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.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

It's impossible to read everything. Even worse. it's often impossible to keep reading the new books by all of the writers you've liked in the past -- unless you're incredibly demanding and picky, I suppose. Things pile up, and then you realize it's been close to a decade since you read a book by that writer you still think of as a favorite.

And that brings me to Martha Wells. I read her first four novels as they came out, and bought several of them for the SFBC. Then she dove into a trilogy, and I was putting them on a shelf to read, all together, for what I hoped would be a SFBC omnibus. I don't know if anyone else ever did that omnibus, but the door slammed shut behind me before I had the chance. I still wanted to read the trilogy, but maybe not right then -- it would remind me too much of what didn't happen. Then Wells jumped into another series, about winged folks in a different, less Earth-based fantasy world -- it sounded interesting, and more of a stretch for her writing, which is all good, but...I just never picked up one of those books (despite even going to see Wells read from one of them at the Reno Worldcon).

What did it take to get me back? Well, Wells tried SF for what I think is the first time. And she wrote a short book -- probably a novella -- which length I find very appealing these busy days. And, probably most importantly, it was a story told in the first person by a semi-human mechanical that calls itself "Murderbot," and that triggered my old John Sladek Tik-Tok tropism.

And, yes, that book was called All Systems Red. It looks to be the beginning of a new series: I hope it is.

Murderbot is our narrator, and it has a wonderful voice. Murderbot should not have free will -- its kind are designed not to -- but its kind are also made as cheaply as possible to maximize their corporate owner's profitability, so glitches do happen. And so Murderbot does have free will, which it could use to kill people. But it doesn't really want to kill people; it mostly wants to spend as much time as possible consuming media products and not worrying about its own life.

(In Murderbot, Wells has created the first slacker killer-robot, which I deeply love.)

There is a reason why Murderbot calls itself that, and the reader will learn that reason before the end of All Systems Red. But it's a good reason, and Wells sets it up perfectly, so I won't tell you here.

Anyway, the job of a SecUnit -- what Murderbot is, officially -- is to protect and defend exploratory teams on new worlds, as they figure out if it's worthwhile for their parent organizations to bid on colonizing/mining/exploiting that particular world. Murderbot is with a small team, of just five humans, and is the only SecUnit assigned to them. There's one larger team far away on the same planet, but that's it -- it should be a fairly easy job, protecting them from dangerous fauna.

But it turns out their info-packet on this planet has some very large and glaring holes in it, such as a very nasty tunneling predator and entire regions of the map. And the other, much better equipped team suddenly goes radio-silent. Murderbot is not happy with having to work harder, but it wants to protect this team, even if it isn't forced to do so. It turns out that Murderbot likes them.

But will that be enough?

All Systems Red is short and zippy, moving along at pace and driven by the grumpy voice of Murderbot. From the series title, I have my fingers crossed that we will get more adventures of Murderbot in this medium-future ultra-capitalist universe -- sooner rather than later, I hope.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/16

For those of you keeping track at home -- are there people who even read blogs nowadays? I tend to think I'm typing this mostly for my own memory, like a diary that's ostensibly in public -- this is the third week in a row with no books in the mail.

Since I just spent a very busy week alternately in a gigantic office building on the Minnesota prairies and a quite nice hotel attached to the Mall of America, that's just fine with me. There will be other books later: there are always more books.

But, this week, I'm not going to be the one telling you about any of them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran

I didn't remember Neil Gaiman's story "Troll Bridge" well. In fact, if you'd asked me about it, I would have assumed some confusion on your part with Terry Pratchett's short story "Troll Bridge," and tried to lead you in that direction.

But story titles can't be copyrighted, and even good friends can use the same ones without stress or strife. I'd forgotten it, but Gaiman did also write a story titled "Troll Bridge," originally for the Datlow/Windling anthology Snow White, Rose Red in 1993 and collected a number of times since then. And, since Gaiman has a huge audience in comics that might not be as familiar with his just-prose works -- or, at least, there are publishers willing to bet that's the case -- a number of his short stories have been turning into short graphic novels from Dark Horse over the past few years.

Last year it was Troll Bridge's turn, adapted and drawn by Colleen Doran.

I'm not sure short stories need to turn into graphic novels, but they're about the right length -- a twenty-page piece of prose can be a forty-eight-page graphic novel and fit comfortably into that size, without the usual Procrustean manipulations to fit the format. So, given that it's possible, and anything both possible and likely profitable will happen, the only question left is: how well does this story work, translated into this new medium?

It works pretty well, actually. "Troll Bridge" is a story of episodes -- a boy meets a troll under a bridge near his home, somewhere in then-rural England, and then other things happen over time -- and that translates to comics just as well as it works in prose. The troll itself, as seen on the cover, is traditional, which is fine for this twisted-traditional story. And the boy looks much like Gaiman might have at the same age, which is of course the point, as in so many Gaiman stories. (He works from material based on his own life a lot more than I think he gets credit for.)

So this boy meets a troll, who wants to eat his life. The boy would rather his life not be eaten, so he makes a deal. And this is a fairy tale, so that deal comes out badly in the end -- fairy tales only reward the heroes who are strong and true throughout, and have the luck to be born third. (And not even them, all of the time -- fairy tales are one of our bloodiest types of story.)

I'm not sure I've ever gotten whatever lesson "Troll Bridge" has to impart -- unless it's "keep away from bridges, because trolls lurk there and will eat you" -- which may be why I keep forgetting it. Burt this is a good adaptation of that story, keeping the flavor of Gaiman's narration and adding Doran's pastorally-colored and carefully seen vision of his world. I'm still not 100% convinced this story needed to be adapted, but, if it was going to be anyway, this is definitely a successful version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Contrary To Popular Believe by Joey Green

We all need something to read when we're doing something else. (Well, there may be people who don't read, but they are poor, stunted things, and we don't want to think about them.)

For a couple of months, the book I had in the smallest room of the house was Contrary to Popular Belief, written by Joey Green (of Wash Your Hair With Whipped Cream fame). It contains 250 things that some people believe, and explains why each of them is wrong in a single page.

