Friday, October 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #302: Bad Machinery, Vol. 3 by John Allison

The air of effortlessness can only be achieved with a lot of hard work and careful planning: the breeziest, lightest entertainments always require a massive effort behind the scenes to hold them up and the frothiest souffles only happen after painstaking care. It's the Ginger Rogers Effect: if you don't even notice the effort, it's only because there's twice as much effort as you'd expect to do the thing and keep you from noticing it.

John Allison's Bad Machinery comics are at that level: seemingly light, funny adventure stories, mixing teen supernatural-detecting and teen ordinary-life, with fizzy, distinctive dialogue and a madly inventive imagination and one of the best casts imaginable. (Charlotte Grote alone is a masterpiece.) Along with everything else, they manage to thread the tricky needle of continuity and standalone: the series moves forward in time and events do accumulate, but each storyline is distinct and completely wonderful on its own.

There have been seven of those stories so far, since Bad Machinery started up in 2009, all of which are still up on Allison's website to read for free with just a little clicking. And they're also starting to appear in book form this year, for those of us who prefer paper that we can stick up on a shelf. Coming early next year -- yes, I couldn't stop myself from reading it now; that's how good Allison is -- is Bad Machinery, Vol. 3: The Case of the Simple Soul, collecting that third adventure originally published in 2010-11. (You can also see my reviews of the first and second cases, from earlier this year.)

The setting is easy to describe: a minor British city, up in Yorkshire, where odd things happen but no one specifically mentions that. Our main characters are all kids, around twelve when this story begins -- it's the end of the school year that began in the first story -- Charlotte, Mildred, and Shauna are in a mostly friendly competition with Linton, Sonny, and Jack to solve mysteries. Well, that was what they were doing: Linton and Sonny, Charlotte and Mildred are somewhat at loose ends because Jack and Shauna are dating, and spending all of their time together rather than with their friends solving mysteries.

But there is a mystery to be solved, which may be about a series of mysterious arson attacks on empty barns. Or it may be about a troll-like figure Charlotte and Mildred discover living under a bridge. Or the flashy Colm, who suddenly is the third friend to Sonny and Linton without their quite understanding how. Or Tackleford's unusual fire brigade, who hate fire more than anything. Or about "Little Claire," who seems to be hanging around a lot herself. Or maybe all of those things and more.

Allison writes great quirky dialogue and fantastically fun sideways plots, and his drawing is equally distinctive and amusing to go along with it. He's a great cartoonist with wonderful material to work from, and Bad Machinery is a real joy on every single page. (Really: I will continue to plug his stories until you break down and go read them. Might as well start now.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #301: Alive by Hajime Taguchi

Indulge me a bit: today I'm going to go meta. I promise, it won't be a regular thing -- but I hope I can get some slack, after three hundred straight days of let-me-tell-you-about-this-book.

I'm sure I've written loosely about this kind of book being hard to review, or some other one giving an easy target, or other things in that vein. And it is definitely true that some works of art are easier to write about than others: anything notably bad is pretty easy. On the other end, really good can be more difficult, setting up expectations and high standards. Genre stories usually have some loose bit of string to grab hold of -- a SF story is sure to have some error of science in it, or a wonky sociological expectation, and a mystery novel is never so perfect as to leave no nits to pick -- even if the reviewer wants to come down positive in the end. Flamboyantly literary stories are the same way: there's a lot of stuff there to grab hold of.

But low-key stories in a realistic vein are more difficult. If they're wonderful and magnificent, well, there's that to say. If they're clunky and laughable, there's that as well. If they're just pretty good, with some flashes of human insight and a few moments of clarity and beauty and a lot of everyday-ness, do you express that?

Alive is a collection of pretty good realistic manga stories, in the vein of literary short stories, all by Hajime Taguchi (about whom I know absolutely nothing). So I'm left in that last category: not wanting to praise this too highly, but wanting to celebrate it for honesty and truth, for almost three hundred pages of short stories about real people and their real lives. Alive will not change your life. (There are realistic manga short stories that could change your life: Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Tatsumi, for example.) But it is a nice book to read, with stories about people you might recognize, or see yourself in.

