Friday, November 17, 2017

Quote of the Week

Something cheery and bright to see you into your weekend....

"The moth don't care if the flame is real
'Cause flame and moth got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation."
 - Aimee Mann, "The Moth"

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Two Themed Books of Single-Panel Cartoons

So I read two books of themed single-panel cartoons this past week. Since it's hard to write about a bunch of random single-panel cartoons anyway ("Some are funny, some are not. Some are by this person, while others are by this completely different person."), I decided I might as well stick them together into one post to maximize the awkwardness and minimize the number of actual posts on this blog.

I didn't say it was a good decision.

So first up is the clearer model: Books, Books, Books, edited by cartoonist S. Gross and handyman writer/editor Jim Charlton, published by Harper & Row in 1988. The edition I read was paper-over-boards, though I suspect it also exists in paperback form.

Books, Books, Books collects something like a hundred and fifty cartoons, roughly one to each of its un-numbered pages. One is from Playboy, a bunch are from the New Yorker, and the bulk are from places that didn't demand credit here and so didn't get it.

And, yes, they're all about books. Reading them, writing them, shelving them (at home, in libraries, in book stores), thinking about them, and mentioning the names of famous writers in passing. These were mostly contemporary cartoons at the time: there's a lot of Roz Chast, Sidney Harris, and Jack Ziegler, with some Eldon Dedini and at least one Charles Addams reaching back further.

There are obviously no gags about ebooks or Amazon here -- this is more like the world I started working in just a few years later, where the bookstores have big tables up front with stacks of books. I found this mostly funny, in a slightly New Yorker-y way: a few cartoons are arch, or require some knowledge of an author or the book world, but most are just jokes readers would get. It does what it sets out to do; this is what I'm saying.

The other book was a bit weirder: National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons, published in paperback by contemporary Books in 2002 with no imprint on the spine, no price anywhere, and no editor listed. (So this may have been a special publication for some reason -- maybe one of the periodic attempts to revitalize the eternally-dying NatLamp brand.)

From the copyright page and internal evidence -- viz: the fact that page numbers start from 7, run to 128, disappear for about 120 pages, start up again at 7 and ruin to 128 again -- I believe this is a compilation of three books originally published in 1992, 1994, and 1995. So my guess is that it incorporates '92's Truly Tasteless Cartoons, '94's That's Sick, and '95's Truly Twisted  Cartoons. The book itself explains none of this: there are three cartoons on the back cover, a title page, and a copyright page, but otherwise no text. (The first numbered page -- that first "page 7" -- is actually page 3 of this book.)

And, yes, the theme here is bad taste, as was traditional for NatLamp. The first book (section?) has the best of the '70s era -- not that it's all good, but it's memorable and generally the strongest work from that era. The second book is second-tier stuff from the same era, mostly -- what was left in the vault for a second go-round. And the third book is rougher and newer work, with a bunch of things that don't quite gel but are clearly trying to be offensive. I thought NatLamp was solidly dead by 1995, but these could easily be cartoons from the sputtering last days of the magazine in the 1980s. (I thought I kept reading it to the end, and I don't remember these cartoons or, mostly, their cartoonists, but that doesn't prove anything.)

So what we have here is a book created for a now-unknown commercial opportunity, out of three earlier books that were pretty much just ransacking the vaults of a basically-defunct magazine. The stench of product is all over it -- but if that makes it any more tasteless, how could we possibly complain?

Most of the jokes are juvenile, though many of them are at least arguably funny. They run the gamut, starting with lots of sex jokes (particularly deviant sex and a fair bit of oh-ho-aren't-gay-people-hilarious) and running through bodily fluids, death, and dismemberment. Once again I'm reminded how much Rodrigues focused on amputees and S. Gross on blind men: both are well-represented here.

If you're too young to have read NatLamp in the '70s, there are many things in this book that will offend you. If you did read NatLamp'll probably still be offended by many cartoons, though more likely the half-baked ones towards the end that lazily poke a sensibility without making a good joke out of it. No matter who you are, many of these cartoons will not strike you as funny now, and some of them were never funny for any conceivable sane human being.

But they all are "Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted," which is what we were promised. So good work to the entirely uncredited drones who assembled this in '92 and '94 and '95 and '02. You did your jobs, boys -- oh, you know they were all boys, whatever their ages -- and produced what you were asked to produce. Can we all say the same?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/11

This is one of those weeks where I don't have any books to mention -- nothing came in the mail, I didn't pick up anything at the library, and I haven't even bought books in a while. (I keep looking at the unread shelves and calculating how long it will take to go through all of them.)

So this post is pointless this week: there's nothing to list.

Next week may well be different, so I hope you come back then.

You may now continue your usual Monday morning routine.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Quote of the Week

This song came on in the car one morning recently, and I was struck by how well this middle verse paints a picture of a moment:

"It's been years since I moved away
But at Christmas I come home
And I saw her reflection
In the window of a store
She was talking to herself
Not too simple and not too kind
I walked on by, it was complicated
And it stuck in my mind"
 - They Might Be Giants, "She Thinks She's Edith Head"

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz

Success can take a while to be really obvious. Charles M. Schulz launched the daily strip Peanuts in 1950, and eventually it became a massive world-wide phenomenon that took up all of his time and required a number of helpers to do the ancillary work. (Schulz famously wrote every word, drew every line and lettered every panel of Peanuts from beginning to end.)

But, later that decade, he was still doing other odd projects, just in case that daily strip didn't keep growing. One of those projects was a weekly single-panel cartoon for Youth magazine, which he did from 1956 through 1965, mostly under the title "Young Pillars." Youth was the teen-outreach arm of something called the Church of God, which is described as a "religious movement" but probably was a more traditional evangelical organization, with some flavor of Protestant theology behind it. (A movement is not a single thing, and can't be "headquartered," as the Church of God was, "in Anderson, Indiana.") Those strips were collected and re-used and re-purposed over the years, and eventually all brought together in their original form as the book Schulz's Youth in 2007.

So the first thing to note is that these are supposedly humorous cartoons commissioned by a church group, which automatically limits the scope of their humor. (Even the most liberal church puts a lot of things off-limits, and it looks like the Church of God was a vaguely middle-of-the-road mid-century American Protestant organization.) And it's all about good, honest, upstanding church-going teens, so jokes about then-current teen topics like juvenile delinquency were Right Out.

What we get, instead, is a parade of inoffensive mildly amusing cartoons about very bland whitebread Middle America boys and girls, whom even Archie and Scooter would think are a little dull. Not all of the jokes are about "stewardship" and singing in the choir and collection plates and bible commentaries and church picnics and Sunday school...but a whole lot of them are, and calling many of them "jokes" is stretching the word inordinately. These are mostly pleasant drawings of pleasant young Christians being pleasant and doing pleasant things either vaguely church-related or, at the very least, entirely acceptable to a 1950s church for white people.

Did I mention how white and Middle America this book is? It's like a concentrated dose of 1954 directly to the vein, from a world that had not yet discovered irony. It is the book equivalent of a covered dish.

Schulz's drawing is generally good, though some of his adults suffer from really gigantic heads -- maybe because he was trying to differentiate them from the teens. I think the main audience is Schulz scholars and particularly artists who want to study his line -- Peanuts was all the same kind of thing for long stretches, but Schulz's Youth has offices and jalopies and weenie roasts and various bits of ecclesiastical architecture, besides the obvious gangly Schulz teens, who are somewhat like his Peanuts kids but interesting and appealing in their own way.

