Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #200: Pocket Full of Rain by Jason

There are two ways of discovering beginnings. If you were there at the time, you see it as it happens, and watch as it becomes itself and turns into middle. But most of us aren't there at the time, particularly for creative works -- the point of beginnings is that creators come out of a vast pool of humanity, and can be anyone, anywhere.

So, most of the time, we see beginnings retrospectively, through the lens of what happened later. And that tends to make them into Just-So stories, the same way we judge old SF by how it predicts the present day -- in both cases, the assumption is that Now was inevitable, and we're just looking to see the proof of that inevitability.

But Now was not inevitable. Now is contingent and semi-random, based on a million choices and random accidents. And we need to remember that, whenever we look back. We could have been somewhere else; we could have been other people; we could have been almost anything.

Pocket Full of Rain collects basically the first decade of the Norwegian cartoonist Jason's career -- the album-length title story, a couple of dozen other pieces of various lengths (including one daily strip), covers from his self-published comic Mjau Mjau. It was published in the US in 2008, translated by Kim Thompson, in the wake of several album-length Jason books over the previous few years. All the material here was originally published from 1992 through 2003, I believe primarily in Jason's native tongue Norwegian, though the bulk of the material is from 1997-1998, with the title story coming in 1995. (At some point, Jason started publishing initially in the larger Franco-Belgian market, and even later than that moved to France himself. But I'm not sure when that was, or if it was in the middle of this material or later.)

Some of the work looks like his later books: deadpan animal-headed characters, absurd moments, random genre borrowings. That doesn't mean his later career was inevitable, though. History has no vector, particularly personal history. Jason could have become any of a dozen other potential cartoonists; had a dozen other possible careers.

The title story is skittery, like melting butter on a hot skillet, full of moments that cohere into a narrative eventually but look separate when they appear. At the center is Erik, a young police sketch artist, and the girl he meets and starts dating. Her ex is an deeply possessive international assassin, who is himself being stalked by one of his surviving targets. Jason draws all of the people realistically, but their world is not always so: one date with Erik and his girlfriend seems to be a picnic on the moon,and several of the criminals he sketches are cartoonish monsters. In the end, there's a mostly Jason ending: first the appropriate one for the genre, and then a coda to deflate it.

Everything else is shorter: some only a single page, the longest only five. They're very different in style and subject, as you'd expect from anyone's early work. Jason was clearly trying out different things -- autobiography, parody, slice-of-life, several different varieties of surrealism -- and finding the parts of each that he liked and wanted to work more with. The art is also quite varied, from pieces that look just like his mature style through less refined versions of that look to realistic people to one story, "Papa," that looks to my eye like he's trying out a version of Dave McKean's style from that era.

The back of the book has a collection of non-narrative art: covers for Mjau Mjau and other things, posters, an ad or two, a Christmas card for Fantagraphics. This is even more varied -- and less "Jason looking" than the narrative pieces, and maybe more interesting because of that.

This is the beginning, but is this the place to start with Jason? Well, it was good enough for whoever was reading Mjau Mjau back in the '90s, so it's not a bad place to start. But his standalone books are probably easier ways to "get" what it is he does in his mature work -- something like I Killed Adolph Hitler or Hey, Wait or The Living and the Dead. Jason is worth reading, though, wherever you start -- as long as you like genre materials subverted, dreams dashed, and endings twisted.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #199: Hostage by Guy Delisle

Critics and reviewers love artists whose work falls into distinct "periods" -- it makes our job that much easier, and who wants to work hard on purpose?

I like Guy Delisle's work for other reasons, of course, but he's got a great career for a lazy reviewer to write about, too. First a couple of quick books basically about sex and gender; then the "I lived in this strange place" period, from Pyongyang to Jerusalem; then the three "Neglectful Parenting" books.

I can't say what the shape of his next period will be -- it takes at least two points to define a line -- but Hostage clearly starts a new period of one kind or another. It somewhat connects back to the travelogue cluster, being set in a foreign country and having a Médecins Sans Frontières connection, but here Delisle is telling someone else's story rather than recounting his own experiences.

