Thursday, September 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #263: Nexus Archives (Vols. 1-9) by Mike Baron and Steve Rude

Comics has not been a terribly fertile ground for good science fiction. Oh, there's been a lot of space opera, since comics are excellent at depicting coruscating beams of lambent force striking overwhelmed ray-screens and control panels exploding with showers of colorful sparks. But actual stories about people and their societies, in which the details of the future world are both carefully designed and important? That's not something comics gets into all that often.

Nexus is one of the towering exceptions. It was one of the first wave of "ground-level" comics in the late '70s and early '80s, part of the flood that eventually became "independent comics." And, like a lot of things in that wave, it clearly was derived from popular ideas in mainstream comics, taking a different look at the costumed superpowered hero as Elfquest and Cerebus did the same with the fantasy adventure.

Nexus was a first -- the first comics work published by writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude, the first comic published by Capital Comics, the brand-new publishing arm of a growing regional comics distributor, maybe the first serious long-form SF in comics form. It came out first in black and white, for three large issues in 1981 and 1982, and then switched to color for a second volume in 1983 as the story continued without interruption. With the seventh color issue, in the spring of '85, publication switched to the more established and stable First Comics (based in Chicago, and a reasonably close indy-comics neighbor to the Madison, Wisconsin base of Capital, Baron, and Rude).

First would publish Nexus, and a few spin-off series, through issue 80 in 1991. First then went under, and Nexus landed at Dark Horse for a series of one-shots and mini-series that were intended as a continuation of the main story from the First series. (And they were quietly co-numbered as issues 81, etc. to indicate that.) That petered out in 1997, but there have been some Nexus stories, here and there, since then.

Dark Horse has reprinted Nexus in a serious way twice: first with the Archive volumes, classy hardcovers in the Marvel/DC mode. Twelve volumes of those came out from 2005 to 2011, collecting the whole Capital/First run but ending there. And then they started again with the cheaper, fatter paperback Omnibus series, which collected the entire '80s-'90s Nexus into eight volumes.

I personally started reading Nexus in the fall of 1986, when I went off to college, discovered the (then obligatory) good comics shop near college (Iron Vic's, sadly missed) and got a bunch of interesting-looking indy comics. And I lost track of it at the end of the Dark Horse years, though I saw the Archives and Omnibus books coming out and vaguely planned to collect them to re-read. Eventually, I got the first nine Archives books, which collected up to First issue 57, and spent a lot of pleasant time in my late-August vacation reading them.

So what I can talk about today is about the first half of Nexus: most of the main continuous phase, and the bulk of the Baron-Rude days. Rude didn't want to spend his entire life doing this one comic, and so this stretch has a number of issues with art by other people, and the end of the First run would be almost entirely drawn by other hands.

(Links to the individual books: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Or, if you'd rather try the Omnibus route, here's the first one.)

In a vaguely Legion of Super-Heroes way, Nexus is locked onto a pan-galactic multi-species future five hundred years ahead -- the late twenty-fifth century. In most of the issues here, it's not entirely clear what the year is or how much time is passing, but it's clear time is passing, more quickly than usual for a monthly periodical comic. One year of Nexus comics is roughly equal to one year of time in Nexus's universe -- people will grow and change, and the world will not stay the same at any point.

That seems like a small point, but it's crucial: in 1981, comics really didn't do that. Even by 1991, when the First Nexus series ended, continuity didn't mean that anyone got older, just that old stories (or some of them, at least) counted. But Nexus was a place where time was real, death was real, people were individual and quirky and never blandly heroic or evil, and everything would get more complicated and difficult over time, just like the real world.

Nexus is a man: Horatio Hellpop. The rest of the universe does not know that name -- they just know that he appears, as Nexus, to assassinate various people. (All humans, all mass murderers...but that may not be clear to everyone.) He harnesses vast energy powers, through fusion sources that are the subject of frenzied theorizing.

His base is an obscure, out-of-the-way moon called Ylum. (As in, and pronounced to match, asylum.) That world is filling up with refugees fleeing a thousand tyrannical regimes, people of all races and nationalities, with no real infrastructure and, as yet, no government other than the vague presence of Nexus himself.

As Nexus opens, Sundra Peale, a reporter from the Web -- a large, mostly democratic and free polity centered on Earth and extending to its colonies across the solar system and elsewhere -- has arrived on Ylum, to learn Nexus's secrets and broadcast them to her audience. She has another, secret reason for chasing his secrets as well, and we'll learn that quickly.

Many characters in Nexus have secret motivations, or just ones that they don't clearly explain. Again, this was not common in comics in 1981 -- and still isn't as common as I would hope, even today -- but it's the basis of any kind of real literature. People are complex, and never do things just for simple, obvious reasons. Nexus is full of complex, often infuriating people, from Nexus and Sundra on down: they all do things that are what they need to do at that moment, even if they're not what the audience wants, or what would be the obvious next step in a piece of genre fiction.

In between assassinations and other intrigues, Sundra learns Nexus's truth, and becomes his lover. His father, Theodore, was the military governor of Vradic, one of the planets ruled by the Sov, a successor state to the Soviet Union. (We all though it would last forever, and expand into space, in 1981.) Theodore fled a coup with his wife and infant son, destroying all human life on Vradic as he went, following his orders as he saw them. They landed on Ylum, and found it empty. But the world had a huge network of livable spaces underground, with attractive plazas and rooms nearer the surface and endless caverns and utility networks further down, plus fascinating artifacts that hinted at an ancient alien presence there. They moved in; Horatio grew up.

He had two alien playmates, Alpha and Beta, who his parents never saw. His mother disappeared when he was young, only to be found, much later, dead in one of those endless lower levels. He had headaches that got worse and worse as he got older. Eventually, he started to dream of his father's crimes. And he knew that the headaches would keep getting worse, that they would kill him, if he didn't kill his father first. Nexus's first assassination, his first time using that fusion power, was to kill Theodore, the only other living human on the planet.

That ended the dreams about Theodore. But there are many other mass murderers, and Nexus started to dream of them, one by one or in groups. And the situation was the same: use the fusion power to kill the murderers he dreams of, or die himself from the escalating pain those dreams cause.

(The first time we see Nexus perform an assassination, he says he kills out of self-defense. And this is absolutely true.)

That's only the beginning, obviously. Many factions across the inhabited galaxy want to kill or co-opt Nexus, use him to accomplish their aims or exploit the vulnerable refugees of Ylum. We quickly learn that the fusion power Nexus exploits is not unknown, if stronger than usual: unscrupulous folks have discovered that decapitating sentients and putting the heads in life-support systems generates massive telekinetic powers, which can be harnessed to, among other things, pull fusion power from stars to create energy blasts like Nexus's.

Nexus is on the side of the oppressed by instinct, but he's not naturally a killer. One of the most important threads of Nexus is that Horatio only kills when he absolutely has to: he kills the people he's forced to. His life, and that of Ylum, would be much simpler if he were less philosophical, more inclined to just destroy anything in his path.