If you saw that cover, you might expect survival horror, or the story of some put-upon schoolgirl. But that's not what Alive is: it contains a couple of dozen stories, most of them pretty short, about modern urban Japanese. Some are students -- manga just can't get away from high schoolers, no matter how hard it tries -- but many more are young office workers. None of the main characters are particularly old, or particularly rooted -- they may have lovers or even newish spouses, but they don't have children and long careers and extended families. They also mostly don't have much that they enjoy: Alive is not entirely stories or urban anhedonia, but the tone is more often melancholy or sad than anything more positive.

Taguchi works in what I think of as an indy-comics version of the expected manga look: faces slightly more open and realistic, panel layouts generally restrained and professional, often showing places and things instead of relentlessly focusing on high-energy people and poses. It's all controlled and solid, without ostentation or frippery -- and the writing is similarly unadorned, mostly dialogue leading to moments of clarity at the end of the stories. Some of those endings work well, others...well, a few times you, like me, may be surprised to realize a new story has begun.

Taguchi has skill and clearly a drive to tell these stories. And there are enough hits in Alive to more than balance out the stories that miss. But this is low-key work about regular people: you have to be interested in that going in. If you are, Alive is worth checking out if you can find it -- it's from the newer publisher Gen, and I get the sense their books may not have a wide distribution in print form.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #300: Concrete Park, Vol. 1 by Puryear & Alexander

I don't ask for much: I really don't. I'm fine with really fuzzy science in my SF -- FTL, timetravel, aliens with prosthetic foreheads and an insatiable lust for Earth-flesh, aliens with hideous slavering jaws and an insatiable hunger for Earth-flesh, implausible biology and cosmology and physics and chemistry and sociology and anthropology. All I ask is that a setting make the least bit of sense -- that there be some kind of argument you could make that it could possibly happen.

Call it the Alien from LA rule: if the civilization in your SF story doesn't make at least as much sense as the worst movie Kathy Ireland ever made -- if the city in your SF world is less plausible than an underground '80s style boiler-room called "Atlantis" and populated mostly by Australians  -- than you've got a problem. Concrete Park has a problem.

It's the usual Hollywood near future crapsack set-up: everyone is young and attractive and photogenic (muscular and/or curvy, as appropriate, and not overly encumbered with clothes), but the world has all gone to hell, leading to riots and food shortages and the usual corporatized/internationalized riot cops in their body armor. Resources are clearly limited, and getting tighter.

But, at the the very same time, Earth is transporting tens of thousands of people to an alien world -- how, we don't exactly see, but they're sent in large numbers -- where they're apparently all going to work with pickaxes at a mine face deep in the ice, as if this is a 1947 Yosemite Sam cartoon. This clearly can't be an expensive journey, since the evil body-armor cops are just hoovering up random street thugs from around the world to shove into slavery on this random alien world: no special skills necessary, no homesteading available, no need to vet or choose people to even the slightest degree.

And, yes, tens of thousands of those enslaved mineworkers have escaped, out into the remorseless desert (I can't even keep up the count of cliches at this point), where they have built a city that looks more solid and with a stronger building code than much of The Bronx. Nevertheless, Scare City is lawless, ruled by feuding gangs that seem to keep to the traditional organized-crime standbys: prostitution, drugs, and shooting at each other while running around.

We see no farms, and nowhere for farms to be. We see no useful economic activity on this planet at all, except the sealed mining camps. We see no indication that anyone involved in creating this story thought for one second about how a society actually operates, or how these people would live and keep up their impressive LA physiques. All we see is Cool Shit.

(Do I need to point out that this is possibly the very most stupid colonization plan in any work of sci-fi in history? And that if they can travel so easily, they can certainly find a nicer planet, or a nicer place on this same planet, since As You Know Bob, planets are very big places. Idiot SF creators, if you need to process a bunch of random people wholesale to an inhospitable world, what you need is a teleportation gate: you can shovel people through it, it's plausible to have a fixed other end, and you can play games with one-way travel and the gate's on/off schedule.)

So some random LA gang banger -- given Sadness and Angst by the oh-so-tragic death of his terminally cute kid sister -- is shanghaied to whatever-this-planet-is-called in the periodic cattle car, crash lands, escapes, and begins to get the inklings that he has a Destiny. And the busty girl on the cover, head of one of the local gangs, runs around at great length to introduce us to what will be the supporting cast. At the end of this volume -- Concrete Park, Vol. 1: You Send Me, collecting the initial run of these stories in Dark Horse Presents -- they finally get to Meet Cute, but they probably won't get to bang until the middle of the next story, after at least two gunfights, one car chase, and a showing-him-around-the-city montage.