Christophe Andre had been working for Médecins Sans Frontières for three months in the small town of Nazran (in Ingushetia, the Russian republic just to the west of Chechnya) in 1997, running finances and administration. He was the only one sleeping in the mission that night when a group burst in, yelling "police," in the early-morning hours. He assumed at first that they were there to steal the payroll, but he quickly realized they were there for him: he was kidnapped and dragged away.

About a day later, he was handcuffed to a radiator, shirtless and barefoot, in a dingy room somewhere in Chechnya. And he stayed there much longer than he expected.

I won't tell you how long Christophe was a hostage, or how that ended -- you should read the book to find out -- but I will tell you that the very first page shows Christophe telling his story to Delisle. So we all know, from the beginning, that he did get free, and that there's a happy ending to his story.

That's good to keep in mind, since it's not a happy story: Christophe was alone, confined, in various dingy uncomfortable Chechen rooms until he finally got out of there, and Delisle makes all of those tedious, frightened, anxious moments real, using a day-by-day structure that follows Christophe's attempts to stay sane and keep track of how long he's been captive.

Hostage has no larger political points to make; no agenda. We don't know, in the end, what the aims of Christophe's kidnappers was -- they ask for a big ransom, but we never know if they grabbed him for pure greed or to fund some militia or army.

What we have, instead, is Christophe's day-to-day experience: tied down, controlled, in someone else's power, in an unknown place in a country where he doesn't speak the language, forever thinking about fighting back or escaping but wondering if he would have any chance if he tried.

It's a tough book to experience, but worth it. Delisle has expanded beyond his own personal life to show us something larger, for the first time, and done it brilliantly.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #198: Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto & Marco Videtta

The corrupt town is traditionally a small one in fiction. It may be a city, it may be a local powerhouse, but it's not the center. The rot may be pervasive and all-encompassing, in the darkest noir, but it's still contained. Telling the same story in a world capital would be too depressing -- too much like the news.

Poisonville, a noir novel by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta, is set in a deeply corrupt city in Italy's booming Northeast, about a decade and a half ago. The city is never named: it can be any one you want it to be, or all of the region collectively. Call it Personville, if you want to be cheeky. (Poisonville as a title is new for the English-language edition; the Italian original was named the more straightforward Nordest. The reference is to Hammett's Red Harvest -- possibly the first major corrupt-town story -- in case you missed it.)

A gorgeous young woman, Giovanna Barovier, is about to be married to rising young lawyer Francesco Visentin. But she's having an affair with another man. She meets him, has sex with him for what she knows will be the last time. Afterward, she tells him that she has to tell everything to her fiance -- and her lover drowns her in a bathtub to keep his secrets hidden.

The wedding, obviously, does not happen. Francesco is devastated -- almost as much because his fiancee was having an affair as because of her death, and maybe even more so because she had dark secrets in her life he didn't know about. Worse for him, he's initially accused of the murder: she was found in her bathtub at home, and his alibi for the time of death is vague. (We know he didn't do it, because we know her lover killed her -- but we don't know who her lover is.)

Carolotto and Videtta roll out the plot from there, with a medium-sized cast of mostly the prosperous and successful elite of this city -- though including Giovanna's disgraced father, who went for jail for burning down his business for the insurance and incidentally killing a few people in the fire. A few, including Giovanna's best friend Carla, are trying to trace and fight the corruption, but most are at least mildly complicit in it.

Francesco's father Antonio and The Contessa -- head of the other most prominent family in town -- are spearheading a semi-secret plan to move the Torrefranchi Foundation, some vague consortium of local businesses, from Italy to Romania, where labor is much cheaper and regulations much laxer. For the time being, someone is dumping toxic waste near the city, which Carla is trying to trace.

This is not a mystery. Francesco is cleared of suspicion in the murder not because he investigates anything, but because his father fixes it. He does snoop around a little with Carla, but that doesn't accomplish much.

It is a noir novel, and so the accumulating pages are devoted to showing, from all sides, just how corrupt this town is and just how deep the rot goes, through nearly all of the characters.

In the end, we learn both the plans for the Foundation and the identity of the murderer/lover -- and both are, as they must be, the worst possible ones. And, because this is a good noir novel, they are related.

