Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #324: Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk

When I snagged this book from the library a few weeks ago, I had a snarky comment about "I don't think it's about a group of teen girls who decide to build the perfect best friend in science lab, but it would be awesome if it was." Well, guess what: I was more right than I expected, and Making Friends is more fantastic than I thought.

(Yes, "fantastic" can be taken two ways: either one works here.)

It's not a group of girls, but one: Dany. She's in seventh grade, early in the year, and is finding the transition to middle school tougher than she expected. Her old friends have a completely different schedule, and making new friends is not working like she hoped.

But she has a sketchbook from her recently deceased Great-Aunt
Elma. And when she draws in that sketchbook, what she draws appears in the real world.

That obviously makes more sense than my confused snark: who needs to make a friend the most? Not people who already have them. Someone who feels all alone, overwhelmed in a new place and wishes things would go back to the way they used to be.

So Dany draws Madison Fontaine, who will be her best friend, does all of the things she wishes she could (quick with a retort, expert at hair and makeup, cool and fun and comfortable with herself). Madison just moved from NYC, and will be in all of Dany's classes.

(Before that, before she knew what the notebook could do, Dany sketched the head of Sailor Moon Solar Sisters villain Prince Neptune, and so she also secretly has a manipulative, sneaky superpowered head lurking in her backpack and calling her Princess. Let's not forget about him, giving Dany advice that sounds good but will only turn her into another cruel bully.)

At first, Madison is perfect: she is Dany's best friend, and having her around helps Dany fit in better at school. But Madison starts to wonder about the things she can't remember -- surely she must have parents somewhere, and isn't supposed to stay at Dany's house forever, right?

Making Friends doesn't belabor the lesson. But Dany does learn that doing things the easy way isn't always right. Oh, and she also learns to turn her friends into a Solar Sisters team to stop a supervillain intent on destroying the school and conquering the world (in that order, obviously).

Kristen Gudnsuk has the same kind of sly humor and love for semi-cheesy media tropes here that made her supervillain story Henchgirl so much fun. In Making Friends, it's pitched at a younger audience, and she's pulled back on some of the random goofiness of the world (which I kinda miss, actually -- I found it a distinctive Gudsnukian [1] touch in Henchgirl) -- but it feels like the same kind of story, and Dany could grow up into a henchgirl herself, if things went really badly for her.

Luckily, things do not go really badly for her, though it looks dark a few times.

Making Friends is another one of those books designed and marketed right at an audience of middle-school girls. But, as I find myself saying a lot these days, that doesn't mean the rest of us need to ignore it -- and we shouldn't.

[1] I want to live in a world where Gudsnukian becomes a commonly used adjective for certain kinds of comics. And it could happen!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #323: Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez

I spend more time than is reasonable worrying if I'm doing things right. Even worse, often what I mean by "right" is "fitting the rules I made up myself, which I haven't bothered to clearly codify."

Obviously, a healthy person would not spend time on anything like that, but I am a blogger, and so clearly not that healthy.

So my first question after reading Gilbert Hernandez's standalone 2013 graphic novel Julio's Day was whether it really counts as Love and Rockets. Oh, sure, two excerpts from it appeared first in the New Stories paperback series, but most of this story didn't, and it has no connections with any of his other L&R work. (On the other side of the argument: a lot of his L&R work has no connection to the rest of his L&R work; he's been more likely to go off on tangents than his brother Jaime.)

Since I'm writing this here now, you've probably already assumed that I decided it counted. And I did. But I had to worry the issue for a while first.

The next big question is whether it's way too reductive to call Julio's Day the story of the hundred-year-life of a completely closeted Mexican gay man. And that's a nice label, but it doesn't reflect what the book is actually about. Julio himself isn't really all that central to his own story to begin with: he's pretty colorless for a Gilbert Hernandez protagonist, overshadowed his entire life by the more vibrant members of his family.

As usual for Hernandez, "vibrant" is not at all the same thing as "positive." Julio's uncle Juan is one of the most distinctive characters here, and he's a deeply damaged person, compelling to sneak away with baby boys and do unspecified things with them. The rest of Julio's family, and the few others they interact with, are quirky in similar Gilbert Hernandez ways, but Julio himself remains transparent, the void at the center of his own story.

Like Palomar, this town is somewhere in Latin America. Also like Palomar, Hernandez will not be any more specific than that. Julio's life matches pretty closely to the twentieth century, from small bits of internal evidence, but that's all background: Julio is not involved in any great issues, and barely any small issues. He just lives here, for a long time, while other things happen around him, mostly far away.

There's a hundred pages of incidents and no real overall plot: this is a story of episodes, moments over a hundred years when Julio was there to witness them. (Or was somewhere else: the two pieces published in L&R follow other members of his family on journeys, first his father and then his grand-nephew.)

In typical Hernandez fashion, there are bizarre, horrifying diseases and deaths, and many random, mostly unhappy events -- a long life in a Gilbert Hernandez story is a sequence of sad and shocking moments, ended only by death.

The title is ironic at best, as well: not only is this the story of a hundred years, not a single day, but Julio never really had a day, either literally or metaphorically. His grand-nephew poses that question to him near the end, and that's the source for the title -- but Julio was never in the right time or place to seize that day, and maybe was never the person who could have seized that day.

Does that make Julio's Day a cautionary tale? It's not focused enough for that, and I think Hernandez would deny that impulse -- he's never been one to make a single lesson with a story. Gilbert Hernandez stories aim for the complexity and confusion of real life: too many things happening to too many people to turn it into a single narrative, and all of the lessons possible in there somewhere.

And I suspect Julio's Day is the kind of book that rewards multiple readings, to trace the connections, personal and visual, over this long century, from the moment Julio opens his mouth to be born until the moment his mouth hangs open in death.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/17

Another week, another single book from the library -- honestly, I really don't plan it that way. I regularly request half a dozen or so books from the library; it just takes 3-4 weeks (or longer) for them to all trickle in. And right now I'm carefully planning the end of the year, so I can read as much as possible of what's on my shelves, still have posts to write everyday, and end Book-A-Day the way I want to.

But here's what I got this week: some comics I haven't read in about thirty years.

Justice League International, Vol. 1 collects the first seven issues of the 1987 series written by Keith Gifdfen and J.M. DeMatteis and drawn by Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon. As I recall, it wasn't in bwah-ha-ha funny mode to begin with; it started out to be a serious reboot of the JLA but Giffen and DeMatteis realized, bit by bit, that these characters, in their hands, wanted to be funny and just went with it. I'll see if that memory was correct.

The book I have is a nice hardcover, published in 2008. Looks like this reprint series continued to a sixth volume, which seems to be the point where the book fissioned into Justice League America and Justice League Europe -- both went on for a few years after that, but I don't think those are reprinted. (There's also the inevitable Omnibus, but it's "only" a thousand pages, so at best it has everything in the smaller Vols. 1-6 and still nothing later.)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #322: The Martian Confederacy, Vol. 2: From Mars With Love by Jason McNamara & Paige Braddock

I read the first volume of Martian Confederacy nine years ago, around the time it came out, but clearly didn't love it enough to jump into the second book any time quickly.

But time wounds all heels, and, during a business trip recently, I remembered that I had The Martian Confederacy, Vol. 2: From Mars With Love on a device, and so read it to keep the Book-A-Day streak going. (If you think that "streak" is filled with the book equivalent of a lot of bloop singles, well, you're not wrong.) As with the first book, it's written by Jason McNamara and drawn by Paige Braddock, and both of them will probably be very surprised to see this post pop up if they have the usual Google ego-searches active. (I'm sure they've done plenty of other stuff since this, and I like to believe that everyone gets better, too.)