Before long, we will learn the source of Nexus's power. And Baron and Rude will continue to explore all of the implications of these ideas -- of the kinds of scams and tricks that will arise if turning people into heads is a profitable business; of the government intrigues that will ripple out from spying on Nexus, and from ongoing issues with being able to deliver enough energy to a growing, technological population; of the politics of Ylum, a world filled with refugees from a thousand different worlds with no common tradition; and with what kind of a power a nation of Heads would be, and what they would want to do once free.

And, eventually, that Nexus is a title and a source of power. Horatio Hellpop is not the only person who can have that title and source of power, and he won't be the only one. Even if he's the best possible person for it, if he has a chance to give it up, he will -- the pain, both physical and moral, is overwhelming.

I haven't even talked about some of the other great characters: Dave, Nexus's closest friend and advisor, a Thune with great pain in his past and a quietly stoic outlook on life; Dave's long-separated son Judah the Hammer, a hero inspired by Nexus and using power similar to his, provided by vengeance-seeking Heads; Tyrone, the grumpy refugee first President of Ylum, sneakier than he seems and not as dismissive of politics as he appears; the seeming parody of a grasping merchant Keith Vooper, who is quirkier than that; the budding musical genius Mezz; Ursula Imada, a Web agent sent to seduce and control Nexus whose naked ambitions will drive many plots for many years; the three Loomis sister, who swear to destroy Nexus for assassinating their General father; the two Gucci assassins Kreed and Sinclair, both from the odd Quatro race; and many more.

Nexus is a big, smart, interesting SF series, full of fascinatingly real characters who bounce off each other in increasingly baroque ways and set in a complex universe with no easy answers and a lot of hard questions. Steve Rude, though he starts off a little shaky, very quickly draws like a dream, in a mode influenced by Toth and Kirby. The work Baron and Rude do together on this series is their very best work, and they're both among the very best in comics.

If you haven't taken a look at Nexus, and you have any interest in comics SF at all, you really need to try it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #262: Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

I can't say that Simon Rich put together this collection because he knew a million libraries would catalog it as "Rich/Spoiled Brats," but I'd like to think it had some influence on his thinking. If your name can give you serendipity like that, why not use it?

(This means, of course, that if I ever write books, someday I must have a story collection called Eighteen.)

Rich is a humorist in the New Yorker mode, who parlayed an initial success in the written word on a page (first as president of the Harvard Lampoon, then in the New Yorker) into what I assume is a much more lucrative success writing for TV and movies. (For reference, his IMDB listing.)

Spoiled Brats is his fourth collection of short humorous pieces, and sees them continue to become more story-shaped -- Ant Farm and Free-Range Chickens were mostly extended jokes in the "two things juxtaposed" or "take this far too seriously" mode, and then The Last Girlfriend on Earth had a number of stories that all had basically the same set-up and central joke with different plots and details.

Spoiled Brats is somewhere in the middle: it has a loose theme, in "kids these days! oy!" but not much more than that to unify the stories. (This is generally a good thing: many linked story collections have too much link and not enough story.) People like me who were let down that Last Girlfriend had only one joke in it will be happy to learn that each of the baker's dozen stories here has at least one different joke, and some of them more than that.

Like most of Rich's work that I've seen, these are mostly short, high-concept pieces, opening with "Animals," the story of a traumatized school-room hamster, and ending with "Big Break," about the reserved seat at a band's very last gig. The villains, or sources of unpleasantness, are all pretty much young -- from horrible pre-teens to several varieties of hipster, from know-it-all chimp kids to spoiled teens on a semester abroad in space. To put it pop-culturally, they're all basically Millennials, nudge nudge wink wink. (Two of those villains are named "Simon Rich," and I'm not going to attempt any psychoanalysis but just point it out and back away slowly.)

There is one longer piece, otherwise in the same vein, in the center of the book: "Sell Out," the novella-length story of how "Simon Rich's" immigrant great-grandfather Hershel, who was entombed in a pickle barrel and wakes up a hundred years later in the Brooklyn of hipsters. He speaks in a thick Yiddish accent and has very different views about life than his descendant! (Look, I never claimed Rich had new jokes -- just that he had more than one this time.)

I still think Rich's short, strange mash-ups are his best, funniest work -- and there's a number of them here. As he works longer, he gets more derivative and Hollywood -- a good sign for his continued screenwriting career, I guess, but not as much fun for those of us who like smart written humor. He is a funny writer, and he has some great concepts. I just wish he'd find ways to extend the nuttiness in his longer pieces rather than settling for moments we've seen before.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #261: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

I am behind the curve on this series, so I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know today. (The third book of "The Murderbot Diaries," Rogue Protocol, hit stores last month, and the first one, All Systems Red, recently won the Hugo for Best Novella. A fourth book, Exit Strategies, is coming in less than a month. So Murderbot is cooking.)

But I'm catching up, and I just read the second book in "The Murderbot Diaries," and I'm afraid I'm about to gush about it.

(This book is Artificial Conditions. You can also find my post about All Systems Red, from last year, if you like.)

It's a corporatized medium future, full of habitats and stations and at least moderately inhabitable planets -- no sign of Earth, but full of humans and the various AIs they've constructed. Those AIs can be smarter or more capable than humans, particularly if they run, for example, a giant interstellar transport with impressive armamentation and internal sensors, but they're not gods, and they're almost always tightly controlled by humans through governor modules.

Humans also seem to be pretty tightly controlled, through what looks like the usual mildly cyberpunk universe of weak governments and strong (and often evil) corporations. There are places or moments of relative peace, but it's a world of competition red in tooth and claw, and highly-capable armed humanoform bots are both vital and very common for protection or control or anything else violence and the threat thereof can bring humans.

Those bots are Security Units, called SecUnits for short. Like all other bots and constructs, they have governor modules -- what another writer might have called their "Asimov circuits" -- to keep them obedient and controlled. As far as most people know, "rogue SecUnits" are purely fictional, from the wilder sorts of popular entertainment.

Murderbot is a SecUnit. Murderbot hacked its governor module, and no longer has to obey any orders from humans. (Murderbot, like all SecUnits, has no gender, and feels faintly nauseated in the middle of Artificial Condition at the idea of acquiring one. So I will call Murderbot "it.") In All Systems Red, Murderbot successfully completed a job without being forcibly governed by humans, saved its human employers, and even made friends with them and was given its freedom.

So of course Murderbot has run away secretly, and starts Artificial Condition posing as an augmented human, passing through a transit hub, trying to find a transport vessel, preferably uncrewed, to take it back to the planet Mensah.

Something happened on Mensah: Murderbot was there, with a team of other SecUnits. Many humans were killed by those SecUnits, and the whole thing has been quietly hushed up.