But if you are a bland Midwestern white Christian offended with The Way Things Are Nowadays, this book may be just the warm bath you want to sink into and forget that other kinds of people actually exist and want to have a say in the world, too.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Collected Hutch Owen, Vol. 1 by Tom Hart

Sometimes you can see someone's ideals collide with reality in real-time. It's most common when looking at a collection of works originally created over several years by someone really politically committed and idealistic -- starting out strident and confident, and then getting knocked about by life.

It's not a happy thing. But the world doesn't fit any ideals we have of it, so it's a necessary process for some people -- to learn that their dreams aren't shared by everyone, and that the world is often as horrible as it can possibly be and never as good as it can possibly be.

So, yeah: Tom Hart's The Collected Hutch Owen. (The "Volume One" is a bit odd, since there haven't been any further volumes in the seventeen years since -- though there have been other book-length stories about Hutch.) It came out in 2000, collecting four thirty-some-page stories from the '90s about a rabble-rousing street poet named, obviously, Hutch Owen.

In the first two stories, his antagonist is a cartoonish business leader, the kind who wants to cut down a grove of pristine trees just to have a place to park his blimp before a parade. (As in: that literally is one piece of that story.) That guy disappears in the back half of the book, as Hutch or Hart grapples with the fact that most people don't want to live in a shack in the woods with no heat, light or running water, printing poetry and trying to sell it on the streets. And that's pretty much what Hutch has to offer: absolute, uncompromising autonomy, unconnected to anyone else except through his art, a lifestyle that five seconds of thought will prove is not something that can scale up to more than one single hard-headed goofball.

Hutch doesn't see it that way because Hutch can't see it that way: his whole point is to kick against the pricks, and Hart set him up to have the maximum number of pricks to kick against. (Going to work at a regular job, as we see, is betrayal of all ideals. I suppose getting married, living in a real house or having children would be tantamount to treason to Hutch.)

Hutch is exhausting, on the page as he would be in real life. He's too earnest, too strident, too in love with his pure vision of what life should be, and utterly unable to make any compromises or understand anyone else's point of view. You're either him or a sellout.

I suspect that pose got harder for Hart to work with as he got older himself: Hutch is cartoonishly successful in the first story and semi-realistically battered down by the last one. But there always new young idealistic people: the universe creates them every day. So there will always be another Hutch Owen to bang his head against the world until he realizes how good it feels to stop.

(The hope, always, is that the head-banging will change the world for the better along the way. Over the long term, that may be true, but in the long term, we're also all dead.)

Hart used an energetic, primitivist 'zine look for these stories, as if they were dashed off quickly (and maybe they actually were). That suits Hutch's disheveled DIY aesthetic perfectly, and Hart clearly sympathizes with Hutch, even if he does come to identify less closely with Hutch by the fourth story here.

If you have sympathy for Hutch's fuck-the-Man attitude, you might like these stories better than I did. If you're substantially to my right politically, you will loathe Hutch with the heat of a thousand fiery suns. So calibrate your interest accordingly.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/4

Howdy! As the time this posts, I will be off at my alma mater for a College Search 101 program with my younger son, but know that I am with you in spirit! (And I nearly always set my posts to go at specific times anyway.)

Like every other Monday, I'm going to list the new books I saw in the past week. I got two books in the mail -- go me! -- and here's what looks interesting about them too early on a Sunday morning (as I write this):

Shroud of Eternity is the new novel from Terry Goodkind; it's the second in the Sword of Truth sidebar/continuation series "Sister of Darkness: The Nicci Chronicles" after this January's Death's Mistress. It's coming in hardcover from Tor on January 8th, 2018 -- is 2018 really that close? where does the time go? -- and features, well, Nicci and her compatriots continuing their peregrinations around this particular incarnation of fantasyland.

If you've never read Goodkind before, and are wondering what kind of fantasy writer he is, let me quote for you the first sentence of this novel:
Rotting human flesh glistened in the sunlight, discolored by the bruised hues of putrefaction.

That kind of fantasy writer. If that's your thing, he's very popular, and you can get in at something like a beginning with Death's Mistress, which presumably will be out in paperback at the same time as this new book. So go to it.

The Nine is the first in a urban fantasy series -- set in a city named Corma, in what may be our world in the near future or some other world in some other time -- by Tracy Townsend, coming from Prometheus as a trade paperback November 14th. A "black market courier" -- is there really that much courier work that you can specialize in that much of a sub-set of it? fascinating! -- loses a magical book to nefarious forces, falls in with several others, and learns said book is A Really Big Deal. As in, written by God big deal, possibly ending the world big deal -- that kind of big deal.

It has quotes from Max Gladstone, Curtis C. Chen, and Sam J. Miller, a really snazzy cover, and, despite my snark, doesn't sound like anyone else's books, which is entirely a good thing.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Quote of the Week

A line I have used, far out of context and far more often than I probably should:

"So, what you're telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen."
 - Edmund Blackadder, Duke of Edinburgh, "The Queen of Spain's Beard"

I find it can be particularly good in political arguments, or anything that descends into "No True Scotsman" territory.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

It's not unreasonable that a book that took a year to live and some significant time afterward to write would also take a substantial time to read. So I didn't mind that it took me six weeks to wander through Paul Theroux's late-80s train travelogue of China, Riding the Iron Rooster.

I started this book on a trip of my own -- off to the "mothership" of my company, in darkest Eagan, Minnesota, back in mid-September -- and didn't get much read during that week. It's a longish book for me these days, with four hundred and fifty pages of dense type, and I'm still trying to figure out when and how to read more when I'm only commuting two days a week. (If I save two hours of commuting each way, and only sleep one hour later, surely that should mean I have three more hours in the day, right? Somehow, it doesn't happen that way.)

Theroux spent what seems like close to a year during 1986 and 1987 in China, and he doesn't explain how he managed that: his travel books never talk about the rest of his life, or his family, just the places he's traveling in and the people he meets there. My assumption is that this book actually records a series of shorter trips, of a few weeks or a month at a time, and that he flew in and out to pick up from where he left off sometime later. But that could be wrong: maybe he just settled into a Chinese city for a week or three at a time, working on whatever other book he had going in 1986 (knowing publishing schedules, I'd guess 1989's My Secret History, though 1987's The White Man's Burden is more thematically appropriate), and then had a few days on the train to the next city to gather material for this book. It's probably some combination of that -- I doubt he really stayed in China for 12+ months solid, but he never explains those details in his travel books.

The first chapter, unusually, is about getting to China, but, more characteristically, it's all by rail. Theroux started from London -- "where I happened to be," as he archly puts it on page one -- and joined a package railway tour through the USSR as a way to get to Mongolia and then China itself. The first long chapter is with the tour group, across Europe and Russian Asia, as he dodges questions about what he does for a living and snoops on his (pretty dull) fellow package tourists.

(Theroux, like any self-respecting travel-book writer, disdains mere tourists and thinks of what he does as travel, something higher and better and available only to the purer sort of person who doesn't have to get back to a real job after one or three weeks.)