This is a very place-particular noir; the authors spend a lot of space talking about how horrible and corrupt the Northeast is in general terms. Noir often has that kind of rhetoric, either from a particular character or the narrative voice, and it often is about the specific place. But, for most of us, Italy's Northeast isn't a place we know much about, or can conceptualize clearly, so it can feel like stridency or monomania. ("OK, we get it -- it's a rotten area full of rotten people.")

It's also entirely a Girl in a Fridge book: Giovanna exists to be beautiful and loved and at the center of mysteries, and has to die on page 20 so a man can get angry and upset and engaged. I enjoyed Poisonville, and it's good at what it does, but I wish it had been Carla's story -- she's an outsider, almost entirely innocent of the Northeast's corruption and not tied to these intertwined families, plus a woman, plus the dead woman's best friend. She has the most reason to want the truth, and the best standing to force it out.

Ah, well. It's futile to mourn the novels that weren't written. This is the one that exists, and it's deeply noir in the best and most unfortunate ways: know that if you decide to read it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #197: Human Diastrophism by Gilbert Hernandez

Heartbreak Soup set the stage in Palomar, a sleepy Latin American town -- probably Mexican, though creator Gilbert Hernandez has been at pains to never say definitively where it is -- and introduced us to a large cast. Those stories came out over a roughly five-year span in the early '80s, and we probably expected Hernandez would continue with more of the same: move somewhat backward and forward in time, telling more stories about the complicated lives of that large cast.

But Human Diastrophism shows that Hernandez will always push to make his stories more complex, closer to life -- all families and towns are more connected than any fiction can show, but he'll keep trying. And this slightly shorter book collects stories from a ten-year span, implying Hernandez was busy with other things during that time. (We'll see some of those things, in later books in this series. And some of them, I'm sure, are the usual distractions of life.)

This book opens with the long title story -- the longest "Palomar" story Hernandez has made, even now -- a near-apocalyptic story of political radicalization, rampaging monkeys, the toxic mix of hate and love, and the coming of a serial killer to Palomar. As long, intense stories must, it changes many dynamics in Palomar, for many of the characters, and has a devastating ending.

After that, the focus shifts, first as several younger Palomar characters move to the US (Southern California, precise location not quite explained clearly). Then Hernandez throws in additional complications: living in the same region is a previously unchronicled side of Luba's family. He moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the borders between the US and the countries south, to sketch the life of Maria, Luba's mother, and her previously unknown, and much younger, daughters Petra and Fritz. These stories tend to circle Gorgo, a now-aged mob fixer who was ferociously loyal to Maria, in his quiet way, and who protected her and her three daughters from various mobsters (we assume; this is all vague) over decades, mostly by hiding them away from each other and the mobsters.

That all gives Hernandez a chance to build out a new dynamic: Palomar is a community of people who are sometimes related, but the connections there are more often of love and friendship, marriage and rivalry. Maria's family is a family, even if the two sides of it -- Luba and her many daughters on one side, Petra and Fritz and Petra's young family on the other -- were unaware of each other's existence for more than two decades. So the stories later in this volume work through those family dynamics, and through the secrets Maria and Gorgo kept for so long. It does mark what we might think of a shift from "Palomar" stories to "Luba's family" stories -- never complete, and not a clean distinction, but definitely a shift.

The timeline is still a bit fuzzy -- the "now" stories with Gorgo, after Maria's death, are probably taking place in the early 1990s, when Petra and Fritz are in their late twenties and Luba is somewhere in her forties (with children from nearly as old as Fritz all the way down to barely out of diapers). Those Gorgo stories are mostly from '93-95, coming out in a burst, maybe a flood of new ideas after all the time spent on "Human Diastrophism," maybe after time off after that story was complete. (Many of the shorter stories here are dated something like "'93-'94-'95," but "Human Diastrophism," all 105 pages of it, are dated 1987, and I'm sure it took longer than that.)

As always, Hernandez revels in the messiness of life: his people have complicated lives and motivations, and bounce off each other in unlikely but always believable ways. Some of them are deeply misguided or self-destructive, or weaker than they need to be, or deeply unhappy with things they can't change. None of them are villains; none of them are heroes (except in their own minds, where everyone is the hero).