The actual story here isn't bad -- seriously overwritten, with a lot of angsty narration, but no worse than classic period Frank Miller -- and the art is energetically fleshy and real. There's room for improvement, sure, especially in that overheated narration, but it's a solid adventure story that would make a perfectly cromulent dumb summer movie. But the world? Hoo boy, that's a stinker.

Unsurprisingly, this was written by a screenwriter (Tony Puryear) and an actress (Erika Alexander), who are also married to each other. Somewhat more surprisingly, the art is also by Puryear: that shows a real attention to craft and storytelling that the world-building entirely fumbles. There's probably no salvaging this milieu without massive retcons, but, if they could find a half-decent science consultant, they could immediately up their game substantially for the next project. Concrete Park, though, is only for readers who either don't understand or don't care how societies work.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #299: Tomboy by Liz Prince

Hardly anyone interesting will admit to having a happy childhood: that's the marker of stupidity, conformity, and the boring. We were all outcasts, rebels, loners, burnouts, stoners, band geeks, ordinary geeks, losers, poor kids, from the wrong side of town or stuck wearing hand-me-downs during those important years. Everyone claims to have been unpopular in high school -- either the ones who were popular are lying now, or those cheerleaders and football players are just in an entirely different cultural circle (NASCAR, country music, tertiary Fox channels, and only books ghost-written under the names of sports heroes) these days.

Liz Prince was unpopular as a kid -- she's a cartoonist, so we could have guessed that. She's written a memoir of her childhood, which is another marker of having been unpopular -- publishers aren't particularly interested in a few hundred pages of "everybody loved me, I got decent grades, and was homecoming queen!" But Prince's drawings are open and clear -- lots of thin pen lines and rounded figures -- and her writing is clear and honest, so Tomboy is more than just another "other kids picked on me" book.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is mostly about how Prince was never interested in girly things -- dresses, pretty hair, dolls, the color pink, the whole panoply of modern marketing crap, girl division. And she mostly grew up in the suburbs of Santa Fe in the '80s and '90s, which partially explains why this is her problem -- there are a number of urban centers where kid Liz Prince would have been no big deal, though on the other hand it certainly could have been worse in parts of the South and other enclaves where the 1950s have never ended. Tomboy is not a feminist critique of American gender roles, though Prince could have used a good dose of that much earlier than it finally got to her. It's her personal story, about how she muddled through and had a decent childhood and adolescence despite all of the kids around her who were annoyed and hostile because she did "girl" differently than they expected.

One of the startling things for a reader on the other side of the gender divide like me is how absolutely tiny her deviations seemed. She liked wearing a baseball cap. She never wore dresses past the age of two. She was friends with a few girls, but also boys sometimes. She liked to play catch. I'd like to think it's not this bad where I live now -- that girls can both play baseball and be in the Girl Scouts without people's heads exploding -- but I'm not in a position to really say (being male, and one of The Olds). For Prince, just being authentically herself was an uphill battle every day.

Prince does make the point a number of times that a lot of people are just jerks, and find ways to pick on people they consider weaker: this was the way they picked on her, because it was easy. (Each of us reading this can probably remember a similar way we were each picked on, whenever our childhoods were.) That's magnanimous of her, and shows that she can be clear-eyed and honest about her own experiences, but there's no denying that ingrained, institutional sexism made her first twenty years much harder and less pleasant than it should have been.

This book will probably be read mostly by tomboyish girls, past or present. But the people who really should read it are boys, and, maybe even more than them, the girls who love pink and gossip and painting each others' nails and big frilly dresses and cute shoes. I hope they find it; I hope they get it. Tomboy is a brave and honest book, by a fine cartoonist, and it deserves to be in a million school libraries and ten million brains.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #298: Ubel Blatt, Vol. 0 by Etorouji Shiono

I'm sure Michael Moorcock didn't know what he was putting us all in for, back fifty or so years ago when he first thought of giving a tormented weak guy with a complex backstory that honking gigantic black killer sword. How could he? He didn't know it would lead to a parade of cursed blades and their bearers, each more tormented and anguished than the one before. He didn't know "black sword" would become standard fantasy shorthand for "look out -- badass!" He didn't know Elric would become as much of a cliche as his opposite Conan had already become.