Then he gets into China itself, which of course is gigantic. I think people, no matter where they live, have skewed views of the large countries of the world, thinking everything else smaller than it is -- the American's view of China is of a place smaller than the US and a lot like his favorite "Chinese" restaurant, and an Indian's view of America is of somewhere nowhere near as expansive and varied his his own country. China is, of course, gigantic, and full of specific places and people -- Tibetan and Han and Mongolian and Manchu and plenty of others -- meaning anything like a correct view will be a kaleidoscope. Theroux's style, writing about a specific time and place, does help to keep that reality in view.

Also, China is long-civilized and most of it has been transformed entirely by human activity over thousands of years. This trip was before more recent engineering marvels like the Three Gorges Dam or the explosive growth of the South Chinese industrial cities, but Theroux regularly comments on how odd it is to travel through a vast countryside that's almost entirely cultivated: fields march in neat tiers up hillsides next to tamed and emptied rivers, and hard-working Chinese farmers are ubiquitous.

Like other Theroux travel books I've read, Riding the Iron Rooster is organized by journeys: each chapter is about a specific trip, on a specific itinerary, at a particular time of year. He may be a bit vague about how he got there and what else he may be doing, but he's very focused on what's going on in each place as he reaches it, and what it's like to be on those crowded, rough railways for each leg. He has Chinese minders some of the time, but he mostly wears them down -- as he presents himself, he's happy to keep riding hard trains across the country, and not trying to maintain a regular life, so his aim to be free to wander about and talk to random locals is fulfilled most of the time.

Any travel book is a snapshot of a moment in time, this one more than most. The China of 1986 was rapidly modernizing, still feeling the shock of the Cultural Revolution and trying to make up for lost time. And there was that mid-80s wonder of what would happen to the "Communist" countries of the world, as varied as they were. Eventually, the Warsaw Block fell, one by one, to their own internal problems, but China, typically, kept on its own path and neither Westernized nor fell behind. (Remember the old post-Soviet joke about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)? That the USSR got glasnost without perestroika and fell apart, while wiser China picked perestroika without glasnost and thrived.)

Theroux is a bit grumpy, and definitely prefers the rural to the urban. So this may have been his last, best chance to see a China that was closer to his preferences -- that's a country that has been urbanizing, in fits and starts but solidly, for thousands of years. Typically, he's happiest in his last chapter, about a trip to Lhasa in Tibet -- where he got to drive much of the way, where he was as far from the big cities of China as it's possible to be within the country, where the locals are a conquered people and unhappy with that lot in their Buddhist way, where he finds a "city" the size of a medium-sized town with "medieval" plumbing and the other primitive accouterments he always perks up for.

Riding the Iron Rooster depicts a China that is not quite the same as the one of today -- but many of the people and types Theroux met then are still around in contemporary China, and the past is always the parent of the present. Any travel book is outdated by the day it's published, since those people are no longer in those places doing those things, but the best travel books, like this one, tell us things about people and places that are tied to time but not limited by it.

Read in October

These are the books I read this month: I can already tell (typing this intro on October 7) that it's going to be a slim month. Oh, well.

Kurt Busiek, Len Wein and Kelley Jones, Conan: Book of Thoth (10/3)

Rick Geary, The Story of the Lincoln County War (10/4)

Kyle Baker, The Bakers: Babies and Kittens (10/10)

Peter Bagge and others, Sweatshop (10/12)

Michel Rabagliati, Paul Moves Out (10/24)

Paul Moves Out was the second of Michel Rabagliati's semi-autobiographical graphic novels about "Paul Riforati," who had a life remarkably parallel to his creator's.

I wrote about it when I read it the first time, back in 2008. I was pretty straightforward then, and I don't see any strong reason to add fripperies or gewgaws to that original post, so you can just follow the link if you want to know more.

I guess I can say this, which is new: I owned a copy of this book, lost it in a flood, bought a new one, re-read it, and enjoyed it even more. That could be because it was a second read, when hidden things often become more clear, or just because I'm older now -- either way, I can recommend this book again.

Walt Simonson and Daniel Brereton, Legends of the World's Finest (10/25)

Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster (10/28)

Tom Hart, The Collected Hutch Owen, Volume 1 (10/31)

Hey! I forgot to push the "publish" button on time. But here you go now.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Legends of the World's Finest by Walt Simonson & Daniel Brereton

Note: I didn't plan to read this book and have the review land on Halloween -- that was purely random. But it's nice when things work out so appropriately, isn't it? 

There are books where you wonder why anyone ever thought they were a good idea -- how they could possibly have come into existence. A fully-painted series of comic books in which a sweaty-looking Superman and Batman trade dreams as part of the schemes of an undead Scottish laird to beat a random female demon would fall into that category for a whole lot of people.

But, once you realize that comics not uncommonly come into existence because the then-hot artist had a list of things he really wanted to draw, it starts to make more sense. Legends of the World's Finest, the book in question, has introductions from both writer Walt Simonson and painter Daniel Brereton in which both of them pretend this was a good or at least plausible idea to begin with. (In their defense, it was 1993, when the spandex-dudes industry was teetering on an unsustainable peak of grimacing, variant covers, belt pouches, bad art, and speculator hype. A lot of things looked like good ideas at the time from inside the industry. And Brereton, unlike some artists of that era, was hot because he paints creepy, gorgeous art, so the demon-plot at least was driven by his obvious strengths.)

This Legends is also from long enough ago that it feels more like the wordy comics of the '70s and '80s than the more stripped-down style of the last twenty years -- everyone here yammers on a lot, and the narrative voice gets into the action, too, telling us things we can clearly see in the panels repeatedly. I'm too lazy to look up whether the "real" Superman was officially dead or alive when Legends was published -- it was right in the middle of that foofaraw, when first he was dead, then he was four other people, and then he suddenly wasn't dead and wasn't any of them, either -- but it's from that era of comics, when the Big Two companies were throwing everything they could think of at the wall, with the Image founders doing the same with even less likely things, and nearly everything was sticking.

For a while, at least. The wall wised up before too long, and a hell of a lot of things suddenly stopped sticking very soon after this. And a lot of projects that worked well enough in the inflationary era look silly and ridiculous afterwards.

Again, which brings us back to Legends. It is silly. I won't say that it's actually ridiculous, but it and ridiculous are close enough neighbors to share a snow-blower this winter. It has Batman and Superman act wildly out of character on purpose, but doesn't manage to wring any humor, or much drama, out of that. It manages to feel much longer than its hundred-and-fifty-ish pages. For a presumably out-of-continuity Prestige Format series, it's remarkably mired in the dull continuity of the era. (Superman thinks about his last encounter with Blaze, the female demon! It features the character sensation of never, the who-ever-cared-about-her Silver Banshee!)

There are a lot of big elements here that just don't come off as big. The world is nearly destroyed, yet again, but it's ho-hum. There's way too much talking, none of it in words that are surprising or interesting. And it teaches the great superhero lesson that evil people can never change, so you should never ever help anyone who asks.

Everyone has probably forgotten this even existed. They were pretty much right to do so. But the Brereton art is still quite impressive, especially if you want to see a sweaty, bodybuilder-esque Superman lurching around. That's the most positive thing I can say about it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/28

Here we go again with the Monday thing. As a possible distraction, I post every week about whatever new books I've gotten, in the hopes other people will want them as well. (This isn't quite as self-centered as it sounds, since those books tend to be sent to me unexpectedly by their publishers.)

