Friday, July 21, 2017

Lost and Found: 1969-2003 by Bill Griffith

If you keep going long enough in a creative field, eventually someone will collect your stuff. If you're reasonably successful, they'll even collect the oddball stuff -- the one-offs and blind alleys and test-beds and experiments that you made as you were working towards (or in between) the works that you were better known for.

Yes, you too can be the proud creator of an odds and sods collection, if you live long enough and work hard enough and get lucky enough. If your name is Bill Griffith, congratulations! That book was published by Fantagraphics in 2011 as Lost and Found: 1969-2003.

Griffith has spent most of his career aiming his Zippy the Pinhead character, and associated folks, at whatever Griffith's current obsessions were. It's a good model for a cartoonist, actually: if you have a malleable character that you own, and a flexible, large cast around him, you can keep producing work that gives your audience continuity while telling the stories and working with the ideas you really want to in that moment. It's not coincidental that the major outlet for Zippy stories for the last three or four decades has been a syndicated comic strip: that's been the model for a huge number of successful comics creators for over a century, a way to reach a large audience with work that can, for the right person, be personal and idiosyncratic.

But that's what's not in this book. It has one sequence from the Zippy strip, but it's mostly comic-book-formatted pages, and it's mostly from anthologies and magazines and other people's comics -- the stuff he was doing when he wasn't making Zippy strips and purely Zippy comic-books.

Zippy's in a lot, though. Griffith developed his cast early, and has used them across all of his cartooning formats. But he's definitely not as central here as he is in most of Griffith's work. Lost and Found is heavily weighted towards the early part of Griffith's career -- the 1970s is by far the largest section -- and so this is a book in large part showing how that cast first appeared and developed.

Mr. Toad was the original central character in Griffith's stories, starting off as an Everyman type but quickly becoming the raging id (loosely modeled on Griffith's father, as he acknowledges later in this book) he was meant to be. So he's the first main character the reader meets, soon accompanied by some one-off folks from Young Lust (the sex-filled parody of romance comics that Griffith co-edited).

Frankly, the early comics are very "underground" -- rambling and navel-gazing in turn, clearly drawn by someone who is still learning his craft and doesn't have any strong models or guidelines for what he's doing. To be more pointed, they're not very good. They're interesting for people who like the mature Zippy stuff -- you can trace the development of Claude Funston pretty clearly, and obviously The Toad -- but the first hundred pages of Lost and Found is a bit of a slog for anyone not already seeped in '60s counterculture.

(As they say, if you can remember the '60s, you weren't there. I don't remember them, but I wasn't there, either.)

The back half of Lost and Found is more impressive, with one-off stories set in the Zippy universe that appeared various places during the '80s and '90s, including an extensive color section. This is the part of Lost and Found that most readers will be looking for: I almost recommend that folks start here, and only dip back into the '70s section randomly  as they have the inclination. (I don't actually recommend that, because I'm a fiend for doing things in the right order.)

But, again: this is an odds and sods collection. There will always be sods. It's the nature of the beast. You gotta take them with the odds. And some of this is quite odd.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1 by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi

Wanna know a secret? I really don't give a shit about mountain climbing. Very few people do. Very few people give a shit about any random pastime you could name -- shuffleboard, mate-swapping, parasailing, Yahtzee, building boats in bottles -- either as a participant or a spectator.

But sometimes we can be made to care, through the power of art.

And that's how I came to The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1, the first of a five-volume series about Japanese mountain climbers written by Yumemakura Baku and drawn by Jiro Taniguchi. Well, to be more honest, I came to it because I'd read Taniguichi's two-book series A Distant Neighborhood (see my posts on books one and two), and wanted more Taniguchi. I'd neglected to read the fine print, and hadn't realized that Taniguchi was just contributing his picture-making abilities here, not his writing-stories skills.

(There are people who follow artists around comics. I've even been one of them, once in a while. But I'm mainly interested in story, and I mainly follow people who tell stories. So when a writer-artist I like starts just writing, it may be a bit sad, but I'm generally happy. If he starts just drawing, it's a huge calamity.)