But it's mostly because of Moorcock and Elric that we have Ubel Blatt, Vol. 0 all these years later, even if creator Etorouji Shiono, as I suspect, got his doom-haunted half-elf and his particular ebony death-machine entirely through intermediaries and secondary sources. (Though I could be wrong: Shiono could be a huge Moorcock fan and the parallels entirely planned.)

Before I get into the plot details, a quick consumer note: yes, this is Volume Zero. As far as I can tell, it reprints the original Japanese volumes zero and one, which in turn reprinted the first episodes of this story. It's not a later prequel; this is where the story starts. If that big zero isn't purely an affectation, I can't see what it implies. But this also is a gigantic book -- over 400 pages, in the larger manga size rather than the mass-market-paperback size -- so you can forgive it a few affectations.

In a Germanically generic fantasy world -- castles, armor, flying machines, magic used entirely for organized murder, feudalism, a nasty religion, and of course lots of swords -- the good-guy Empire of Szaalenden has been threatened by the evil forces of Wischtech for quite some time. (Wischtech seems to be more other-side-of-a-dimensional-gate than over-the-mountains, but this isn't entirely clear.) Twenty years before the main action of this story, the Emperor sent out an elite strike force, each with a lance he blessed himself, as the Fourteen Lances, to go kick some bad-guy ass and save the world for a while. Three died on the way and four Traitorous Lances defected to the enemy and had to be killed, but the Seven Heroes were victorious and came back to get power and lands and all that good stuff.

But now Wischtech is threatening again, and there are other pockets of unrest on the Empire's borders -- frankly, established authorities in this part of the Empire are all looking pretty lousy, at best ineffectual and in most cases actively hand-wringingly evil. But there is this half-elf kid Koinzell, who looks far too wimpy to be any trouble...which of course means he's the biggest bad-ass in the world, by the old law laid down in karate movies. And it turns out that the story of the Seven Heroes is not quite the way it's been told. Finally, this is a seinen manga, which means everything has to really go to hell, to make the story of saving it all be that much more impressive.

Ubel Blatt is a pretty decent epic fantasy/seinen manga mash-up, if you're not looking for anything too original on either side of that mash. Of course, just shoving those two things together makes for some interesting moments -- sure, both traditions feature a lot of S&Mish sexual play to establish how nasty the villains are, so that just stacks, but Koinzell's actual Black Blade is depicted early on as a bunch of smaller knives attached to his long braided hair, which is just goofy enough to be awesome. I could see this being a particularly good introduction to manga to fans of secondary-world fantasy (or even death metal, honestly) -- Shiono has a crisp style that's very accessible to Westerners, distinguishes clearly among all of the characters in his large cast, and has a suitably kick-ass story to tell here.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/25

Even though my front steps were under construction this week, meaning my mail box was sitting in a plastic tote over in a corner of the yard, just outside the construction zone [1], the brave Package Fairies of various services managed to get a number of packages to me over the past few days. In honor of their brave and zealous work, I can present this week's "Reviewing the Mail" post: five new books coming out in North America, sent to me semi-unexpectedly by their publishers. I haven't read any of them yet, but here's what I can tell you about them.

Willful Child is the new novel from Steven Erikson, and it meets almost none of the expectations raised by the first half of this sentence. It's not secondary-world fantasy: it's a SF novel. You couldn't block a door with it: it's under 350 pages. And it's not deeply serious: it looks to be a satire (or maybe piss-take is the better word) of classic Star Trek. This deeply surprising and unlikely book is a Tor hardcover coming November 4th.

Jala's Mask is the first novel by husband-and-wife writing team Mike and Rachel Grinti, coming as a trade paperback from Pyr on November 4th. It's a fantasy novel set in a world with a Polynesian influence, where a small group of islands has used magic to shape coral ships to raid the mainland for centuries and where a young woman from outside the usual circles of power has just married the king. That's when the mainlanders finally hit back, just as Jala (our heroine) is thrown into the typical snake-pit of scheming advisors and nobles. Can she save her marriage, her family, and her nation?

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! is the memoirs of a SF writer whose name I think you can guess. (Yes, he did die in 2012: sometimes publishing takes a while. He wrote this the usual way, before that event.) It's a Tor hardcover, coming November 4th, and it covers his entire life and career -- one of the last primary documents about the SF and comics world of the '40s and '50s that we'll ever get, I expect.