This week I have one book to mention: the twentieth "Saga of Reculse" fantasy novel by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., The Mongrel Mage. I've only met Modesitt once or twice in passing, and read one book in this series more years ago than I remember, so I'm not going to pretend to a deep knowledge of the man or his work. But he's been writing smart fantasy for more than twenty years (plus some SF as well), across a number of series, which should be celebrated.

Mongrel Mage is a Tor hardcover, officially going on sale tomorrow in all of the North American places you can buy books imprinted on paper or electrons.

Recluse is a world where there are two distinct kinds of magic -- white Chaos and black Order -- but the main character of this book, Beltar, can use both of them, in ways no one has seen for hundreds of years. And that, of course, makes him a target, as new capabilities and powers always are. I don't know if this volume completes Beltar's stories, but Modesitt has generally let each Recluse book stand as a novel rather than stringing out plots endlessly.

So: interesting fantasy, relatively standing alone though in a world that a reader can explore further, available immediately. Sounds like a winning combination.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sweatshop by Peter Bagge and others

This is not a limited series. I know: I was surprised, too. But Peter Bagge's afterword, which explains the history of Sweatshop, makes it clear that it was intended to be ongoing, and that he would have been happy to keep it running for a much longer time.

That didn't happen: Sweatshop got a six-issue run from DC in 2003, when that company was in one its periodic throes of trying to broaden its range, which was followed by the inevitable and equally periodic pullback to its core competency of grimacing people in spandex punching each other repeatedly.

Sweatshop is not about spandex, or punching. It does have its share of grimacing, and other extreme facial expressions, because we are talking about Peter Bagge here. But, otherwise, it doesn't look much like a good fit for DC. Our central character is Mel Bowling, a comics creator on the far side of middle age. He's the credited creator of the syndicated strip Freddy Ferret -- though it's really put together by his oddball crew of young, underpaid assistants -- and a lazy, narcissistic golf-playing blowhard.

(The set-up is not unlike some manga about manga-making -- Bagge doesn't mention any inspirations, or Japanese comics at all, in his afterword, but it's at the very least a striking case of parallel development.)

Reading the first issue, I thought it would feature Bagge's art on stories about the whole team and his fellow artists (Stephen Destefano, Bill Wray, Stephanie Gladden, Jim Blanchard, and Johnny Ryan also contribute art to these stories) each picking up from the POV of one of the assistants. That would have been neat, and more formally interesting, but it's not the way the series ended up going: the feint in that direction was apparently a scene-setting one-off for that first issue. Instead, there's mostly a lead story for each issue drawn by Bagge, and then additional stories drawn by one or more of the others, in the style of old humor comics.

The stories are all about that crew in Bowling's studio -- worrying about the "Hammie" awards, planning and going to the big Comic-Con, dealing with a new writer joining the team, and various career and personal issues for all of them. It's not quite as zany and slapstick as Bagge got in the '80s and '90s, but these are broad characters who do crazy things: it's a lot like a sitcom on the page.

Sweatshop is funny, and probably even funnier the more you know about strip comics: I suspect Bagge buried jokes and references I didn't get among the ones I did see and laugh at. Some readers may find the changing art styles distracting, though they all are in the same tradition -- Bagge's rubber-hose arms and googly eyes are probably the most extreme, cartoony style here, with the others giving a (sometimes only very slightly) more restrained version of the same look. What can I say? It's a funny collection of stories about comics and comics people, and a decade has only dated it slightly. (A contemporary version would definitely have at least one issue full of webcomic jokes.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Bakers: Babies and Kittens by Kyle Baker

So, I've been re-reading Kyle Baker's funnybooks -- meaning his comics that are funny, since he's done other kinds as well -- recently, with the first volume of Cartoonist last year, three random books back in January and Cartoonist 2 last month. And he's still got more, meaning I can keep going.

The Bakers: Babies and Kittens was from 2007, and saw Baker go to Image after self-publishing the two Cartoonist books. (Baker has been in another spree of self-publishing the last few years, for whatever reason: my guess would be that he has a deep backlist and no outside publisher can care as much about those books as a self-publisher can.) It contains one long story about his then-young family, with three kids that seem to be under the age of five, told in what I think of as animation-inspired art, usually two wide panels to a page filled with action and energy.

Kids are cute, and kittens are even cuter, but the possibly-fictionalized version of Baker here is allergic to cats, so he puts his foot down and insists the family will not have any. Anyone familiar with American family comedy of the past century will know what happens next: Father is always the butt of the joke, and never gets what he wants. (This all starts, incidentally, with a slapstick scene involving a mouse, which gives an initial impetus to the idea of getting a cat.)

I still think that a lot of Baker's stories from this era really wanted to be animated movies, and would have worked even better in that form. But they're still good as comics, full of vibrant colors and expressive lines, bouncy with comedic energy and verbally fun as well. Maybe I just want to see Babies and Kittens as animation as well: that would have been cool.

Babies and Kittens is technically a sequel, but this is basically a sitcom setup: stories of little kids causing problems are universal, and require nothing other than being a human being who has experienced small children. It's cute, and suitable for nearly all ages -- those younger than two may drool and chew on the book more than you prefer, ditto those over one hundred -- and shows, once again, how funny Baker can be when he has good material and the time to build gorgeous art around it.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/21

Welcome back.

Every week, I list whatever new books I've seen, from publicity, purchase or (some word meaning "library" that begins with a p). Sometimes there are many, sometimes none.

This week, there's one: Steal the Stars, a novel by Nat Cassidy based on the dramatic podcast of the same name written by Mac Rogers. (Which descriptor makes me think about whether "drama" or the medium is usually the noun -- see TV drama but also dramatic presentation. Hmm. Dramatic play? Dramatic opera? Dramatic tweetstorm? On balance, I think that's probably the best way to describe the form.)

Steal the Stars is being published by Tor as a trade paperback on November 7th. Regular Tor, I think, not or Tor Labs or the other exotic varieties, though the podcast came from Tor Labs and Gideon Media (in, obviously, a different form than a paperback book).

It's described as "noir science fiction," and seems to be one of the many grandchildren of X-Files: there's a crash-landed alien (gray skin, big head, probably a penchant for anal probing -- the whole shebang) held secretly in a US military base, and two of the people guarding it decide they'd have more opportunity to fuck each other and get rich if they stole the alien and ran off. So they do, apparently.

I am typically not your biggest fan of brand extensions into other media, and I am also old and grumpy, so this sounds like another eruption from the woo-woo conspiracy-theory side of SF. So I will not claim I am going to leap right onto this book and clasp it to my bosom. But it has nice quotes from people I respect, like Paul Cornell and Max Gladstone, so that's probably just me. I bet you will love it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Story of the Lincoln County War by Rick Geary

I almost wish I'd held onto Louis Riel and reviewed that together with Rick Geary's The Story of the Lincoln County War: both are stories in comics about 19th century rebellions, mostly for good reasons against corrupt and nasty rulers, that ended with the destruction of the rebellion and the loss of its cause. Louis Riel was a Canadian, and his story had a racial element that eventually turned that story into one of the important lessons of that nation.