Sure, I knew most of this already. (And quibbled with some of it; Green is happy to elide complications if it makes a better zinger.) But that makes a book like this even more fun: that smug feeling that you already know better than most people. If you already think you know things that most people misunderstand, this is the book for you -- and you get bonus points for everything you know that Green passes over.

This is not a deep book, or a serious one. But it's a book that sets things straight, which is entirely a positive thing. Its breezy, friendly style may make a few thousand more people learn the truth than otherwise would, which is entirely good. And I didn't actually find anything wrong in it: just things that are less simple than Green presents them. Considering the whole world is less simple than can be presented in a impulse-buy book, that's not too shabby.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dragons: The Modern Infestation by Pamela Wharton Blanpied

Look -- you know I love fake non-fiction, right? The kind of books that seem to have come from a world somewhat similar to our own, but substantially changed?

Well, for years I've been saying that Pamela Wharton Blanpied's Dragons: The Modern Infestation was one of the best of that small category, along with Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail. But I only read Dragons once, a good twenty years ago. What if I remembered it wrong?

So I got a new copy and read it again. And, of course, I was right all along: Dragons: The Modern Infestation is wonderful. It's also sneakier and smarter than I remembered, which implies I might have missed half of the fun the first time around.

Dragons, in the world where it belongs, is a serious academic book, full of citations and references to the peer-reviewed literature. It's set in a world where dragons began reappearing perhaps two generations ago -- seventy or eighty years or so. Their numbers are increasing, and they are unstoppable apex predators: deeply intelligent and cunning, huge, strong, flexible, flying fire-breathing creatures possessed of a nearly supernatural "mime" ability that makes adult dragons essentially impossible to target or kill. They can and do push mankind entirely aside to protect the places they want, and caused a years-long reign of terror in Europe when one dragon was wounded by a human attack.

(I should note that "two generations ago" is from the publication of this second edition of Dragons, and that it's set in what I estimate is an alternate near-future. Satellite imagery has been used for several multi-year Dragon Censuses, making the emergence of dragons pretty clearly in the second half of the twentieth century and the "now" of this book published in 1980/1996 somewhere in the 2020s or 30s.)

Blanpied clearly has a complicated backstory for this world in her head, and it comes out in parts during Modern Infestation, as we learn about dragons themselves and the few plucky researchers who have contributed to our slight knowledge of them. She smartly avoids real-world politics entirely, which makes this nearly forty-year-old book entirely fresh: all of the nations of the world are in the same boat dealing with dragons, and so their individual squabbles don't matter to this discipline.

Modern Infestation is so-named because there was a Pre-Medieval Infestation, and Blanpied's fictional researchers, though mostly anatomists and linguists and behaviorists, do have some interest in the history of that previous burst of draconic activity. But this book is concerned with what can be known about modern dragons, and so is based primarily upon the fieldwork of a small number of (named and characterized) researchers. So it opens with a chapter outlining the history of the Modern Infestation generally, hitting the major events. The second chapter, the bulk of the book, covers Anatomical and Behavioral Characteristics, including sketches of draconic anatomy and official-looking charts of draconic locations. (Some of those graphics are printed less than wonderfully in the current edition, which seems to be print-on-demand. It's all comprehensible, but it could be crisper and darker.) The third chapter contains excerpts from the papers of several foundational dragon experts, including some notes from (rare, and usually unsatisfying) conversations with dragons.

Dragons: The Modern Infestation is smart and deep and the best possible kind of quirky, a book like no other. It's a short book, but not a quick read -- Blanpied packs a lot into her sentences, and writes with tongue deeply in cheek at all times. There are immediate meanings, the implied history of this world, deeper satires of academic life and the foibles of humanity in general, plus silly pictures that have circles and arrows pointing to places where a dragon is lurking unseen.

This is a funny book, a thoughtful book, and a wonderful book. I know of nothing else like it at all. Blanpied, for all I can tell, wrote just this one book, but she did her job perfectly -- so why continue after that?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Black Dahlia by Rick Geary

I'm in danger of turning into a broken record on this subject: Geary has been doing the same thing brilliantly for so long that I've run out of different ways to say it.

Black Dahlia is the seventh in his "Treasury of XXth Century Murder," which followed eight similar books in the "Treasury of Victorian Murder" (and one even earlier book, The Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1, a miscellaneous collection that was the prototype for the whole sub-career). Each one is a roughly comic-book-sized hardcover, of about eighty pages, telling the story of one famous historical murder. He's done Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, Sacco and Vanzetti and several more not as well-known in the 21st century. Each book is carefully researched and filled with maps and diagrams of the towns and murder locations -- all drawn by Geary in his precise but puckish style.

The new book for 2016 -- he's had one of these for most years this century -- covers the famous LA murder case from 1947, as previously retold by James Ellroy and countless others. As always, Geary isn't here to fictionalize the case, or make up his own ending -- he wants to present the true story, as best it can be determined, in all of its complexity and confusion, and lay out what might have happened, if that's clear at all. It isn't, in this case: whoever killed Elizabeth Short got away with it cleanly, and we'll probably never know who he was.

Some of these books are more about the before, and some are more about the after -- some murders have a huge media life, with shocking revelations and new suspects, and some just don't. The Black Dahlia case basically went nowhere, so Geary doesn't have a lot of after to work with. But Elizabeth Short did have a complicated life for her twenty-two years, which means Black Dahlia starts with the murder and then moves back to tell Short's life story, or the pieces of it that seem to be relevant to her death.

Geary seems to be drawn to the unsolved, complicated cases the most -- not the ones where we know what happened and who did it, but the ones where we can almost tell what happened, where there are some suspicions but not proof, the ones that are a bit frustrating, the ones where we're pretty sure a murderer completely got away with it. Black Dahlia is deeply in that mode: whether Short was killed by a gangster or an angry boyfriend, he got away entirely. (And he's probably dead now, which is as much getting away with anything that anyone can ever do.)