Martian Confederacy has a veneer of seriousness and drama, but it's a loose, ramshackle construction that fights against that seriousness every step of the way. (I called it "the Dukes of Hazard on Mars" the first time around, and I stand by that.)

As the cover gives away, central this time is a love story between our somewhat lunkish (but good-hearted) hero Boone and Lou, his android roommate (platonically, up to this point). They set off to investigate the abduction of the children of a friend of Lou's -- there's a big hole in the side of their trailer and everything -- and end up being shanghaied by the Alcalde into investigating a wider problem, and breaking his rules to get off the planet and find the culprits.

You see -- and you'll want to be sitting down for this -- there's a planet-wide child theft ring, which nobody has heard about for some reason, and the Alcalde (corrupt, the only law/government on the entire planet, no apparent thugs to actually enforce his edicts but he acts like someone will do what he decrees) tells Boone and Lou that they need to solve the problem before he (the Alcalde) comes back from his honeymoon. Oh, and they're specifically ordered not to leave the planet, though the instant they start to think it about, it's clear the kids were all kidnapped to somewhere other than Mars.

That's how From Mars, With Love is the whole way: superficially plausible as long as you don't think about anything for even a second, and full of very durable cliches mixed with random oddities. (The Alcalde's new wife is two women, connected upside-down at the torso, and they flip around semi-randomly, taking over the personality and activity of the single person they seem to be legally.) The universe is pretty crapsack -- slavery (at least of non-human sentients) is legal, kidnapping kids is pretty common, and everything is pretty beat-up and junky. And the plot is the usual combination of fighting and let-me-tell-you-what's-really-happening, with the kind of ending you'd expect from a story like this.

I have a feeling the creators took it a bit more seriously than I did, but that's OK: you should commit to the things you're doing. As far as I can tell, this is where the series ended -- two collections of outlaw medium-future adventures, sticking it to The Man on the red planet. It's unique, I'll give it that: it's definitely one of a kind.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #321: The New York Four by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Hey, remember Minx? (Don't worry, a lot of people don't.)

DC Comics launched that imprint in 2007 to great fanfare, with a raft of interesting creators (many from outside the comic-shop) world and a focus on fiction for teen girls that was unusual for comics of the modern era. It flopped in barely a year, though: that's why you might not remember it.

Other companies, before and since, have published plenty of very successful books for this audience -- I need only mention the name Raina Telgemeier. But DC didn't manage to do it: maybe because they were too locked into their usual distribution channels, maybe because "DC Comics" turned off those girls, maybe because the stars just weren't right. But it did flop.

I've covered most of the Minx books randomly here -- Re-Gifters and ClubbingThe Plain Janes and Good as Lily, Janes sequel Janes in Love, Kimmie66, Water Baby, Confessions of a Blabbermouth, and Emiko Superstar in a quick way during my Eisner-judging frenzy. But one of the Minx books I didn't manage to read at the time was The New York Four, a graphic novel about four young women, all first-year students at New York University, by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly.

But somehow, without realizing the connection, I had a publicity copy (in electronic form) of the Dark Horse book The New York Four, from 2014, which also included the aborted sequel The New York Five, which was done for Minx but never published by them. (And I mean literally not realizing; I figured it out while starting to type this.)

But now I've knocked off one more Minx: I think the only ones I haven't seen now are Burnout and Token.

The New York Four (the original graphic novel) was also, in a way, a follow-up to Local, a Brian Wood/Ryan Kelly comic about an aimless young woman from a year or so before. But this one is more obviously made for the teen set: every one of these four women has A Problem, presumably one that some segment of the target audience would relate to. (I don't think it was that mercenary, but we do have The Catfished Girl, and The Stalker, and The Sugar-Daddy Chaser, and The Outer-Borough Slut, if you want to be reductive.) The first story focuses almost exclusively on The Catfished Girl, Riley, who is also said to be a bookworm (we don't see this) from a demanding family whose older sister ran away for mysterious reasons seven years before. The other three are supporting characters in the Riley story in Four, though the slightly shorter Five is more balanced. A different structure, one that let each woman have an independent story that the others supported, might have been better, but even this structure didn't make it out into public unscathed, so I'm not really complaining.

The characterization is thoughtful but tends to be one-note -- each of the Four is mostly her issue, which is underlined by one of the organizing principles of both Four and Five: they're all taking part in an unlikely get-college-kids-to-take-high-school-exams-regularly program, which is also inexplicably well-paid, and they have to meet regularly with a psychiatrist as part of this program. It's entirely possible that Wood is basing this fictional program on something similar or identical in the real world, but it seemed incredibly bizarre and unlikely to me, a convoluted way to get his characters into reality-TV style "tell your story into the camera" moments.

Kelly's art is lush and detailed, with all of the people distinctive and real. He gives this book a lot of depth, down to body language -- look at main character Riley on the cover! can't you tell a lot about her just from that? -- and facial expressions.

But it feels like there's just too much here, and Wood ends up giving short shrift to the fact that these women are in college -- we barely see them in class, and they don't interact with other students at all. I suspect that he had a novel's worth of ideas for a novella-length story. And I can't help but compare it to the John Allison-written Giant Days, which started slightly later and was in pamphlet-format comics originally, which let it give each of its (only three) young women the spotlight in turn.

There's a lot of good in The New York Four, and it could have been better if it and Minx had been a success: I expect Wood and Kelly would have done further stories, and maybe even followed these women all the way to graduation. Oh, well. Failure is the way of the world...and that's a lesson you can also get by reading The New York Four.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #320: Everyone Is Stupid Except for Me by Peter Bagge

In the first decade of this century, Peter Bagge did a lot of cartooning for Reason magazine. (He might still do so; I don't know. As far as I know this book doesn't have a sequel, so I vaguely guess that he moved on.) It was all more-or-less topical stuff, since Reason was a topical magazine with a Libertarian slant, and eventually there was enough of it to make a book.

This is that book: Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me, collected those Reason strips (single-pagers and longer pieces) in 2009, organized into a number of thematic chapters about the general kind of thing that Bagge is complaining about there.

Now, don't get me wrong: Bagge may be a libertarian, but he's not a crank. Well, not fully. My guess is that he's lived in liberal-wonderland Seattle for so long that he had to react to that somehow, and standard conservatism came with things like god, guns, and war-mongering that he never was interested in. And Libertarianism is one of those beautiful political philosophies, like Communism, that devotees can both argue the permutations of endlessly and claim that it's never been tried in practice, so it will obviously be perfect if we would only try it.

Bagge is also not always clear about exactly what he does believe in. He's clearly annoyed by the "libertarians don't like roads" ideas, but...libertarians often do say that all activity now run by the government (fire and police protection, ensuring safe food and water, the military, social programs, and, yes, roads and infrastructure) should instead be done only by private industry. Maybe Bagge isn't that kind of libertarian, but it's a little like saying you're a Communist and then complaining when people bring up Karl Marx.

Anyway, Bagge hated the Gulf War, bans on contraception (though he was also skeeved out by reporting on swingers), modern art, Christian rock, malls, the kind of people who he finds in casinos (though, as a libertarian, he's fine with gambling being legal), Seattle's monorail project, public funding for sports stadiums, Amtrak, the war on drugs, the hard-core homeless (he calls them "bums"), and, of course, politicians, particularly the liberal ones running for President in 2008.

