Friday, February 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #59: Taxes, the Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels by Stan Mack

There's a fair bit of history in comics form these days -- I wrote about Rick Geary's latest book of historical murder yesterday, and of course Larry Gonick has been telling the story of the entire world (with side trips to Physics, Chemistry, Sex, and other places) for a couple of decades now.

Here's where I'm supposed to say "but it wasn't always like that," and bore you with tales of the Bad Old Days, when comics were only allowed to have guys in long underwear, and anything non-fictional was shunned. Well, that would be a gross exaggeration -- but non-fiction comics used to be pretty rare, and comics doing smart, relatively serious popular history even more so.

Which is why it's nice to see the return of 1994's Taxes, the Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels, a history in comics of the American Revolutionary War by Stan Mack, best known for his long-running found-dialogue strip in the Village Voice, "Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies." Taxes is a full history of the war -- inevitably condensed because of space and graphic considerations, but covering all of the high points and making them all come to life.

(And I say "nice to see the return," even though I missed Taxes the first time around -- come to think of it, that makes it doubly nice, not to miss it this time.)

Mack tells this story in a populist tone, with a slight leftist edge -- he mentions women, slaves, and natives; the right-wing version of this story is all stout property-owning yeomen with their muskets and pearly white skin, fighting for their God-granted rights to oppress the aforementioned -- but that's mostly undertone and framing: he focuses on Adams and Washington and Hamilton and Paine and so on, all of the greatest hits of American History 101. If you're a grown-up, you probably know a lot of pieces of this story -- but Taxes is also aimed at teens, and that's where I hope it will really shine. It depicts the Founding Fathers as real people, with foibles and hobbyhorses, who fought with each other and schemed for power -- because that's what they were, because that's what all people are.

Mack's art is energetic and expressive as usual, and his writing is smart and funny and packs a lot into limited space. (As when he glancingly debunks a silly legend by having Paul Revere say "We're all British, you idiot," to someone trying to feed him the famous line.) This book is rabble-rousing in the best way, and it deserves to be read widely.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Current First World Problem

When you keep a blog -- is that the right verb? "keep," like a pet? or should it be something more active like "rant" or "whine"? -- the tendency is for your passions to be blog fodder. Antick Musings started off to be everything but a book blog; I had a day-job editing and selling skiffy, so this was going to be the place to write about everything else and figure out the then-spiffy and new blog thing.

It's now almost nine years later, and even my rearguard actions to avoid this blog being all-book-reviews-all-the-time have failed; I haven't written about movies in a year or so, and I haven't even ranted about publishing in general for nearly as long. None of that is a problem, actually: middle age is the time when you find out who you really are and what you're really like, and then you have the rest of your life to learn to live with that.

But there are things I'm doing that seem like they should be bloggable, even though they don't manage to get turned into words here.

Specifically, I'm in the middle of basically playing my way through the entire Grand Theft Auto videogame franchise -- I avoided particularly violent games when my kids were small, so the only open-world thing I've bounced around in before was that Hulk game for the Gamecube (which was a lot of fun, actually: I'd love to see an updated version with more interiors and a wider variety of stuff to destroy). And they're interesting and annoying in ways that tickle my critical facility -- I've had a post I wanted to call "Methods of Control" bouncing around my head for three or four months now -- but I haven't managed to write about them in the six-plus months I've been rampaging around fake cities stealing cars and shooting criminals. It's always been more fun to just boot up the game and play, rather than thinking and typing.

I bought Vice City on my iPad in the early summer of 2013, before a business trip, but only started playing in August. But it hooked me hard, so I was soon playing concurrent games both on the iPad and my desktop computer -- and then moved on to GTA 3 on the computer, which was slightly disappointing after VC. I hit San Andreas a little before Thanksgiving, and finished up the storyline just after Christmas -- I haven't been trying to get to 100% on any of them, since some of the side missions are more annoying than amusing -- but have been playing SA on my iPad (which is really a lousy interface for this kind of game, honestly) for the last few weeks just because.

All of that just saw me buying cheap old software that I could play on my regular computing devices, so it was simple and easy. But then I bought a PS3 system as the big Christmas present for my boys pretty much entirely so I could get a GTA 5 bundle -- not that those boys minded one tiny bit; they've been obsessively playing Skyrim for the last two months and thanking me -- and got a copy of GTA 4 for the PS3 that they could give me as my Christmas present. (My GTA fix has become something of a joke around my household, as you might guess.) Well, the boys were 13 and 15, so getting one of the "real" game systems was probably overdue. We've been pretty serious about game ratings, unlike just about every other parent I know -- Skyrim was the first M-rated game I let them play, and I did a lot of research first.

(And, yes, I did decide to play through the GTA games in chronological order -- after I dropped back to GTA 3 after VC -- because that's the kind of mind I have: everything needs to be in order. Don't ask me about the handheld games -- actually, I did try to play Chinatown Wars a bit on the iPad, but the overhead view is distracting, so I don't expect to go back to it. The two PSP-era games may show up in my queue eventually; I think I can download them on the PS3.)

But then when I started to play GTA 4 on the PS3, I wasn't crazy about the experience: our gaming TV is old and lousy, and I missed using the mouse to shoot. So I installed Windows on my Mac pretty much entirely so I could use it to play GTA 4, and that's what I've been doing for the past eight weeks. That's beginning to get into obsessive territory: buying a game twice and installing a new operating system just to play it the right way.

Anyway, all that is a long prelude to my actual current First World Problem. I'm about to hit the endings on GTA 4 -- I'll probably play through both of them by the end of the weekend -- and the question is what to do next. (Yes, I've got the two DLC add-on games for GTA 4; that's one option.)

You see, the newest game in my last gaming obsession is out now: the game of The Lego Movie. (Making this even more complicated: I loved The Lego Movie, but the reviews of the game make it seem a little tired and rote. Doubly complicated: I came to GTA because I loved the Lego City game so much, and that was clearly a homage/parody/whatever of the GTA games.)

So my choices are:
  • continue with the GTA 4 world, and play the two side stories on my Mac
  • buy and play the Lego Movie game, probably on the Wii U
  • just play GTA 5 on the PS3 already, since that's what I bought it for (possible complication: I may feel compelled to buy a new TV)
 I haven't decided yet. But, if this is my hardest decision, my life is going pretty darn well. And it got me a long, rambly post that isn't a book review, which I will count as a win.

Book-A-Day 2014 #58: Madison Square Tragedy by Rick Geary

I've given a lot of attention and electrons -- everything I've written has been here and other electronic locations -- to the long series of graphic novels about famous historical murders that Rick Geary has been producing, just about annually, for most of the last two decades. This is because they're engrossing books, because Geary has an appealing detailed style that's excellent at depicting historical people in true context, and because murder is always fascinating.

(In reverse chronological order: The Elwell Engima, which doesn't really count, Lovers' Lane, The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, Famous Players, The Lindbergh Child, The Saga of the Bloody Benders, and The Case of Madeleine Smith. There were seven books before that, but they pre-dated this blog.)