Bluntly, either Murderbot hacked its governor module and then murdered a whole bunch of humans, or something made Murderbot murder a whole bunch of humans and then it hacked its governor module to give itself control.

And Murderbot is surprised at how important knowing the answer to that question is to it -- did it give itself free will to kill, or to stop killing?

Murderbot does find transport to Mensah, in a very powerful AI running a university-owned transport vessel. (Murderbot ends up calling that AI ART -- RT is for "Research Transport," and the A for what any of us might call a very nosy being that keeps demanding to know more about us and poking into our private things.)

Murderbot tells this story in first person, as it did in All Systems Red. It has a professional, compelling voice: casually competent but deeply conflicted about itself and its role, and wanting nothing more than to spend all of its time consuming media about humans. I called it "the world's first slacker killer robot" when I wrote about All Systems Red, and that's still a nice way of encapsulating what's fun and fascinating about Murderbot.

Wells clearly has a trajectory for Murderbot in mind: this isn't just another adventure, but the next step in its story. There are at least two more books to go -- I hope for more, but this isn't the kind of thing that can go on forever. And I'm thrilled to see Wells, a fine writer who I've liked since her great debut novel The Element of Fire, is finally breaking out with this series: it's well past time.

If you're even further behind than me, and haven't even read the first Murderbot book yet, you have a treat ahead of you. What are you waiting for?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #260: Angels and Magpies by Jaime Hernandez

Sometimes the highest highs and the lowest lows happen right on top of each other. It makes for easy contrasts, which is nice for anyone who finds himself writing about that thing.

For example, Angels and Magpies, the sixth book reprinting Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories from the various publications called Love and Rockets over the past nearly forty years (and some other related comics as well) has one long story that I and pretty much everybody else agrees is one of the best things he's ever done, and one of the masterpieces of modern comics.

It also has the equally long "God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls," of which no one has ever said that, and which I would describe, if I'm being particularly charitable, as an interesting experiment with superhero storytelling and metaphor.

("Interesting" is a great word; it can mean whatever you want it to mean and still provide plausible deniability.)

But first up are two stories that run concurrently on the first thirty pages -- "La Maggie La Loca," on the top two-thirds, originally appeared in weekly installments in the short-lived comics feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2007, and beneath it is "Gold Diggers of 1969," which I think was originally in the last issue of the second comics-format Love and Rockets series, maybe as normally comics-formatted pages there.

"Maggie" is another Queen Rena story, told in the same style and structure as similar stories back to the mid-80s: Rena gets back in touch with Maggie, asks her to come visit, and so Maggie ends up in a strange tropical country (left unspecified), mostly bored and at loose ends, until Maggie does something impulsive and causes trouble. Like those older stories, it's also told entirely in captions, as Maggie's stream-of-consciousness, seemingly told to someone as a letter or diary entry. Like those older stories, it's largely a signpost for Maggie's life, to show us where she is and how she feels about that.

"Gold Diggers" is a flashback story: Maggie is about four years old, living with her mother and younger sister Esther, with next brother Calvin on the way. Her father is away, "busy with work" most of the time -- we see all this from young Maggie's perspective, so we can believe that if we want. Hernandez draws this as a homage to Charles Schulz, at least with his characters: his backgrounds are more detailed and particular than Peanuts's were, since his aims are different. We've seen a number of flashback stories to Maggie's childhood and teen years before, but this one is the most focused; everything before (and some later) were more clearly flashbacks, relying on our knowledge of "present-day" Maggie for context. "Gold Diggers," instead, is entirely embedded in 1969 and shows us what little Maggie sees and does, unreliable-narrator-style, letting us make connections a four-year-old can't.

Then comes a hundred and thirty pages of Ti-Girls comics, in which Maggie's roommate Angel becomes the superheroine Boots Angel and sort-of joins the rag-tag (and defunct for a couple of decades) Ti-Girls team. You see, women have "the spark" -- most of them, or all of them, or all of them unless they deny it, or something like that -- and can have superpowers if they decide they want them enough at the right time. Well, it's mostly an excuse to get versions of some Hernandez characters -- primarily Alarma, who also lives in Maggie's apartment building, but also a version of her cousin Xo as an older superheroine called La Espectra, and what seems to be an alternate older version of Rocky from Hernandez's other L&R comics continuity as a non-powered hero.

I suspect there is some grand scheme behind it, and that every Ti-Girls character maps carefully back to some older L&R character in Hernandez's head. I didn't find that to be clear at all in the story itself.

The Maguffin of this story is Penny Century, who has been chasing superpowers -- and drifting more towards being a cartoon of herself and away from being a real person like the girls she went to high school with as Beatriz Garcia -- for twenty-plus years. She's finally gotten those powers, fallen afoul of the evil witch who gave them to her, and is chasing two of her multiple children, who also both have superpowers. She's mostly a force of nature rather than a real character in this story, but there are some traditional villains as well (that evil witch, the standard evil-version-of-a-major-character, a brick-like cowgirl) and characters somewhere in the middle, who can be misunderstood heroes or cackling anti-heroes as the moments dictate.

There's a lot of action and fighting and superhero dialogue, but I can't say I found the Ti-Girls saga particularly successful. It's silly and broad and dumb in boring ways I've seen a thousand times before. I didn't find that it worked to Hernandez's strengths at all, but it's clearly something he wanted to do, and grows out of a lot of elements in his work over the years -- wrestling, the strength of women and their friendships/rivalries, that recurrent strain of SF and related fantastic elements -- so, well, here it is.

The last hundred pages of Angels and Magpies collects "The Love Bunglers," a long, powerful story about Maggie and Ray and Calvin and Maggie's original best friend Letty and growing older and lost connections and how what happens to us in childhood never lets go of us. It's got at least three of the saddest, most powerful moments in Love and Rockets. And it has an ending I still don't know how to take.

(I'm not going to tell you what the ending is, or what my big question is about it. But, on the one hand, it's clearly an echo of Hernandez's happy Maggie-and-Hopey vision at the end of L&R volume one, which is a big clue. But does that means it's exactly like that earlier vision? I haven't actually read any of Jaime Hernandez's later stories yet -- I started piling up Love and Rockets for a big complete re-read almost a decade ago and finally got to it this year -- so I don't know what happens next.)

I think "Love Bunglers" works even if you've never read Hernandez before. You might not know what happens to Letty, or get all of the nuances of Maggie and Ray's long relationship, but the story provides what you need. I'd still say the best way to read Jaime Hernandez is to start with Maggie the Mechanic, but if you want to give him one shot with his best work, Love Bunglers was published as a standalone -- go try it.

As I said before, this is where I paused reading L&R -- not on purpose, but it worked out that way. So everything from here on, an entire decade of comics, will be new to me. Come back next week to see if that changes how I write about the work of Los Bros Hernandez.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/15/18

Hi Folks!

