love is the whole way: superficially plausible as long as you don't think about anything for even a second, and full of very durable cliches mixed with random oddities. (The Alcalde's new wife is two women, connected upside-down at the torso, and they flip around semi-randomly, taking over the personality and activity of the single person they seem to be legally.) The universe is pretty crapsack -- slavery (at least of non-human sentients) is legal, kidnapping kids is pretty common, and everything is pretty beat-up and junky. And the plot is the usual combination of fighting and let-me-tell-you-what's-really-happening, with the kind of ending you'd expect from a story like this.

I have a feeling the creators took it a bit more seriously than I did, but that's OK: you should commit to the things you're doing. As far as I can tell, this is where the series ended -- two collections of outlaw medium-future adventures, sticking it to The Man on the red planet. It's unique, I'll give it that: it's definitely one of a kind.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #321: The New York Four by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Hey, remember Minx? (Don't worry, a lot of people don't.)

DC Comics launched that imprint in 2007 to great fanfare, with a raft of interesting creators (many from outside the comic-shop) world and a focus on fiction for teen girls that was unusual for comics of the modern era. It flopped in barely a year, though: that's why you might not remember it.

Other companies, before and since, have published plenty of very successful books for this audience -- I need only mention the name Raina Telgemeier. But DC didn't manage to do it: maybe because they were too locked into their usual distribution channels, maybe because "DC Comics" turned off those girls, maybe because the stars just weren't right. But it did flop.

I've covered most of the Minx books randomly here -- Re-Gifters and ClubbingThe Plain Janes and Good as Lily, Janes sequel Janes in Love, Kimmie66, Water Baby, Confessions of a Blabbermouth, and Emiko Superstar in a quick way during my Eisner-judging frenzy. But one of the Minx books I didn't manage to read at the time was The New York Four, a graphic novel about four young women, all first-year students at New York University, by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly.

But somehow, without realizing the connection, I had a publicity copy (in electronic form) of the Dark Horse book The New York Four, from 2014, which also included the aborted sequel The New York Five, which was done for Minx but never published by them. (And I mean literally not realizing; I figured it out while starting to type this.)

But now I've knocked off one more Minx: I think the only ones I haven't seen now are Burnout and Token.

The New York Four (the original graphic novel) was also, in a way, a follow-up to Local, a Brian Wood/Ryan Kelly comic about an aimless young woman from a year or so before. But this one is more obviously made for the teen set: every one of these four women has A Problem, presumably one that some segment of the target audience would relate to. (I don't think it was that mercenary, but we do have The Catfished Girl, and The Stalker, and The Sugar-Daddy Chaser, and The Outer-Borough Slut, if you want to be reductive.) The first story focuses almost exclusively on The Catfished Girl, Riley, who is also said to be a bookworm (we don't see this) from a demanding family whose older sister ran away for mysterious reasons seven years before. The other three are supporting characters in the Riley story in Four, though the slightly shorter Five is more balanced. A different structure, one that let each woman have an independent story that the others supported, might have been better, but even this structure didn't make it out into public unscathed, so I'm not really complaining.

The characterization is thoughtful but tends to be one-note -- each of the Four is mostly her issue, which is underlined by one of the organizing principles of both Four and Five: they're all taking part in an unlikely get-college-kids-to-take-high-school-exams-regularly program, which is also inexplicably well-paid, and they have to meet regularly with a psychiatrist as part of this program. It's entirely possible that Wood is basing this fictional program on something similar or identical in the real world, but it seemed incredibly bizarre and unlikely to me, a convoluted way to get his characters into reality-TV style "tell your story into the camera" moments.

Kelly's art is lush and detailed, with all of the people distinctive and real. He gives this book a lot of depth, down to body language -- look at main character Riley on the cover! can't you tell a lot about her just from that? -- and facial expressions.

But it feels like there's just too much here, and Wood ends up giving short shrift to the fact that these women are in college -- we barely see them in class, and they don't interact with other students at all. I suspect that he had a novel's worth of ideas for a novella-length story. And I can't help but compare it to the John Allison-written Giant Days, which started slightly later and was in pamphlet-format comics originally, which let it give each of its (only three) young women the spotlight in turn.

There's a lot of good in The New York Four, and it could have been better if it and Minx had been a success: I expect Wood and Kelly would have done further stories, and maybe even followed these women all the way to graduation. Oh, well. Failure is the way of the world...and that's a lesson you can also get by reading The New York Four.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #320: Everyone Is Stupid Except for Me by Peter Bagge

In the first decade of this century, Peter Bagge did a lot of cartooning for Reason magazine. (He might still do so; I don't know. As far as I know this book doesn't have a sequel, so I vaguely guess that he moved on.) It was all more-or-less topical stuff, since Reason was a topical magazine with a Libertarian slant, and eventually there was enough of it to make a book.