The most recent book in the current series, "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder," arrived in December as Madison Square Tragedy. It tells the story of the murder of famous turn-of-the-century architect Stanford White and his murder by the not-mentally-stable Harry K. Thaw, scion of a rich Pittsburgh family. And at the center of it is Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl, dancer and model who was White's mistress and then Thaw's wife -- though her first sexual encounter with each of them was rape, and I suspect many or most of the subsequent couplings would count as rape in our era, as well. (Thaw in particular had a nasty sadistic streak.)

Nesbit was the femme fatale of the case, of course: according to the lawyers at Thaw's trial and all of the newspapers, she scandalously led both men on -- mostly by being pretty and young and too trusting for her own good, but that's the kind of era 1906 was. All this happened in public: it was an open secret that White was a "noted seducer" -- i.e., that he drugged and raped dozens or hundreds of young women over decades, and got away with it because he was rich and powerful and connected and a man, when they were none of those things. Thaw, once he fixated on Nesbit -- he was more monomaniacal than White, who was attracted to feminine youth and beauty in every form possible -- increased his hatred for White and his "seductions," and that mania led, inexorably, to first taking Nesbit (to Europe and then more carnally, with brutal force), marrying her, and then shooting White in the face when they happened to meet one day in New York.

Thaw was also rich and powerful and connected and male, and so his first trial ended in a hung jury and the second sent him to a plush asylum once he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. And he didn't stay there very long, either. He didn't stay married to Nesbit all that long, either.

Madison Square Tragedy tells this story, focusing on the three principals and devoting most of its length to their relationships and then Thaw's trial: Thaw and Nesbit's subsequent fifty-plus years of life are covered in a few pages at the end. Geary, as always, tells the story through facts and details and his precise line, with as little emotion or editorializing as he can. But I have to admit that I find the real tragedy to be what happened to Nesbit, and I believe Geary meant the title that way.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #57: We Can Fix It! by Jess Fink

A book is either fiction or fact, right? It can't possibly be both at the same time, could it?

(Yes, of course it could. That's a false dichotomy, since all works are somewhere on a fuzzy continuum, including novels based closely on the author's life and non-fiction works with names and identifying details changed for whatever reasons. But it's a decent way of setting up today's book, so I'm running with it.)

Jess Fink's newest graphic novel, We Can Fix It!, is billed as "A Time Travel Memoir," which is exactly what it is: a story about Fink's life and choices -- mostly those bad choices that she wants to undo, like so many of us -- told as fiction through a SFnal idea. Fink has a time machine -- how she got it and all of the geeky details are entirely beside the point -- and is using it to visit her past selves.

Amusingly, the first thing that Fink does with her younger self (five years? ten years? somewhere in there) is to make out with her, and that sets the tone for the rest of We Can Fix It!: it's mostly about Fink's libido and romantic regret and worries about sex and relationships. (And so the buried subtext there is that fooling around with other versions of herself -- the kind of masturbation only time travel can facilitate -- is seductively easier and simpler that dealing with real other people.)

But this isn't porn -- Fink has done porn, and done it well, but this ain't it -- so the make-outs aren't the point here. The point is the emotions behind the make-outs: how do you know ahead of time if this person will turn out to be nice or a douche-bag? (You don't -- unless you have a future version of yourself coming back in a time machine.) So jumpsuited Fink keeps trying to interfere with her earlier life at different points, but all of the younger Finks stop listening to her: she might be them in the future, but she's coming across as a grumpy, demanding, anti-fun old lady, and who wants that?

She realizes that, eventually. Even with a time machine, you can't change who you were. What you can do is focus on the good times -- and, as Fink says pointedly, the fart jokes, because those are always funny -- and not try to change all of the bad things that happened. It's a good philosophy, though it doesn't require a time machine to implement -- and I know a bunch of SF readers who would grind their teeth at the "unrealistic" time machine here, which is really just a giant honking metaphor for memory.

We Can Fix It! is a bit glib, but it's good-hearted and optimistic, forward-looking and self-possessed. It says true things in a clever way, and lets us eavesdrop on Fink's interesting life -- and her makeout sessions, with herself and others -- along the way. It's the best time travel memoir I know of.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #56: No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vols. 1 & 2 by Nico Tanigawa

The geeks of the world we will always have with us. They might not always be precisely what we expect -- the rotund T-shirted basement-dweller of Eltingville fame turns out to be more American than universal -- but there are always ways to tell the true geeks. They're fanatical about some piece of popular culture, for example: comics or movies or games or even a sport. Their social skills are notably lacking, which fact they may realize or not. And the true geek is usually young: whether that's because geeks generally grow up into more rounded people or because stories about middle-aged geeks are wrist-slicingly depressing I'll leave as an open question. But those are the hallmarks of the geek in media: young, obsessed, obtuse.

Tomoko Kuroki is a world-class geek, and she's only just starting high school. She's been obsessed with otome games -- dating simulations, some friskier than others, portraying teen girls and the boys they chase and win -- throughout her middle-school years, and she's sure that experience will set her up for massive popularity. On the other hand, we readers can tell that she's barely able to speak to any non-family members, let alone the cute boys she hopes will fall over her. So we can tell from the first page that she's setting herself up for failure -- but the true geek usually is about as good as understanding herself as she is at understanding the society around her, so Tomoko is predictably blind to her own faults. Interestingly, she's also as obsessed with sex -- as as confused and misled about what actual sex and relationships are like -- as her stereotyped male Western counterpart, though the details are different. But Tomoko's mind is always turning things around her into dirty jokes and sexual references, of the kind that can never be shared with others.

There have been two volumes of Tomoko's adventures so far: each volume of No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular! has nine or ten stories, each one titled "I'm Not Popular, So I'll {Foo}" -- with each Foo being the thing Tomoko is trying to do in that story to be normal, attract friends, become popular, and be a brilliant success. They all fail, of course: Tomoko may one day find a place in the world where she fits, someone who she loves and loves her back, and true friends, but her lack of all of those things is what drives No Matter How I Look at It, and so she'll stay that way for the run of the series.

If you're young and geeky, or particularly empathetic, Tomoko's story may be painful to read: she really is clueless about how to get what she wants, and she's not going to get any better at the rate she's going. But her stories are amusing and cutting, particularly for an American audience used to a very different kind of geekery, and that's enough to make these two volumes compelling reading. (It might not be enough to keep the series going indefinitely; Tomoko is a one-trick pony. But we'll have to see how that goes.)

One sidebar note: the series title seems to be Tomoko talking to someone -- a person or persons who keeps her from being popular. There's no character in the series that she could be speaking to, though, so I have to take the title as poetic license: not only is Tomoko herself obviously the reason she isn't popular, even she knows that, and the series is about her trying to overcome her own issues, or sidestep them in her quirky ways.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #55: The Literary Companion edited by Emma Jones

Today's lesson is in the dangers of procrastination: reading a book of random facts and factoids a decade after its original publication will make it just old enough to seem outdated and not old enough to seem quaint. This is in no way the book's fault: it couldn't possibly be. But sitting on a stack of books of interesting tidbits for reading in the smallest room in the house will only work well if those books are not allowed to mature beyond their sell-by date.