In general, he's against governments spending money on things, or any taxes he has to pay, or anything else that might interrupt his life or make him think about things he doesn't care about. Libertarianism tends to be a philosophy of selfishness at the best of times, but Bagge really leans into it.

He generally avoids grumpy-old-man mode in the stories here, partly because he's of the my-opinions-are-so-nuanced-it-will-take-several-pages-of-text-heavy-panels-to-explicate-them and partially because he still has a lurking tropism to want to let people kick out the jams and go crazy. (Potential topic for discussion: young punks turn into old libertarians.)

This book is very topical, and all of these topics have moved on from where they were in 2001-2008. So reading it today can be quaint -- oh, how precious that he thought that worrying about healthcare was absurd! And some of those politicians were not always completely truthful when they carefully answered reporter's questions! Oh, shock, let us all clutch our pearls.

The world has gotten vastly more stupid since this book came out. You can't blame Bagge (or libertarians) for the stupidity, though it is more-or-less his end of the political spectrum that has blown up everything in American society for no good reason and with no actual solutions.

But at least we can keep complaining about the government spending money on people we don't like!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book-A_Day 2018 #319: Ghastly Beyond Belief by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman

Every time I do a Book-A-Day run, there's at least one Bad Day. That's a day when I'm just too busy to read a book, or write about one, depending on what my rubric is that time around. Some years have more of them, some have less -- some bad days are minor, some are major. But it's impossible to avoid Bad Days entirely.

Today, I'm sorry to say, is probably my worst Bad Day in the history of this blog. I'm down in Austin, Texas for the amazing annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel. (As I write this: I'm so far ahead that you won't read it for over three weeks. But the whole point of Book-A-Day is to get it done that day.) Today is Monday. Saturday I got up at 5 AM, flew here from Newark, and then worked seven or eight hours setting up a booth. Yesterday was another twelve-hour day, finishing setup, doing normal work, and overseeing the opening reception. Today I was over in the exhibit hall at 8 AM and stayed there until it closed at 7 PM, went to a cocktail hour with a lot of other TR employees and then a dinner with just a few of them. I finally got back to my room at 11 PM, after what I count as a 15-hour day. (I might have also had a couple of whiskey sours during the cocktail hour that I'm surprised to still feel three hours later: I'm not as young as I used to be, but still young enough to keep being surprised at how not-young I am.)

When I got back here to my hotel room [1], I hadn't finished a book, and I certainly hadn't written anything. That is as close to a Platonic Bad Day as I can imagine.

Luckily, I had an out. I'd been reading Ghastly Beyond Belief -- a collection of quotes from SF and horror novels and movies that are more entertaining than good -- for a while this year in a desultory way, starting with my last business trip. Between that, and a couple of hundred words of bullshit about how busy my last few days have been (woe is me!), I could bash out a not-totally-horrible blog post by midnight and redeem myself.

How well did that work? Well, I finished Ghastly and got this far, and it's now 11:40. So I'm pretty sure I can make it, though I do need to apologize for anyone still reading for the toxic levels of self-indulgence at play here. I sincerely hope this post will never be anyone's first impression of Antick Musings -- really, I'm not usually this lousy, I promise.

(How lousy am I usually? Further deponent sayeth not.)

So: Ghastly Beyond Belief. Published in 1985 in the UK by Arrow Books. Inspired (I assume) by Bill Pronzini's masterful Gun in Cheek from 1982, the first of two amazing collections of "differently good" writing from the mystery-novel world. Collated by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman, when both were still young and grabbing for any opportunity to be in print and get paid for it.

I'm sorry to say that Ghastly is not as good as the Gun in Cheek books. I don't think that's because there is less bad writing in SF/horror -- I might be tempted to argue the opposite, actually. But Gaiman and Newman, even working in tandem, did not have the encyclopedic overview of horrible writing in their fields, the single-minded focus to gather it all and put it on the page, and the gleeful joy in calling out every last cliche that Pronzini brought to the task. Maybe that's because SF is more collegial than mystery, maybe our editors were younger than Pronzini was and thus less steeped in the culture of the bad stuff, maybe they weren't as obsessed with old lousy stories, maybe the yoking of books and movies was an unfortunate choice -- maybe your own maybes here.

Ghastly is fun, certainly. It's somewhat outdated, thirty years later, and feels less focused since it's divided in half: Gaiman apparently tackled the prose in the front half, and Newman the cinema in the back half. There are a lot of really horrible quotes in it. (Even if I think picking bad quotes from lousy horror movies is like shooting fish in a barrel: of course they're lousy!)

This book has been long out of print; it's hard to find and very expensive when you do find it. Gaiman had a fundraising thing a year or so back -- I forget, now, exactly what good cause it was for -- and this was one of a host of minor and/or old Gaiman books thrown in for the backers at whatever level. (That's how I got it, and how practically anyone reading it these days got it. If you missed that and really want to read Ghastly: sorry, but sucks to be you.)

So I guess my point is: this book that you probably can't find is fun, but not as good as you hope it is. Go read the Pronzini if you like that sort of thing, since it's easier to find and somewhat better. And know that Bad Days, however they manifest in your life, can always be overcome as long as you define the rules for "overcoming."

[1] Not to be That Guy, but my hotel is about a mile from the convention center, and I threw out my back crawling around on the floor on setup day. So I'm not just still mildly drunk and deeply tired, but in minor pain as well. Truly I am an Hemingwayesque figure, what?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #318: Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament edited by Anonymous

This book came out of a particular moment, and a particular place -- England, in the mid-80s, during one of its periodic frenzies about "offensive" material in comics form. But it's more generally applicable, to any nation that claims a heritage from an Abrahamaic religion (which includes, I' bet, 95%+ of the people reading this.)

It's a book that was created to make a point. An obvious one, for people who actually knew the truth, but Bible-thumpers are regularly ignorant of many of the horrible lessons contained in the thing they thump.

The title gives it away, of course: Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. All the murder and rape and war and human sacrifice and "take my virgin daughters instead of my male guest" that can be crammed into 68 pages, by a crew of major and semi-major names from the independent UK scene at the time. The book was edited and assembled by someone, but that person is never named -- it's some editor at Knockabout Publications at the time, but I have no idea who that is.

To be blunt, Outrageous Tales is pointedly saying the the source of a lot of people's moral compass is full of horrible lessons and shocking stories and thoroughly evil deeds, many of them very much in the name of You Know Who. (Almost as if it were a collection of legends from a savage group of desert tribes from more than a thousand years!)

So Neil Gaiman writes a long section adapting a whole bunch of the book of Judges -- one of the ones that doesn't come up much in the modern day, since it's full of horrible things and the main lesson is "do what God says or die horribly, and maybe die horribly even if you do" -- turning it into something very much like an EC Comic. Mike Matthews does the very twisted "host" art for the opening and closing sections, with other artists (including Dave McKean) doing the bits in the middle.

Other greatest hits of the Bible include an Alan Moore/Hunt Emerson take on a long list of "kill people who have fucked in this incorrect way" from Leviticus, with Emerson gleefully depicting a rapidly shrinking Israelite tribe killing their fellow tribesmen who broke each rule in turn. Kim Deitch does a straight adaptation of the book of Job, without any of the rib-nudging of many of the other stories, and it's still horrifying, since Job's is a horrifying story. Brian Bolland has Elisha cursing forty-two boys to be eaten by bears for calling him "Baldy," and Dave Gibbons turns the angels of Sodom and Gomorrah into something like aliens. (Which, in retrospect, seems to be slightly off-message.)

There are a few other stories tucked into the niches in between, but it's not a long book -- only 68 pages, as I said. And it is all pretty much the same tone: can you believe what's in this old book of laws and stories?