Impulse is a military SF novel by Dave Bara, coming from DAW as a hardcover on February 3rd. It's the first in a series -- books that aren't in series are in shorter supply than hen's teeth in SFF these days -- and the first novel by Bara, telling the story of a young officer in the space navy in a dangerous medium-future galactic civilization, and the difficult choice he has to make.

And then there's the new Wild Cards novel, Lowball, edited by George R.R. Martin & Melinda M. Snodgrass, continuing the long-running multi-author series about an alternate history filled with superhumans. (I read the first ten or so in the series -- the whole original Bantam run, I think, but lost track when it bounced among publishers and there were too many evil body-swappers in a row for a while. But there have been a truly remarkable number of excellent writers involved since the beginning, and I've never seen anyone else come close to replicating the "mosaic novel" structure of many of the series books, with multiple writers each doing their stories and the editors weaving them together into something that really reads like a single novel.) This is a Tor hardcover, available November 4th, and the writers included this time out are Michael Cassutt, David Anthony Durham, David D. Levine, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis, Carrie Vaughn, and Walter Jon Williams.

[1] Metaphorically in a filing cabinet at the bottom of a broken flight of stairs behind a "beware of the leopard" sign.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #297: Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernandez

We expect to take stories literally, thinking that they express a single history and tell us about the same people from beginning to end, that signs don't switch signifiers in the middle or time periods suddenly shift without notice. But not all stories work that way: that's a pre-modern conception of story, to begin with, and many times it will fail us.

You can read Gilbert Hernandez's new standalone graphic novel Bumperhead as the story of one life in ordinary time, though you have to squint a bit to do so. But that doesn't seem to be what Hernandez is doing here, even though it looks like the story of most of one man's life, from early childhood through late middle age.

At first glance, this is clearly a follow-up to Hernandez's Marble Season from last year: it begins in roughly the same time and place, a small city in working-class Southern California, some time in the 1960s, among a group of kids mostly still in single digits. Our central character this time is Bobby, only son of a Mexican father and a mother whose only character traits are tight self-control and chain-smoking. And the story drops in on Bobby at five points in his life -- say ages 10, 15, 20, 25, and 50. (Those are probably wrong, but not horribly wrong; he's a child to begin, the middle three sections show him in extended adolescence and young manhood, and the last moves much farther into the future.)

But even though there are some clear signs of particular times -- Bobby gets very involved in punk in those middle sections -- there are other signs that point in contradictory directions. The precise year is only mentioned once -- the second section takes place in 1972. And the last section almost seems to be set a century ago, as if the century looped and went backwards from 1999 to 1900. And a secondary character carries an iPad -- called by that name, and a "future predicting toy," interchangeably -- throughout most of the story. So Bumperhead may draw on on its creator's life -- he was born in 1957, so he was fifteen in 1972, as Bobby was about that age, and twenty in 1977, for the punk explosion -- but it does so at a slight remove, through a filter to make it all more general.

It's easier to say what Bumperhead is not about: despite the publisher's description, this isn't really a story of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll -- Bobby does care about all three, at least for while in that middle, but none of them lead him anywhere. It's almost the story of his relationship with his distant father, but there's not enough relationship there for that, either. It comes close to begin the story of Bobby's childhood crush on Lorena Madrid -- but, even though Lorena passes through his life glancingly a few times, that's all it is. In the end, this is the story of Bobby, who moved from one thing to the next, looking for the good times in the future and mostly just existing in the present. (Except that's not really true, either: he did burn brightly in those energetic middle punk years.)

It may just be the story of a young man who didn't have any drive to do anything: he loved glam rock and then punk, but they didn't inspire him to make music, or to make anything else. Bobby's life is not exactly wasted, but it is a life without strong attachments to others, without any guiding ideals or goals, a life spent mostly passively. But, then, what else would you expect from a bumperhead?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #296: Hawk by Steven Brust

For longtime fans of this series, I'll start with the headline: after about a decade and four books, Brust finally moves the main story forward in this book. Vlad Taltos has returned to Adrilankha once again, and this time it might just stick.