Publishing is as subject to manias and enthusiasms as any other business dependent on the whims of the public, and one such unlikely surge came in the early aughts, after the surprising success in 2002 of Schott's Original Miscellany, a carefully curated and heavily designed small book of facts, figures, and other oddities. As usual, its compiler, Ben Schott, went on to create a series of nearly-as-good books in the same vein, to slightly diminishing returns. And other publishing firms decided to publish similar books: small hardcovers, with a lot of semi-random facts, in tan dustwrappers with a tasteful pen drawing for cover art. (The last was possibly the most important thing: if you want to ride a wave, you need to make sure your product looks like it's already part of that wave.)

And so the "Think Books" came to pass. I'm sure they were packaged by someone, but I don't know who. They seem to have come in a rush between 2003 and 2005, when this particular mania crashed and everyone moved on to something else. Robson published them in the UK, and it looks like Anova picked up some or all of them on my side of the pond. (The book I have in front of me is a Robson edition, distributed by the great people at Trafalgar Square, who get real British books out into the wilds of America, as if it were still 1830. I love them for that.) At some point in 2004 or 2005, some of these books were pitched to the book clubs I worked for, and the Emma Jones-edited volume The Literary Companion made its way first to the discard bookcase and then home with me, to my own to-be-read bookcases.

All that is inside baseball and publishing backstory, though. What it resulted in is a book of literary facts and figures -- each of the page numbers is actually a little nugget of information about that number, as, for example, page 21 is the age Rimbaud retired from poetry -- all organized nicely on the page, if not as precisely and time-consumingly as the original Schott books were. (This is the hallmark of the wave-follower: they look generally similar, but strip out the aspects of the original that take the most time, effort, and care.) The Literary Companion has a tropism towards high culture and towards the UK, which is only to be expected. It also is only up-to-date as of 2003, which leads to some interesting facts about e-books, bestseller lists, and other aspects of our fast-moving times.

Of course, details of the great 19th century writers have not dated much since 2004, so most of The Literary Companion is exactly as useful and correct as it ever was. But those contemporary moment can be jarring when they hit and the reader remembers that publishing was not quite the same business a decade ago. If you come across this book -- I imagine all of the Think Books are not that easy to find now -- and are interested in both the literary greats and trivia, it's still definitely worth the time. But I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find it -- or, like me, sitting on it for ten years before reading.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/22

This is yet another one of those weeks -- they're becoming very common lately -- where I only have one book to write about. Once again, please don't think I'm complaining: I feel guilty about getting free books to begin with, which is why I do these posts. So only having one book makes me feel slightly less guilty, and lets me get this post done more quickly.

(Note to any publicists reading: this absolutely does not mean I don't want you to send me more books. Pile them on!)

Anyway, that book is The Judge of Ages, the triumphant conclusion to John C. Wright's current medium-future SF trilogy, after Count to a Trillion and The Hermetic Millennia. I believe eight thousand years have passed during the course of this trilogy -- time flies when you're battling for the destiny of mankind under threat of alien invaders traveling at relativistic speeds -- and the battling titans, Ximen del Azarchel and Menelaus Montrose, are still trying to impose their very different visions of humanity and the future on the world. Who will win? (I'd bet on the one the author favors, if you ask me.) The Judge of Ages is a Tor hardcover, officially hitting stores on February 25th.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #54: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Sequels always worm their way in. Even fifty years after the death of the original author, when reasonable people think all chances of sequels are gone, they still turn up, like weeds after a hard rain. Sometimes those sequels are pretty good, and sometimes...well, do I have to say the words Perchance to Dream?

A new book about Raymond Chandler's great genre-defining private detective Philip Marlowe doesn't need to be a sequel: Chandler didn't write any. Each of his seven novels was an entirely separate story, and he tried to suppress the short stories that he "cannibalized" into those novels -- he clearly had a sense that a novel should be a thing that stands on its own.

But all of the posthumous Marlowe stories have been sequels and continuations: first Robert B. Parker -- a writer whose stripped-down style was about as far from Chandleresque as could be imagined -- expanded Chandler's few pages of Poodle Springs into a bland, forgettable novel in 1989. A few years later, Parker continued his assault on Chandler's corpse with his The Big Sleep sequel, about which the less said, the better.

And now, another twenty years later -- perhaps because it took that long to get the taste of Perchance to Dream out of all of our mouths -- the Chandler estate has authorized another Marlowe novel, and of course it turns out to be a sequel. That's unfortunate, but at least The Black-Eyed Blonde isn't a direct sequel, and at least it follows up from Chandler's greatest novel, The Long Goodbye. (And, most importantly, at least "Benjamin Black" -- the thinnest of pseudonyms used by literary writer John Banville when he wants to write more quickly and include more mayhem in his stories -- is vastly more in sympathy with Chandler's style and concerns than Parker was.)

For a long time, Black-Eyed Blonde seems to be a riff or a companion piece to Long Goodbye, and I hope I'm not giving anything vital away by calling it a sequel. But the action of this novel completes Long Goodbye in a very deliberate fashion: it is a sequel to the Chandler book, and any serious look at Black-Eyed Blonde needs to take account of that.

It's the early 1950s, and Marlowe is still working out of that small office in the Cahuenga Building and living in a small furnished house in Laurel Canyon. Black doesn't describe the places and cars much, either to keep Black-Eyed Blonde from reading like a historical or to better follow Chandler, who kept his focus on people and dialogue. He does describe the people a bit more, particularly the femme fatale of the title: Clare Cavendish, rich and gorgeous and walking into Marlowe's office alone to hire him. She's married to a polo-playing wastrel, but she wants Marlowe to find her missing lover: Nico Peterson, a wanna-be agent only a cut or two above gigolo in the cutthroat LA social scene.

The case doesn't entirely make sense, but Marlowe is used to that. He assumes Clare is lying to him about something, but sets off to find the missing Peterson -- and immediately learns that Peterson died in a car accident two months ago, and that Clare was nearby when it happened. Her revised story is that she saw Peterson in passing on the street in San Francisco the week before, and she wants to know if he faked his death. And so Marlowe continues the investigation into the possibly-not-dead Peterson.

The usual Chandleresque complications follow, as Marlowe wanders around talking to people connected to Peterson and Clare: his sister, her mother and heroin-addict brother (it may have been a slight miscalculation on Black's part to have two men connected to Clare who are both useless wastrels, since her husband and brother can be difficult to differentiate), the manager of the club he left on the night of his "death." And there are thugs: two Mexican toughs, clearly sent by someone to find something, are visiting many of the same places as Marlowe, with their own more direct, violent ways of getting results.

Marlowe talks to everyone, including the cops Bernie Olds and Joe Green -- since no one has found a way to say goodbye to them yet -- repeatedly, circling the mystery of Peterson's disappearance and the deeper question of why Clare cares. And the answer circles Black-Eyed Blonde back to Long Goodbye, and its eventual denouement at Langrische Lodge, the mansion owned by Clare's perfume-magnate mother. There's murder involved, of course, and more lucrative crime as well. Marlowe comes through it all, as he must.

Black succeeds where Parker failed: Black-Eyed Blonde reads like a book Chandler could possibly have written, or like a first-generation follower of Chandler, with an authentic sense of time and place and a Marlowe as conflicted and ambivalent as the original. It might not be as impressive a novel as Big Sleep or Long Goodbye, but it's vastly superior to Perchance to Dream. It's probably better than Playback, actually. And, for a book about a singular literary creation written more than fifty years after the original author's death, that's very impressive.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #53: Americus by Reed & Hill

It's not always a pleasant experience, being pandered to. Some books are just so slobbery, so obviously trying to butter you up -- O!M!G! aren't fantasy novels totes awesome! and aren't those nasty Christian types just so sad and lame? -- that you want to edge away from them as quickly as possible, and start to reflexively disagree with them out of pure cussedness.