I can believe it, but I am the guy who won the Bible Olympics as a teen two years running. (It was a very liberal church, so this material was never an emphasis -- but what teen boy isn't fascinated with the horrible Old Testament stuff?) You may not need this book to learn this lesson. In fact, that's the real problem with Outrageous Tales: the people who most need to learn this lesson will never learn it from a book like this.

But most lessons are like that, aren't they? If they were easy, they wouldn't be real lessons.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #317: Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

I can't say that Martha Wells had as much fun writing Rogue Protocol as I did reading it. Some books look effortless but take real pain and immense effort to put together, and I have no idea what her writing method is.

But Rogue Protocol zips and zings and has at least one sentence so perfect you want to quote it immediately on every page [1], so I'd like to believe that Wells finds writing about Murderbot as fulfilling and exciting as we do reading about it.

This is the third book of "The Murderbot Diaries," following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. You'll want to read them in that order. I mean that both ways: you need to read them in that order, because each story builds on the one before, and you really should read them at your earliest opportunity. They're all short, all written in Murderbot's inimitable voice, and the first one won a Hugo for Best Novella -- if that doesn't convince you, I think there must be something wrong with you.

In All Systems Red, we learned the David Copperfield stuff: who Murderbot was and how it came to be. And that's when Murderbot first got caught up in the plots of the apparently deeply corrupt GrayCris Corporation, and was outed as the rogue SecUnit -- a construct of organic and robotic parts on a humanoform model but designed to be absolutely loyal to its owners and very good at violence, primarily in the protective sphere -- that it is. The humans Murderbot saved did their best to reward it, and so of course it ran away from them at the first opportunity.

In Artificial Condition, Murderbot returned to the scene of its origin -- the planet where there was a mass murder of humans by SecUnits, and where Murderbot hacked its governor module. What it desperately needed to know was the order of those events.

Rogue Protocol picks up soon afterward, with Murderbot once again passing through transit hubs, getting rides from generally dumber transport-ship AIs in exchange for the vast cache of media that's the only thing Murderbot claims to care about in the world. This time, it's heading to the planet Milu -- partly as part of a larger plan to get out of the Corporation Rim, the part of space it's so far spent its life, and partly to investigate the site of what be another nefarious activity of GrayCris. (Purely so that the humans it saved back in All Systems Red will fall out of the news and people will stop looking for their rogue SecUnit, of course. Murderbot insists repeatedly that it doesn't like people, doesn't have friends, and isn't doing any of this to help anyone else. Repeatedly.)

Does Murderbot get into yet another situation where it is pretending to be something that it isn't? Does it need to defend a group of squishy and all-too-often blind-to-danger humans? Does GrayCris desperately, and violently, want to bury whatever evidence is on Milu deep?

Of course. But the details, and the grumpy professionalism of Muderbot, is what makes Rogue Protocol special. Again, if you haven't read All Systems Red, go get it ASAP. As for me, a fourth book was just published....

[1] Look, I'll try some random pages:

89: That was true, and it even sounded good when I said it.

34: This was exactly the kind of contract that bond companies supply SecUnits for, the kind of contract I had done more times than I still had in my memory. But from Wilken and Gerth's conversations over the past twenty cycles, it was clear there was no bond company, no SecUnits. I tried not to take it personally.

11: The good thing about pretending to be an augmented human security consultant instead of a construct SecUnit is that you can tell the humans to shut up.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #316: Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 6 by The Hernandez Brothers

The sixth annual installment of the squarebound Love and Rockets arrived in 2013 with a massive twenty-five stories in its standard hundred pages. Seventeen of those stories were from Jaime, totaling sixty of the pages here -- the first time, I think, that he had more pages in a Love and Rockets issue than his brother Gilbert.

Both brothers are continuing the storylines from the previous volume: Gilbert with Dora "Killer" Rivera, in and out of Palomar and ending her teen-scream-queen movie career, and Jaime with The Frogmouth's teenage half-sister Tonta and her complicated family problems.

So here's what you'll find in Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 6:

On the Jaime side, Tonta is the viewpoint character most of the time. Also pretty central is Ish, that bouncer/muscle guy from the Cobia Club, who turns out to be the twin of Tonta's sister Vivian (Frogmouth). Frankly, their family gets really complicated in this book, with another, even older sister Vi (Violet?), a step-father (Al Castor) who's just gotten shot by an intruder, and a plot among the older siblings to bring their mother to justice for the presumed murder of their father (Hernan Solis) years before. And whether the dead father from eight to ten years before is the father of all of them -- Tonta, her younger sister Muneca, Vivian, Vi, and Ish -- is not entirely clear.

Frankly, it feels a bit like Jaime was making some of this up as he went along: he had Vivian kicking around the fringes of his cast for a while, decided to focus more on her and give her a wacky kid sister, and then started embellishing. Tonta might be a bit dim and totally self-absorbed, but would she really not know that she has an older brother? That that guy who she keeps seeing in a particular place is the twin brother of the sister she goes there with? That's well beyond normal obliviousness and well into brain damage.

The Tonta-and-her-family here spins through a lot of short chapters, but it's mostly the same story: one strand of what Tonta is doing (hanging out in the wood with Gretchen, another odd character with a Jaime-hottie-in-a-bikini body and an old-lady face; chasing boys badly; semi-stalking her new PE teacher, Angel Rivera) and one strand of the older siblings badly plotting to send their mother to jail for something she probably did do but that we only learn about third-hand through incredibly unreliable narrators. It all fizzles instead of snaps, which I think is Jaime's intention: he wants to show that this family has a lot of useless activity and energy; the older ones might be more directed than Tonta, but they're no smarter or organized.

All the pieces are nice: this is good character stuff, and Jaime is as always great with rapid-fire screwball dialogue. But I'm not really sure there's a there there; this feels like something he's doing to keep Love and Rockets stories going until he finally gets back and crushes our dreams from the end of the last Maggie-and-Ray story. This is still serialized comics, though: we'll have to see what it turns into when it's collected.

Gilbert's side of this book feels like a re-run, from the cover shot of Killer cosplaying her own grandmother to a surreal ultra-violent untitled story to more comics about movies and about long-dead great-grandma Maria (and particularly about the semi-lost single movie starring dead great-grandma Maria). I don't find the teen-Killer stories all that compelling: she's having a less interesting and distinctive Hollywood career than her great-aunt Fritzi did, and even that storyline wasn't all that exciting.

So this was a bit of a doldrums issue, circling things that it didn't reach, puttering around until something more impressive happens. But you get that after thirty years; it's no big deal. There will be more Love and Rockets, and it will all add up to more than this.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/10/18

After a string of weeks with a book or two to list here, I've momentarily run out of road. I didn't buy anything, I didn't get anything from the library, and the gods of Publicity have turned their faces from me. (Probably because I haven't made a sacrifice to them for close to a decade now.)

So this week is a balk. Come back next Monday, and maybe I'll have something then.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #315: Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

Oh this is not going to go well. I don't read a whole lot of poetry these days, and I never really had the right critical vocabulary to talk about it at the best of times.

I'd like to say something like: we all read poetry, and go on to say something about why. But I think I lot of you never read poetry, and never would. That's sad, but I never read romances, and maybe you think that's sad. (Am I equating the two? See, here I go, tipping over into banalities and silliness when I haven't even gotten to the title of the book.)

Look: lot of people who know more about poetry than me say that Philip Larkin is one of the greats. That's why I read his Collected Poems, actually: that was the point.