Rick Geary, though, has a more sordid story to tell: one motivated by greed and lust for power on one side, and a slightly purer desire to make a living (or, maybe, to push out the old cabal and supplant it with a new corrupt cabal, in someone's wildest dreams) on the other. The place is Lincoln County, New Mexico, in the late 1870s -- a huge expanse of mostly empty land, with ranchers, farmers, and a few townspeople. The current cabal extends all the way up to the territorial governor, and is anchored by the shopkeeper/merchant to the local fort. (He has an admirably compact supply chain, with hired rustlers stealing local cattle for him to sell as beef to that fort, plus a near-monopoly on most staples and the kind of predatory credit that soon afterward gave rise to the company town.)

On the other side is a new shop-owner, trying to get into the business, and a local lawyer who used to work for the cabal and either was kicked out or smartened up. Eventually, it turns to violence, because it always does.

This is "war" in the local-history sense; at no time is there a pitched battle or real tactics, though an army detachment does get into the fray at one point, with the expected results. The fighters in this "war" are close to the conventional idea of cowboys: well-armed young men in bands riding around a semi-barren landscape and shooting at each other. And, since one side of this "war" does have control of the local government, meaning both the apparatus of the law and the assistance of that army detachment, the outcome is not really in doubt.

Over a long period of time, they say, the arc of humanity does bend towards justice. But any story about individual people doesn't have that luxury of time, and this arc was bent in an entirely different direction. The best thing you can say about this "war" is that it was short and, as far as Geary tell us, didn't claim any civilians. It did spawn a few outlaws, most notably someone Geary here calls by his "real" name, William Bonney. (And so this book is something of a prequel to Geary's The True Death of Billy the Kid from a couple of years ago. Like that book, The Story of the Lincoln County War was funded through Kickstarter. It's not yet on Geary's web store, but that would be the most likely place to find it.)

This is Geary in his usual mature sombre-historical mode, not the madcap Geary of his early career. (Though that wild-hair Geary still does make occasional appearances, once in a while.) As always, he's very good at 19th century faces, at physical spaces from maps to rooms to dusty streets, and at explaining complicated, violent, nasty bits of history to a modern audience. Again, this was a Kickstarter project, presumably because it was considered to have less wide of an appeal than Geary's usual books about historical murders. But this is an interesting bit of unpleasant history -- another tale of capitalism run riot and corrupt, in case we need one more in these fallen days -- told well by a master of comics. If you can find it, it's worth it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Conan: Book of Thoth by Busiek, Wein & Jones

We really don't need any more origin stories. OK, maybe if it's integrated -- a quick flashback during something else -- it's not so bad. But, please, not a whole story just to show us how the guy we already know got to the place we've seen him. Boooo-ring.

Writers Kurt Busiek and Len Wein (along with artist Kelley Jones) work hard to keep Conan: Book of Thoth out of the Boring Zone, but I'm afraid it's a losing battle.

A) this is an origin story, and (even worse) one of a villain, so it's all cackling laughter and evil triumphing.

Two) this is a Conan story in which Conan can't appear at all, so we just get a couple hundred pages of neo-Howardian pre-historical squalor and woe.

Thoth-Amon is a major Conan villain -- one of the few who doesn't show up and get his head chopped off in the space of a short story, I mean, which is what "major Conan villain" means. And so, round about 2005, he got a comic-book series to explain Who He Is and How He Got That Way. And, well, it turns out he was a nasty street kid -- battered by his father, to make it even more tedious and psychological -- in some random Hyperborian Age city, who did various nasty things for four long issues to end up as High Priest of Set and secret ruler of an entire nation.


Book of Thoth is pretty much all one tone -- slightly detached tsk-tsking at how horrible this guy named variously Thoth, Amon, and Thoth-Amon is, while still being excited at each new bit of nastiness. It's really only for huge Conan fans, and I have no clear idea why it was on my shelf. (My best theory is that it came in one of the care packages of comics I got after my flood in 2011.) And it is one more signpost to show that we really don't need more origin stories.

(By the way, I don't know if Mssrs. Busiek, Wein and Jones knew this at the time, but if you google "Book of Thoth," you get a whole lot of what are technically called "woo-woo" books about Atlanteans and energy beings and a tiny little bit of Egyptiana. Sometimes the obvious title makes your project hard to find.) 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/7

Some weeks I buy a lot of books. Some weeks I get a bunch in the mail. Either one is frankly wonderful.

Some weeks I just turn around, look at everything sitting on my unread shelves (three big bookcases, quite a bit of it double-shelved, down here in my blogger's basement) and try to estimate how long it will take to read through all of it at my current speed.

(And sometimes I look at those shelves and think about the plan to move some things around that's been in the back of my head for at least three months now. Still hasn't happened.)

The point is: I've got plenty of books. And that's not even counting my access to two big library systems. I have way too much to read at any given moment, and the only real problem is the eternal question of which book to read next. (The more books you have, the harder that question is.)

This week there's nothing new to write about. So I get a brief second of thinking I'm keeping ahead of the rising tide. Next week might well be different.....

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Louis Riel by Chester Brown

The great thing about history is that it never stops being history. It might technically get older, but, realistically, a hundred years is the same as a hundred and twenty. Old is old, dead is dead.

So I can read the tenth anniversary edition of a book four years later without feeling any guilt, because the guy it's about has been dead since 1885 anyway. He's not doing anything new in the meantime.

I am, of course talking about Chester Brown's historical graphical comic-book thing Louis Riel, one of the works that most deforms the common usage of the term "graphic novel." (So I'm avoiding using it directly.) Brown himself is one of those quirky Canadian oddballs that comics seems to throw off regularly -- not quite as monomaniacal and misogynistic as Dave Sim, definitely further down the spectrum than seems-to-mostly-just-be-eccentric Seth, and probably about equal with world-class work-avoider Joe Matt -- with his own very defined passions and crankish ideas that mostly stay out of this primarily fact-based book. (Riel did claim to have direct knowledge of the divine, which could easily have been one of the things that attracted Brown to his story -- but that's material that was already there waiting for him. And women are almost entirely absent from this story of 19th century politics and war, whether because of Brown's views or because any contributions they made were quiet at the time and ignored thereafter.)

I can't speak from any personal knowledge of Riel's story, or any previous scholarship. My sense is that Brown followed the generally accepted scholarly consensus at the time, and that his telling is as "true" as any book of history: it's what most experts think happened, in broad outlines, even if some of them probably argue violently with each other about individual details. And that is the old sad story of distant elites of one ethnicity scheming to disenfranchise (or worse) a minority they don't like within a burgeoning territory they control.

In this case, it's the English-descended government of Canada, mostly in the person of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, planning how best to cut up and use a vast section of the mid-continent prairies and deliberately alienating, damaging, and snubbing the locals, particularly the population of mixed French-native background called Metis. (That area eventually became the province of Manitoba, if that helps place it in space and time.)

The Metis people were not happy with this, of course. "No taxation without representation" is only one specific expression of an age-old problem: those people over there, with all the power and most of the guns, are telling us to do things we don't think they should have any say in. The Metis fought back, and Louis Riel is the man who became their leader -- it seems, from Brown's telling, that was because he was right there when the first clash happened on Metis land, and because he spoke English well enough to be a go-between. And he was strong-willed and charismatic to stay in that role. Brown presents him as the leader of his people, and doesn't get into any power struggles that might have happened within the Metis community, even as we suspect they must have happened.