Americus is well along that path: it's a love letter to the fans of YA fantasy and particularly to teens who feel out of place and awkward in a world they're not sure they like at all. (Which is "all of them," basically.) So it's set in the most stifling, middle-American location imaginable, the title town, located somewhere in the least cosmopolitan precincts of Oklahoma, where the only way to escape is by reading things like "The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, The Huntress Witch". [1] Our hero is Neil Barton, just leaving middle school and entering high school. and his dreams don't even extend as far as getting out of Americus: he just wants to be left alone and not have to go to school anymore with the usual assortment of bullies and cretins. But when the humorless stereotype evangelical Christian -- seriously, her dialogue has an I-hate-religious-people cliche every third word -- mother of his best friend goes on the warpath against the Ravenchilde books, the culture wars have come to Americus, and Neil will eventually have to stand up for his love of mass-market teen schlock.

Writer MK Reed carefully avoids any hint of nuance or ambiguity: Neil and the other defenders of Ravenchilde are the good people, and anyone who disagrees with them is both stupid and utterly wrong. Adults in particular are lame and wrong-headed, with the only partial exceptions being the practically-a-teen-herself perky young librarian and Neil's mother, who is only mildly embarrassing and adult. Again, this is probably very pleasant to read for teens who want to be told that their tastes are absolutely correct in every sense, but it's pretty thin gruel for anyone else.

Jonathan Hill contributes a slightly cartoony style that's good at differentiating the large cast and includes excellent dynamism of faces, perfect for the many scenes where characters declaim at each other for panels at a time. His work here is entirely exemplary.

But I really can't recommend this to anyone above the age of fifteen or with the slightest tolerance for grey areas; Americus is a book that demands to be clutched to the bosom and loved to death for its brave truth-telling, and most readers will not be able to do that as fervently as the book demands.

[1] Yes, Apathea. No, this does not appear to be ironic or significant in any way. The echo of "apathetic" is purely random.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, February 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #52: Giants Beware! by Rosado and Aguirre

The all-ages graphic novel is now a major category, since librarians have been persuaded it's a great way to snare those "reluctant readers" and kids gobble them up. And, just like the animated movies they often closely resemble, there's a common mode and style that those graphic novels fall into: relentlessly positive, smotheringly soft-edged, teeth-wreckingly sweet.

If DreamWorks or Blue Sky is looking for their next franchise, they could do far worse than Giants Beware!, a very sweet graphic novel entirely suitable for all but the very tiniest tots. This is probably not a surprise, since writer Jorge Aguirre has written for Dora the Explorer and other kid's TV shows, while illustrator Rafael Rosado is a storyboard artist, mostly for TV animation like Transformers Prime and Scooby-Doo. So they're from that world, and in that world, and their book shows it.

In a vaguely medieval land that doesn't entirely make sense -- one small town that deliberately cut itself off from the rest of the world behind high walls, with scary scenery outside that no one every ventures into and a bunch of farmers who can't possibly have jobs -- three very carefully drawn young characters are about to have an adventure. Claudette wants to kill monsters and save the world: she's the turned-up-to-eleven chibi version of Barry Deutsch's Mirka. Her younger brother Gaston is a world-class pastry chef at the age of about four who also really wants their crippled father to teach him the family trade of swordsmithing. And their best friend is Marie, the daughter of the local Marquis, who desperately wants to be a princess in the storybook fashion.

Claudette drags the other two into her scheme, as the loud emphatic character always does in family animation, and so they manage to get out of the never-opened gates and out into that very dangerous landscape. Well, very dangerous in a kid-friendly way, of course. They are pursued, as well, but they are kid protagonists in a story for kids, so they are smarter and braver and more competent than any mere adults.

Giants Beware! is sweet, and Aguirre's art is particularly energetic and bright. The fact that two of the main characters are girls -- and that both are competent and useful in very different ways -- shouldn't be overlooked as well; it's a very modern and positive entertainment. If you have or are a girl under the age of ten, I recommend it; only slightly less so for a boy (and the difference is purely dependent on that boy's sense of cooties). For anyone older or more sophisticated, Giants Beware! will be fun, utterly undemanding, and contain not a single surprise. But perhaps that's enough.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #51: Sakuran by Moyoco Anno

Kiyoha is one of the highest-paid, most respected oiran (prostitutes) in Edo's classic pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara, the pride of the Tamagiku house. But is she happy?

Well, of course not. What kind of story can you get out of a happy prostitute? (Erotica, maybe. Anything more respectable than that, forget it.)

Moyoco Anno's graphic novel Sakuran -- unlike so many manga, it tells a story complete in one volume -- sketches the story of Kiyoha's rise, from the day a grumpy, determined girl is dragged to that house by a pimp and told her new name is Tomeki, though her years as a maid and then an apprentice, to the sale of her virginity at fifteen and her rise as a popular oiran soon afterward. All of the chapters have a certain sameness to them: Kiyoha will bull her way forward, more and more with grace and strategy as she gets older and more experienced, but always as strong-willed and single-minded as that little girl she once was.

Kiyoha is self-centered, capricious, demanding, and mercurial from the beginning, and her personality doesn't change over the course of Sakuran. We are privy to some of her thoughts, but Anno keeps those limited and occasional: we mostly see Kiyoko from the outside, and she's a chilly woman who doesn't like any of the other women or girls of her house. And most of the men, to her, are bores or tedious old men or just obstacles to get past. Of course, to survive and thrive in the competitive, nasty atmosphere of an Edo-era house, a personality like Kiyoha's is a major advantage.

The only thing Kiyoko seems to enjoy is insisting on her love for the florist Sojiro, an attractive young man who is an occasional customer. And he at least leads her on to continue that play of love -- why wouldn't he? What man could resist having one of the best, most beautiful and available women of her era insist that she loves only him?

This can't end well: no story of a historical prostitute that hopes for any kind of seriousness can. Anno perhaps errs on the side of drama rather than substance, now and then, but Sakuran has an unblinking eye and a fascinating heroine to look at through that eye. In a world where female main characters have to be nice and relatable above all else, Kiyoha is like a hurricane, knocking down everything in her path and demanding attention. And it's well worth spending the time with her clients would be the first to agree.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #50: The Advance Team by Pfeiffer & Torres

For the first big round number of Book-A-Day 2014, I have for you...a decent graphic novel from two years ago that doesn't set high expectations but meets them. (Hey, it's been a long, tough day: I worked my first conference with the Finance team today, in the lovely Marriott Marquis New York, so it's already late and my energy is dangerously low.)

Some stories are called comic-booky, because they're quintessentially comics. (Although there are other media that work in the same style: Syfy Channel movies, for one.) This is exactly in that mode, a big chunk of entertainment cheese with large lumps of wish-fulfillment, audience-pleasing violence, and familiar genre furniture. This particular chunk is called The Advance Team, and it was written by Will Pfeiffer and drawn by German Torres -- neither of whom has anything to be ashamed of here, but neither of which is going to win an award for this work, either.