Baku is a good story-teller, and he makes some interesting complex characters here. His main character is both a world-class asshole and a deeply compelling protagonist, which is a tough thing to pull off. He's also telling a long story with grace and ease -- it looks like the whole five-volume series is a single, complete story, and I like seeing people who can do that well.

But, frankly, I still don't give a shit about mountain climbing. I thought The Summit of the Gods would make me care, at least for the length of time to read the book. But, as it turned out, it didn't. The pictures are breathtaking and the people are real, but this is just not a story that I ended up caring about. It's certainly a flaw on my part, and no reflection on the book.

But I don't expect to go back for the later volumes, and I can say definitively that climbing mountains is something I will never give a shit about. As I get older, having those signposts are more and more useful, to mark off all of the things I don't have to explore any more, since they've bored me enough already. I recommend that feeling highly, whatever the things you decide you personally don't give a shit about.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 3: L.A. Woman by Fraction, Wu, Pulido, and others

Last month, I read a book called Hawkeye, Vol. 1. This month, I hit one called Vol. 3. In the annoyingly typical way of Big Two comics, the latter follows directly from the former. (One is a hardcover, which in comics-reprinting circles comes typically a year or two after the paperback and combines two paperbacks together. Yes, that's the opposite of how we old-time book-industry hands are used to seeing things happen, but it seems to work for the Wednesday Crowd.)

Anyway, at the end of Vol. 1, the two Hawkeyes split up, because comics are all about break-ups and changes and new things that can last for six issues or so. (Spider-Man No More! once again.) L.A. Woman follows the younger female Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, who drives a cool car cross country to the city of the title, where she immediately gets caught up in nefarious doings and skulduggery of her own. Presumably there's a Vol. 4 that features what Hawkguy was doing at the same time back in NYC, and that seems to be about as long as this particular set-up ran.

Kate's travails form yet another "gritty" and "realistic" superhero comic -- no powers, no flying, more-or-less the real world -- that descends from the Miller/Mazzuchelli "Born Again" run in Daredevil, the major cliche in this area. Look, comics folks, we all know it's not hard to put a bullet in someone's head. And people without superpowers who repeatedly annoy large-scale criminals without actually jailing those criminals find themselves possessors of those bullets-in-the-head sooner rather than later. So talking-killer scenes, and repeated hairsbreadth escapes in noirish colors, just lampshade how artificial your story is. Avoid them. If your villain isn't going to actually try to kill the hero like an actual criminal would in a real world, don't go down that road and pretend that the plan is to kill her. We all know that's not the case.

Speaking of which...Kate runs afoul of a supervillain carefully tailored to her abilities, one who can stymie her and cause her great pain but not blow her away instantly or hire goons to kidnap and murder her family by the snap of her fingers. So she's in L.A., and she Loses Everything.

That's OK, comics characters Lose Everything roughly once a year -- it's one of their major shticks. But she's young and a fairly new character, so this is one of her first Lose Everythings, and it has that element of novelty to it.

By the end of this book, she's Voluntarily Relinquished Everything -- the next step towards Getting Everything Back, And Even Better, Because She's The Good Guy -- and is heading off for the vengeance and catharsis that probably got sidetracked and muted by some stupid crossover or other.

These are good superhero comics, for all that they're drenched in cliches. It's not quite as good as the Clint Barton stuff in the earlier issues, maybe because he's easier to make a sad-sack in the first place. But "good superhero comics" is perilously close to damning with faint praise, along the lines of "a perfectly serviceable category Regency." I wish readers and creators could aim higher, but that's life.

If you like stories about superheroes who can't jump over buildings with a single bound, and like to pretend that such people are "realistic," you will probably enjoy the stories that Matt Fraction wrote about the various Hawkeyes. This time out, the opening story is drawn by Javier Pulido and the rest by Annie Wu, who are both good at the moderately gritty, real-people thing in their own ways. Go for it: I can't stop you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Karen Reyes is ten years old in 1968, and she loves monsters. Monster movies, monster magazines, the idea of monsters -- imagining that there are real monsters around her in her normal Chicago life. She's also seriously bullied and outcast, with no real close friends as the book begins. And she's telling us her own story, drawing it page-by-page in a series of notebooks, with herself as a kid-werewolf PI in fedora and trenchcoat.