As always, Geary's eye is focused and distinct. He gives us the people and places of the time -- the right hairstyles, the right cars, the right streetscapes -- to build the world that Elizabeth Short lived and died in. A series of books about old murders might seem frivolous or macabre, but death is just a lens to look at life. And Geary is excellent at telling us about both life and death.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/9

Hey guys! When I get books in the mail, I write about them here, every Monday morning.

When I don't get any books in the mail that week, I write about how I didn't get any books, which is pretty meta, and probably self-indulgent.

This is a week of Option #2.

That's actually pretty good for me: I'm flying out to Eagan, Minnesota tomorrow morning for a long week of meetings at what we affectionately call "the mothership." So I have stuff to get done today that is a bit more important than blogging.

And thus I'm happy I can finish up this blog post quickly on a Sunday morning.

Just like this.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist, Volume 2: Now With More Bakers

I used to be a huge Kyle Baker fan -- I loved his first two books The Cowboy Wally Show and Why I Hate Saturn, and equally loved his early comics-illustration work on The Shadow and the wonderful but criminally-forgotten Justice, Inc. But any half-decent creator doesn't keep doing the same thing forever, so Baker moved on from that stuff to a long career -- some were things I really liked, some not so much. At some point I either lost track of him or his work stopped clicking with me: he was an early enthusiastic pioneer of digital drawing tools, and I was a typical grumpy old fan, liking the old style better.

But the one good thing about having a flood that destroys 10,000 books is that you can re-buy a lot of the stuff you loved again, and have a good excuse to read it again before you put it on the real shelves. (Which, by the way, are now on the second floor of my house, far away from any but the most apocalyptic floods.)

So I've been buying and reading Baker's books again, across his whole career, since sometime last year -- first Kyle Baker, Cartoonist last December (the launch of his initial foray into self-publishing, just over a decade ago) and then a post covering three books at the beginning of this year. I've been buying his books faster than that, of course -- that's the way it works, if you like books at all -- so I've had other choices.

And so I came to Kyle Baker, Cartoonist, Volume 2, the direct sequel to the first one. Baker published this in 2005, when he had three children who look to all be under the age of five. (I think he has one or two more now; the man clearly relishes challenges.) Some of it seems to want to be animation -- there are a few longish wordless stories up front told in large uniformly-sized panels that would make fun animated shorts -- and that was one of the things I was grumpy about with Baker the first time around. This time, though, it's just fine: they're funny pieces, and they work as comics even if the feeling tends more to storyboards.

This book has a lot of other comics, too -- shorter multi-panel pieces as well as a lot of single-panel gags, first covering a wide range of ideas and topics and then, in the last third, focusing on his young family. Family comics can get treacly or maudlin pretty quickly, but Baker made these right in the middle of his life, so they're specific and grounded in what his actual kids were doing at the time, and real kids are always quirkier and more bizarre than the standard gags about them.

Mostly, this book reminds me that Baker is really funny a lot of the time, and especially good at pulling material out of the world around him. (Why I Hate Saturn was the same way, from a vastly different period of his life.) It also makes me wonder what his now-teenaged kids are up to, and if he's working away at an updated look at their lives now. I'm sure he'd make that just as much fun.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Every so often a reader needs to take on a masterpiece. You can only bump along with decent or pretty good books for so long: once in a while you need to open the floodgates wide and let a writer at the full tide of his powers wash over you.

And so I came back to White Noise in the summer of 2017, twenty years or so after I read it the first time. White Noise was more than a decade old then, and it's more than thirty now -- I read a semi-fancy "25th Anniversary Edition," with French flaps and evocative cover art from cartoonist Michael Cho.  (When I have a choice, I take the edition with work by a cartoonist; I like to encourage them.)

There are things that date the novel: the central section is partially a portrait of misleading, confusing information that comes in dribs and drabs, to people disconnected from their usual media, and how new stories spread by word of mouth. Our modern media landscape is much quicker and more ubiquitous -- though just as misleading, just as confusing, and just as prone to have people latch on to the detail that resonates with them. So the how is not quite the way it would happen today. But the what is still perfectly true and resonant.

I found that to be true of White Noise throughout: it's a novel of great sentences, fine paragraphs, excellent scenes, and lurking icebergs of meaning that float in the text, daring the reader to dive down and investigate them. It's a novel of fear, most of all: existential fear, immediate fear, quiet long-term fear, both sudden panic and the fear that always lurks in the back of your mind.

What's it about? DeLillo shows us one year in the life of Jack Gladney, chair of the Hitler Studies department at the College-on-the-Hill, and his blended family. One year of regular, ordinary life, with kids of various ages and problems and concerns. And the Airborne Toxic Event in the middle of that year, the quintessential lit-fic Outside Context Problem that shakes up those lives and leaves Jack and his family to grapple with who they are and where they fit in the world in its aftermath.

Hitler Studies is both a DeLillo joke and DeLillo being coldly earnest -- it's a shocking phrase, and the way Gladney teaches it, from the glances we see, is also unsettling. But it's part of DeLillo's overall critique of modern life's conflation of medium and message. White Noise is not an exercise in Hitler Studies itself. But the fact that its protagonist invented that field is deeply important: several characters note that Gladney, especially outside his usual college environment, is an insignificant man by nature, one who found something to make him more important, more dangerous, than he really is.

I'm not going to explicate White Noise here. It is a masterpiece, a major book by a major American writer -- probably DeLillo's best. (I haven't re-read Libra in as long; that's the other main contender.) If you haven't read it, you should. It's about modernity in similar ways to good science fiction novels of the same era, critiquing a somewhat different set of ideas and mores than the cyberpunks but working to parallel ends. And, again: you can only spend so much time drinking small beer; the true firewater will show you things you didn't realize before.

(In case anyone tries to draw a conclusion I didn't mean from that last paragraph, let me note that my last dose of the true firewater was Kelly Link's Get In Trouble. Masterpieces are found everywhere, from all kinds of writers.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Early Stories: 1977-1988 by Rick Geary

It's a cliche that creators resent their fans who like best the "early funny ones," but I have to be that guy for just a second. Rick Geary has had a wonderful career: he has a quirky but devastatingly precise line and has made several dozen excellent graphic novels about historical murders over the last couple of decades. (Plus a number of other things.)