I've had a lot of things in "Reviewing the Mail" the last few weeks, with a couple of major book-shopping trips. (In fact, my credit-card bill came in, and The Wife politely asked that I try to space out book-shopping trips a little more in future.)

Possibly because of that, and possibly because I've still got most of the books I just bought, and possibly because of all of the other reasons, I don't have anything to write about this week.

So this is one of those short, pointless posts to say that, yes, it is the time it usually goes up, and, no, there's nothing particular to mention. See you later.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #259: Soonish by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

Pop-science is all about dreams -- how everything is going to be wonderful and perfect once we have flying cars, or beamed power, or can start mining He3 on the Moon. Some of the dreams may be nightmares, about how those slavering Reds are far ahead of us technologically and are going to murder us all while we sleep, but they're mostly positive.

The future is supposed to be better than the past, after all.

And so pop-science will never die out, as long as there's still optimism about the future and still scientists doing weird things that might turn into consumer goods someday.

What I have for you today is a big fat slab of fairly-new pop-science optimism. Soonish examines almost a dozen things that might happen, sometime in the next generation, that, as the subtitle puts it, could "improve and/or ruin everything." It's from working scientist Dr. Kelly Weinersmith and her husband, web cartoonist Zach. (Who provides at least the comics panels interspersed throughout, probably much of the humor, and maybe more than that.)

I recently grumbled about "monkeys in cans" while writing about a SFnal graphic novel -- this was the other reason for that grumble. The Weinersmiths' very first chapter is "Cheap Access to Space," and I'm afraid they mean making it easy for gravity-requiring, easily-damaged-by-radiation humans to get into space. This mostly for the usual Grand Destiny of Man! reasons, and ignoring that there are some useful things you can mine or manufacture or do in space, but vanishingly few that require monkeys to do them.

That, I'm afraid, sets the tone for the rest of Soonish: it's all very wide-eyed about things that quite likely would be more-or-less horrible if and when they actually happen (programmable matter! molecular production of engineered molecules! brain-computer interfaces!) Oh, sure, there are potentially good uses for everything they discuss in this book -- letting random people create any molecules they want, even anthrax and Ebola, would be fun for a little while -- but the dangers, which they cover briefly in a quick note at the end of each chapter, are vastly worse and much more likely.

This is inevitable, of course, in any nonfiction book about cutting-edge science: the only people who really know it well (and so will talk at length to book writers) are the people doing the research, and they're always convinced that what they're doing is worthwhile and meaningful. (Like all of us.) Unless a writer happens to luck into a field with several competing options, leading to scientists who all gleefully backstab each other to promote their own approaches, it's all pretty collegial and utopian.

A writer would have to deliberately seek out negative sources for each positive source, and who wants to spend so much time being that much of a downer? Besides, outside of politics, happy always sells better than horrible.

If you don't mind a heaping helping of Pollyanna in your futurism, Soonish is entertaining and even enlightening: the Weinersmiths got a lot of people doing interesting stuff (which may or may not pan out) to talk to them, and they're pretty good at explaining it all in layman's terms. But there is a hell of a lot more "ruin" in any of these ideas than the Weinersmiths are going to tell you about.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #258: The Complete Maus by art spiegelman

How long do you trust your value judgments?

If you think of something as a masterpiece, does that still count if you last read it twenty years ago? Or do you need to revisit the greatest works periodically, at least if you're going to say they are masterpieces in public?

The world is full of artistic works, and we can't spend all of our time re-checking our old opinions. But, once in a while, we do need to. We need to remind ourselves of things that really are that powerful, that important, so we can talk about them in public again.

And so I re-read The Complete Maus recently. It's paradoxically both an easy book and a very difficult one: clean and pointed and drawn so exactly that the eye is drawn from balloon to balloon and panel to panel almost without effort. But, at the same time, containing such horrors. Such true horrors.

I won't bury the lede: it's as powerful as everyone tells you it is. It's still as strong as it was when I found the newly-published first book, back in the old Vassar College Bookstore sometime my freshman year there. Art Spiegelman's confident, inky line and blocky, clean lettering are still as close to pure comics as anything we have: you can read it almost without thinking, it's so well-constructed.

The structure of Maus is also absolutely sturdy, as each chapter moves from the modern-day world of Art and his elderly father Vladek back into Vladek's narration of WW II and his life during the Holocaust. Even the most bravura flourishes, like the metafictional opening of Part two, Chapter two, are as electric now as they were in the '80s: precisely calibrated and sharp enough to cut with every panel.

If you've never heard of Maus before...well, I wonder if you've been living under a rock, but maybe you're just that young. Art Spiegelman was an underground cartoonist and publisher in the '70s and early '80s. co-founding Arcade with Bill Griffith and then the hugely influential Raw with his wife Francoise Mouly. In the late '70s, he started recording conversations with his father, Vladek, who was a Jewish businessman in Poland before the war and survived Auschwitz, along with Art's mother Anja (who later committed suicide in 1968).

Starting in 1980, he turned those recorded conversations into Maus, which appeared in installments in Raw (which itself was heavily experimental, and changed formats with nearly every issue). There were eleven chapters in all, eventually, roughly yearly through 1991. The first volume of Maus, collecting the first six chapters, appeared in 1986, and the second volume in 1991. And then it was all collected into one volume in 1996 -- that's The Complete Maus. There are no revisions or rewrites or edits; Spiegelman controlled the editorial and printing of Maus from the beginning, and told the story he wanted to tell exactly the way he wanted to tell it.

Maus's formal conceit is to present its characters as humanoid figures with animal heads, in that old cartooning style. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs. Spiegelman was always fascinated with formalist ideas in comics, and he takes this further than most cartoonists would: Jews pretending to not be Jewish are shown in pig masks, and the "Art" character in the modern stories sometimes has a real mouse head, and sometimes seems to be wearing a mouse mask.

There are so many ways that Maus is important, from the trivial (showing that comics can be as serious and artistic as any other medium) to the vital (powerfully capturing eyewitness testimony to one of the worst and most important events of the 20th century). But we read it because it is a masterpiece, because it is both easy and hard to read, and because it shows us so much of humanity (good and bad), of fathers and sons, of the ways societies fall apart and stick together, of survival through luck and resourcefulness. We all need to read it, at least once.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #257: Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson

Look, I'm tired of explaining who Steve Erickson is, all right? If you don't know after thirty years, it's no longer my fault.

He's one of the visionary writers of America in our time: I can't claim him for my generation, since he was born nineteen years before I was. But the writers we love best are always a generation ahead of us, aren't they? Those are the ones who were young and vital and exciting when we were just learning what it was to discover young and vital and exciting writers.

Days Between Stations was his first novel. Published in hardcover by Poseidon Press in 1985, one of the early Vintage Contemporaries in September 1986. I found a copy, as a remainder, probably eighteen months to two years later -- I found it alongside a similarly remaindered copy of his second novel, Rubicon Beach, and bought both -- in a mall B&N store outside Poughkeepsie.