Zack McKinley is your typical twentysomething slacker: working as a pizza delivery boy, pining for the cute phone girl Vic, going nowhere. But he secretly has vast and unspecified superpowers -- vaguely in the brick style -- which pop up early in the story during an altercation with muggers and then are explained by his crazy "uncle" Archie. You see, there's a fiendish alien invasion underway, and only Zack can stop it...with extreme force!

The Advance Team isn't surprising or new, but it is fun and entertaining, particularly if you have a taste for big summer movies. (This could yet become one; it has all of the right elements.) I won't explain the plot any further, since a book like this is all plot, and that's the point of reading it.

If you like things like this, this is the kind of thing you'll like. It's done highly professionally and with gusto, and it makes enough sense while reading that you won't feel compelled to pick nits. That's about all it aims for, so I have to give it full marks.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #49: Heck by Zander Cannon

I'm probably the only one in the world still waiting for Zander Cannon to get back to The Replacement God -- hell, I'm still waiting for Ty Templeton to get back to Stig's Inferno, which I think proves I have more patience than sense -- but I'm still happy to see him doing any comic from the ground up. (Not that his art isn't nice on other people's projects, but I just like to see cartoonists doing their own work -- we don't live in a world where that pays the bills for a whole lot of people, sure, but we can always hope.)

Anyway, Cannon finally had a book all of his own, a single-volume graphic novel with a beginning, middle, and end, and it came out last year from the wizards at Top Shelf under the name of Heck. (It previously appeared serialized online as part of the "Double Barrel" serial with Kevin Cannon's Crater XV.) It's the story of one man's trip to hell -- but don't worry, Hector "Heck" Hammarskjold is a professional, and it's not his first trip. You see, Heck's business -- inherited from his father -- is to travel into Hell (there's a gateway in his house's basement) and talk to the recently dead, on behalf of their survivors, to ask questions or pass on last messages.

Heck's afterword explained that the book originated in a project among Cannon's local cartoonist friends to create a graphic novel in a year -- one Saturday a month, they'd each spend twelve hours making one twelve-page chapter. Like most grand plans, it didn't work out as expected, but it did launch Cannon into this story, which he completed alone after the Saturday group fell apart. But perhaps that initial impetus can be seen in the final Heck: it's got a simple organizing structure, in which one guy and his mummy sidekick travel through Hell (which is pretty much precisely as described by Dante, for ease of reference) and a limited cast of characters (Heck, his mummy pal Elliott, their client Amy, and the Dantean residents of Hell).

Along the way, though, Heck gets darker and more interesting. Heck never remembers his trips to Hell all that well -- he knows that he goes there, to deliver messages to the recently deceased or get information from them, and that it's a difficult, painful journey each time, but not the details. (Elliott, for example, was a normal human until one of those trips -- his bandages are to keep him together and alive now.) And Cannon's afterlife has angels -- they appear briefly in Limbo -- but the working assumption of Heck's business is that every single dead person that might be of interest is in Hell. And that seems to be basically true: this is a world made up of sinners, because to not sin is to be perfect, and nothing human can be perfect.

So Heck is not shielded from Hell by his innate goodness, or battling against the chance he may end up there -- no, it's pretty much assumed in Heck that death leads to Hell, and the only question is whether you'll be in the Wood of Suicides or the frozen ice of the treacherous, or some lesser punishment for lust or gluttony or greed. And this trip is perhaps even more difficult than most: Heck is in love with Amy, a woman he knew from his high-school years and re-met when he returned to his home town at his father's death, but he's going to find her dead husband, who was stealing from his stock-brokerage employer. And it's not even that simple, as we find in the end.

Heck is not the simple adventure story Cannon started out to make -- it is the story of one man's trip to and through Hell, and how he copes with what he learns about himself along the way. There's a strong sense that every trip to Hell is like this for Heck, in its own way: terrible and shattering and horribly personal. This book is magnificent and overwhelming and searing, and it stares right at the monsters that you can shoot with a shotgun and the ones that you can't. As the back cover says, it's about Heck's own personal Hell.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #48: How About Never -- Is Never Good for You? by Bob Mankoff

First up, a quick consumer note: Mankoff at no time in this book discusses the use of "Christ, what an asshole!" as the all-purpose caption for any New Yorker cartoon, and he only obliquely touches on the idea that New Yorker cartoons are deliberately hard to understand. (He does have a chapter on the Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about them, but that turns into a discussion of E.B. White's dictum about frogs, humor, and dissection.) So anyone hoping for an official ruling on that caption will be disappointed.

People who actually like the cartoons in the New Yorker, though, will be much more satisfied with Mankoff's memoir with cartoons, How About Never - Is Never Good for You?, and that's for the best, as New Yorker cartoon-haters are vastly less likely to buy a book by the New Yorker cartoon editor to begin with.

How About Never is subtitled "My Life in Cartoons," and that's exactly what it does: combine a conventional memoir of Mankoff's life with a look at what it's like to be New Yorker cartoon editor, all copiously illustrated with cartoons from Mankoff and others, plus other art when appropriate (such as fumetti of important scenes from that aforementioned Seinfeld episode). So the text is shorter than you'd expect from a book of about 300 pages, but it also functions as a collection of New Yorker cartoons that illustrate Mankoff's life and work.

The memoir part kicks off the book, taking our author from birth (New York, 1943, to a very Jewish mother and father) through schooling, breaking into the New Yorker in the late '70s, starting The Cartoon Bank (a licensing service for cartoons, along the lines of the Bettmann Archives) in the early '90s, and then succeeding Lee Lorenz as New Yorker cartoon editor in 1997 at the tail end of the Tina Brown years. The end gets more convoluted than that: the Cartoon Bank was primarily designed to market New Yorker-style cartoons by New Yorker cartoonists, and so got involved directly with the New Yorker to license the actual cartoons from the magazine, and that led the magazine's parent company, Conde Nast, to buy The Cartoon Bank about a year before Mankoff got the cartoon editor gig.

In any case, the memoir portion is primarily focused on Mankoff's career: after a bit on how his parents gave him the traditional comedian's need to excel and entertain, it's all about humor and cartooning, with only brief mentions of his first two marriages and his personal life. And that's just perfect: anyone picking up How About Never cares primarily for Mankoff as a professional cartoon guy.

The last third of How About Never gets into that Seinfeld episode -- turning it into an exercise in comedy theory and applied cartooning -- and then the nuts and bolts of the cartoon editor's job, from receiving the weekly batches from the regulars, deciding among them, running the possibles up the chain to David Remnick, editor of the magazine, nurturing new talent, and the Cartoon Caption Contest. It's a good introduction to what a cartoon editor does, and Mankoff ends the book with a selection of the work of the new cartoonists who have broken in during his tenure, which is a great pay-it-forward moment.

Mankoff is passionate about humor in general and cartooning in particular, which is exactly what you want in the author of a book like this and a man holding the jobs he does (still head of Cartoon Bank, besides New Yorker cartoon editor and now only sporadically working cartoonist). How About Never is a funny, engrossing look at a smart, sophisticated artform by one of its top editors and practitioners; any fan of New Yorker cartoons will love and cherish it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/15

Usually, I start off these weekly posts with a disclaimer: that these books just arrived in my mailbox, and so I haven't read them, yadda yadda yadda. But, this week, that disclaimer is inactive.