But he started out even quirkier, and I might like that ultra-quirky Geary even better than the meticulous, methodical, organized chronicler of mayhem. For about the first decade of Geary's career -- say, the period covered by Rick Geary Early Stories: 1977-1988 -- a Geary comics page was as likely to be a collection of lovingly-detailed kitchen appliances as anything else. Or a carefully-drawn collection of vignettes from oddly-named motels from around the country. Or a series of unexplained and possibly supernatural events, narrated dryly and matter-of-factly, as if it was just another day.

Geary nailed a deadpan affect from the beginning, and that, plus his almost-immediately strong drawing abilities made these slices of bizarre life unique in the cartoon world of the late '70s. You might not have entirely understood an early Geary story, but it was compelling and memorable and unlike anyone else.

Those stories were collected other places over the years, most notably the Geary collections Housebound and At Home with Rick Geary. Both of those are long out of print, so it's wonderful to see Early Stories gather eighty pages of prime high Geary weirdness into one place. You're not going to find this book easily, though -- it may turn up in a comic shop or independent bookstore or two, but the only dependable way to find it is to buy it directly from the author.

And I do recommend that you do that, if you have any inclination towards odd, off-the-wall stories told matter-of-factly in comics form. Early Geary practically invented that style, and remains its undisputed master.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Paul Up North by Michel Rabagliati

Of course Paul Riforati is not Michel Rabagliati -- he has a different name, see?

But Rabagliati has now given us about 1200 pages of comics -- not all of which have made it into the English language, true -- about Riforati and his life. They may all be completely fictional: Paul may just be someone born at about the same time as Rabagliati, living in the same places, having the same jobs, with all of the emotional and story content entirely unconnected to Rabagliati's life.

Sure. That's plausible, isn't it?

We don't know Rabagliati personally. We almost never know a creator personally. So he could have made it all up.

But I don't think so. What a creator does is not so much "create," which implies making something out of whole cloth, but transforming. And the Paul stories are one of the finest examples of life transformed into art that the modern world has to offer.

Paul Up North is the sixth book about Paul to be translated into English, according to Rabagliati's bibliography. (If I'm tracking it correctly, there's two full books and some shorter stuff -- Paul dans le metro and Paul au parc -- that haven't made it to my language.) We've previously seen Paul Has a Summer Job, when he was 17, Paul Moves Out, covering a year or two on each side of 20, Paul Goes Fishing, which combines a frame story of Paul at 30 with an embedded story of him at 15, The Song of Roland, less focused on Paul himself but finding him in his thirties, and Paul Joins the Scouts, when he was 9 and 10.

Up North falls right in the middle of the previous books, covering roughly a year between the runaway in Goes Fishing and the highschool dropout in Summer Job. This book doesn't bounce around in time like some of the others do: it's told in order, seeing Paul start to grow up and separate from his family. He gets a new best friend, a first girlfriend, a mode of transportation all his own, and a place away from his parents where he can be his new self. He also spends a lot of time with his uninhibited uncle, who gives him other chances to be someone different than the sullen teen his parents are becoming all-too-familiar with.

It's a stage of life that everyone has to go through. Some do it earlier, some later. Some fly on their own, some are shoved out with force and have to make it however they can. Paul was lucky: he had a loving family and a stable society, and lived in a time when he could hitchhike a few hundred miles north without too much trouble. So, though there's sadness here -- adolescence is always fraught, and remaking yourself doesn't always take -- it's, in the end, a positive story of a boy making the steps that will help turn him into a man.

As always, Rabagliati tells the story with quiet confidence and control. His people still have that appealing UPA-ish look, simplified just enough to be universal, and his backgrounds are somewhat more realistic but still take that slight turn into cartoony abstraction. He's a great chronicler of his own life -- or, I should say, of this life that we assume is parallel to his own.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/2

If you're an American, today is a holiday that you try not to think too much about, because we're deeply schizophrenic about it. (It should be a holiday to celebrate organized labor, but the US is too far to the right to be comfortable with anything as leftist-sounding as that.) If you're not an American, you probably had a Labour Day a few months ago, and might even be making an "Americans, late and confused as usual" joke in your heads.

You may have a point.

Anyway, what's important is that today is a Monday, and every Monday morning I put up a post to list the books that came in my mail last week. Once upon a time, when I was responsive to publicists and just recently out of fiction publishing myself and blogging was actually a viable way to drive publicity, those books came in a steady stream. Nowadays, when none of those above things are true, I'm surprised I get any.

And last week, being the end of summer -- a quiet time in any industry, and doubly so in publishing --was a bad bet for free books to begin with.

So this week I got nuttin' for youse (he said in his best Joisy accent). Try back next time. Or go back to yesterday, when I probably* posted a list of books I bought this week. And think about organized labor today, if you are American.

*Probably, because it's what I'm intending to do next. So it's in the past to you now, but the future to me as I write this, and there's a chance it won't happen....

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Incoming Books: August 31

I was on vacation this past week, and that generally means I get some book-shopping in. Traditionally, my family has a trip to Hershey Park this last week of August -- it's usually still hot, and Pennsylvania schools are back in session, which makes it perfect -- and I've tacked on a trip to the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg a few of those years, since what is travel but an excuse to hit some bookstores?

Unfortunately, my older son's college schedule has limited our travel options for the past two years, meaning I've had to miss Midtown Scholar. And this year was rainy and cold, meaning we did the open rides (most of them, actually!) really quickly but weren't able to spend any time in the water section that takes up a third of the park. So sometimes the luck does not work out.

It also meant I needed to go to a different bookstore if I wanted to get a shopping trip in this week. I did, and so I did: Montclair Book Center, the indy where I've spent the most time over the years. And these were the books I found on this past Thursday:

Doctor Sleep by Madison Smartt Bell -- I had this 1991 novel on my list of "books to look for" for ages, though I may have removed it at some point. I'm pretty sure I've never read anything by Bell. But this is a literary thriller with possible genre elements, so what the heck.

