Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Read in July and August

I'm getting lazier and lazier with my review writing, and with my book reading. I don't expect anyone cares -- I'm only mildly annoyed myself -- but it's true, and should be noted.

But here's what I read over most of the summer of 2015: not nearly as much as I'd like, but I was having too much fun playing Fallout 3 instead.

Note: I've realized it's now mid-October, and I still haven't posted this. So I'm going to type something for each book and put this up. Please don't take my lack of time/energy and haphazard comments as indicative of the quality of any of these books -- most of them are really good, in various ways for various people.

Ted McKeever, Eddy Current, Vol. 3 (7/1)

McKeever's 12-issue mini-series from 1987-88 was reprinted about a decade ago by Atomeka, and I only found it about a year ago. In the late '80s, I thought McKeever was exciting and interesting -- he made comics that could be sold next to superhero stuff in the monoculture direct market but were idiosyncratic and quirky and specific -- but I lost track of him somewhere along the way. I have no idea if McKeever is still out there making quirky comics, but I hope whatever he's doing, it's quirky and fun and paying him better than comics usually does.

I'm not sure if I ever read this whole series at the time -- the ending wasn't completely familiar -- but it's weird and fun and bizarre. The best comparison I could make for McKeever is Bob Burden, but McKeever is more studied and deliberate than Burden: Burden is weird because that's the way his brain works, but McKeever uses weirdness to tell specific stories and explore particular things.

I see that it's back in print as a single omnibus, so that's what I linked above.

Mimi Pond, Over Easy (7/7)

I wrote a bit about this a few weeks back, when I had no new books for a "Reviewing the Mail" Monday post. Other than that: it's great to see Pond back in comics after far too long. (Note: this only applies if she hasn't been doing comics the whole time and I just missed them, but I think that's true.) And my copy got seriously damaged in my bag during a midsummer rainstorm, which is annoying -- because this is one I think I'll want to keep for a long time.

H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard, The Shadow Out of Time (7/8)

Another Lovecraft story adapted into comics by Culbard, who previous did the same with At the Mountains of Madness (and there's one more Lovecraft-Culbard joint coming up in my already-read stack, too). I would not expect Lovecraft's talky, long-word-filled, deeply metatextual stories to work well as comics -- let alone the problems of drawing the monsters he describes without having them look silly -- but Culbard has now done it very well repeatedly. So there's me wrong, and quite happy to be wrong. Culbard's books are highly recommended for any Lovecraftian.

Jason, The Last Musketeer (7/13)

I'd read this once before -- it was my very first Jason book, in fact -- back when I was an Eisner judge in 2009. But that was as part of a whirlwind of reading over four days, since Eisner judging is the closest thing the literary world has to four-a-day football training camps. So I wanted to go back to it, and I wanted to have a copy of my own. It's still very Jasonian: distanced and quiet in its action set-pieces, as if filed by an alien race from very far away. And it's a great example of how Jason mashes up different pieces of pop culture across centuries, in this case Dumas with Flash Gordon-style SF, to make something distinctive and quirkily entertaining.

Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes (7/13)

Matt Wagner, Grendel vs. The Shadow (7/14)

Wagner's art is as crisp and strongly driven by storytelling as ever, and his writing is equally strong and supple. And if I wish that he had the opportunity to tell new stories, and not just keep rehashing Hunter Rose fighting various other people from the multiverse...well, that's really beside the point, isn't it? This is another one of those stories, and it's pretty good for what it is. If you like both Hunter Rose and the classic, '30s-era Shadow, you will enjoy this.

Jessie Hartland, Steve Jobs: Insanely Great (7/15)

Hartland previously turned the life of Julia Child into a book, Bon Appetit. (And I'm not comfortable calling either that previous book or this new one "graphic novels," since they're nonfiction. But I do admit that we don't have a good term for the nonfiction work of book-length comics.) She has an energetic, loose style that suits Jobs' energy, even if it seems somewhat off for his micromanaging, ever-tiny-bit-in-his-place management style. Possibly due to the limitations of the graphic format, this is primarily a celebration of Jobs; the fact that he seems to have been a complete asshole (albeit a massively successful one) who caused his own avoidable death through his arrogance and bullheadedness is left out almost entirely.

I've been a Mac fan for twenty-plus years, so I have the usual complicated options about Jobs. This book doesn't get into any of the reasons behind that, and stay mostly a book of cheerleading. Since the audience for a biography is primarily the fans of a person, that is most likely a very smart move on Hartland's part.

Svetlana Chmakova, Awkward (7/16)

Chmakova -- whom I know from her neat unfinished series Nightschool, but is probably best known for her first series Dramacon, which I haven't read -- dives into Raina Telgemeier territory with this story of middle-school life and friendship and work and social life. This particular middle school is very club-centric, which still feels like a manga trope to me than indicative of the real lives of American tweens -- but, then, I'm not an expert on every school system in this country, so I could be wrong.