The rest of you might want some background. There are many resources online -- and I've covered the last four books in some depth: Dzur, Jhegaala, Iorich, and Tiassa -- but the important points can be covered quickly. The Vlad Taltos novels appear to be sword & sorcery, first-person caper novels set in a fantasy world where humans are a minority and tall, magic-using, long-lived Dragareans (whom humans call "elfs") are dominant and whose empire has a complex clan-based social structure and a millennia-long history. Vlad himself is a human who by this point in the series has attained and lost a high position in the Dragarean House of the Jhereg (organized crime), gotten an Imperial title, become reasonably adept at human witchcraft (quite different from Dragerean sorcery), made close friends with many of the most powerful and dangerous Dragareans alive, and been on the run for nearly a decade from his ex-friends in the Jhereg. Underlying that surface is a deeper story Brust will probably never tell completely: this all takes place millions of years in the future, Dragareans are a genetically modified successor race to humanity, much of the sorcery may have a mildly SFnal explanation, and these stories (with a few minor exceptions) have been narrated directly by Vlad to a mysterious figure from beyond his world who is taping them for unknown purposes.

The subtext mostly stays subtext -- except in the most pyrotechnic book of the series, 2001's Issola -- but that does mean that the Vlad books look very much like secondary-world fantasy, and can be read as secondary-world fantasy, but the quack of this particular duck is in a subtly different tone. And it speaks to the kind of writer Brust is: sneaky, wry, laconic, driven by dialogue and by a drive for narrative novelty, unwilling or unable to repeat himself directly but perfectly happy to ring changes on the same situation. (Much as every other recent book has seen Vlad return to the Dragarean capital of Adrilankha: Dzur, Iorich, and now Hawk.)

Hawk is the story of how Vlad finally decides to get out from under the kill-order from the Jhereg; they've had a very high bounty on his head and a mandate to use soul-killing weapons since the events of Phoenix, where he gave up a member of their ruling Council to the authorities to save his ex-wife. (As in most organized crime groups, the one unforgivable sin is to use the law to win your battles.) That plan is baroque and complex, and, as we should expect from Brust, Vlad will tell us about the people who helped him put the plan together and the various items he needs for the plan, but not what the plan itself is until the moment he puts it into action.

So Hawk is much like Dzur and Iorich on the surface: another book about Vlad wandering around Adrilankha, talking to people and assembling his plan. This time, though, the assassination attempts are more frequent, somewhat sloppier, and are starting to rely on overwhelming force and ubiquitous coverage -- the old Jhereg tradition of setting one supremely skilled professional on a job hasn't worked in Vlad's case, so now they're trying other tactics. And those tactics are coming very close to working; if Vlad didn't have the massive magical advantages he does -- primarily a Great Weapon and a talisman that makes him immune to magical detection -- this would be a very short book.

The joys of a Vlad Taltos book are twofold: first, Brust just tells a captivating story on the surface, propelled by Vlad's instantly engaging voice and the quirks of his setting. The deeper joys are those of the serious fan, who is alert for the appearance of Devera in each book and keeping mental checklists about the background details of the series -- those require both much closer attention to Brust's word choices and offhand details and a deep knowledge and love for the series as a whole. I'm personally not quite at the right level to fully appreciate that deeper level -- only Brust and a few fanatical devotees really recognize all of the important hints -- but I'm at least halfway there, and it's a sliding scale: each sneaky reference caught is a pleasure, even if only a few are caught.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #295: No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 5 by Nico Tanigawa

I might not have anything more to say about Tomoko Kuroki. She's a wonderful, glorious character -- deeply conflicted as a misanthrope who wants people to like her and a girl who wants a boyfriend despite the fact that she's so socially anxious she can't talk to anyone -- but I've already written about the first four books of this series, and said there the things I might say here.

Tomoko is back in No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 5, which sees her begin her second high school year with the additional burden of her younger brother Kuroki joining her there as a first-year. (As always, No Matter is by a team of two manga-ka that work under the single name "Nico Tanagawa.") She's still not socially adept in any way, and still obsessed with sex in the least useful ways, but she understands herself better by this point, which makes the stories less immediately lacerating.

Tomoko spends her time alone -- no matter how many people are around her -- partially because she prefers that, and partially because she's just no good at interacting with others. (Real life is sadly different from her beloved dating sims: there's no one right answer to unlock the next level, and real people frustratingly refuse to follow any scripts.) But she's setting less lofty goals in these stories -- using a point system to force herself to talk to people, bringing her grades back up to average to avoid cram school, making a funny introduction to the class at the beginning of the year -- and more or less hitting those goals, which is a big win for her.