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin -- a semi-famous travel book. I think I acquire more travel books than I actually read, but that's true for pretty much any genre I could mention. Chatwin is someone else I've never read.

Around the World in 80 Cliches by Laura Lee -- it was a small, gift-y book on the "words and language" shelf, and looks like a fine addition to my small stack of books for the smallest room in the house. (For some reason, the covers online are the usual proportions, but the book itself I have is shorter and squatter.)

Nutshell by Ian McEwan -- I've fallen behind on his books a bit, but McEwan is intermittently a great writer and always a good one. This is his retelling of Hamlet among the London borgeoisie, narrated by a fetus -- it sounds just weird enough for me.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakai -- his new short-story collection. From the title, my assumption is that these stories will tend towards the literary rather than the fantastical, but you know what they say about assumptions....

The Rising by Ian Tregillis -- the second book in Tregillis's "Alchemy Wars" series, after The Mechanical. Tregillis is a real talent, and I think I'm already another book behind on this series.

Love in the Time of Fridges by Tim Scott -- this looked weird and interesting; it was from that era when Bantam Spectra was publishing basically literary SF/Fantasy into the genre to see if people would bite. (I think the answer ended up to be: no, not enough to make it viable. But that's the fate of most good books anyway.)

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux -- I'm slowly finishing off Theroux's travel books, and this is one of the ones I haven't read yet. (Well, I think I haven't read it -- I know I didn't have a copy.)

Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve by Boulet -- Boulet is a Parisian cartoonist, and I don't think much of his work is available in English. But he does have an online diary comic which has (recently?) started to be translated, and which I've been enjoying a lot lately. This is the first English-language collection of that comic, which strips from 2004-05.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons -- You might have heard of this one. I haven't read it in a number of years, and I haven't replaced my copy since my flood in '11. So now I have it in case the mood strikes.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Read in August

Here we go again! These are the books I read last month, and they should very soon all have links to posts about those books, if you're interested in what they are and/or what I thought about them. (I should warn you that I can get pretty opinionated, and that you shouldn't necessarily assume I'm entirely correct.)

Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others, Hawkeye, Vol. 4: Rio Bravo (8/2)

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (8/4)

Michel Rabagliati, Paul Up North (8/8)

Rick Geary, Early Stories: 1977-1988 (8/9)

Don DeLillo, White Noise (8/11) 

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist, Volume 2 (8/15)

Rick Geary, Black Dahlia (8/16)

Pamela Wharton Blanpied, Dragons: The Modern Infestation (8/17)

Joey Green, Contrary to Popular Belief (8/21)

Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran, Troll Bridge (8/22)

Martha Wells, All Systems Red (8/22)

Shannon Wheeler, I Told You So (8/23)

And that's what I read in the not-nearly-as-hot-as-I-feel-like-it-used-to-be-in-years-gone-by August. Since I wrote most of those posts at the very end of the month (and even more, so, during the long Labor Day weekend immediately following), they will flow out over the course of most of September. Eventually, the above list will be filled with links. For now, though, you'll have to imagine what I've said about those books.

Next month I'll be back with more books. I expect it won't be as many as I wish I read, but that's life.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/26

Another week has passed, so at least we've got that behind us. Ahead is only more of the same. But we're thinking apes -- at least, I understand the vast majority of my readership to be apes, and not more esoteric intelligences -- so we can flee from the too-often horrible real world into constructed ones.

Some of those constructed worlds exist in books: non-fiction as well as fiction, since no book precisely depicts the while world in its complexity. And, as it happens, I tend to get books in the mail, sent semi-mysteriously by their publishers, so that I'll give them some visibility and help people like you find and read and love them.

So this week I have two books -- one has a single constructed world, and the other a myriad. It makes sense to go in that order, doesn't it?

Sage Walker's new novel The Man in the Tree shares its title with an obscure Damon Knight book from 1984, but that may be coincidence: the Knight was a Bildungsroman about a giant-child with Christ-like powers in contemporary America. Walker is doing something very different here: her Man in the Tree is Incident Analyst Helt Borresen, the closest thing to a cop on the generation starship Kybele, the only hope for humanity after Earth was trashed. And, of course, if there's a fictional setting without a real cop, you know there's going to be a suspicious dead body showing up that he has to investigate. And so there is. This one is a Tor hardcover, coming September 12.

There are nineteen stories in The New Voices of Fantasy -- nineteen entirely separate fictional worlds to lose yourself in -- which is a bargain. This is a reprint anthology, containing stories from 2012 through 2016, by (as the title implies) newer writers, selected and edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. Some of the authors included are Ursula Vernon, Sofia Samatar, Amal El-Mohtar, Sarah Pinsker. E.  Lily Yu, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Max Gladstone. (And, yes, if you've been away for a while, Fantasy has gotten more multi-cultural, which is entirely a good thing.) You can get this book from Tachyon Press -- well, more likely from an intermediary -- and it was released on August 22nd, so you can get it right away.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/19

Hey guys! If I had gotten any books in the mail last week, I'd write about them here.

I didn't, so I can't.

This is totally fine, since I'm deep into fiddling around with Mod Organizer, and mildly resent time spent doing anything more constructive. My current hobby/obsession is playing and modding Bethesda games, and there are so many mod managers to learn and play with that I'm currently hugely busy doing absolutely nothing at all useful or meaningful. (Not even playing games, but organizing add-ons to games and fiddling with metadata and settings -- that's the kind of thing I enjoy, for whatever reasons.)

I mean, this will pass, eventually, and maybe the next thing will be a bit more social or constructive -- but this is fine for now.

(If you have no idea at all what I'm talking about in the last two paragraphs -- it's a video-game thing. You're probably better off doing whatever your time-wasting hobby is. Odds are it's more active or at least gets you out into the fresh air every so often.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/12

I have my limits. I do try to be as honest as possible about the books that come in my mail -- to present them as positively as I can, even when some of them are very much not my kind of book (since you are not me, and may well like different things), and find the right covers and a link or two for more details.