But My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is not cute. And it's also not the kind of book where the reader understands the truth of what's opaque to the narrator, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Karen is young, and there's a lot of things she doesn't know, and she does want to become a movie-monster, but she's mostly clear-eyed about the world around her, and she's good at finding things out and piecing things together. (She will make a good detective when she grows up.)

And her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, did just die -- shot in the heart in her living room, though found dead in her bed. Since the apartment was locked at the time, the police have closed the case quickly as a suicide. But Anka has deep secrets from her life in Berlin before and during WW II -- and she's not the only one with secrets in the building, from her musician husband to the minor-gangster landlord and his hot-to-trot-wife, to the ventriloquist in the basement and Karen's twenty-something amateur-gigolo brother Deez and hillbilly mother.

Karen does meet some other kids who she sees as monsters, or possible monsters. And one of those may not be entirely a real person who actually exists in the world. So there's some unreliable-narrator elements, or fabulist elements, in the mix as well. But, at her core, Karen is honest and straightforward: she's trying to find out the truth, and has some good tools for doing so.

The truth -- which doesn't all come out in this book, the first of at least two -- looks to be bigger and more dangerous and complicated than one ten-year-old girl can fix. And her family has clearly been trying to keep some big secrets from her, like Deez's relationship with Anka.

I've tagged this book as "Fantasy," but I don't think it really is. But it's a book about the fantasies that we have, and about how fantasy creatures can make real life bearable.

All that is told as if drawn by Karen -- don't think too hard about when she has the time to draw this much, or how she got this good at the age of ten -- in colored pens on pages lined in blue, to mimic a notebook. There's around five hundred of those pages, though none of them are numbered, and there are a lot of words on many of these large pages. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a big book in every way: physically large, full of words, impressive pictorially, challenging in subject matter and storytelling.

This is Emil Ferris's first book -- she's a woman about the age Karen Reyes would be, grown up, and she seems to have been a kid like Karen back in the late '60s. I have no idea how many of the elements of Monsters came out of Ferris's own life, real or transmuted over time, but I can say that Monsters is nothing like a memoir. It is a fully-formed story, about a deeply individual young woman, stuck in a bad situation -- several bad situations, overlapping -- and trying to cope with it through intellect and rational thought and just a bit of wishing.

It's a very impressive graphic novel. Several dozen more influential people have said that before me, and they're all very right. Debuts like this don't come around very often. This is something very special.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/15

Dateline: Sunday, 6 PM

I've just spent the day driving up and back to my great-aunt's assisted living facility in lovely Albany, NY (land of my birth), to gather furniture and move it to various places. I'm hot, tired, and in no mood for any of your shenanigans.

All right, so let's look at what books the Publicity Gods have given me this week -- am I going to have to spend the next hour looking for interesting things to say about books?

Scanning: no new books found

OK, we're done for the week. See you here next week for whatever may have arrived in the meantime. And, with any luck, other posts in between.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson

This is, I think, still the most recent book by the excellent cartoonist Andi Watson, which I reviewed in a monthly round-up barely two years ago. Why did I read it again? Well, I think that the first time around, I read it from an electronic copy, so I eventually bought a real book for myself and took the opportunity to read it again before placing it on the shelf.

Now, it's entirely possible that I already have a copy on the shelf, since my sense of what books I own and don't was completely blown to hell by my flood in 2011. I frankly can't remember what I used to have and got flooded out, and what I used to have and still have by a fluke, and what I was meaning to buy back then but never did, and what I was meaning to buy back then and did later, and what I've bought since then but haven't read, and what I've bought since then and read and forgot because I didn't care about it. This sucks, since I used to be really good at remembering all those things.

But being surprised by your own shelves is no bad thing, so I'm not actually complaining. Even if I have bought several books a couple of times over the past few years.

And if it means I read a cute little souffle like Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula again, even if I don't "need to," well, that still sounds like a good thing, doesn't it?

Go see my old post if you want to know anything about the book: it's by one of our great cartoonists, and it's suitable for middle-grade readers though not limited to them. That's good enough for me.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

UIniversal Harvester by John Darnielle

John Darnielle came to novel-writing late, after a long, and still flourishing, career as a songwriter and performer. He's been the central force, and occasionally the only member, of The Mountain Goats for nearly thirty years now.