This is that book: Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me, collected those Reason strips (single-pagers and longer pieces) in 2009, organized into a number of thematic chapters about the general kind of thing that Bagge is complaining about there.

Now, don't get me wrong: Bagge may be a libertarian, but he's not a crank. Well, not fully. My guess is that he's lived in liberal-wonderland Seattle for so long that he had to react to that somehow, and standard conservatism came with things like god, guns, and war-mongering that he never was interested in. And Libertarianism is one of those beautiful political philosophies, like Communism, that devotees can both argue the permutations of endlessly and claim that it's never been tried in practice, so it will obviously be perfect if we would only try it.

Bagge is also not always clear about exactly what he does believe in. He's clearly annoyed by the "libertarians don't like roads" ideas, but...libertarians often do say that all activity now run by the government (fire and police protection, ensuring safe food and water, the military, social programs, and, yes, roads and infrastructure) should instead be done only by private industry. Maybe Bagge isn't that kind of libertarian, but it's a little like saying you're a Communist and then complaining when people bring up Karl Marx.

Anyway, Bagge hated the Gulf War, bans on contraception (though he was also skeeved out by reporting on swingers), modern art, Christian rock, malls, the kind of people who he finds in casinos (though, as a libertarian, he's fine with gambling being legal), Seattle's monorail project, public funding for sports stadiums, Amtrak, the war on drugs, the hard-core homeless (he calls them "bums"), and, of course, politicians, particularly the liberal ones running for President in 2008.

In general, he's against governments spending money on things, or any taxes he has to pay, or anything else that might interrupt his life or make him think about things he doesn't care about. Libertarianism tends to be a philosophy of selfishness at the best of times, but Bagge really leans into it.

He generally avoids grumpy-old-man mode in the stories here, partly because he's of the my-opinions-are-so-nuanced-it-will-take-several-pages-of-text-heavy-panels-to-explicate-them and partially because he still has a lurking tropism to want to let people kick out the jams and go crazy. (Potential topic for discussion: young punks turn into old libertarians.)

This book is very topical, and all of these topics have moved on from where they were in 2001-2008. So reading it today can be quaint -- oh, how precious that he thought that worrying about healthcare was absurd! And some of those politicians were not always completely truthful when they carefully answered reporter's questions! Oh, shock, let us all clutch our pearls.

The world has gotten vastly more stupid since this book came out. You can't blame Bagge (or libertarians) for the stupidity, though it is more-or-less his end of the political spectrum that has blown up everything in American society for no good reason and with no actual solutions.

But at least we can keep complaining about the government spending money on people we don't like!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book-A_Day 2018 #319: Ghastly Beyond Belief by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman

Every time I do a Book-A-Day run, there's at least one Bad Day. That's a day when I'm just too busy to read a book, or write about one, depending on what my rubric is that time around. Some years have more of them, some have less -- some bad days are minor, some are major. But it's impossible to avoid Bad Days entirely.

Today, I'm sorry to say, is probably my worst Bad Day in the history of this blog. I'm down in Austin, Texas for the amazing annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel. (As I write this: I'm so far ahead that you won't read it for over three weeks. But the whole point of Book-A-Day is to get it done that day.) Today is Monday. Saturday I got up at 5 AM, flew here from Newark, and then worked seven or eight hours setting up a booth. Yesterday was another twelve-hour day, finishing setup, doing normal work, and overseeing the opening reception. Today I was over in the exhibit hall at 8 AM and stayed there until it closed at 7 PM, went to a cocktail hour with a lot of other TR employees and then a dinner with just a few of them. I finally got back to my room at 11 PM, after what I count as a 15-hour day. (I might have also had a couple of whiskey sours during the cocktail hour that I'm surprised to still feel three hours later: I'm not as young as I used to be, but still young enough to keep being surprised at how not-young I am.)

When I got back here to my hotel room [1], I hadn't finished a book, and I certainly hadn't written anything. That is as close to a Platonic Bad Day as I can imagine.

Luckily, I had an out. I'd been reading Ghastly Beyond Belief -- a collection of quotes from SF and horror novels and movies that are more entertaining than good -- for a while this year in a desultory way, starting with my last business trip. Between that, and a couple of hundred words of bullshit about how busy my last few days have been (woe is me!), I could bash out a not-totally-horrible blog post by midnight and redeem myself.

How well did that work? Well, I finished Ghastly and got this far, and it's now 11:40. So I'm pretty sure I can make it, though I do need to apologize for anyone still reading for the toxic levels of self-indulgence at play here. I sincerely hope this post will never be anyone's first impression of Antick Musings -- really, I'm not usually this lousy, I promise.

(How lousy am I usually? Further deponent sayeth not.)