I haven't re-read it since then: not in thirty years. But, with my intermittent Vintage Contemporaries series, I thought I might as well.

Erickson is often called a visionary writer: his books are full of connections based on image or affinity rather than logic, held together by fine writing and striking images, full of things that happen rather than conventional plots, moving through landscapes of startling transformations, as influenced by cinema as by novels. All of that was in place from the beginning -- he's been consistent from Days Between Stations until now.

So to talk about the plot is nearly beside the point, and the characters aren't much more central. There's a woman, Lauren. When she was young, she called the cats in from the Kansas farm-fields of her youth, and then she married a competitive bike-racer, Jason, who was always away and relentlessly cheated on her. After years of neglect, she makes a connection with a mysterious man, called Adrien or Michel, who manages a club they frequent in Los Angeles.

Adrien/Michel is the viewpoint character for a while, and we learn of his complicated American-French heritage -- he's the grandson of Adolph Sarre, a young wunderkind in early cinema who nearly completed a film called The Death of Marat, which would have been a masterpiece.

And then the focus shifts to Adolph as a young man of uncertain parentage, growing up in a secret room in a private Paris brothel in the years before The Great War. He's passionately in love with Janine, the daughter of the whore who he thinks is his mother and the owner of the house -- but the owner's legitimate son is also obsessed with Janine.

(I didn't notice this the first time around, but women are often things to be fought over rather than people in Erickson's novels, symbols and metaphors rather than independent actors. Of course, even the men are driven entirely by forces they don't understand, but the women seem to be instead driven by what the men do, one step further removed from agency.)

The middle of the novel is taken up with Adolphe's struggles, but we will return to Adrien/Michel and Lauren eventually, as they end up in Paris and find some happiness there, for a while, before things get worse again.

Everything is falling apart in Days Between Stations. In the modern plot, Lauren and Jason's marriage is basically a sham, even though she's still deeply in love with him, no matter how much she wants not to be. The world is falling into ruin as well: LA is wracked by sandstorms; Paris is powerless and icebound; the Mediterranean is drying up, leaving Venice high and dry, horrifyingly hot and smelly. In the historical plot, Adolph will never complete his movie, he will never get to keep Janine, and he has to get through WW I before he even gets to those further shocks.

You read Erickson not for the story or even the people, but for the moments and images and ideas: he's the fantastika equivalent of those SF writers most impressive for their new concepts. He writes sentences like no one else, drawing the reader into his dream-worlds and making them real. This is as good a place to begin as anywhere, since so many of Days's elements recur in his novels: uncertain apocalypses, the power of the movies, obsessive men and the women burdened with them, twins and lost children, and the horribly unrelenting power of what we might as well call "love."

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #256: Cerebus by Dave Sim

I haven't read Dave Sim's Cerebus in years. At least ten, probably more like twenty. I fell off the horse sometime before the big ending -- Cerebus famously was a self-published series whose creator declared he would do three hundred issues, monthly, and by gum he did it -- during what I think of as the Sour Years.

(As far as I can tell, Cerebus ended as planned in 2004, but the Sour Years did not. There's a lesson for all of us, as we get older.)

Before that, though, Cerebus was one of my favorite comics. More importantly, it was an exemplar of what comics could do, one of the first comics I picked up at Iron Vic Comics in Poughkeepsie sometime in the fall of 1986, when Young Andy went to see what these "new comics for adults" were all about.

I must have come in with a list of some kind, at least a mental one -- I almost always have lists -- because I know I didn't ask for anyone's advice. Or maybe I just grabbed what looked the most different on the racks. It was 1986; there was a lot of different available, especially in a comics shop near a college.

In any case, I know I got Flaming Carrot and Nexus that first trip. Maybe Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, but I don't think so: I think it was all indies, that first time out.

Other comics had different things going for them: Flaming Carrot was the most bizarre, with a beating heart of pure dada. Nexus was smart SF of a kind I didn't yet realize was vanishingly rare in comics. But Cerebus was easily the most impressive. Sim was a great artist, a masterful letterer -- the least-appreciated of the comics arts -- and a master of fizzy, funny dialogue. He also clearly had a master plan and knew how to pace a story. (Even then, I was looking for storytellers who knew how to do endings. Sim has his flaws -- they are huge and un-ignorable -- but he always knew how to close a story.)

Sim eventually fell into the Autodidact's Curse: swallowed whole by his own self-inflicted cranky explanation of everything in the universe, which of course also took over Cerebus, because that's what happens with autodidacts who live and work alone: their work is the way to reach the world, so it fills up with everything in their heads. And what was in Sim's head, starting in the mid-90s, got pretty vile.

But I'm not in the mid-90s today. Cerebus, the book, is the first of sixteen big fat "phone books" -- Sim pioneered the complete book-format reprint series, the way he pioneered self-publishing, by just doing it damn well and inspiring others to follow. It starts with the very first issue, from the end of 1977, and collects that along with the next twenty-four issues, up to just before the beginning of his first really long story, High Society, in the spring of 1981.

The Cerebus book has four years and about 550 pages of comics, starting with a cartoon aardvark (the title character) in a fantasy story that sits uneasily somewhere between parody and homage of the Roy Thomas/Barry (Windsor-) Smith Conan but rapidly turns into its own distinctive blend of comics-industry parody, comics versions of various old comedians (and some others), sword-swinging realpolitik, every cultural influence that hit Sim in nearly real-time, convoluted scheming among various strains of serious and silly fanatics, and just plain gleeful joy in overcomplication.

At the center of it all is Cerebus: an aardvark in a world of men (this will be explained, sort of, much later, and not necessarily in a way anyone will be satisfied with), and a person who relentlessly hides his depths, and any trace of nuance, in pursuit of being the bluntest of blunt objects. Cerebus primarily is a force of need and demand -- mostly, in these early stories, trying to get as large a pile of gold coins as he possibly can, and generally losing what he has in his greed for more. He'll come to want bigger things later, but that essential nature remains: he's smart, but not thoughtful, and insightful about the weaknesses and exploitable flaws of others, but never introspective for a second. Those traits lead him to fail, over and over, in interesting and frequently funny ways.

As I said above, the story will all go sour, in various ways, later on, as Sim's hobby-horses and the bludgeon of Cerebus's personality combine badly into histrionic misogynistic stories and endlessly tedious text features. But that's a long way in the future from these stories. These stories see Sim expanding from single-issue stories to first two and then three-issue plots, and threading background details into launching points for the next ideas. By the end of this book, Cerebus has changed from a comic about a cartoon aardvark who has a somewhat humorous fantasy adventure each issue into a comic about a big, quirky world, full of conflict and modernizing in a vaguely late-medieval way, across which travels a deeply flawed but very interesting grey-skinned fellow.