But when even a book's publisher has the wrong cover on their webpage for the book...well, some things I can't fix by myself.

This week I have one book to tell you about: Melanie Rawn's Playing to the Gods. That image over there to the left is not the real cover for it. Oh, the art is correct, and the title and author's name have the right words and are spelled correctly. But the type and design is quite different on the final book -- which I am right now holding in my hand -- and the blurb is both different and at the opposite end of the cover.

Well, the words inside are the same, right? And we all claim not to care about covers, since we're smart rational people who are never affected by marketing -- marketing somehow became a gigantic industry despite the fact that it never once got anyone to do anything. Sure.

Playing to the Gods is the fifth and last in Rawn's "Glass Thorns" series, about a theatrical troupe in an epic-fantasy world. I may be confused, but I believe our heroes do not save the world in this volume, nor have they saved the world in any of the previous books. They've saved themselves, I'm sure, and probably others. This time it looks like they may need to save the kingdom. But I continue to hold out hope that there can be secondary-world fantasies without Dark Lords, and my firm belief is that this series is among that august company. If you also appreciate worlds that do not need to be saved every second Thursday, the first book in this series is Touchstone -- start there.

This is a hardcover from Tor, hitting stores August 29. Go look for it, and you can see the real cover.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Quotes of the Week

One from the beginning, one from the end:

"The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on on fire. We finished our lunch in silence." (p.8)

"'Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for health, long life.'" (p.304)

Both from White Noise by Don DeLillo

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

I had a mental image of this book that wasn't really correct. You might have it, too.

The standard blurb for The Road to Wigan Pier goes something like this: "In 1937, the Left Book Club sent jobbing Socialist writer George Orwell to investigate the plight of unemployed miners in the North of England. He wrote movingly about their suffering, and the lives of their families and their fellows who are still working." That's not entirely untrue, but it only partially describes the first half of this short book.

In the first hundred pages of Wigan Pier, Orwell visits a few mines and a few miner's homes, giving us some specific reportorial details. But he spends as much time with statistics and theory, explaining why the miner's lives are so horrible and how only The March Of International Socialism can save them. The second hundred pages see Orwell grappling with the inconvenient problem that Socialism was a third-rate political movement in England in 1937, populated mostly by cranks and monomaniacs and weirdos. (Not "decent normal people," his tedious refrain, with himself as the type specimen.) It also sees him spend several chapters describing in tedious detail his own specific set of class-prejudices, and extrapolating outward to assume he can diagnose the prejudices of all the "decent normal people."

(Note that "people" here, and throughout Wigan Pier, clearly means "men." One of the categories of people who are not "decent normal people" is feminists. One frankly starts to assume "decent normal people" is code for "middle-class Tory men," and wonders if politics were different enough eighty years ago that Orwell actually believed his beloved Socialists had a chance.)

The big problem with a book of political agitprop, of course, is that it dates quickly. And Wigan Pier has had eighty years to date. The central battle of the 20th century did not turn out to be Fascism vs. Socialism: Fascism was burned out in one big war, though periodic smaller outbreaks have occurred since. And, not to be too nitpicky, but it wasn't Socialism that defeated the Axis powers, either. Yes, the ruins of Europe moved in a generally leftward direction after the war, but Orwell was a true believer at this point: by Socialism he meant the whole shebang, with government ownership of everything and all the middle classes having "[sunk] without further struggles into the working class where we belong." He spends a lot of time on the devil's-advocate side of both Socialism and the then-current Depression, and frankly makes them both look dismal and horrible, like the choice between being strangled and beheaded.

Wigan Pier is additionally very clearly a book from before the Western Left realized what Stalin really was; The USSR is barely mentioned, except for Orwell to complain that his stereotyped Socialist cranks spend too much time singing paeans to Five-Year Plans and new tractor factories and the glory of Russian industry. This is not a view of Socialism that includes gulags or the Great Terror, which incidentally had been going on for the past several years at this point but still could be ignored by true believers. Socialism, in Orwell's conception, is the one true ideology which can save mankind from itself, and nothing can be allowed to halt it, and calling it that rather than Communism is primarily a matter of public relations, not of serious differences.

Luckily, he learned better. We all learned better, eventually. But that was all to come, in the years after Wigan Pier. This is a postcard from a vanished time, when Fascism seemed more transnational, and the spectre of an English Fascism standing up, taking over, and working hand-in-hand with Hitler was real and frightening. That fact that wasn't what actually happened doesn't mean it wasn't possible, and it's impossible to ever give real percentages on historical events -- well, until we get the cross-time machine working, and we can do some field research to work up the real numbers.

But, still, the spectre of English Fascism in 1937 is a creaky, anachronistic thing to read a long screed against, and Wigan Pier is more than 50% screed by volume. I can't exactly recommend it to most readers in the early 21st century, in particular anyone who suspects they would not be included in Orwell's phalanx of "decent normal people." But, then, as an American, he wasn't talking to me anyway.

Oh, one last note. There is no pier in Wigan. Orwell says it was torn down years before he got there, and never actually says why the pier would be important to a book about coal miners, or Socialism, or impending class doom. So the title is just as satisfying as the rest of the book.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 4: Rio Bravo by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others

Not to give it all away up front, but I don't think this all adds up to even as much as the sum of its parts. Sure, the Fraction/Aja run on Hawkeye of a few years back was visually stylish, character-focused, and felt more adult than the usual run of superhero comics -- but, at the end of those twenty-two issues, what had actually happened, and what did it mean?

Well, spoiler alert! But the answers to those questions are "two people named Hawkeye punched a lot of people, and broke a bunch of other stuff along the way" and "we got twenty-two superhero comics."

Nothing ends in Rio Bravo. There's a really big fight with the Tracksuit Draculas at the end, which actually leads to some or all of them being bundled off by the police. But let's be honest: the footsoldiers will be bailed out or easily replaced. And the ringleader, as we discovered in this volume, legally owns the damn building. The central lesson of this Hawkeye series is that Clint Barton is a bad person who makes bad choices: he got several people killed, and caused millions of dollars in property damage over a multi-month period, for absolutely no reason. The other tenants in that building will be evicted, eventually, and the big shiny new development will go up. The only real question is how many of them will be killed, injured, or traumatized along the way by Barton playing Avenger with their lives and homes.