Larkin is a 20th century British poet. That is to say his work is grumbling, gnarly, hermetic and he himself seems to have been deeply repressed and in-drawn in that way that only British men have. His most famous poem is "This Be The Verse" -- that's the one that starts "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."

I read the second edition of his Collected Poems. Somewhat reading between the lines of the introduction by editor Anthony Thwaite, the first edition came out in 1988, only a few years after Larkin's death, and included all of Larkin's poetry (possibly including things otherwise unpublished) in strictly chronological order. And the critical response to that organization was not what Thwaite would have liked, so, in 2003, he retreated with this edition to running the four books of poetry Larkin published in his life (one in the middle of each decade from the '40s through the '70s) and then putting only a few of the other works in Appendices, covering those years first and then the last decade of his life.

So I get the sense there is substantially less Larkin in the book I read than in its predecessor, and that everyone though that was the right thing to do. Since the book is only 218 pages long with indexes and all, that does seem odd to a boy reared on the bug-crushers of fantasy, but poetry is a different world.

I do think reading poetry is vital, important. It doesn't work like prose and requires closer attention. Anyone who is serious about reading does need to dip into poetry every so often, for that depth and that different perspective. (I mean poetry and not verse, and I'll make that distinction even if I can only offer a Whizzer White-level demarcation between the two.)

Larkin was a small-city British man: from his poetry, almost stereotypically so. His poetry was all about his world, and his world is not at all my world. There are a lot of churches in here, a lot of not talking to people, a lot of being quietly angry at aspects of life that he didn't want but couldn't avoid. Poetry throws you even more strongly into a stranger's head than prose; it's that much closer to pure thought. So, if I were being expansive, I would say that reading books like this is the point of poetry: getting that full-blast glimpse into someone else's inner life.

Larkin can be hard to like, hard to understand, hard to sympathize with. But that's what makes his work poetry. If it were easy, it wouldn't count. It is worth it, at least for this span. Maybe the longer book wasn't worth it. But this one is. He's worth reading, and trying to understand.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #314: The Drop by Dennis Lehane

I don't claim to be an expert on Dennis Lehane's work. For a while, I kept up with him -- I read all of his Kenzie/Gennaro mysteries, and a couple of the things that followed -- but he had a couple of big fat standalones that looked like they were begging to become movies, and I can't stand to see anybody beg like that.

(I think they all did become movies, if that matters. This one did, too.)

But the Lehane stuff I read, I liked -- I probably would have liked the big wanna-be-movie books too, honestly, but I don't have the time to read long books these days -- so, in my head, he's still someone I read regularly, even though it's been seven years since Moonlight Mile.

But every seven years is still something. It's what The Drop got.

In 2009, this was published "in a different form" -- that vague statement which tells us nothing -- as the novella "Animal Rescue" in the anthology Boston Noir. In 2014, it became a movie under the current title, and that's when this edition, however "different" in "form" from the original, was published.

Like all of the Lehane stories I've read, it's about white ethnic people on the edge of criminality in Boston, who've been knocked around by life and don't see any way to get free from their fates, The main character is Bob Sagninowski, a fortyish loner who works in his cousin Marv's bar and used to be part of a low-level criminal "crew" run by Marv before the much more violent Chechen mafia took notice of them and muscled them out.

Just after Christmas, he discovers an abused dog, and takes it home to care for it. Nadia, a woman as damaged as he is, witnessed him finding the dog (outside her place) and helps him out. They become friends. But the dog's owner is an ex-boyfriend of Nadia's, and he's the kind of psycho you often find in a Lehane story.

Worse, the bar is robbed by a couple of yahoos, and the actual owner -- the local Chechen godfather -- is not happy about that at all. You see, the Super Bowl is coming up, the biggest day of the year for gambling legal and otherwise, and this bar is one a of a string that handles a lot of that action for his organization. (Every week, there's one bar that is the drop bar -- where all of the smaller bets roll up to -- and that moves around, in a way that seems random, to keep anyone from getting ideas.)

Bob is capable of more than he seems, and he's getting more in his life that he cares about than he has in a long time, with the dog and Nadia. And of course there will be a big confrontation at the end, and another robbery attempt, during the big drop on Super Bowl eve -- that's where it will all end.

You can see the movie instead if you want; I don't judge. It looks to be pretty faithful, besides moving the action to Brooklyn. (All those northeastern cities starting with B are the same, right?) But the book is a good noir story by one of our best modern masters of the form, and it's a quick read, too. I don't think a movie can beat that -- but I'm, as always, biased towards the book.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #313: Verax by Pratap Chaterjee and Khalil

Pratap Chatterjee did not break the Edward Snowden story, or any of the previous and subsequent Wikileaks document dumps. But he was really close to them, and he had some really shocking sales pamphlets from drone manufacturers that his editor kept pooh-poohing, and so maybe he could have been more at the center of one of those stories if things had gone a little differently.

That's how he tells it, at least.

Verax has a subtitle of "The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance," but it's actually a lot more personal than that. It's really the story, in comics form, of how Chatterjee, who in 2011 was writing for something called the Bureau of Investigative Journalism [1], circled those big stories and what he learned about drones and surveillance over the next few years.

Along the way, he does talk about how the drones work, and tells the stories of several operators-turned-whistleblowers (who meet the usual fate of whistleblowers: losing their old position and friends and life, sometimes going to jail, seeing nothing much change) and repeatedly points out that US drones have killed a lot of people over the past decade or so.

Now, if those people were all terrorists, I don't think most Americans would mind. (Frankly, a lot of Americans wouldn't mind as long as those people were all brown-skinned, which they were.) But drones and their operators aren't all that great at finding and killing the right people, let alone avoiding additional casualties. In fact, they're basically weapons of terror -- random, highly destructive, very visible, and used for political ends. Since it's a government using them, though, even Chatterjee never actually makes that parallel.

It's a very talky book, mostly told in conversations Chatterjee had with Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald and his collaborator Khalil and many other journalists and those whistleblowers and even, occasionally, in direct address to the reader. If it were prose, it would feel like name-dropping -- and it does, a bit, even here. Chatterjee is the main character throughout: Verax is all about what he knew and when he learned it, and how he can explain it for us.

This is another one of those graphic novels, like Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts, that came out too late for its moment. They're both delayed late-Obama books, full of serious looks at thorny problems and much concern about how major democracies, under supposedly progressive leaders, can do horrible (badly thought-out, clearly going to lead to bad ends, indiscriminate, horribly expensive) things.

But nobody cares about that shit now: the people who would have cared have seen much nastier strains of politics rise up and take over -- and not just in the USA. (As I write this, the right-wing demagogue has just won in Brazil. I could also mention Brexit and a dozen burgeoning nationalist/fascist parties in Europe and elsewhere.)

So, yes: our drone program is stupid and counterproductive and massively expensive. It's part of a military complex that has been tending to erode civil liberties at home and damage US standing and the idea of democracy worldwide. But the question of killing people randomly overseas has become a massively lower priority in the last two years, unfortunately.

Maybe we can worry about this again before too long. Maybe we can move back down this horrible path the USA has flung itself down since 9/11. Or maybe not.

And, frankly, this book is not terribly well organized to make its points. Chatterjee will look to a lot of Americans like the epitome of a global elitist, jet-setting around to tsk-tsk about various things that they don't really care about. The title is dull and distancing, and the book is structured in a serious, stolid way rather than ever trying to grab the audience's attention. This is a long, in-depth NPR segment of a book -- those who are already convinced will love it, and no one else will even notice it.