This book has one of his single best stories, the title piece. And it showcases a massive opening up of his world, with the beginning of his incorporation of crime-fiction and B-movie elements as well. If you're serious about comics at all, this s a book you should know.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/14/18

Earlier this year, I switched up these Reviewing the Mail posts so that they include books that I get from ways other than the mail. The positive side is that there are many fewer "hey, nothing came in the mail this week" posts. Burt the potentially negative side is that I now have to explain where the different books came from.

(Not a particularly major negative, I'll admit.)

So the four books I have this week all came: from the library. And I expect to have more library books next week, since several are already on hold for me in the closed-for-the-weekend library building.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II looks like a World Cup score (Ms. Marvel advances!), but it's just another superhero crossover. This series -- written by G.Willow Wilson, with art this time out by Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa and Mirka Andolpho -- is generally listed as one of the superhero comics of interest to people outside the usual audience. In this case, I think "outside the usual audience" means younger, less WASPy, and more female, and possibly "more liberal" and/or "interested in less cliched stories." I've been reading it in fits and starts, and have not been as impressed as the hype led me to believe. But I'm reading a book a day this year, which means finding more more more to read.

I'm pretty sure I read Formerly Known as the Justice League in floppy-comics form, when it was coming out in 2003, but that was before this blog started and I lost all those old comics in my 2011 flood. And I did like the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis/Kevin Maguire incarnation of the Justice League, since, frankly, you can't take superheroes all that seriously anyway.

Soonish is a book I thought was comics, but it seems to be mostly prose. So it may not end up getting read before it needs to go back to the library, sadly. It's a nonfiction book about various technologies that don't quite exist yet but probably will soon, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith -- she's a biology professor/researcher, and he's the cartoonist of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

And Imagine Wanting Only This is an autobiographical graphic "novel" by Kristen Radtke, which I've actually already read as I type this. (Book-A-Day makes me get to things quickly.) It's good and distinct and interesting -- look for my post about it on the 27th.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #196: Shade, the Changing Man, Vol. 1: The American Scream by Milligan, Bachalo & Pennington

I'm here because I'm looking backwards. Why else would any of us be reading the first collection of a nearly thirty-year-old comics series? [1]

I recently read the first collection of the current Shade the Changing Girl series, which reminded me of this Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo/Mark Pennington version, which began in 1990 and ran through 1996, ending after 70 issues. (As usual for corporate comics of that era, Milligan wrote the whole run, but the art team changed more often -- Bachalo ended up drawing more than half of the series, through.)

It was a fairly typical Vertigo series of the day, one of the many that followed Alan Moore's template from Swamp Thing: start with a minor DC character, one as close to a joke as possible. Take him seriously, but not in comic-book terms -- take him seriously in world-historical terms, bring in whatever other pop-culture or serious-culture material that energizes you and you can bolt onto it somehow. Run that character through horror plots, generally one or two issues long, each one encapsulating something frightening or appalling or norm-breaking. Do it all seriously, at a high pitch of writing, narrated strongly. Set it officially in the DC Universe, but don't focus on the usual four-color stuff -- maybe show it on the TV, maybe let it wander through the edges of your story.

That produced Animal Man, and Sandman, and of course Shade. It was a great model as long as Karen Berger could find new brilliant British writers to relaunch obscure DC characters, but inevitably that well ran dry [2], and Vertigo shifted to other models. Shade was probably the last big success of that initial model -- depending on if you count Sandman Mystery Theatre as this model or a Sandman brand extension -- and also brought in the perennial popular "British person ponders America" genre.

The British person in this case was Peter Milligan, who'd come to attention mostly from his work with artist Brendan McCarthy, later collected as The Best of Milligan & McCarthy. And he made the obsession of Shade America's vision of itself -- every one of those early Vertigo books had an obsession, from Sandman's storytelling to Animal Man's animal liberation to Doom Patrol's dada. As usual, a British person both sees things Americans usually miss and fundamentally misunderstands some things Americans know so deeply they don't bother to explain.