You can tell stories about people in spangly costumes punching things, and having that make the world better -- those are classic superhero comics. And you can tell stories about people in moody costumes punching things, and having them just barely keep the world from getting even worse -- those are gritty superhero comics. And you can tell stories about people in regular clothes punching and shooting things, and having that make the world at least marginally better -- those are a kind of crime stories, in comics or out of it.

But if your story is about people who are supposed to be superheroes punching things for twenty-two issues, and they've only made things worse (for those dead innocents, for one), what you have is a mess. The Fraction/Aja Hawkeye is a mess.

Now, it's probably not their mess: corporate comics have to dance to the tune the piper plays, and Marvel in particular has been a very changeable and off-tune piper these last few years. But that doesn't matter to the book: even if it's not their fault, it's an essential flaw in the product we have here. The four volumes of this Hawkeye run are not a story, or even really a collection of stories. They're just pretty vignettes about a few months when Barton pretended to be Robin Hood for a while, and screwed up the lives of a whole bunch of people.

We also get a very dramatic, lots-of-panels-on-the-page scene, in which the assembled silly-looking gangsters of the Marvel Universe solemnly swear that they're going to break with protocol and actually kill someone! (Well, actually kill a superhero, which I gather they don't do normally because ah ahem well actually Comics Code um would you look at that thing behind you!)

This is a stupid scene for several reasons, one of which I've just alluded to: good stories don't call attention to their silly premises. Another reason is that there have been a couple of nearly identical scenes throughout this run, with some subset of the Legion of Silly Villain Hats declaring that This Time, The Hawkeyes Have Gone Too Far, And So This Means War! They've already said they want to kill the Hawkeyes; they've just failed to actually do it.

(Yes, there is one Very Significant Person in this last version. Anyone who didn't realize this Shocking Revelation about this person some time ago is either very innocent or very stupid.)

So, here's the thing: the Fraction/Aja run of Hawkeye had a lot of great issues. Frankly, each one is pretty damn good: tense and taut and full of nifty smart page designs and smart human dialogue. Reading this on a monthly basis would have been really impressive. But it's years later now, and we need to compare the Fraction/Aja run with similar street-level stories that it will sit next to on a bookshelf: the O'Neil/Adams "Hard-Traveling Heroes" run, for example, or Miller/Mazzuchelli on Daredevil: Born Again or Batman: Year One. And Hawkeye falls flat by comparison: it doesn't go anywhere or solve anything. It was just the Hawkeye product in the market for about two years. Yes, it was a better Hawkeye product than it needed to be. But that's only an argument that works during the run: it's pointless afterward.

I don't know if corporate comics now systematically exclude good work with a real shape -- if they are actively hostile to real stories, and not just passively a bad environment for them -- but it doesn't really matter. All you'll get there is pieces, no matter the reason. This book, and the series it was part of, is no exception, despite its real strengths. (And see my reviews of the hardcover of the first two collections and then volume three for more about those strengths.)

Monday, August 07, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/5

This week's crop of mail -- that's a horribly mixed metaphor, but let it go -- brought two books for me to tell you about. And I'll get to that, but, first, I feel the need to explain this thing I do for every Monday morning.

The way Publicity works is this: people who have an audience, in whatever media, get free stuff and/or access to help build awareness and interest for upcoming products of interest to the folks in their audience. In my case, that's you folks, and primarily books. (I do get some music as well, but am much less organized about it.) Thus I get free books in the mail, mostly unexpectedly because I'm semi-deliberately bad at this, and I write about them here every week.

First is The Castle in Cassiopeia, third in the Dead Enders series by Mike Resnick. This is somewhere in the nexus of Military SF and space opera, with a small group of tough military folks who do the impossible jobs -- in fact, this time, they're re-doing a job from the first book, since their fix didn't work out as well as they hoped. It's set somewhere in the middle of Resnick's Birthright timeline, which has been the background for most of his fiction for around forty years -- there are a couple of appendices here with a detailed timeline and notes about the universe. (And I don't need to tell you folks how much I love lists and timelines and background notes!) Cassiopeia is a trade paperback from Pyr, hitting stores on August 22.

Then there's Victor Milan's The Dinosaur Princess, third in his medieval fantasy series with every possible variety of dinosaur substituting for the more usual dragons. (Those who whine about the lack of scientific accuracy in fantasy may be interested in this series -- I'm not clear if there's anything supernatural in it at all; it looks like humans were dumped on a world with dinosaurs through super-science long ago, and now we get fighting and scheming.) This one is a Tor hardcover, and will be in stores on August 15.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Saga Volume Seven by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

Trust is a tricky thing in stories: you have to trust the person telling the story will do a good job to keep rewarding that person with your attention.

Brian K. Vaughan had my trust and hugely lost it, in his Ex Machina series with artist Tony Harris, and I've been giving each of his projects the side-eye since then, watching to see if the same thing would recur. That's probably not fair, and it might have made my posts on the earlier Saga books -- volumes one, two, three, four, five, and six -- less useful than they could be.

But there's an essential tension in a standalone, ongoing comic book: is this one story, or is it a series of stories? Most comics tell several stories in a row: sometimes simply, with a story in each issue, and sometimes complexly, across dozens of issues of dozens of titles for two months to then abruptly stop and pick back up with the next big crossover. But Spider-Man or JLA or Marvel as a whole is not a story -- they're walls made up of separate but interconnected stories.

Saga, though, has always presented itself as a story. A story told by a grown-up Hazel, some time in the future, which presumably explains how she can tell us things that happened in secret far away to other people. A story with a single through-line: how this family got through a galactic war and (we hope) found peace. So we're expecting more than just twenty-some pages of action each month; it all has to add up to the story of this family.