And the assumption always is, when someone famous from another loosely-related creative endeavor decides to write a novel, that it's some kind of vanity project. But Darnielle is the real deal -- he took a detour to get to the novelist's chair, but he's been trying to get there his whole life. And he deeply belongs there.

Darnielle has followed up his excellent first novel Wolf in White Van with this year's equally slim and powerful Universal Harvester, showing that he's not just a guy who happened to write a novel (we all have one in us, right?) but a bona fide novelist.

This may be a spoiler, but Universal Harvester is not a horror novel. (At least, not in the Stephen King sense.) For a long time, it looks like it might be -- there's an atmosphere of looming ominousness, of unknown things going on in the background that may be deeply horrible when they're fully known.

And, you know, a lot of life is deeply horrible when it's fully known. Just this morning, I read a story in the paper of a man right about my age killed on a local highway. He'd stopped, carefully, on the shoulder, to adjust cargo on his car. Another car careened across several lanes to smash into his stopped car, killing him instantly. Witnesses described the crash as so violent that both cars "flew up into the air and spun around." Passers-by saved the elderly driver who caused the crash and her passengers with only minor injuries; a woman traveling with the dead man had to be life-flighted to a hospital, and is still in bad condition. That's just one example: death and pain and destruction lurk around every corner, and the people who are responsible so often skate on blithely while the people around them pay the price.

That car crash was a Mountain Goats song, or could have been.

Universal Harvester has a crash crash in it, but a smaller one, not as pyrotechnic and impressive. Maybe that's because the novel is set in a patchwork of small towns and farmlands around Nevada, Iowa, and for a big, impressive crash you need a multi-lane highway to give you both high speed and a lot of witnesses. The horrible things in Universal Harvester are smaller and more personal -- things that happen to you and your family in private. The things you don't share with outsiders, because they'll never understand.

Perhaps I should mention that there's another car crash -- one that happens before the novel opens. That's probably the most horrible thing here. But it's an Iowa crash as well. Devastating to the people directly affected, but no big deal otherwise.

Other people's lives are always no big deal, unless we make it our deal.

I'm not writing much here about the story of Universal Harvester. It's set somewhere around 2000, maybe a few years later or earlier, in a small video shop. Jeremy, a clerk in that store, gets reports that there are other scenes taped over some of the movies -- we're long enough ago, or far enough out, that VHS is the major format. He watches the scenes, which are clearly amateur: shaky camera, no dialogue, long shots of not much happening. They're also clearly from somewhere nearby. And they might be of something horrible happening: there are figures in masks, or tied to chairs, or huddled under tarps while a booted foot kicks them.

Other people's lives are always no big deal, unless we make it our deal.

Jeremy makes it his deal. He has a deep connection with the film-maker, which he won't know -- which the reader won't know -- until much later. Jeremy investigates. He watches the tapes. He shares them with others, who are also worried and appalled. They make plans and theories. They think they can find something wrong and fix it. But, again, this is not a horror novel.

It's not a novel about people chasing people with axes, at least. Not about supernatural forces from outside the world that are the real source of evil. Not about stopping the One Bad Thing, despite huge costs, to put the world right. It's not a horror novel. The real world, and the world of Universal Harvester, doesn't have horrors like those.

It has horrors like mothers that die, suddenly. Or that disappear, in a way that's worse than death. And it has people who have to go on living, on those oblivious Iowa two-lane roads, after those horrors happen. Just like you and me, in our own ways, in our own places.

It's a Mountain Goats song, on a larger scale -- a story of people trying to live their lives under adversity and neglect and fate. There are no easy answers, no horror-novel monster that can be killed to make the world better. The world only gets better day by day, through everyone's efforts, in tiny increments. And maybe it doesn't seem to get any better at all. And so there's no moment at the end when you know you've killed the monster. Because the monster is life. The monster is other people. The monster is you. The monster is everything and nothing.

Universal Harvester is a strong step forward from an already strong first novel in Wolf in White Van. Darnielle keeps his focus on people and their lives, with a deep sympathy and understanding of grief and loss and sadness. As long as you don't expect it to become a horror novel, you can get a lot out of it.