Of course, she's also trying to get "ahead" of other girls in her class by image-searching for "d*cks" -- during class, no less -- and accidentally impersonating a flasher at a local park, so don't expect things to go smoothly for her. She's as awkward and introverted as ever, and even her reasonable, sensible plans are not massive successes.

But there is hope for Tomoko: she seems more satisfied with herself and more centered by this point, without the naked yearning of the first couple of volumes. It's a hard road, but it's just possible that our little Tomoko is growing up. And I'm happy to continue to check in with her as she does, hoping that she will someday get that boyfriend and happy life...even if I'm sure she'll never be "popular."

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #294: Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire

I don't mean to be a snob, but sometimes I wonder if I fall into snobbery without thinking. For example, I know that Jeff Lemire is quite busy these days writing some superhero comics or other -- see, doesn't that sound condescending? but, really, I don't even know which of the Big Two he's writing for, let alone what characters he's handling, so I'm just being vague for lack of knowledge -- but I've never read any of that stuff. So the Jeff Lemire in my head is the one from his solo books, the writer/artist whose work is steeped in tragedy and whose male characters regularly have noses that exert their own gravitational pulls.

That's the "Jeff Lemire" I think of; the antecedent to anything I write about the books of his I read. But at least some of you are probably more familiar with his work on -- rushes off to another browser window to google it -- Animal Man, Justice League, or Green Arrow. So I want to apologize to you folks: I don't know anything about that Jeff Lemire. I suspect he's got the same tendencies, though they probably have to be sublimated when he's writing superhero punch-'em-ups. And my sweeping generalizations might not jibe with your memories of "Rotworld."

With that out of the way...I finally got back to Lemire's first book, Lost Dogs, recently. It won him the Xeric Award, it was his first completed long story, and it set the tone for his solo work to follow: it's dark, both in the art and in the story. Darker than that, even -- darker than you're thinking, darker than you expect. This is a young man's story, steeped in ink and gloom and fatalism and death.

The fella on the cover never gets a name, but he's our hero: a big palooka who lives out in the sticks with his wife and daughter, running a farm, around a hundred years ago. One day, they come to the city, for a reason Lemire doesn't explain, and bad things start to happen. Bad things continue to happen throughout this shortish book: there's no happy endings for anyone here, and no happy middles, either. (The beginning was happy, of course, before our family took that journey to the city.)

Lemire's style was looser and inkier here than he got later: these pages are almost dripping black, with thick-lined grotesque figures lurching out of the general darkness of the backgrounds and the only contrasting color the red slashes of the stripes on the hero's shirt. As I said before, the story is equally dark: everything goes wrong for that hero, first quickly and entirely, and then in repeated new and unpleasant ways as the book goes on. Lemire got subtler later and learned more tricks, but that just means Lost Dogs is closer to pure Lemire: stabs of ink, each representing a new pain.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #293: Barakamon, Vol. 1 by Satsuki Yoshino

The fish-out-of-water story has a long history, and nearly as long a list of requirements: the "fish" must be brusque, bordering on unpleasant, at the beginning of the story. He must be coming to somewhere rural and out-of-the-way, and coming from the biggest city plausible. The locals will be helpful, and possibly friendly, and definitely honest to a fault. The joys of the natural world will be praised at great length. There will be at least one outrageous local character whom our fish and the audience at first can't stand. And the fish will be confused and out of place for quite a while, as the lurking suspicion that this is a better place than his city builds and builds. All these things can be extended nearly indefinitely if the aim is to make the story a long-running serial, as well -- there will always be new odd habits of the locals, and quirky seasonal festivals, and even locals who the fish has amazingly not met yet.

(Fish-out-of-water stories about young women inevitably turn into romantic comedies, as the female fish meets a gorgeous infuriating local man who has Hidden Depths and struggles against her plot-required love for him. There's also the somewhat rarer reverse fish-out-of-water, the hick story, in which a rural native travels to that Big Bad City. Those must always end with the fish fleeing back to the peace and purity of the rural landscape; an axiom of these stories is that places with a lot of landscape and only a few people are superior morally to places with a lot of people and only a little landscape.)

Satsuki Yoshino's Barakamon, Vol. 1 is a story right down the middle of that tradition. showing that it's not the cultural tradition of any one country. Japan has rustic salt-of-the-earth yokels as much as America does, and the lessons they have to teach stuck-up cityfolk are very similar. In this particular story, our fish is Seishuu Handa, a driven young calligrapher rusticating after an unpleasant encounter with a critic.