This is the rising curve of Cerebus: Sim got noticeably better with every issue, and was doing entertaining and intriguing fantasy adventure from the first page. He got very funny very quickly; his drawing improved immensely from what was already a nice Windsor-Smith follower; and his plots and dialogue filled with amusing and fascinating complications as he built out that complex world.

There are hints of the later attitudes towards women here -- women do not come off well in any era of Cerebus, except maybe the Jaka storyline. There are two major female characters in this book: Jaka, a dancer that Cerebus falls in love with when drugged and abandons immediately afterward, and the Red Sonja parody Red Sophia. Jaka does eventually get more emotional depth than the standard beautiful, loving, loyal girlfriend role she gets here, but that's still far in the future. And Red Sophia is very funny, but no deeper than any of the other parodies, like the Cockroach or Elrod of Melvinbone.

(Though I have to say that I was reminded again, reading this, just how amazingly funny Elrod is. It's a bizarre combination that shouldn't work for any logical reason -- an incompetent, self-important version of Moorcock's Elric who speaks in the tones of Foghorn Leghorn -- but it kills, and every time Elrod appears again it's a high point of the book.)

I don't think any of this is "you had to be there." It definitely will work better if you are of the male persuasion, and doubly so if you don't know where it all ends up. But there's well over two thousand pages of really good Cerebus comics, and they start here. You can always jump off the ride before it crashes. You'll have plenty of time and warning. Comics has few enough geniuses: we can't afford to ignore the crazy ones.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #255: Drawn & Quarterly Showcase: Book Two

I've said this a couple of times already this year, but intense reading is a good way to clear out your shelves. It's also a good way to see what's actually on those shelves, and to try to remember how those books got there.

Sometimes, that isn't clear. For example, I had Drawn & Quarterly Showcase: Book Two, second in a series of five sort-of annual books (appearing between 2003 and 2008) from the publishing company of the same name, sitting up on my shelf. It was published in 2004, and still had a publicity letter sitting in it.

But I wasn't getting publicity copies back in 2004: I was still working at the SFBC then, and if I wanted a book (and had a decent-enough excuse for wanting it), I just called up my sub-rights contact at that publisher and asked to see it. Publicity didn't enter the picture at all until I stopped working on genre books for a day-job.

So I think this came along with the influx of books from friends after my 2011 flood: I got a bunch of things then and put them up on the shelves without always taking a lot of care to see what I had and what it meant. However it got here, it got put away and was forgotten for years, until the press of Book-A-Day led me to make an inventory of my quick-read books [1] to make it to the end of the year.

The point of Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, as far as I can tell a decade and a half later, was to highlight the work of new cartoonists, or ones who weren't familiar in North America. The ex-publishing hand in me sees that as a wonderful idea that inevitably leads to low sales -- who goes out of their way to read things they don't know anything about? -- so I'm not surprised the series ended.

This particular volume has a little less than a hundred pages of comics, with work from three men: Pennti Otsamo, Erik De Graaf, and Jeffrey Brown.

Otsamo is a Finn, who had published short stories in D&Q anthologies during the '90s and had recently embarked on a newspaper strip when this book appeared. He provides the cover, which is a moment from his story "Life During Wartime." Jani is a pre-teen boy who is moving into a new house with his recently divorced mother -- he's quiet and solitary, but, though him, we see a web of connections of the locals, from the grumpy man in the apartment next door to the casually cruel group of boys Jani tries to befriend.

De Graaf is Dutch, and drew the endpapers as well as the concluding story, "Game." This one is about a boy visiting a farm, who learns that there aren't a whole bunch of rabbit there because they're pets. To make it more pointed, he learns this at dinner.

In the middle is the lone American, Brown. (D&Q is a Canadian company, so all of the creators were foreigners for them!) He was at the beginning of his career at this point: only Clumsy and Unlikely had appeared. His contribution here is in that style: a bunch of mostly four-panel pages, in mini-comics style -- all linked into a loosely related story but without any overall title. Two co-workers at a warehouse go through an eventful week -- one has a recurring nightmare, the other has a disappointing birthday with his girlfriend, and both discover the dirty clothes of a little girl in a truck which may be related to a death -- told in individual moments.

As you'd expect from D&Q, this is all on the art-comics side: stories about people, in a literary style, about what they experience and feel in real worlds. They're all good stories, but the Brown is probably the best, with a creepy power that comes from not explaining all of the details and ending with the comics equivalent of a camera lens pulling away. I'd love a comics ecosystem with more space for stories like these, but I suppose I should just be glad the long-underwear crowd has relaxed their grip enough to let any of it exist.

[1] Literally: I have a Google spreadsheet with about 200 lines on it, listing all of the books I have immediately available for Book-A-Day in various categories, with columns for when I expect to read them and what Book-A-Day number I'm expecting them to slot into.

(This is more complicated that it might look, since I'm trying to jam multi-book series into single posts as much as possible, like my six-book Saga of the Swamp Thing post back in July and the nine (!) Nexus Archives I'm reading this week.)

Those of you who actually know me in real life will not be surprised by this.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #254: Jack Staff, Vols. 3 & 4 by Paul Grist

It can be annoying to catch up on something you're enjoying. Doubly so if "caught up" means "read up to the stuff published in 2009, which just sort of stops."

But I just caught up with Paul Grist's quirky British superhero comic Jack Staff, with the back half of the collections -- the third book was Echoes of Tomorrow and the fourth one was Rocky Realities. They're both roughly a decade old at this point, and I don't think there's been any new Jack Staff material since then.

(See my posts on the first two volumes -- Everything Used To Be Black and White and Soldiers -- for more background and details. In general, since those posts are from earlier this year, I won't talk about anything I mentioned then, like the tropism to have a splash panel and logo every time the focus shifts to another major character. [1])

Creator Paul Grist is still having massive amounts of fun with the various things he can do with a superhero universe in these stories from 2004-09, bouncing from plotline to plotline and character to character with glee and verve, throwing ideas up on one page to catch them ten pages later. It's a whole mini-superhero universe, contained in one comic and centered on one minor British city, with multiple heroes (each with their own complicated histories) and villains and others, plus vampires and vampire hunters and plain cops and spooky cops just to keep it all interesting.

The last plotline even introduces a time cop, in the person of spacesuit-wearing chimp Rocky Reality. [2] And I have to imagine that Jack Staff's world would continue to grow and proliferate for as long as Grist wanted to keep it up.

Actually, I can't prove he didn't stop Jack Staff out of ennui or boredom. I can say that it doesn't feel that way: the series doesn't really have any sort of ending. The particular villain in the last issue (#20) is captured, but, as usual, the last few pages see Grist throw some more balls up in the air...and he hasn't had a chance to catch them since then.

With that caveat in place, I'll still recommend Jack Staff. It's goofy and more-or-less serious and full of smart dialogue and quirky situations and energetic art. I usually hate superhero stuff, and I think this is a hoot, and wish there were five or six more volumes full of the stories Grist would have made over the past decade in a better universe.