I only got one book this week -- once again: not complaining; even one free book is a great thing -- and it's one I've already read and reviewed (admittedly, that review was a quick paragraph in the middle of a monthly round-up last year, but it does exist).

So, this week I'm here to tell you that Mark Siegel's Sailor Twain -- a really interesting, smart graphic novel with real depth and some odd art choices -- is coming back in a less expensive paperback edition. Like the original hardcover, the paperback is published by the fine people at First Second -- one of those fine people, incidentally, is Siegel himself -- and it will be in stores on February 25th. Check out my review above for more details, but this is definitely worth tracking down and reading.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #47: Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoet

What is a fairy tale? Is it a folktale in an ancient style, containing fantastic elements, iconic characters and a systematized plot that usually leads to a definite, and often bloody, moral? Or is it the modern, simplified successor of those nasty Marchen, dumbed down by generations of moralizers and bowdlerizers and animated-movie impresarios into a succession of generic Hollywood story beats punctuated by bland songs?

When the back cover of Beautiful Darkness calls it an "unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale," it's clearly that deracinated modern definition -- the source of all of those "fairy tale weddings" and "fairy tale endings" -- that's meant. Because Beautiful Darkness is in the older tradition of fairy stories, with death and horrors and unpleasant lessons in plenty. (No one in Beautiful Darkness has to chop off her feet to keep from dancing to death, though -- in some things, the old tales can't be bested, or even equaled.) Although there's still something "anti" here -- traditional fairy tales were iconic and stark, set in lands of princes and talking animals and witches, with all of the details expected and clear and known from other stories. Beautiful Darkness has no such certainties -- some of the characters call themselves princes and princesses, but that's not linked to land or lineage or anything; it's just names of power they try to claim.

This graphic novel is written by Fabien Vehlmann, who I'm not familiar with. I believe his only previous work translated into English is Isle of 100,000 Graves, with Jason. The art is by the husband-and-wife team that works as Kerascoet; their work has been seen here in some Dungeon books as well as the Miss Don't Touch Me books (I reviewed both of those). Together, they tell the story of a group of creatures -- fairies? tiny humans? something less definable? -- from the moment before they lose their comfortable home and through their attempts to find new ways and places to live.

The main character takes the name of Aurora: we don't know what her name was before, or if she even needed a name. We meet her having a tea party with the prince, Hector, and then their world falls apart. Quite literally -- globs of undefinable unpleasant stuff begin to fall, the walls turn gelatinous, and Aurora and all of the others are soon fleeing for their lives. And what they flee is the body of a young girl, lying dead in a forest somewhere. Perhaps they all were the stuff of her fantasy life, brought to real flesh in the moment of her death. Perhaps they really did live in the interstices of her body, and somehow caused her death. Perhaps a million perhaps: the point is they are all little people, each somewhere different on the continuum between dolls and human, thrown into an unfamiliar world. Thrown into our world: the real one, with mice and birds and ants and hornets and fruit and mushrooms.

They try to befriend the animals, or conquer them. (Or ignore them, or fight them, or trick them.) They make mistakes, often fatal ones. They bicker and jockey for power. They are heartlessly cruel as only small children or fairies can be. Only Aurora tries to help others, or build a community, or shelter and feed the others. And one by one, in that heartless, childish way, they are gone.

Beautiful Darkness is a ruthless story, and if it has a moral it lies in the benefits of seriousness and compassion over frivolousness and status-seeking. Except for Aurora, the creatures who fled from the dead girl are all frivolous and heartless and concerned for nothing but themselves. But there's another character, Aurora's exemplar, who is anything but frivolous. So perhaps its moral is not as simple as those old tales, which always clearly laid out what they meant: beware the dark woods, always follow your mother's advice, don't talk to strangers, a deal too good to be true is indeed not true.

Aurora, I think, understands her lesson at the end of Beautiful Darkness. And we understand it somewhat, having followed her through her harrowing adventures. This is a dark, dark story, full of cruelty both meant and offhand, but it's told beautifully, with a light hand on the dialogue and a sunniness to the art that makes the darkness that much more stark -- that title is entirely apt. This is inherently a work of Beautiful Darkness.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #46: How Are You Feeling? by David Shrigley

One of the easiest mistakes to make in criticism is a category error: looking at a work as if it were something it isn't. Treat a paranormal romance as an urban fantasy, or a cozy as a hardboiled mystery, and you'll hear about it instantly. But those errors can also be more subtle: is complaining about the utter passivity of everyone on Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go purely based on misreading that book through genre SF eyes? Does it make more sense to treat John Crowley as a literary writer who uses SFF motifs, or a SFF writer who aspires to literature?

Sometimes, the error is invited by the work itself -- either on purpose as a trap for the unwary reader, or as a sneaky way of claiming to be something and then using the work to fight against that genre definition. British artist David Shrigley's new book How Are You Feeling? takes exactly this tactic: its back cover, in the style of Shrigley's interior, claims that it's a self-help book.

You may find help or comfort in How Are You Feeling?, but that's not Shrigley's point. Shrigley is an Artist -- with a capital A, in the modern self-promotional, media-friendly style -- and so all of his emanations are first and foremost Art. Art may help you, it may show you things about yourself or illuminate dark corners of your psyche, it may crystallize a thought you've almost had a thousand times. But what it's there to do is Be Art -- whether you understand it or not, whether it connects with your life or not, whether it seems worthwhile at all to you or not.

How Are You Feeling? is not a self-help book; it's not even a parody of a self-help book, which is what it most resembles. It's an art installation in book form, showcasing Shrigley's deliberately crude drawings and writings -- full of cross-outs and interpolated words, as if he was scribbling so quickly he couldn't take the time to do it cleanly and clearly. So it is a catalog of psychological problems -- as seen by Shrigley, through the lens of his Art. It runs through potential issues and problems a modern person might have, with a tone that hovers somewhere near self-help without ever quite becoming helpful.

For some people, this book will be profound and deep -- they'll believe that Shrigley really understands the human mind, has powerful insights, and has given them a framework to go forward with. For others, this will be a silly, self-indulgent exercise in banality and crudity: badly conceived, quickly dashed off, containing the bare minimum of thought and the maximum of attitude.

I wouldn't dream of coming down on one side or the other of that divide: either way, a reader isn't really engaging with How Are You Feeling? as Art, as a commentary on the thing it is pretending to be. But whether you think that commentary is profound or banal may well mirror that first, surface impression. And I'll have to leave each of you to decide where How Are You Feeling? falls, on both of those levels: Art is personal and visceral and immediate, and must be experienced rather than explained.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, February 14, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #45: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Being original doesn't come automatic. When everyone else is writing vampires, it easier to write vampires. Even then, what passes for "original" could mean writing angels...who are immortal and sparkly and strangely drawn to a mousy teen girl in a small town. No, it's not easy to just go your own way. But that path leads to much better places, all of the time.

Jonathan Stroud shows no sign of following trends. When Harry Potter was the big thing -- and super-special boy wizards saving the world were everywhere -- he wrote the great Bartimaeus books, in which human magicians were intrinsically horrible people with no actual power and their extradimensional servants were arrogant, utterly inhuman and possibly even more cruel than their masters. And he showed there that saving a person is more vital than saving the world.