Seishuu doesn't want to believe the critic -- that his work is cold and technically correct, but has no heart -- but those are always the exact flaws of the fish: a lack of connection to the world, being alone rather than part of the community, technical proficiency at something generally respected and well-paid but a gaping lack of soul. And so the people of Nanatsutake Village, in the far west of Japan's Gotou archipelago, have that soul in spades, because they live in a natural place in tune with the real world.

The primary vector of Nanatsutake's wonderfulness is the deeply annoying and hyperactive young girl Naru, who had been using the house Seishuu is now renting as her "base" (along with several of the other young people of the village). Naru is the kind of character who is beloved in fiction but who would quickly make one homicidal in real life: clinging and loud and demanding and overwhelming and aggressively cute at all times. She latches onto Seishuu, and it's clear she'll never let him go.

This is early days for Barakamon, so the stories here mostly settle Seishuu in the village and introduce a few characters, like Naru, the local "chief," and two tween girls. As the book goes on, there's more local color, like a competition on a beach to gather packets of mochi or a fishing expedition -- we can expect that future books will have a lot more of this. There's no Maggie O'Connell character yet, but I would be greatly surprised if one didn't show up by volume four.

Many people will like this story better than I did; I am allergic to manic pixies, particularly when they're grade-schoolers. Yoshino makes this story energetic and bouncy, despite Seishuu's moroseness and sedentary occupation, which isn't easy. It also all looks very pretty, and the characters are drawn crisply and with verve. Anyone who likes fish-out-of-water stories at least some of the time should enjoy Barakamon, though you do need to be able to take Naru in large doses.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #292: Cinderella: Fables Are Forever by Roberson & McManus

Sometimes parallels can trip you up: you want to do a story just like that other one you like, but the materials you have at hand don't really match up. So you shove them over and force them into the pattern you want, even if that doesn't entirely work. It can still be entertaining, but there's a creakiness and instability there that you didn't need to introduce.

The second spin-off Fables miniseries about Cinderella (superspy!) is a bit like that: it's a Cold War story, in large part because that's what we expect from our superspy stories. But the main conflict of the early Fables stories -- the ongoing battle with The Adversary across a thousand fable worlds -- wasn't really on that model: The Adversary was overwhelmingly more powerful, and the Fabletown crew a small, beleaguered band trying to hide, stay alive, and win through asymmetric warfare. The Cold War, on the other hand, was a battle of equals, through proxies and cutouts, and the myth was that there was a nobility and a camaraderie between the agents trying to kill each other.

Cinderella: Fables Are Forever introduces a secondary conflict that I don't remember seeing anywhere else in the many other Fables books: there's a "Shadow Fabletown" behind the Iron Curtain, and its inhabitants are spying on our beloved Fables (and vice versa) because...well, there's no actual reason, except that the plot requires it to set up that Cold War schema. The two Fabletowns aren't in conflict for resources or power or even new refugees; they're both secret enclaves, with more in common than to divide them. So writer Chris Roberson quickly skates over the source of their conflict, presenting Shadow Fabletown as a mystery in 1983 and then quickly getting the fighting started so that, presumably, no one will wonder why they're fighting.

That's all background, though -- it's fairly intrusive background, since it allows Roberson to tell a globe-hopping story both in the modern day and the early 1980s, but still primarily setting -- for a story about Cindy and her great rival, the opposite number that we never heard about before now. That opposite, of course, is also a female fable, equally adept at globe-trotting spycraft, equally attractive, equally well-known to the mundane world -- codenamed Silver Slipper, which gives away her secret identity to anyone who can tell books from movies.

So Cindy battles Silver Slipper, in the early '80s for not-entirely-clear spycraft reasons and then around 2010 because SS is back and seeking revenge. The two plots intertwine well, and there's a lot of action in both timelines, ably scripted by Roberson and drawn by Shawn McManus (whom I've neglected to mention until now: he does great work here, though his faces still have a slight tendency to be unexpectedly large and big-eyed). It's a good adventure story set in the Fables world -- but it just seems to start from a bit of worldbuilding that doesn't exactly line up with what we already known about this world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, October 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/18

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, October 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, October 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Twitter Lovecraft Rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index