[1] Saying that I won't mention something and then mentioning it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

"Everything in science fiction should be mentioned twice -- with the possible exception of science fiction." -- Samuel Delaney

The only problem is, I haven't been able to source that quote. I have a vague memory of reading it in a book about SF: I used to think it was in Tom Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, but I poked through that extensively and didn't find it.

So it is entirely possible one of my favorite quotes is either horribly mangled or entirely false. I'm OK with that.

[2] He, too, gets a logo and a jingle: "If normality is out of whack, Rocky Reality whacks it back!"

You can almost hear Grist chortling as he draws these pages: that's how much he's having.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #253: Comics Dementia by Gilbert Hernandez

I'm just focusing on the work in this series of "I Love (And Rockets) Mondays" post, and not getting into any behind-the-scenes stuff. But it's clear that Gilbert Hernandez, for whatever reason, just generates more Love And Rockets-related material than his brother Jaime in the same amount of time, which I can imagine is an issue for a publisher that wants to keep things even.

This reprint series has alternated Jaime books and Gilbert books, except for the everything-else collection Amor Y Cohetes, which gathered all of the stories from both brothers (and their early occasional compatriot, third brother Mario) that didn't fit into their respective main sequences. I had the sense that book had more Gilbert than Jaime, though I didn't count pages.

But this twelfth volume, Comics Dementia, also breaks the sequence -- it collects the Gilbert stories after the end of Love and Rockets volume one that don't fit into the "Palomar" continuity in any way. (There are a couple of linked stories set in a small Latin American town that could be Palomar, but the possible connection is never made.)

Comics Dementia includes sixty-four mostly short stories -- many of them are single pages; a number are three-panel gags like a daily newspaper strip, placed at the bottom of another comic that doesn't user that full page -- over 224 pages. They originally appeared in all sorts of places: many in the second series of L&R, but many in other publications as well. And this 2016 book has comics from as early as 1996 (right after the end of the first L&R series) and as recent as 2015.

These are all experiments or trials of one form or another: surrealism, exercises in visual storytelling, jokes, contributions to anthologies, and a lot of religious and semi-religious questioning. (I wouldn't try to characterize Hernandez's personal religious convictions, but he's been wrestling with the questions of sin and redemption and the nature of evil since the very beginning -- those are important concerns throughout his work, and surface more obviously here in short strips that are all about those concerns.)

It also has to be said that nearly all of this is aggressively weird: the Candide-esque turmoils of the preternaturally positive Roy; adventures of the Leaping Elite, women whose highly-trained thighs let them semi-fly; several appearances by the destructive and frequently giant-sized Love Gremlins; murderous attacks by the fearsome Froat, the brain-sucker of Delaware; three completely different consecutive stories all titled "Heroin;" philosophical musings; vaguely SF and fantasy-tinged strips that tend to end in horrifying violence; a collection of profiles of Catholic saints; random bits of non-fiction; and strips I can't even describe.

Comics Dementia also more-or-less forms a single world -- Roy battles the Froat, and meets the Leaping Elite, who capture Love Gremlins. Or maybe it's just that there's a loose "Roy" world that a lot of these strips fit into, since the more surreal or philosophical strips here don't really fit into anything else. (And there are a bunch of those.)

This is a book for serious Gilbert Hernandez fans, the ones who want to dive into his quirky, one-off strips and are OK with the fact that a lot of them just end in death and dismemberment the way that old Monty Python skits would often end with a meta-joke about not having a punchline. Comics Dementia is the furthest reaches of the land of Love and Rockets, far out on the border with pure-art comics and stranger things. It's an interesting journey, if you manage to travel there, but it's not for everyone.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/8/18

This time out, I have two books, which came because I ordered them from that big Internet behemoth that used to pretend to be a bookstore. And I got both of them for series-completing reasons, which I'll explain....

Rogue Protocol is the third book in "The Murderbot Diaries," a sequence of novellas-published-as-books by Martha Wells. The first one was All Systems Red, which I read last year and which won the Hugo just a few weeks ago. The second was Artificial Condition, and I see I'm so far ahead with Book-A-Day that I wrote my post on that about a week ago but it won't go live until the 18th. (Maybe I'll update this post with a link then. I doubt it, though.) A fourth and possibly final book, Exit Strategy, is coming this fall.

Murderbot is a great protagonist with a great voice, and Wells is constructing an interesting world around it -- this is an awesome series that has me exciting about something in SF for the first time in years. I strongly recommend it.

Mage: The Hero Discovered, Book One is even more complicated to explain. Matt Wagner started out in the '80s as an indy-comics darling, though he's since done a lot of work for the Big Two as well. (As one gets older, one comes to appreciate the value of steady paychecks and dependable income.) His two big creations back then were Grendel and Mage -- one a vigilante crimelord (basically evil Batman) in a slightly alternate world, and the other a mythic take on the superhero idea with characters modeled on or inspired by the people in Wagner's own life.

Grendel went through a lot of series with a lot of collaborators, since it was always a concept that could burn through a lot of ideas and be shown in very different ways. But Mage was more personal, and was designed from the beginning as three long series -- The Hero Discovered, The Hero Defined, and The Hero Denied. Wagner did Discovered as his first long comics project in the mid-80s, and came back a decade later for Defined in 1997. His fans thought it would probably be another decade before Denied, and settled in to wait.

Well, it was twenty years in the event -- The Hero Denied has been coming out in pamphlet form, and is about two-thirds done as I type this. The first Hero Denied collection is coming in late October, and I expect the second one, probably the last Mage book, will hit in early 2019.

I'd read Discovered and Defined several times over the years, but what I had for them at this point was a single-volume paperback for Defined and a back-half paperback for Discovered. So, if I wanted to read the old stuff through again before the new stuff, I needed to get the very beginning.

And now I did. Look for a Book-a-Day post sometime this fall on either Discovered (under normal circumstances) or Discovered and Defined together (if I get ambitious). For now, you could look at this very, very early post on this blog about Defined, where I spent way too much time being amazed that I was writing about comics.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #252: Pictures That Tick 2 by Dave McKean

Dave McKean is a deeply classy cartoonist, the kind whose work is as likely to be first shown on the walls of a gallery as in a publication somewhere. And even his comics that do appear alongside other comical funnies are more serious and elevated than their peers -- aiming to be Works of Art and not just entertainments.

Sometimes this can be exhilarating, since creators working at a high pitch can bring audiences up to their level. And sometimes it can be annoying, as when you're trying to read over two hundred pages of far-too-stylized Dave McKean lettering on a tablet, with the pages just that little bit smaller than they would be on paper.

McKean is never going to go out of his way to make it easy for you to read and understand his work -- not physically (just understanding the words and images) and not conceptually. He's simply not interested in an audience that isn't going to work at least as hard as he does.

Pictures That Tick 2 is a 2014 collection of McKean's short comics; it's so classy that it's subtitled "Short Narrative Exhibition." Set your expectations appropriately.