Now, Stroud has a new series. And in a world now filled with novels for teens filled with sexy vampires and sexy werewolves and sexy angels and sexy fairies (and sexy goblins, for all I know), he's stuck with decidedly unsexy ghosts. And his main character, Lucy Carlyle, shows no interest in sexiness, either: she's got a job to do.

The Screaming Staircase is the first in a series called "Lockwood & Co," about a small investigative operation in an alternate-world London. in Lucy's world, ghosts started becoming more common fifty years ago -- the book is vague on precise timing, but it's probably set more-or-less now, so that makes the beginning of the Problem soon after WW II, in the middle of the 20th century. Ghosts are dangerous and often fatal to those they encounter, but only a few can can detect them in time -- you need a Talent to hear or see spirits. And Talents tend to emerge in children and sputter out at the end of adolescence, so Britain is reliant on an industry of young agents to find, stop, and remove its ghosts. (And equally reliant on a large industry that creates defensive measures, in iron, silver and salt, to fortify the homes Britons no longer leave after dark.)

Most of those agents work for large companies, such as the industry leaders Fittes and Rotwell, under the supervision of adults who used to be able to detect ghosts, and who supposedly have the depth of experience to make the right decisions at moments of danger. But Anthony Lockwood, the owner and proprietor of the small firm Lockwood & Co., does not agree -- he thinks that an agency made up of only young people, only agents who can actually detect ghosts, would be better.

And so Lockwood & Co. consists of three people: young Lockwood himself, George Cubbins, and now Lucy Carlyle. Lucy is new in London, after a career in her home town, a small village in the North, ended suddenly when the incompetence and fear of her adult supervisor led to the death of every other child operative in his agency -- and very nearly Lucy's as well. So she's inclined to agree with Lockwood: during an investigation, when agents are actively pursuing the Source of a haunting to stop it forever, there's no place for "supervisors" who can't see or hear any of the danger.

The public doesn't share Lockwood & Co.'s opinion -- the agency is already having trouble attracting good customers when one ill-timed explosion during an investigation leaves them with a huge fine to pay and hardly any business. But then a very rich man wants to hire them to clear the most haunted mansion in Britain -- suspiciously, though, he needs them to do it immediately, and without their most powerful tools, in a house he's owned for years.

As happens so often in a mystery, this new case is connected to their previous case -- the one with the unfortunate explosion and fire -- as Lockwood & Co. try to solve a fifty-year-old murder, settle the spirits of a house that has already claimed the lives of an entire Fittes team, and keep themselves alive. Do they succeed? Well, "Lockwood & Co." is meant to be a series. And I hope this series runs long enough for the fans to start complaining that Lockwood and Carlyle surely must be getting to old to do the work by now: this is a original, imaginative, gripping, wonderful fantasy novel for anyone above the age of about eleven, and the world needs more of those.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #44: Wolfsmund, Vol. 3 by Mitsuhisa Kuji

I usually don't like to pick on a book's choice of blurbs, but this one has a monument to the power of targeted marketing that I absolutely must share with you:
Read it! Please read this. This is seinen and you won't get angsty teenagers dealing with stuff or magical girls saving the world. Here be adult stuff.

Amusingly, that cri di cour from the heart of the young male market -- demanding that there be more things he likes, and less of the kind other people, the ones who aren't him, like -- comes from the bucolically named Cherry Blossom Reviews. But that reviewer is absolutely correct -- Wolfsmund is seinen, meaning manga targeted to men in their twenties, rather than the teen-boy and teen-girl books we get more often.

That doesn't automatically make it better than shonen or shojo manga, unless of course you're precisely in the right demographic category. It just means it's in a different genre, with different expectations. "Adult," here, means that the villains are that much more sadistic and cruel, and that named, likable characters are allowed to die messily, to show just how sadistic and cruel those villains are. It doesn't mean that Wolfsmund has detailed concerns about marriage or working life, or that it anatomizes the ennui of the middle-aged failure -- no, this is the kind of "adult" that means blood and gore and death and war. (Though I will admit that this volume does not stoop to the kind of "adult" that means gratuitous female nudity.)

Wolfsmund, Vol. 3 is near the end of Mitsuhisa Kuji's short series; there appear to be only four volumes in total. It's set in fourteenth century Switzerland -- or, rather, in cantons that would become Switzerland later -- and retells the legend of William Tell. More specifically, in this book the hero is Tell's son Walter, grown from the boy who had the apple shot off his head. The evil Hapsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire are controlling three formerly free cantons by strangling their commerce through the single mountain pass of Sankt Gotthard and the nearly impregnable fortress of The Wolf's Maw that sits there.

The Wolf's Maw is held by forces led by Wolfram, who is some kind of minor Hapsburg nobility, and who is precisely as vicious and nasty as a villain in his position is supposed to be. Presumably, in the final volume we will see him finally get his, but he's still mostly in control in this volume, doling out death to a number of the good-guy characters -- mostly as distractions so Walter can get where he needs to.

This is dark and bloody and violent and unflinching in its depiction of torture and death, though it lacks the philosophical flavor and tonal shifts that mark the greatest similar seinen manga, like Lone Wolf and Cub. The art is similarly dark and scratchy, marrying a light touch of medieval woodcut into the standard dark manga look. If you like your manga like the guy from Cherry Blossom Reviews, you won't be disappointed.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #43: From the New World, Vol. 2 by Kishi and Oikawa

First of all, let's admire the pants worn by the redhead on that cover to the left. American comics have been battling the scourge of boob socks for many years now, but manga have leapfrogged that with the amazing invention of butt socks! (Seriously, what kind of fabric would that have to be -- not even yoga pants cling in the crack like that. One suspects the old comics shortcut of drawing a naked girl and then drawing pretend clothes on her.)

Anyway, fashion faux pas aside, From the New World, Vol. 2 is an adventure manga, adapted from Yusuke Kishi's popular dystopian novel by artist Toru Oikawa, as part of that property's relentless march towards total world dominance. (There's a short backup story about the making of the anime -- I am not kidding when I say popular Japanese stories flower into every other possible media at the earliest opportunity.)

It's a thousand years in the future. Humans are rare on Earth -- possibly only existing in one small settlement in Japan. And the teenagers are all studying at the Holistic Class to use their magick, which has vast but conveniently unspecified abilities. Most of the world is the home of Morph Rats, who seem to be uplifted animals -- possibly different animals in different places, since we see a couple of varieties in this book. Most Morph Rats are properly subservient to the human "gods," but in the first volume, some overseas (and thus untrustworthy?) Morph Rats caused trouble leading to our teen heroes being trapped in the local Morph Rat underground burrow.

(And, yes, one could definitely read the gods-Morph Rats thing as a very unsubtle allegory, particularly since all of the humans are Japanese. But let's pass over that for now.)