Riel eventually led two different rebellions against the government of Canada. As Brown tells it, he was goaded and guided into doing so by Macdonald and others, who knew they would win militarily and preferred the simplicity of bullets to the messiness of actually doing their political jobs of compromising and allowing all voices to be heard. It's a sad, sordid story, basically a tragedy: Riel was unstable and mentally ill (that supposed direct connection with the divine), which possibly kept him from finding a better solution for his people. Or maybe they were doomed from the beginning, since the other side had the government, the railroad, most of the guns, more money, and their own racism to convince themselves they were firmly in the right.

Brown tells the story well, focusing on Riel's life and actions and using a clean six-panel grid -- he gets out of the way of his story almost entirely. This looks like a Chester Brown story, since his art is distinctive, but it reads like compelling reality, without the surrealistic breaks and self-obsessions of his earlier works. There's a reason this has become a Canadian classic; it tells an important story well. This edition includes an extensive collection of sources and notes, plus a section at the back with sketches, original comics covers and other related stuff. To maximize the scholarly heft, there's an essay by an academic to close the whole thing out. But most readers won't bother with that anyway. The book itself is enough: it tells a story we've seen many times before, but need to be reminded of regularly.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Mind MGMT, Vol. 2: The Futurist by Matt Kindt

Sometimes I read too slowly. I got to the first volume of Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT series back in 2014 -- already late, since it's a six-book series that ran and was collected 2012-15 -- and have had the second one on my shelf most of the days since then. At this rate, I calculate, I'll get through the whole series by 2029.

Well, maybe I can speed up -- only take two years between some of the books -- and save a little time.

In any case, here's the second one: Mind MGMT, Vol. 2: The Futurist. There is one shocking surprise near the end of this volume that anyone who's read comics anytime in the past fifty years will have seen coming miles away, but otherwise it's the same heady, intriguing mix of paranoia, Phildickian reality-twisting, and secret-society intrigue as the first book. The story is opening out here, and we learn more about Mind Management and its agents, though still, oddly, it's never 100% clear that this was an actual government agency run by the USA or not.

The core is still Maru, true-crime writer on the trail of the biggest story of her life, and Harry Lyme, the most powerful agent (according to him) of the now-defunct Mind Management agency, which changed minds and people and politics all around the world for decades through super-secret methods. (Basically psionics, without ever actually using the term -- all various kinds of mind powers.)

There's not much more I can say about this book without either spoiling the first book or repeating what I already wrote about that book. So let me just say that Kindt is probably the best creator in comics on spycraft, dark mysteries, and dangerous secrets -- and I find his spiky, watercolor-washed, slightly rough-looking art to be a perfect match for his writing. (Some people find his art too far from the slick superhero norm: those people are called Philistines.)

The series is done now: I can't promise it's all this good, since (as I said) I haven't read it all yet. But it does start very strong, and Kindt's work hasn't disappointed yet.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/30

The end of September saw a cold snap in my neck of the woods, as if Nature said "well, right, that's Summer thoroughly done for now." There's currently a chill breeze coming in through the small window in my blogger's basement, making me think seriously about actually closing that window. But it's supposed to warm up a bit again this week -- Nature is deeply fickle -- so I think I can stand it until then.

Things change every week, with new ideas and sights -- and among the most pleasant changes are new books being published. This week, I've got two new hardcovers from Tor to lay out before your amazed eyes.

I'll start with Children of the Fleet, a new "Ender" novel by Orson Scott Card, hitting stores on October 10th. I'm not as plugged-in to this series as some other people, but I believe this is set in the gap between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, and is about yet another super-smart kid who wants to go to the super-awesome Fleet School to learn to massacre evil alien Buggers. (No, wait. The Buggers are all dead at this point, right? So who are all the Earth kids learning to massacre at this point?) This kid is Dabeet Ochoa, and he has an unknown father, which I'm sure will never become a plot point. The title page has the subtitle "Fleet School," which I have a lurking suspicion means this may become a series -- either with more books about Dabeet, or a number of books about different students at the school. Time will tell.

The other book is War and Craft by Tom Doyle, the third in the American Craftsman series. It's modern military fantasy secret history, about the super-classified magical Spec Ops types who keep the world safe for democracy by killing a lot of bad guys in entertaining ways and doing the rest of that MilSF stuff. This one seems to be the climax of the series, and is mostly set in India, because what good are American special forces types if they're not wreaking havoc in foreign countries? War and Craft hit stores on September 26; you should be able to find it everywhere now. If the idea sounds interesting, though, you probably want to start with the first book, American Craftsmen.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Read in September

My current working situation has started to seriously affect my reading, which is about the silliest and most counter-productive thing in the world to complain about. (So don't think I'm complaining.)

I'm currently working from home three days a week because a) my primary set of colleagues is in Eagan, MN; b) my secondary set of colleagues already moved crosstown in NYC; and c) my most immediate colleague is on an extended maternity leave. So I'm kinda alone when I'm actually in the office -- there are about a dozen of us left on the floor, if everyone is in the office the same day, and it feels like the very beginning of my career again, on a mostly-empty Doubleday floor, high up in the then-Bear Sterns building on the East side. Everything does come around again, eventually.

So, since over the last two decades I've gotten into the habit of doing most of my reading while commuting, having a three-minute commute down the basement stairs several times a week means I need to make other time to read in my schedule. (Again: this is whatever the opposite of a complaint is. A brag, maybe?) I haven't done that yet, so the list of books below is a bit meager:

Boulet, Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve (9/5)

Mawil, Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician (9/6)

I read Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician back in 2009, when it was relatively recent (Mawil is German, and the German edition came out in 2006 and this English edition from the UK publisher Blank Slate in 2008), and liked it quite a bit then. But the copy I had was lost in my 2011 flood, which I already mention far too much.

Oh, look, here's my review, buried in the middle of a longer round-up of graphic novels!

Re-reading that post, I agree with myself entirely. So, if you want to know what this book is, read that. If you want to just read a collection of funny comics pages about a bumbling bunny electrician in an office of cute girls (drawn in a quirky style), just go buy it already.

Ted McKeever, Transit: The Complete Series + the Lost Finale (9/19)

Andi Watson, Glister (9/20)

Michael D'Antonio, Hershey (9/20)

Matt Kindt, Mind MGMT, Vol. 2: The Futurist (9/26)

Chester Brown, Louis Riel (9/27)

And that was September. I'm typing these words the morning of October 1, so pretty much right on time. I expect I'll read more books this month, and be back here to grumble and complain about them. It's a life.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio

Another case of plans dashed: my family takes a vacation to Hersheypark every summer, to ride roller coasters and engage in general frivolity just before my sons go back to school. The last two years, the window has gotten very small, since we go after Pennsylvania schools are open but before Thing 1 (my older son) starts classes at our local community college.

But there's a day or two in that window at the beginning of the last week of August, and it's usually still hot, so we can do all of the water-park stuff as well.


This year, I intended to read Michael D'Antonio's biography of the man who made the town of Hershey and pretty much all of the things in it while in that town, mostly sitting in the shade in that water park in between cooling off myself. But, in the actual event, our day in Hershey saw near-steady light rain and a high temperature that just grazed 70 Fahrenheit. So the water park section was thoroughly closed, and sitting anywhere to read pleasantly was not in the cards.