It's also so classy, or so heavily designed, that it has a short comic even before the table of contents, and a title page that primarily consists of squiggles laid out to look like words but which cannot be ready, on a typically moody McKean background. You know, I like his work, but often a little of it goes a long way.

Oh, and another short strip interrupts the title/copyright page -- McKean is never not futzing around with book design if you let him.

Finally, about a dozen pages in, you'll finally get that table of contents, in a small scripty font on a red-and-black mottled background. (One suspects no one ever actually explained the importance of legibility in book design to a young and impressionable McKean, but instead expounded the virtues of drama.)

There are about five substantial stories here -- two creation myths from an aborted project where McKean would be a showrunner for a third incarnation of the Storyeller series for Jim Henson Productions, and three projects that were art exhibitions/installations converted into comics. Also included are about a dozen shorter pieces -- dreams, posters, wordless pieces, evocative comics for a jazz CD, and other random stuff.

The two creation myths are fairly straightforward: they're very Dave McKean-ish comics, so the words are sometimes hard to read and the virtuosity of the art sometimes obscures the meaning, but the story isn't difficult to follow or deliberately obscure.

The three gallery pieces are more evocative, designed to be fragments or moments that gallery-goers will experience probably but not necessarily in this order, and so the bits have to be more independent and separate. One is a journey around part of England's coast, as a woman chases her runaway husband and finds the art he has inspired in his wake. Another is a series of bits of dialogue related to a true story from McKean's youth, about something bad he did that he doesn't quite explain or detail. The other one, "The Blue Tree," which comes first in the book, is the closest to a conventional narrative and relates pretty closely to the two creation myths -- McKean's notes say he was explicitly trying to combine religious and scientific ways of looking at the world, from his two immediately preceding projects.

I'm not sure what size Pictures That Tick 2 is in the physical world. I hope it's as large as possible: McKean's work is best the more you can submerge yourself into it, to have it surrounding you on all sides. (So he's probably best at gallery shows, and second best making movies.) These are comics to think about and ruminate on and read slowly, teasing out nuance and detail. But they will probably be slightly annoying, at least at moments, even to readers who like and enjoy McKean's work, just because of the barriers McKean puts up between his work and the audience. So make sure you know that going in, if you do decide to go in.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #251: The Four Elements by Roz Chast

The great thing about used book stores is that you find random stuff you didn't expect. Oh, sure, anyone can fire up the Google box these days and get that one book that you know that you want to read, but, without browsing, you'll never know what's two inches to the right of it, or three aisles away, or right behind you as you turn around wondering what that funny-looking bookcase has in it.

I have this particular book only because of that serendipity. I wasn't looking for The Four Elements, the 1988 book of Roz Chast cartoons. (There may be someone, somewhere in the world who is actually looking for it in particular, but I doubt it.) But I was poking around the Humor And Cartoons section of a good used bookstore recently, to see what I could find there.

Maybe it would be Charles Addams or Peter Arno, maybe Gahan Wilson or B. Kliban. That day, it was Roz Chast.

Four Elements is fairly early in Chast's career, but she was fully-formed with her distinctive humor even by the mid-80s. It's full of multi-panel cartoons on quirky topics like "From the Depressing Aisle" and "The Wide-Body Train," "Stores of Mystery" and "Voodoo for Today." There are some actual single panels, but more typical is an oddball wordy thing like "Consumers' Review with Henry Tothero: This Week -- Rubber Bands," which has a chart with prices and ratings.

Chast's world is pretty New York-centric, full of eccentrics and oddballs -- her cartoons are about weird business establishments and unusual obsessions, the opposites of common sayings, decorating tips that aren't quite right, and the uniquely weird. (Such as the table "What Cities Could Buy If Every Single Inhabitant Contributed Just One Measly Dollar Towards an Apartment in Glamorous New York City".) Chast has a distinctive tone more than anything else, a just-this-side-of-hectoring free-associative flow coming as if from a Upper East Side matron who is secretly much weirder than you expected.

Look, you're unlikely to come across this particular book. But you might find a Roz Chast book, and you should pick it up if you do. (Particularly if it has a lot of her cartoons.) And, even more so, you should spend time poking around semi-aimlessly to find the quirky things you love -- life is too short to spend it doing the same crap as everyone else.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #250: Dixie Road by Labiano and Dufaux

I don't want to point and laugh. I don't think we're at that level, anyway. But, even if we were, that's cruel and unhelpful.

But there's always something unreal and twisted about historical fiction about someone else's history. Any historical fiction is a dark mirror, trying to understand how people in the past thought and felt and lived when we think and feel and live very differently. When it's looking backwards and across cultures as well, the mirror might as well be a stone -- that's how dark it is.

Dixie Road is historical fiction about the American South, probably mid-Depression, about women and families and race relations and unions and workers and bosses and corruption and the petty people with petty power in petty places. It's by two Frenchmen, credited here as Dufaux and Labiano. (I've seen first names for them in reviews online -- Jean and Hughes, respectively -- but those don't appear in the book.) They made this book in the late 1990s, a good sixty years after the world they're trying to depict and very far away from it.

I believe this is the first in a series, but I've only seen this one -- I had it as a digital review copy, sitting in a folder quietly for years until I pulled it out to look at it. (This NBM edition is copyright 2000; surely I didn't have it that long, did I? I hope not.)

Anyway, take that as read: this will be about as culturally accurate as, oh, let's say Frank Miller doing a medieval ronin. Doesn't mean it's good; doesn't mean it's bad. Means it's purely fiction, though.

For example, our main character has the far too on-the-nose name Dixie: she's the girl on the cover, fourteen and the daughter of a union-organizer mother and a missing ne'er-do-well father. Her best friend is a young black man who is three years older -- again, something that happens primarily in fiction by well-meaning people three generations later.

There is, of course, a fair bit of violence in Dixie Road, with the forces of the corrupt sheriff and goons hired by the horrible factory owner and gun-happy robbers and probably others I'm forgetting: this is a view of America out of gangster movies and Southern Gothics. It ends with Dixie hitting the road, as the title implies -- not alone, but I shouldn't spoil that.

It's all told in words a little clunkier than you'd hope, like it's an accurate translation of the French original but not as colloquial when turned into English. Joe Johnson did the translation, but I'm only assuming the French was smoother -- maybe the clumsy phrasing was from Dufaux's translation of outdated American idioms in the first place, and Johnson was just accurately turning it into English. Wherever it came in, Dixie Road is just that bit stiff and artificial.

Dixie Road looks good, and moves well, and tells a story with a lot of intrigue and action and sex appeal -- it's a fairly classic example of Eurocomics, and is aimed at adults in a way that the "mainstream" of US comics generally isn't interested in pursuing. I don't love it, because I think it's a pretty generic and second-hand example of that tradition -- but it's still a healthier and more interesting tradition than what we have from the Big Two.