From the New World is a YA story, which means adults must be perfidious, duplicitous, vicious, and other nasty things ending in -ous. And so we learn that they are, and so our main heroine -- Saki, the one with her boobs falling out on the cover -- learns the truth of their rotten-to-the-core society in the course of this book, during which she also attempts to save her One Twu Wuv from those fiendish plots. And there's the usual person with powers vastly too powerful to be controlled. (cf. Akira's Tetsuo and every other character in Naruto)

Oikawa contributes attractive art -- the Morph Rats are suitably creepy, the backgrounds are detailed, and the action scenes well-designed (and, of course, the attractive youngsters are quite attractive) -- to this very audience-pleasing story. This is aimed squarely at that large audience that loves both manga and The Hunger Games, and isn't too picky about it. I hope they enjoy it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #42: Sickness Unto Death, Vol. 1 by Asada and Seguchi

There are cultural references you expect to see, and the surprising ones. Personally, I'd never expect a manga -- or a comic from any nation, for that matter -- to closely reference the work of Soren Kierkegaard. But that's the thing about the actual world, as opposed to the ones we model in our heads: it's always bigger and stranger and more interesting.

And so Sickness Unto Death -- a two-volume manga story written by Hikaru Asada and drawn by Takahiro Seguchi -- does take its title, and a lot of its tone, from Kierkegaard. That focus -- on mental suffering and anguish, and the despair that leads to death or the desire for death -- makes this book immediately a more complicated and nuanced tale than we might have expect. Unlike most of the manga that makes it across the Pacific to the US, this is obviously a serious story for adults, and not just a genre exercise to waste the train-commuting time of a identifiable demographic of Japanese consumers.

So this first volume of Sickness Unto Death begins with a framing story -- psychotherapist and psychology professor Kazuma Futaba is found by one of his students at a gravesite -- and then Kazuma explicitly tells her, and us, the story of his first love: the girl in that grave. Asada immediately closes off any hope of a "happy ending" -- even before we meet the sickly teenager Emiru Arima, and see Kazuma fall in love with her, we know that she will die.

(Of course, we know that everyone will die, even ourselves. But we also know that she dies in the story, which is more immediate.)

Kazuma wants to save Emiru, who has a low metabolism and a general overall sickliness -- she has what Ebert called "Ali McGraw disease," so she's devastatingly weak at opportune moments but otherwise is just generally pale and cold and wan -- but he's convinced that the origin of her sickness is psychological in origin, and so only what he can learn from his studies (he's just beginning as a psychology student at the local university) can save her.

That's a good guess: Emiru is an orphan, raised by her butler in a mansion since her parents died at the age of four, and she led a full, outgoing life until two years before, at the age of sixteen, when she suddenly became sick and withdrew from the world. There's no physical reason for her illness, but there's clearly some trauma from earlier in her life that resurfaced two years ago -- and it's darkly hinted that has something to do with her father -- and Futaba thinks, or hopes, that his love and devotion can save Emiru.

The story isn't over in this volume, but we know he's wrong. We still need to learn what the true source of Emiru's existential despair is, but knowing that won't help. Between Kierkegaard and that filled grave, there's no room for romantic notions. So Sickness Unto Death is a dark tale, as you'd expect from the Kierkegaard title. But it's worth seeking out: life has as much darkness as light, and this is a bracing, clearsighted vision into one such life.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #41: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Fantasy novels tend to get bigger and bigger -- in scope, in focus, in number of pages. Authors can fight back against the latter, but they tend not to mind the first two -- if a city is saved in the first book, it has to be a country in the second, and the world in the third. Stakes exist only to be increased, until the series hero or heroes have to save everything, all the time, every time. It's not a healthy progression, but it's what most fantasy genres have locked themselves into -- from epic to contemporary, audiences don't seem to want their paragons to drop back into doing odd jobs once they've battled a Big Bad.

Luckily, there is a fantasy subgenre that has resolutely resisted that tendency for decades now -- a disreputable subgenre, true, and one that's been near-dead at many times. But you can never completely kill sword and sorcery -- it always creeps back in, corrupting those pure Tolkienesque secondary worlds and pseudo-historicals with a good dose of sneakiness, roguery, and light-fingered criminality. One of the most enjoyable S&S sequences of recent times is Scott Lynch's "Gentleman Bastards" sequence -- first The Lies of Locke Lamora, then Red Seas Under Red Skies, and then a long gap until this new book last year -- about a small band of thieves and con-men and their depredations across a somewhat Renaissance landscape of semi-Mediterranean city-states. The first two books saw some pretty major events, and Lynch's heroes even found themselves "saving" their city at least once -- against their will, and their plans -- in those books.

But I'm happy to say that The Republic of Thieves, the third adventure of the Gentleman Bastards, sees absolutely no escalation. They are not suborned into saving an empire from supernatural nasties from the spaces between, they don't discover their own better natures and form a society to protect the people they love most, they aren't reformed or tamed or domesticated. (Although Lynch has some serious hints at the end that escalation may be coming in the next book, The Thorn of Emberlain.) No, this book is entirely about two different capers -- one at the beginning of the young Bastards' careers, and one in the "present day."

In fact, both of these adventures involve the Bastard least known and most talked about: Sabetha, the young woman who left the group before Lies of Locke Lamora and for whom Locke Lamora himself has been pining (often loudly) ever since. In the flashback story, she's a teenager -- as are Locke, Jean, and the appalling Sanza twins, Calo and Galdo -- when the whole group is sent to the neighboring city of Espara, to pretend to be actors for a summer, to get them away for a while from their mentor, Father Chains, and to make them work together at a time when hormones and other growing pains are pushing them all apart.

And, in the main story, she's their competition. At the end of Red Seas, Jean and Locke had both been poisoned, and Locke tricked Jean into drinking their only antidote. Republic sees the two of them in the city of Lashain, with Locke steadily dying and their resources nearly gone. A last-ditch plan fails, as all of the previous plans had failed, but one last chance presents itself: the Bondsmage Patience, one of the leaders of that shadowy group of nearly all-powerful magicians, will heal Locke if the two of them will do something for her.

The Bondsmagi lightly rule the city of Karthain, mostly behind the scenes. Once every five years, the official political parties of Karthain campaign for the nineteen seats of the Konseil -- and the two main parties of Magi jostle to elect their party of choice, each selecting a champion to run their political organization and staying out of the direct fray themselves. This time around, one group has chosen Sabetha to be their champion -- and so, to combat her, Patience's faction wants Locke and Jean.

There's some darker stuff lurking around the edges -- it wouldn't be a modern fantasy if there weren't -- but Republic of Thieves is mostly the story of plots and counterplots, of skulduggery and betrayal, of bribes taken and refused, of dirty tricks planned and disrupted and enacted and confounded, of a very, very dirty political campaign. (There are dangers and disruptions in the flashback story, but those are simpler, more concerned with the Bastards hiding their identities, maintaining their covers, and dealing with some very oversized personalities among the acting company and its patronage.) So Republic of Thieves most assuredly does not escalate from the first two books, but instead tells a couple of smaller-scale, thoroughly enjoyable exploits of Locke and his compatriots. I wish that more fantasy series would emulate this book and the Gentleman Bastards sequence in general: not only does fantasy not need to keep getting bigger, the mania for bigness is what's stifling and damaging fantasy in general.

We need more frivolous fantasy, more fantasy about scoundrels and criminals, more fantasy set in the gutters and grotty rooftops. We need more Locke Lamora. But we're happy that we got this one, and we're hopeful that Thorn of Emberlain will be coming along in due course.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index