Anyway, this is sweet and fun, running down the border between drama and comedy as it tells the story of two kids who first just want to keep quiet and get through school without attracting bad attention, but find friendship with each other and purpose in doing the things they love to do. If you're looking for lessons, this only has good ones, and if you're looking for a good story, it has that, too.

Mallory Ortberg, Texts From Jane Eyre (7/16)

James Burks, Gabby and Gator (7/17)

 I don't know who Burks is -- I keep mixing him up with the Connections guy, but that's James Burke -- other than the fact that he made this cute suitable-for-grade-schoolers graphic novel about a quirky young girl and the neurotic alligator she befriends. Burks has a nice cartoony style with the right level of energy for this project, and an underlying sweetness that kids of the right age will appreciate. I wouldn't directly recommend this as a story for older readers -- particularly teens, who would find it "babyish" -- but it does well what it wants to do and is a great story for the right audience.

Pascal Girard, Petty Theft (7/20)

Girard is the Quebecois cartoonist of the deeply affecting memoir Nicolas, the fictional and thoughtful Bigfoot, and the farcical semi-memoir Reunion (and possibly other things still trapped in the French language and unknown to me). This one is along the lines of Reunion, focusing on a sad-sack version of the author whose life is going badly: his long-time girlfriend threw him out, his work is blocked, and he just injured himself while jogging.

So he becomes mildly obsessed with a cute girl he sees reading, and then shoplifting his book in a store. She turns out to be a serial book thief, but Pascal is still deeply attracted to her -- which forms the basis of the book's conflict and comedy. This is mostly light and fun, and Girard draws it in a suitably light style, with vignette-like unbordered panels floating on the page in a loose six-panel grid and his expressive art and tight dialogue equally contributing to the humor. Even if Girard never makes anything else as powerful as Nicolas, he's still found a solid vein to mine here.

Mary Norris, Between You and Me (7/25)

Gilbert Hernandez, Grip: The Strange World of Men (7/27)

Gilbert is the weird Hernandez brother, prone to head off into metafiction and semi-allegorical works -- through, from the interviews I've read, I believe those works arise mostly visually and from genre tropes, and so he doesn't actually construct allegories specifically, but just throws interesting story ideas down and sees when his drawing hand takes him. Grip is one of his more surreal and odd stories, originally serialized as a five-issue series in 2001-2002 and only collected this year.

It's the kind of book that starts with an amnesiac hero and only gets quirkier from there -- I'd only recommend this to readers who already have some experience with Hernandez, preferably through Love & Rockets, and want to explore the outer reaches of his work. And, since I read this a couple months ago and am not entirely certain I understood it even then, I'll leave my critique at this: Hernandez draws great weird stuff, and this story gives him a lot of opportunity to do so.

Fuka Mizutani, Love at Fourteen, Vol. 1 (7/28)

Fuka Mizutani, Love at Fourteen, Vol. 2 (7/30)

Two middle-schoolers in Japan -- I think they're the equivalent of what would be high school freshmen in the USA, since the years of school don't line up quite the same way -- have a very mild, age-appropriate love that they hide from the rest of their still-childish classmates. So there's a lot of hand-holding and starting into each other's eyes, a certain amount of blushing and struggling for words, and plenty of doing everyday and season activities together, either semi-secretly (when near school friends) or more gleefully (when free and alone together).

There's also a creepier parallel love affair between a male classmate and a female teacher. The classmate is presented as a creep who loves the main girl, and is trying to manipulate our main characters with his knowledge of their love. And the teacher seems sunny and nice and friendly -- except that she's deeply inappropriate with the sour boy, teasing him and dancing up to what would be sexual harassment in the US.

George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia, Jr., and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire (7/31)

I wrote about this a bit one week when no new books came in for "Reviewing the Mail," and that covers most, if not all, of what I could say about this. I'm a sucker for fake non-fiction -- books that are supposed to be "real" within a fictional world -- and this is a decent example of that form, telling the reader only the things that the learned of Westeros know at this particular point in the series.

It did make me wish Martin would finish up this series and write some swashbuckling action in the odder corners of this world, because he has a lot of odd, interesting corners. This world would make an excellent backdrop for a sword & sorcery series, but I doubt Martin will ever get that far -- but hope springs eternal.

I'll reiterate that this book is good on maps of Westeros, though they're scattered throughout the book and not indexed anywhere. But it has no maps of anywhere else in the world aside from one map of the entire known world. This may be to leave unvisited areas mysterious, but books like this really demand maps, even if they are vague and medievaloid.

Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Jason Latour, and Laurence Campbell, Sledgehammer 44, Vol. 1 (8/3)

This is one of the slightest and most sidebar of the Hellboy universe stories -- though I expect that it ties into five other stories in sneaky little ways that I don't remember at the moment. (Because I don't live in that world.) It's about a US super-soldier robot, powered by vril, in WW II, and the much more ordinary soldier who finds his soul inside that robot.

Someday, someone will make a perfect reading-order list of the entire Hellboy universe, and I'll be able to read this connected with the other stories that it casts the most light on. But, as it was, it was just a story of a different tank character punching Nazis and their sorcerers, when Hellboy has more style doing so. (And there's a faint sense of piss-take, as if this is poking Atomic Robo for being a Hellboy ripoff by ripping that back off in turn.)

Chris Duffy, ed., Fable Comics (8/4)

A murderer's row of comics artists -- James Kochalka, Eleanor Davis, Roger Langridge, R.O. Blechman, George O'Connor, Jaime Hernandez, Mark Newgarden, Sophie Goldstein, Tom Gauld, Graham Annable, and at least a dozen more -- present tales mostly from Aesop in four-color form, for the edification of young and old.

These are all message stories by their very nature, but there's a great variety of messages -- and art styles, and sources of the fables, and everything else. This is another book primarily for the younger set, though it's good for maybe up to middle school, since it's better for a reader who will think about the messages and how the stories present their didactic points, and start poking at the assumptions.

Sue Grafton, W Is For Wasted (8/7)

Paul Pope, JT Petty, and David Rubin, The Fall of the House of West (8/17)

This is the second part of a prequel to Pope's solo graphic novel Battling Boy -- it follows The Rise of Aurora West -- and it unfortunately doesn't exactly have an ending of its own. (The real ending of this book is contained early in Battling Boy, and Pope and his collaborators don't retell that moment here, maybe to keep this from being completely downbeat.)

This is less successful than Rise was, since its an incomplete tragedy -- if you've read Battling Boy, you know what will happen, but it doesn't happen hear, which leaves the story in the air. But, until that lack of an ending, it's a high-energy adventure with flawed heroes (including Aurora herself, a great kick-butt teen girl character) and deeply hissable villains. Rubin also does a good job of drawing something like Pope -- making this look like it's set in the same world -- without slavishly imitating Pope's very obvious artistic idiosyncrasies.

Judd Winick, Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth(8/18)

Winick has been making comics (writing and drawing) in a wide variety of modes for a couple of decades now, so it's really not fair to him that I keep thinking of him as a guy who was on a reality show once. (Sadly, them's the breaks: people in the public sphere can't control how other people remember them.)

This launches a graphic novel series for grade-schoolers that reads to me as deeply influenced by Scott McCloud's classic Zot! -- though that series is old and obscure enough that there's no reason to believe Winick has even heard of it. We've got a sunny blond-haired kid from another world with mysterious secrets, over-the-top villains battling him, and the wide-eyed normal Earth kids dragged along for the ride. Also, underwear jokes. Adults aren't likely to read this for their own pleasure, but it's not for them -- leave it to the kids, who will love it.

Dan Wells, The Devil's Only Friend (8/21)

Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler, Girls Standing on Lawns (8/24)

The Museum of Modern Art has a lot of stuff in it -- more than just the works displayed on its walls, even. Like most big museums, it has extensive archives of art works -- and things that most of us wouldn't think of as "artworks" -- that rarely make it up onto those walls and are mostly only seen by curators. MoMA in particular has about twenty-five thousand photographs: some percentage were "made as art," but most weren't. Those other photos, the snapshots of ordinary things by ordinary people, are called vernacular photography.

And this is the first in a planned series of books turning those vernacular photos into art. Or maybe presenting them as art. Or both. Daniel Handler has written some words about the photos, or the people in the photos, or the ideas behind the photos. And Maira Kalman has made paintings based on the photos. And a bunch of the photos themselves are here too.

All of those photos are, as the title says, of girls standing on lawns. Young women, in the first three or four decades of the last century, standing outside in their nice or everyday clothes, squinting or smiling or glaring, posing or just standing there, as someone unseen clicks the shutter and saves that image forever.

This is a quick read, if you run right through it. But it's not a book to read that way; it's art to look at and think about. To wonder who those "girls" are, how they got to those lawns, and what happened afterward. Handler's words and Kalman's paintings help those thoughts, but the photos are the main thing: real people in their real lives, a hundred years ago.

And those were the books I read in July and August, which I'm posing around noon on October 10th. (Yes, I know.) No promises for the next installment, but this is something I want to do, so let's see if I can find time to do it somewhat earlier.

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