And the longer a story goes on, the bigger the ending has to be to suit it. (Ask George R.R. Martin.) With the issues collected in this Volume Seven, Saga is now forty-two issues long -- that might be half of the whole, or more, or less. We don't know. The debt of that ending is continuing to grow, and will grow until we get to it.

Is it a good sign or a bad one that this volume collects a complete arc, with a definitive shape? (Does that make it a story, or a chapter?) This is some of the strongest work in Saga since the beginning, as if Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples cracked their knuckles and said "OK, we got the family back together -- now it's time to fuck shit up." That's a good sign, whichever way you fall on the story question.

In the end, I think I land on a slightly different set of questions: is Saga still compelling? is it still moving in the same direction? does it seem to have not just a vector but real velocity on its path? are these people still real and true to themselves?

And, from these issues -- or this chapter, or this Volume Seven, call it what you will -- the answer to all of those questions is still yes. So I'm still on board, though I would like to have a sense of how big the story will be overall. All stories have to end, even the good ones. Even this one. Stories that don't end aren't stories, they're just things that happened.

And I want Saga to be a story. It has the potential to be a great one.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea

Wait. I thought Hellboy was dead? I mean, yes, he died and went to hell, but I also thought that series ended and Mignola was going to rest the character -- at least for a while, maybe for good. So what is this small hardcover that came out in the spring?

Mignola doesn't explain the discrepancy, but I guess he doesn't have to: he can write stories about his characters whenever he wants to and however he wants to. And the story itself does explain where Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea slots into the series continuity -- after Strange Places, soon before Hellboy's death -- for the comics audience, which cares about that most of all.

Frankly, I suspect Silent Sea exists because Mignola wanted to see Gary Gianni draw some old sailing ships and giant demon-snakes and assorted monsters. (Not to mention Hellboy himself.) And that's OK -- a fairly large swath of comics exists because it's stuff someone wanted to draw, or someone else wanted him to draw, rather than because it's a story that needed to be told. (All of those dinosaurs and motorcycles and purple covers, all of those buckles and pouches and gigantic guns and scars that run precisely over one eye.)

Anyway, no matter why, Into the Silent Sea is a thing that exists. And, given that it's drawn by Gary Gianni, it's beautiful in its creepy horribleness. But it's also, frankly, a bit random and pointless, with Hellboy in the 19th century for some unknown reason (was Strange Places a time-travel anthology?). There he finds a sailing ship, gets tied up, is repeatedly emoted at by two distinctly different monomaniacs, befriends the requisite young boy, and eventually punches a big snakelike monster that seems to have been going away anyway.

In other words, it's a Hellboy story. The shorter ones that don't rely on particular bits of folklore have been tending more and more to type for the past decade or so, and Silent Sea could serve as template for the Standard Hellboy Standalone Story.
  • No Recurring Characters? Check
  • Guest Artist? Check
  • Giant Monster Hellboy Gets to Punch? Check
  • Monster Is Not Actually Defeated? Check
  • Lunatics Meddling Where Man Should Not Go? Check
  • Eerie Ending Returning Hellboy Whence He Came? Check
Look, this is just fine as a Hellboy story. And the Gianni art is, again, very impressive. But none of this means anything. And -- not that Mignola listens to me -- I'd suggest that future one-off Hellboy stories should focus more on actual folklore than throwaway bits of Mignola's Lovecraft cosmology. The mythos stuff works best if it's related to the main story, and the main story is now over -- so that's no longer an option.

This is a nice minor Hellboy story, but we already have a lot of those, and they're starting to rhyme pretty obviously.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Betty Boop by Roger Langridge and Gisele Lagace

I have no idea why someone said, in the year 2016, "Hey, what this world really needs is a Betty Boop comic book!" It seems like an odd and unlikely thing to say, even if one happened to work in licensing for an entity that happened to own the rights to Miss Boop.

But it must have happened, because that comic book did come out, in four issues, and they were duly collected under the simple and obvious title Betty Boop. (Because, even if this isn't the first Boop comic ever in the history of the world -- though it may well be, for all I know -- there's no possibility of confusion in the marketplace with all of the other Boop collections.)

Luckily, whoever the person who had the brain-spasm in re Betty had the good sense to hire Roger Langridge to write the Boop comic. Langridge has previously translated musical comedy into comics both in his own works (The Show Must Go On, for example) and licensed properties like The Muppets. Since I can't think of anyone else who has even attempted musical comedy in comics form -- most people think not being able to hear the music is an insuperable obstacle, which has never stopped Langridge -- he was clearly the best and only choice for the job. The fact that he also has a love for old bits of popular culture, particularly cartoons and comics (see his work on Popeye for another example) is only lagniappe.

There may be people out there who can speak learnedly to the Boop milieu -- who will know precisely how canonical her job as a waitress at the Oop-a-Doop club is; when her friends/co-workers Bimbo, Sal, and Koko the Clown first appeared; her tangled relationships with boss Mister Finkle and bandleader Scat Skellington and villain Lenny Lizardlips and her Grampy; what tunes the songs in this book are to be sung to and any relationship those songs have with the historical Betty Boop. I am not one of those people. So I'll point and say that all that stuff is in this book.

(By the way, the cover is actually a variant from issue 1 by Howard Chaykin and doesn't quite look like the Gisele Lagace art inside. It also implies a relationship between Betty and Koko that in no way appears in the book.)

I know Lagace's work mostly from her sexy webcomic Menage a 3, but others may have seen the work she's done in comics (for Archie properties mostly, I think). Either way, she has a known expertise for drawing attractive girls, but she's also just fine with the cartoonier aspects of Betty's world -- and, since this is a Depression-Era world, there's a lot of cartoony elements. She also manages to keep Betty's ridiculously oversized head look reasonable and consistent, possibly through secret black arts.

Again, I have no idea why anyone thought a Betty Boop comic would be a good idea, or if this one made more than ten cents total. But it's a lot of fun, in a not-entirely retro style, and it has the feeling of those bouncing, singing old black-and-white cartoons on the page. It's a massive success at something weird and unlikely and quirky, which is the kind of thing I like to celebrate.