So: Ghastly Beyond Belief. Published in 1985 in the UK by Arrow Books. Inspired (I assume) by Bill Pronzini's masterful Gun in Cheek from 1982, the first of two amazing collections of "differently good" writing from the mystery-novel world. Collated by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman, when both were still young and grabbing for any opportunity to be in print and get paid for it.

I'm sorry to say that Ghastly is not as good as the Gun in Cheek books. I don't think that's because there is less bad writing in SF/horror -- I might be tempted to argue the opposite, actually. But Gaiman and Newman, even working in tandem, did not have the encyclopedic overview of horrible writing in their fields, the single-minded focus to gather it all and put it on the page, and the gleeful joy in calling out every last cliche that Pronzini brought to the task. Maybe that's because SF is more collegial than mystery, maybe our editors were younger than Pronzini was and thus less steeped in the culture of the bad stuff, maybe they weren't as obsessed with old lousy stories, maybe the yoking of books and movies was an unfortunate choice -- maybe your own maybes here.

Ghastly is fun, certainly. It's somewhat outdated, thirty years later, and feels less focused since it's divided in half: Gaiman apparently tackled the prose in the front half, and Newman the cinema in the back half. There are a lot of really horrible quotes in it. (Even if I think picking bad quotes from lousy horror movies is like shooting fish in a barrel: of course they're lousy!)

This book has been long out of print; it's hard to find and very expensive when you do find it. Gaiman had a fundraising thing a year or so back -- I forget, now, exactly what good cause it was for -- and this was one of a host of minor and/or old Gaiman books thrown in for the backers at whatever level. (That's how I got it, and how practically anyone reading it these days got it. If you missed that and really want to read Ghastly: sorry, but sucks to be you.)

So I guess my point is: this book that you probably can't find is fun, but not as good as you hope it is. Go read the Pronzini if you like that sort of thing, since it's easier to find and somewhat better. And know that Bad Days, however they manifest in your life, can always be overcome as long as you define the rules for "overcoming."

[1] Not to be That Guy, but my hotel is about a mile from the convention center, and I threw out my back crawling around on the floor on setup day. So I'm not just still mildly drunk and deeply tired, but in minor pain as well. Truly I am an Hemingwayesque figure, what?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #318: Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament edited by Anonymous

This book came out of a particular moment, and a particular place -- England, in the mid-80s, during one of its periodic frenzies about "offensive" material in comics form. But it's more generally applicable, to any nation that claims a heritage from an Abrahamaic religion (which includes, I' bet, 95%+ of the people reading this.)

It's a book that was created to make a point. An obvious one, for people who actually knew the truth, but Bible-thumpers are regularly ignorant of many of the horrible lessons contained in the thing they thump.

The title gives it away, of course: Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. All the murder and rape and war and human sacrifice and "take my virgin daughters instead of my male guest" that can be crammed into 68 pages, by a crew of major and semi-major names from the independent UK scene at the time. The book was edited and assembled by someone, but that person is never named -- it's some editor at Knockabout Publications at the time, but I have no idea who that is.

To be blunt, Outrageous Tales is pointedly saying the the source of a lot of people's moral compass is full of horrible lessons and shocking stories and thoroughly evil deeds, many of them very much in the name of You Know Who. (Almost as if it were a collection of legends from a savage group of desert tribes from more than a thousand years!)

So Neil Gaiman writes a long section adapting a whole bunch of the book of Judges -- one of the ones that doesn't come up much in the modern day, since it's full of horrible things and the main lesson is "do what God says or die horribly, and maybe die horribly even if you do" -- turning it into something very much like an EC Comic. Mike Matthews does the very twisted "host" art for the opening and closing sections, with other artists (including Dave McKean) doing the bits in the middle.

Other greatest hits of the Bible include an Alan Moore/Hunt Emerson take on a long list of "kill people who have fucked in this incorrect way" from Leviticus, with Emerson gleefully depicting a rapidly shrinking Israelite tribe killing their fellow tribesmen who broke each rule in turn. Kim Deitch does a straight adaptation of the book of Job, without any of the rib-nudging of many of the other stories, and it's still horrifying, since Job's is a horrifying story. Brian Bolland has Elisha cursing forty-two boys to be eaten by bears for calling him "Baldy," and Dave Gibbons turns the angels of Sodom and Gomorrah into something like aliens. (Which, in retrospect, seems to be slightly off-message.)

There are a few other stories tucked into the niches in between, but it's not a long book -- only 68 pages, as I said. And it is all pretty much the same tone: can you believe what's in this old book of laws and stories?

I can believe it, but I am the guy who won the Bible Olympics as a teen two years running. (It was a very liberal church, so this material was never an emphasis -- but what teen boy isn't fascinated with the horrible Old Testament stuff?) You may not need this book to learn this lesson. In fact, that's the real problem with Outrageous Tales: the people who most need to learn this lesson will never learn it from a book like this.

But most lessons are like that, aren't they? If they were easy, they wouldn't be real lessons.