[1] To me, this sounds like the name of an astroturf "independent" news source in a totalitarian country, but it seems to be a real thing.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #312: Captain Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Hero, Vol. 2 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and a whole bunch of other people

I don't hit corporate comics all that much here, in part because I like to read books, and the natural form of corporate comics is the weekly pamphlet. The point of Big Two superfolks is to read the Startling Revelations and Big Surprises and Amazing Comebacks at the same time as everyone else, and to know they're all coming because you also read Previews two months before.

In book form, that does not work quite as well.

But I basically liked the first collection of the Kelly Sue DeConnick-written Captain Marvel -- see my post on it from last month -- and my general rule is to try #2 if I liked #1.

Unfortunately, that #2 -- call it Captain Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Hero, Vol. 2, which is its name -- was infested with events, to such a degree that there was very little actual story and a whole lot of superheroes standing our in space watching a big war. (Yes. People in skin-tight costumes who are really good at punching are the front lines of a space war. The stupidity of superhero comics never ceases to amaze me.)

This book collects pieces of four different comics -- Avengers Assemble, Avengers: The Enemy Within, Avenging Spider-Man, and Cap's own book -- that form what are basically three completely separate stories, two of which are deeply stupid crossover events. (The third is a blatant attempt to be "relevant," which isn't quite as objectionable in context. There's also a single issue right in the middle that I guess is an epilogue to the first crossover.)

The first story might not have been officially An Event, and i don't know if it has an overall title. I guess we call it "The Enemy Within," after the one-shot, and it's the story in which Cap's Greatest Foe Returns Stronger Than Ever. That guy is Yon-Rogg -- he's from the '70s, when there were a lot of names that bad -- and he's the evil Kree whose plot the original (Marvel) Captain Marvel was foiling when Carol Danvers had the incident that turned her super. Ol' Yonny is now even more super himself, and has the usual complicated plot involving waking up long-dormant unstoppable war machines that no one previously mentioned, using them to conquer the Earth, and then remaking it in the image of his homeworld. All of the then-current Avengers emote and battle him, but it is, of course, up to Carol to make the Ultimate Sacrifice to defeat him.

No, not that Ultimate Sacrifice! She has to use her flying powers one more time, so the cancerous tumor in the special Kree third lobe of her brain grows so large that it forces her whole brain to reset, curing her cancer but removing all her memory. Well, supposedly removing all of her memory -- she can still fly and punch and speak English and use a spoon and knows who all the Avengers are even if she supposedly doesn't remember being their best buddy. So a soap-opera level of memory loss, as expected. (Please note that I am not making up one word of this.)

But that's lucky, since we don't have six months to spend in a nursing home re-learning how to stand up! It's time for the big crossover event of 2013, Infinity! In which all of the major spacefaring races of the Marvel Universe send huge battlefleets of gigantic starships to battle the usual super-ancient and super-powerful alien race that has never been mentioned before. Earth, of course, has no battlefleet, so they send individual people like Wolverine and Captain America and Spider-Woman and Hawkeye, whose powers clearly will be really useful against alien spaceships.

(Oh, and Captain Marvel, too, along with a handful of others who actually could do something. But, to make everyone else feel better, they seem to spend the whole storyline sitting in spaceships instead of flying at high speed through enemy warcraft and zapping them with energy beams from their hands.)

This was a gigantic crossover event, so what we get here is just snippets and moments -- though we do get the same sequence of events seen from two different points of view, just to underline how random the snippets and moments are. Eventually, mostly in comics not collected here, the crossover ended, and all of the pieces got put back in their boxes.

Last, we get a two-issue story in which Cap and Spider-Man fly a small plane to Boston for a reason so boring I'm not going to bother to try to remember, and run into the corporate-created manifestation of Occupy Wall Street (a spunky freckled teenager girl who will not shut up). Of course the Evil Bankers own her, and of course they have giant suits of power armor, because banks totally spend their money on things like that, and of course there's several big fights around landmarks it's easy to do photoreference for online. And of course any potential political points are lost in the punching.

(Oh, and in the middle -- but published last, I think, is an issue of Captain Marvel where she mopes a bit about losing her memory and then defeats a villain she just created through her brand-new I Am Spartacus power. I have no idea why issue 17 is reprinted her just before issues 15 and 16, but maybe that's just how Marvel works this decade: the numbers are made up, and the points don't matter.)

The first volume of Captain Marvel was solid superhero soap-opera, mostly focused on people and with a generally consistent art team. This one is a tangled mess, with art ranging from didn't-I-see-this-in-Youngblood-in-the-'90s to you-can-slice-cheese-with-those-cheekbones all the way to generic-modern-Marvel. I can't see that anyone who liked the first one would be happy with this one. The only thing they really have in common is that the main character is Carol Danvers and the writer is Kelly Sue DeConnick. I weep at the marketing and editorial departments that thought this -- any of this -- was a good idea.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #311: Look Back and Laugh: Journal Comics by Liz Prince

I do like titles that end with "by {insert author};" they save me time and space on my post titles. Perhaps I should do a year where I only read books like that.

(I rely on you readers to talk me out of patently stupid ideas like that one.)

I have a feeling Liz Prince has a more interesting and full cartooning career than I've managed to keep up with: I can be obtuse like that. I have read and liked her books Tomboy and Alone Forever, but I bet there's more out there. I should probably take a look.

But right now I'm here to tell you about Look Back and Laugh, a collection of her journal comics from 2016. If I have this right, Prince started a Patreon sometime around then, and one of the rewards was a monthly printed collection of daily diary strips. (I'm not clear why she didn't just put them online daily and password-protect them for backers, but I bet the reason has something to do with the romance of 'zines.) She also seems to have at least sometimes gotten behind on "daily" comics and had to catch up by doing a week at a time, which is totally endearing and something I'd be likely to do if I was in a similar circumstance.

(Assuming a world in which I could actually draw, obviously. Which is not this world.)

Look Back collects those 366 comics, along with a new comic-strip introduction by Prince, and they're very much journal comics -- mostly done in a quiet moment at the end of the day, sometimes about one big thing that happened that day, sometimes about two or four little things that happened, and sometimes about how she can't think of anything particularly notable that happened. This was a pretty eventful year for Prince and her partner Kyle (I didn't see a last name for him in the comics; I presume Prince's audience already knows who he is): they got married, they bought a house, and they moved from outside Boston up to Portland, Maine. (Those latter two are obviously related.)

But, mostly, it's about what she did that day. That's the joy of journal comics: they're about the everyday and the mundane. Some days are sitting and drawing, some are frenzied cleaning the new house and trying to find that one random thing in a sea of packed boxes. This turned out to be a good year for Prince to start making journal comics about, but the hidden secret is that they're all good years.

Prince is working on a small canvas here, and trying to fit in enough words to explain what's going on. But even with those constraints, she has a bouncy, cartoony style and a good eye to lock in how she draws the people in her life. You may not be interested in anyone's journal comics, and that's fine -- but, if you are, Liz Prince does them really well.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #310: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Matmanga, Vol. 3

Since I'm making myself write a substantial post about a book every day, I can't just get away with saying "this completes the trilogy of books collecting Jiro Kuwata's TV-inspired Batman comics, originally published in Japan in the mid-60s. See my posts on books one and two for more details."

That would be cheating.

But, frankly, there isn't a whole lot more to be said for these comics. They're quirky, in that they're exercises in one genre transposed into another genre, but they're not otherwise all that distinguished. Kuwata, or his studio, drew a fairly sedate Dick Sprang Batman in a somewhat bland Osamu Tezuka world. His Batman is boring in the way a lot of Batmen tend to be boring, particularly in that era: stolid and self-satisfied and about as interesting as a lamp-post. His villains are quirkier, but they're all on-offs, a parade of misfits, habitual criminals, and mad scientists who get to show up, emote wildly for a short time, and then have their nefarious schemes foiled forever.

So Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga, Vol. 3 collects what I'm told is the rest of those stories -- seven two- or three-part serials that originally appeared in Shonen King and Shonen Gaho during 1966 and '67. (There's a table in the back of this book, particularly aimed at Bat-fanatics, listing all of the Kuwata stories, where they appeared in Japan, and the original American source of the plots and ideas.)

These stories are all modeled on US Batman stories, from Batman and Detective, of the same era, which Kuwata changed to fit a Japanese sensibility. Those US stories aren't reprinted here -- maybe the next time this idea comes around and is reprinted in ten or twenty years, we can see the US and Japanese versions of the same ideas right next to each other, for parallax.

Right now, though, what the Kuwara books do is illustrate the odd question "what if the early '60s Batman was a Japanese science hero instead?" Well, it would be like this.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #309: The Adventures of Venus by Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez is a cartoonist of extremes. Just looking at his work related to the Palomar/Luba set of stories, he ranges all the way from the joyous porn of Birdland to the (equally joyous, in very different ways) kid-friendly stories from the turn of the century about Venus.

Venus also appeared in stories that aren't kid-friendly, which could make sharing a book like Luba and Her Family (which has the bulk of those Venus stories) with an eight-year-old somewhat problematic. But, luckily, there is a just-the-kid-stuff Venus collection: The Adventures of Venus.

As far as I can tell, this small book -- it has half-size comics pages, and less than a hundred of them -- entirely consists of stories also in Luba and Her Family, so most people will not want to buy both of them. (Some people, naming no names, might have bought both of them thinking they were different things.)

The long, weird story about the "blooter baby" was original to this book, which otherwise collected all-ages material by Hernandez from the late-90s comic Measles. (It was a multi-author anthology, so he had just one Venus story each issue.)

Venus is fun and spunky, but these are mostly the lesser stories about her -- concerned with normal kid-activities like soccer and with her social interactions. The other Venus stories, the ones not specifically aimed at kids, give her more depth and make her more interesting, though they probably are unsuitable for this age range -- she's exposed to knowledge of a whole lot of the illicit sexual pairings going on in Hernandez's work in that era. (Including her own mother.)

So this is a perfectly nice book for a young audience. The only place it leads, though, is somewhere its target audience can't follow, which could be a problem for a household that combines inquisitive young readers and copies of those other Hernandez books. And anyone older than that should just get Luba and Her Family, which has all of these stories and a lot more.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/3/18

Another bloop single week: I have one book from the library. (I promise that I'm not actually reserving one book a week just to have something to write about here. Well, up to this point I haven't been doing that, but now that I've though of it the idea is tempting.)

It's The Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface: Deluxe Edition, the Kodansha edition of Masamune Shirow's 1991-1997 sequel to his original Ghost in the Shell story. (See my post from earlier this year on the first book.) I gather "the Major" is doing something corporate this time out, and perhaps is murdering slightly fewer people along the way. And, from a quick glance, the interior is just about as fan-servicey as the cover is, which could be a plus or a minus for any particular reader.

(Physical notes: the edition I have only lists a 2001 copyright date for the material and no date for its publication. But I'm pretty sure Kodansha didn't exist as an English-language publisher in 2001, and that this book is actually from 2017. Also, the last fifty or so pages in this copy are loose, and I found them scrambled, in several large, clumps in the back. I think I've put it in the right order, and that nothing is missing, but I'll have to see that when I read it.)

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #308: The Complete Geisha by Andi Watson

Andi Watson, I think, started off expecting to tell stories of action and adventure in comics, with a fantastic flair, but kept finding those stories turning more personal and character-focused as he told them. (I could say "more mundane," but that sounds like an insult. It isn't: life itself is mundane. But it sounds that way.)

That happened on a large scale with his first major series, Skeleton Key, which I re-read earlier this year. And it happened on a smaller canvas with Geisha, the four-issue series that he created in between the main run of Skeleton Key and the four-part "Roots" coda in 1999.

The Complete Geisha is the 2003 book that collects all of the Geisha work up to that point -- I think there might be some later short stories, but this could be it. It collects the main four-part story from the fall of 1998, a one-shot follow-up from 2000, and a few short related stories.

There's no geisha in the book -- at least, not any obvious one. Jomi Sohodo is an android raised in a human family -- this seems to be rare, if not unique -- who wants to be an artist, even though it's heavily hinted that her line was designed as sexbots. She doesn't want to work in the family bodyguard business, as her three human brothers do, but it's paying work, and she has a hard time selling her paintings, so she ends up, over the course of the original story, in the family business. And that leads to drama and complications, as the body she guards is a top model with an angry ex-manager/boyfriend and her new art patron is a nasty gangster.

I don't know if Watson expected to tell a story of androids in human society, or if the sexbot thing was ever supposed to pay off. But Jomi is the only android we see, in a society that I think is supposed to be full of them, and he seems less interested in the running around and bodyguarding than he is with Jomi's struggles to get into the art world and the compromises she has to do along the way.

The one-shot, two years later, is in Watson's softer mature style -- and I could mean both the art and the story. There's more shading in the art, rounder edges , and very little "action" in the usual comics sense. And it's about Jomi as a person, particularly her relationship with one brother starting a new band, rather than anything plottier.

So this is transitional Watson, starting from the story he thought he wanted to tell (or that he thought the market wanted, or someone told him to make for that market) towards more individual stories like Love Fights or Little Star. Transitions are quirky, individual things, and Geisha shows some of that in its shape, but it's still a good Watson comic about art and family and finding your place in the world.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #307: One for the Road by Tony Horwitz

Other people's travels are soothing to read about, no matter what they went through. We can read their books in serenity, sitting  somewhere comfortable, and enjoy their descriptions of hardship and danger while facing exactly none of it.

(That's why we read travel books, right? It's not just me?)

Tony Horwitz, later the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Confederates in the Attic and other books that I've actually read, was a young journalist, newly married and newly arrived in a foreign country in the mid-80s. He'd done what he describes as a lot of hitchiking in his teens, and had the itch to try it again on the other side of the world.

So he set off, in what seems like the antipodean summer of early 1986, to finger [1] his way around the Outback and see what kind of reporting he could get out of it. His first book, One for the Road, emerged from that trip.

Thirty years later I read that book. Now, the world is big and full of people, and old books move around it like a vast endless wave. So it's probably not true that I'm the only person who read this particular book this year -- Horwitz was later a bestseller, and this was published by Vintage, which means there's probably a lot of One for the Road out there and a lot of people happy to read more Horwitz. But I'd like to think it's so; it's amusing to think of ourselves as more singular than we really are.

He was living in Sydney, so of course that's where he set out from, with originally a vague plan to head straight across the country, through the middle of the Outback. But it turns out hardly anyone goes that way, and there isn't a string of towns to hitch through, so instead he went up, around, and then back south towards Alice Springs.

Eventually, he made it back to the south coast, west of Adelaide, around the south and west coast through Perth, and all the way up to Darwin, where he had a scheduled flight back to Sydney and his regular newspaper job. But, as is more common with travel books than they sometimes let on, he didn't do all that in one go. Horwitz's hiatus came about because of a wreck, so he wrote it into the book -- whether there would have been a pause anyway is unanswerable.