I did get a bit of Hershey read on the drive down and back -- my wife hates to have anyone else drive her, and I much prefer to read than to stare at a road, so it's a great pairing -- but I mostly read it the same way I read nearly everything these days, on a train to and from Manhattan.

Milton Snavely Hershey was born in 1857 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of a dreamer father and a mother who was the hard-driving scion of a locally prominent family. He went into candy-making as a young man, and, after a couple of near-successes (meaning failures), finally hit it big first with a caramel business and then bootstrapped that into the first major milk-chocolate manufacturing operation in the Americas. As that chocolate company became successful, he built up a whole series of related businesses and operations around it to make a model town -- a town named after him, with subsidized streetcars and cultural venues, with a free park that eventually turned into a major tourist attraction, and with a whole panoply of other businesses that ran at a bare profit or a slight loss to making living in Hershey that much more pleasant and attractive.

And he put the bulk of his ownership of all of that -- the massively growing chocolate business, and all of the other activities to make Hershey a model town -- into a trust, and handed over ownership of that trust to a school for orphan boys that he set up. By the time he died in 1945, the school trust solidly owned both the hugely profitable candy business and the conglomerate of all of those other Hershey entities, and was on track to have the largest endowment of any private school in the US.

So Hershey was possibly the most successful American Utopian that ever existed: he had a vision for a working, successful community, and built it. That town is still there, still thriving, over a hundred years later. He's also the quintessential story of a Gilded Age entrepreneur who gave away his wealth, even more than Carnegie. It's the kind of story that could make even a died-in-wool socialist grudgingly say that some capitalists, maybe, aren't necessarily all bad.

D'Antonio tells that story well, both the early years of struggle and the later years of ever-increasing success. Unusually for a biography, the reader will be more interested in Hershey's later years -- no one really cares that much about Milton S. Hershey as a person, but we want to know how he founded the town and park and factory, and how that all worked out in the end.

If I could force the current wave of American capitalists to read any one book, this would be it -- Hershey made mostly good choices, and always focused on the good of the community rather than his own wants. We could use a lot more of that these days. Admittedly, he was hugely paternalistic -- partially that was because of the times, but there clearly also was an element of wanting to control and (benevolently) guide his "children," both the workers in his town and the actual orphans.

Still: a major capitalist who gave up his entire fortune and business to build a massive philanthropic vehicle for a very particular and personally important purpose. I suspect Bill Gates knows this story, but not enough others.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Glister by Andi Watson

The fields of Young Adult have been calling to comics-makers for the past decade or so: a seductive song of a market with a large, appreciative audience, a deep love for comics, a tropism for evergreen books rather than ephemeral pamphlets, and the chance to actually make some money telling stories pretty close to (or, sometimes, exactly like) the ones those cartoonists are already doing. All of that is hugely positive for a creative person, so it's easy to see why so many have fled the Wednesday Crowd for the Scholastic Book Fair Mob.

But it does mean those of us who aren't as plugged into the YA/kid-comics world often don't even see those works, which is a shame.

Luckily, sometimes comics-world publishers will realize this and repackage YA comics in a way that makes them pop up on our radar.

Case in point: Andi Watson's Glister, a series of four small books from Walker, clearly aimed at that Scholastic Book Fair audience (its bullseye would be smart, thoughtful girls in late elementary school, but those of us who fit the profile less well -- meaning not at all -- can enjoy them just as much) that came out in 2010 and 2011. Dark Horse collected those four books into one comics-shop-friendly trade paperback, called simply Glister, in July of this year. (I think it's actually more complicated than that: the first Glister book was a slightly reworked version of Watson's first Glister story, which came out as three small comics from Image in 2007. So everything goes around in circles if you wait long enough.)

Glister Butterworth is a smart young girl living with her father in the family's deeply eccentric ancestral hall, somewhere in the kind of rural England that only exists in books for young people. She's a magnet for the weird and peculiar, according to the blurb, but I'd say it's more that she lives in a world stuffed full with the weird and peculiar -- it's not attracted to her in particular, but is just lying about the countryside in vast heaps, ready to fall over and cause trouble at any moment.

Again, Glister collects four separate stories (plus activity pages and other sidebar stuff). Glister deals with a haunted teapot, the unexpected (and extended) absence of her family home on a world tour, the search for her mother in the land of Faerie, and her attempt to grow an extended family tree (this is both a metaphor and the absolute truth) to have more family members to spend time with. None of those things turn out as she expects, or as the reader entirely anticipates, but they do all turn out for the best, in the end. It's that kind of book: the one about how much fun it would be to grow up weird, somewhere unique with unusual things happening all around all the time.

If you were a bookish kid, you probably had at least one favorite book like that. And Glister will be that for at least several thousand newer readers, which is a good thing. And even if you're no longer a kid, as long as you remember that kid you once were, you can enjoy the stories of Glister Butterworth just as much now.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Transit by Ted McKeever

It's important to check your assumptions against reality regularly: we often find that what we think is true actually has very little do with with what really happened.

Case in point: Ted McKeever.

I had McKeever in my head as one of the great comics wild men, coming out of nowhere with striking, original, and bizarre work in the late '80s, briefly flourishing, and then disappearing from the scene entirely. In my head, he was in the company of Marc Hansen and Bob Burden. Maybe there was a hint of "too pure for this world," or some back-patting that I liked his stuff even though the Great Unwashed didn't.

That is not exactly true. In fact, it's wrong in several ways: the person who lost touch was me. McKeever's been out there the whole time, working away in comics. He moved on to things I didn't pay much attention to, but that's all me, not him.

So I remembered Transit and Eddy Current and Plastic Forks and Metropol, but I'd forgotten he went from there to illustrating part of Rachel Pollack's run on Doom Patrol in the years of High Vertigo. (Which is a knock on me: I was fan of both of them at the time, and I'm pretty sure I owned most of those comics.) And, well, it's been more than twenty years since then, and he's had new comics work out pretty much every one of those years, according to Wikipedia.

Also, because of that misconception, I had the vague sense that Transit was incomplete because it was the last thing McKeever did on his way out of comics. Again: totally wrong. Transit was McKeever's first comics work, and it was left incomplete for reasons that aren't explained in this 2008 collection. (But I think a huge part of the explanation, for those of us who were around in the '80s, is that his publisher was Vortex.)

Anyway, Transit had five issues back in 1987-88, and then, twenty years later, those five issues and "the lost finale" (from the different art style and radical shift in tone, this was "lost" in the sense of "never actually drawn and possibly not written until the 21st century") were collected into one volume as part of a larger reprinting/rediscovery of McKeever's work from Image's Shadowline imprint.

(The spine calls this book Ted McKeever Library Book 1: Transit The Complete Series, for you sticklers.)

Like those other early McKeever books, it's the story of an ordinary guy in an odd urban setting, with extraordinary events cascading around him and a cast of quirky weirdos and creepy villains. It doesn't hold together as well as say Eddy Current does, in large part because it didn't have an ending for twenty years and now has one that's very muted and distant, as if pieced together by scholars a hundred years later from fragmentary contemporary accounts.

The guy is Spud. We see him in a subway, casually vandalizing the posters of mayoral candidates. Then he's shot (at?) by a cop and finds himself in the path of a train. For several pages he seems to be dead, and the reader starts to think he will not be our protagonist after all. But Spud does show up again -- he's going to have much worse happen to him over the next five issues than just being shot and run over by a subway.