You see a very particular side of a country while hitchhiking, and that's what Horwitz covers -- even in the late '80s, when the tide of hitching had miles yet to go out, the people who would stop for a single man with his finger out are mostly poorer, mostly grumpier, mostly more battered by life. But that's what makes for interesting travel books anyway, so I don't think Horwitz minded at the time, and his readers won't mind now.

Horwitz, unsurprisingly, decides he's too old for this shit towards the end of the book. (I wonder if he secretly knew it all along, but figured the idea was too good to give up on -- and he did get his first book out of it.) We all should be able to know when we're too old for this shit: it's an important lesson.

I still haven't read Horwitz's most famous book, and I'm starting to think I'm unconsciously avoiding it. But if we can't be idiosyncratic in our reading, where can we be idiosyncratic? This is a fun jaunt through an Australia that I'm pretty sure is quite different now, with a young but insightful American as our guide. So why not?

[1] Australian hitchhiking uses the index finger of the left hand rather than the thumb of the right. So, presumably, they do not "thumb" their way around when hitching.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #306: A Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1 by Rick Geary

Physically, this isn't much like the long sequence of "Treasury of Victorian Murder" and "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" books that Geary has been producing in the three decades since it came out: it's in a tall and wide paperback album format rather than a small hardcover, and it has three comics stories about century-old murders, plus some ancillary materials, instead of focusing solely on one murder in its time and place.

There's also a lot of notable early-Geary tone to the captions in A Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1, that bemused, faux-shocked voice with tongue slightly in cheek that he used so much for his early short comics. That went away over time, to be replaced with a quieter, more matter-of-fact presentation of facts and details. But the Geary of 1987 would still exclaim "This did not seem to be a common burglary!" or "Nor murder weapon could be found -- but what of this empty razor case?"

But this is the beginning of the road to all of those later projects, and we all know that a road doesn't start the same place it ends. How could it?

Geary opens with a gatefold of London a hundred years before, and follows that up with several pages of portraits of eminent Victorians in many fields -- more of the single pages full of small square related panels that were so common in his early career. And there's a similar coda at the end, with a two-page splash of a Victorian cemetery. But in between are those three murder tales -- "The Ryan Mystery," a brother and sister slashed by unknown assailants in 1873 New York; "The Crimes of Dr. E.W. Pritchard," who poisoned his wife and mother-in-law in 1864 Glasgow and earlier set a fire that killed his housemaid mistress; and "The Abominable Mrs. Pearcey," who chopped up the wife of a man she wanted in 1890 Hampshire.

Even as early as this, Geary was mostly straightforward about the grisly details and had a particular gift for depicting 19th century fashions in clothing and facial hair. These are deeply Gearyesque stories, bridging the gap between the early oddball work and the later murder series. That makes this a particularly interesting Geary book for those people, like me, who can't get enough of his work.

I hope you're one, too. If not, the best place to start would be one of those individual books about a historical murder. Pick one that intrigues you -- perhaps the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or Lizzie Borden's axe murders, or the Black Dahlia case, or H.H. Holmes's murder house in Chicago.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #305: Mage: The Hero Discovered (2 vols) by Matt Wagner

I'm pretty sure this has been published in one volume, at least once. But the current edition is two volumes, and that's what I read. (Long before that, it was published as fifteen comic book issues, and I had those as well, before my 2011 flood. But all things must pass.)

"This" is the first volume of Matt Wagner's epic transmuting-his-life-into-heroic-adventure trilogy Mage. Mage: The Hero Discovered was one of Wagner's first major comics projects in the 1980s and was followed by The Hero Defined at the end of the '90s and, eventually, by The Hero Denied, planned to wrap up by the end of this year.

Since that third volume is about to finish up, and I expect to read it, I thought I might as well go back for the first two: when a creator takes 15-20 years between installments, you can do him the favor of reminding yourself of the old pieces before coming to the new ones. So I re-read Hero Discovered this month (Volume One, Volume Two), plan to hit Hero Defined next month, which should get me ready for the first Hero Denied collection...which I see was published a few days ago. (I doubt I'll be able to hold off until the second half of Denied is published as a book in February, but I did skip buying all of the floppies, so maybe I will. As I get older, the appeal of story-pieces has gone down precipitously.)

Very early in the life of this blog, I had a breathless review of Defined, which I'm linking here for completeness's sake -- I really hope you don't go back and read those burblings, which I am now embarrassed by. Otherwise, I've mentioned it, but not gotten into any depth.

It starts with overwriting two guys meeting on a city street -- one may be drunk, and pretends to be happy, and one may be a bum, or pretends to be one. (Their dialogue is wince-inducing: if you decide to read Mage, you need to remember that it was nearly the first thing Wagner did in comics, and that he got better quickly -- though ponderous unbelievable dialogue is an occasional hazard throughout the Mage stories.)

The not-drunk guy is Kevin Matchstick, who is so sad because he's all alone. The not-bum calls himself Mirth, and he's the mage of the title -- there will be a different one for each series. Right after their conversation, Kevin sees a man attacking an actual bum in an alley, and surprises himself by running to intervene. He's even more surprised to find the assailant is a hairless pale-skinned humanoid with sharp points on his elbows and that Kevin suddenly has super-strength and speed. The bum dies; the humanoid gets away.

And Kevin goes back to his apartment, confused, to find Mirth, who starts the official Hero's Journey by explaining (well, a little) who he and Kevin are. Mirth is the World-Mage, opposed to the evil Umbra Sprite and his sons, the Grackleflints (the humanoids), who do the usual evil thing of corruption and destruction. Kevin has another fight with three (of five) of the Grackleflints in a subway car before he gets the next round of explanations from Mirth.

I'll be blunt here, though Kevin doesn't find this out for a long time: he's The Eternal Champion King Arthur kind-of King Arthur, in that he's the latest incarnation of a mythic hero and was once little Wart. He will gather allies -- a teenage girl with a bat and a dead public defender -- and, together, they will help him battle the Umbra Sprite and all of the supernatural creatures that the Sprite can summon and throw at him. The Sprite is searching for the Fisher King -- another reincarnation, though not a hero -- and if his Grackleflints can kill the Fisher King, it will bring a new era of death and destruction to earth.

And that's the story of Discovered: this is explicitly a Hero's Journey book, so Kevin learns bits and pieces of the setup over about four hundred pages, punctuated with fights against dragons and giants and redcaps and other mythical beasties, and occasionally broken up by attempts to actually figure out what the forces of evil are doing, where they're headquartered, and how to stop them.

Before the end, there are major sacrifices so the Hero can stand alone, quite a lot of epic fight scenes, and a surprisingly nuanced view of the relationships among the forces of evil. Wagner started this series a little shakily, but it had great bones right from the beginning, and both his drawing and writing skills got stronger very quickly. It's unfortunate that the two very worst pages in the whole Mage saga are the first two, but at least you can know that going in.

Somewhere along the line, the original 1980s-era coloring disappeared and was replaced by a more modern treatment by Jeromy Cox and James Rochelle -- I think this is from the Defined era, but don't quote me. I should also note that Wagner is inked by Sam Kieth, starting with the sixth (of fifteen) chapters, and that lines up with one of several leaps forward in the strength of the art. (So it's not all Wagner, as the cover makes it seem -- very few comics are that much of an auteur medium; there's always some collaboration going on.)

Mage is a strong urban fantasy story in comics form, clearly in a mythic vein but with a lot of individual touches. It's classy enough to have titles from Hamlet (and never say so, or explain them), and street enough to be about the reincarnation of King Arthur beating up monsters to save the world. And, if you've been waiting for the whole Mage saga to be done, you are nearly in luck.