There is, of course, a corrupt man running for mayor. This was the '80s, so I'm afraid that he's a preacher. And he's backed by the usual really fat shadowy master-of-everything of this city, who sits in his palatial office high up in an office tower. They are both not particularly characterized beyond cackling about the evil things they are doing and plan to keep doing. But McKeever had a very Munoz-esque -- maybe filtered through Keith Giffen, maybe not -- appeal to his art at this point, and evil men in dark rooms brings out the best of that art style.

Transit is not a tightly plotted book: it starts from Spud and the nasty mayoral election, and wanders around its grimy city from there, bringing in more oddball characters and bouncing between energetic scenes that don't always completely track to each other. It always makes it way back to Spud and the evil guys eventually, more or less, but each loop seems to have less and less to do with the initial setup. And then, of course, we hit the "lost finale,"a series of quick scenes of the characters, to close out all of their stories and provide something like an ending. I don't think it's the ending McKeever was aiming for back in 1988, but Transit feels like a book that was plotted as it went along, so I may be making an unwarranted assumption to say he was aiming for any particular ending.

In any case, it's done now, such as it is, and available in one volume. (Or was, a decade ago. It may be harder to find now.) McKeever got more controlled and organized from here, but Transit shows the bones of the later stories -- it shows that McKeever was on his track from the beginning.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/23

It can be a burden having an excessively tidy mind. You need to do things just so, and to follow precedents exactly, even when that's a bit silly. But you do get things done, and you get them done consistently. On balance, it works out.

So I post every Monday morning to list any new books I've gotten in the prior week. If I haven't been shopping much, and the wheels of Big-Publishing Publicity have been grinding away in directions other than mine, that can be a short list. Often, a list so short that it would be impossible to be any shorter.

And, yes, this is another one of those weeks. I probably should figure out something else I can write about in this space in those situations. Or maybe I already have -- I'm writing at length about the process, or the lack of process, which is fascinating to me, though I'm sure not so to you.

But, then, this is my blog, not yours, isn't it?

I'm next going to try finishing up posts on the three books I read last week -- if I get them done, they'll go up later this week, spaced out to make it look like there's more content here. That will at least be something more substantial that this post. And then I'll be back next week, to list books or vamp for a few paragraphs, as the mood takes me.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve by Boulet

Boulet is one of those European Cartoonists who are so cool they only need one name, like Herge. (And several others -- I feel like there's a lot of them, but can't be bothered to research the question right now.) Or maybe it's not a coolness thing -- perhaps it helps them avoid the social shame of being known publicly as a cartoonist? Or maybe it just fits better on a comics page as a signature?
So many possibilities.

Anyway, his real name is Gilles Roussel, but he works in comics as Boulet. And he started a blog in 2004, which seems to be what really pushed his career forward and gave him some momentum. (2004 was a good year for blogs -- most of the years since, not so much.)

The blog has been collected in several volumes in French, under the overall title Notes. (Wikipedia lists four volumes, but that's only through 2010. Actually, that Wikipedia entry seems to stop listing anything as of about 2010, which leads me to believe it hasn't been updated this decade.) Last year, Soaring Penguin Press -- which I've never heard of before, though I immediately like them for their name -- had the first volume translated and published it in the UK. And somehow one copy of that edition found its way to an independent bookstore in New Jersey and finally into my hands.

That book is Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve. (Not sure why it uses the French spelling "larve" rather than the English "larva," but that's just my editor-brain kicking in when no one asked it to.) And it collects roughly the first year of that comics-blog, plus some framing pages of Boulet talking to a woman (his editor? a friend? another comic-blogger? she doesn't seem to be a girlfriend,  and I can't find anywhere she's named) about assembling and organizing this very book you're reading.

The new material (well, "new" as of 2008 when the book was assembled) comments on and contextualizes the older blog entries -- this is a fancy way to say that Boulet and his unnamed female interlocutor talk about the story on the previous pages, and Boulet sometimes gives more details about those stories.

Because this is the kind of blog that's based on real life. (They all supposedly were, and it can be hard to tell how much any individual blog is "real," I suppose, but this is mostly day-to-day life-of-a-cartoonist stuff.) There's some stories about conventions, and some stories about daily life as a cartoonist, and the inevitable here's-the-dream-I-had-last-night-because-I-can't-think-of-anything-else-this-week entry. All of the old blog entries are in color -- some seem to be watercolored, and some are more traditional spot color (by Boulet, presumably) over pen-lines. The new stuff is mostly black-and-white, except for the orange of Boulet's hair. (Which is a fun design element, and also shows how much his style loosened up between the initial blog entries and this book.)

Some of the stories are a single page, but they're generally longer than that -- enough to tell a little story, or run through a series of events. The stories themselves are not dates, though Boulet mentions several times how much trouble it was to find all of them and put them in the correct chronological order.

So this is a book of parts -- Boulet explicitly worries about that in his framing material up front, and revisits the idea at the end -- like a book of short stories. It's all things that happened to this one French cartoonist (even if some of them, as with many creative folks, were things that happened entirely in his head) over the course of a year more than a decade ago.

(By the way, the blog is still going, and there's an English version now -- the latter is available here.)

If you're the kind of American whose conception of "comics" is entirely filled by people in bright colors punching each other, this is very much not the book for you. I hope there aren't actually that many of you, but -- since I'm a pessimist -- I tend to assume you're the majority, you thick-knuckled vulgarians you. But, for the rest of us, this is a neat book by an interesting creator, and for other comics-makers, it's an intriguing look into a life in comics in a somewhat different market and ecosystem.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I Told You So by Shannon Wheeler

I can't claim any connection to the cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, despite the name similarity. Oh, he lives in Portland, as does my brother -- but I think that's as close as it gets. The Wheelers are a vast clan, with our fingers in all of the world's pies, and Shannon's branch is very distant from my own.

But, still, he is a Wheeler, and thus one of the best in the world at whatever he chooses to do, by the power of that exceptional name. In his case, first there was the hit comic Too Much Coffee Man (in several formats, for a long time, and not quite done even now). But he's also been working seriously on New Yorker-style single-panel cartoons for at least a decade now, with some success in that fine magazine.

And, since he's a guy who publishes the cartoons he makes -- a man wants to eat, and his audiences wants to laugh -- I've seen two books of those cartoons so far: I Thought You Would Be Funnier and I Don't Get It.

I don't actually know how many of those books there are, now -- I have a vague sense Wheeler has been putting out one a year, since since when or until when is less clear -- but I found and read another one last month: I Told You So, published in 2012.

This one is loosely organized by place -- San Francisco, New York, Portland, The Suburbs, The Internets, and Unexplored Places -- which are, more or less, where the respective cartoons take place. It's as good an organizing principle as any other, I suppose.

And it's full of single-panel cartoons, in the arch, somewhat artificial New Yorker style. (All art is artificial, of course -- that's what makes it art. So that is in no way a dig.) Wheeler has a classic cartoony style here, full of tones and soft edges, that primes the reader to look for this kind of humor. (Well, it does for me, at least.)

Again, he is a Wheeler, and therefore excellent at what he does. It's no surprise he was good at this kind of cartoon. If you like New Yorker-y cartoons, Wheeler has a number of these little books full of them, and so far I can recommend them all.