The first six issues of that 1990 series were collected at various times over the three decades since -- what I have here is the first of a series of trade paperbacks from 2009, which seems to have petered out after three volumes, with most of the series left uncollected. But that's the way of the world, isn't it? In any case, I did find and read this book: Shade the Changing Man, Vol. 1: The American Scream.

As usual for Vertigo of the time, the Milligan Shade reconfigured the premise: instead of the original Steve Ditko crew-cut superhero punching villains with the power of his shiny sunburst vest, this Rac Shade is on an epic, ill-informed quest to save his world and our own from "madness." His powers are larger, less well-defined, and largely out of his control. And he's no longer bodily on Earth: the M-Vest propels him into the body of someone on Earth. In this case, convicted serial killer Troy Grenzer, on the night he's about to be executed.

Shade/Grenzer escapes, psychedelically, from the electric chair -- this is the Deep South, for maximum American death penalty frisson -- and lands with Kathy George, a young woman whose parents and boyfriend were Grenzer's last victims. He of course is able to convince her he isn't really Grenzer, partially because of the continuing eruptions of unreality he triggers and partially because Kathy is only moderately sane to begin with.

And they set off on the road, to find the American Scream in all of its manifestations, to confront it and stop it and foil it, any way they possibly can. To save the world: this is a comic book.

Shade is episodic from that point, like the horror version of the old Incredible Hulk TV show. (Actually, there was a comic version of the Hulk that was basically a horror version of the TV show around the same time: American comics liked episodic stories then, and we were besotted with horror.) In this volume, Shade and Kathy go to Dallas to reenact JFK's assassination, and then on to Hollywood for some silver-screen madness.

As I recall, it goes on like that: hitting the places in America that foreigners know about and relate to. Shade eventually changed bodies, gathered more of a supporting cast -- did all of the things that help keep an episodic story going. But this set the tone: Shade was about Why the Hell is America So Crazy.

In this first volume, the various partial answers include racism, gun violence, and obsession with image -- not a bad start. I wouldn't cite it in a doctoral thesis, but it's sturdy enough as an argument. And, sadly, maybe even more true almost thirty years later.

These are early Vertigo comics, meaning they're strongly narrated, heavily written. This was an era of comic writer as the strong voice, pouring out his (and it was his, in that era) obsessions and thoughts and ideas, filtering them through fantasy and fight-scenes. Milligan was a strong writer with things to say, so he does that well.

He's well-supported on art, though I think the technology for either the coloring or reproduction or both weren't always up to the ambitions of the team. (Colorist Daniel Vozzo, as well as penciller Bachalo and inker Pennington.) Sometimes there are muddy moments, or too-obvious white highlights, or other artifacts of circa-1990 comics printing. I'd love to see this recolored, preferably by Vozzo, with the full panoply of modern technology -- but that will never happen, since we couldn't even manage to get this version entirely republished.

The American Scream is still relevant: it's still recognizably about the same America we live in today. Some of the details have changed, and we have fancier gadgets now. But the madness is much like Milligan described it.


[1] I can't think of any other possible reason someone might want to read a story about an epic journey across the USA to find out why it's gone so crazy.

[2] The well of "new brilliant British writers," that is. The well of obscure DC characters is endless, and refilled annually.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #195: Grass Kings, Vol. 1 by Matt Kindt & Tyler Jenkins

We all need to learn to read descriptions and understand what they mean. Sometimes the prose is beautiful and evocative, but afterward you realize it was talking about things you're generally not interested in. Beauty and evocation are very nice, but substance is what you end up with.

I've had that lesson more than once from restaurant menus -- one of the greatest strongholds of purely evocative, adjective-drenched writing in our world, and a place where we all need to stop and think "wait, do I like the taste of fennel?" But it can happen anywhere.

Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins's Grass Kings, Vol. 1 sounds evocative -- "the critically acclaimed rural mystery series chronicling the tragic lives of the Grass Kings, three brothers and rulers of a self-sufficient trailer park kingdom -- a fiefdom of the hopeless and lost seeking a promised land." But what does "self-sufficient trailer park kingdom" actually mean?

In this case, it's something like a group of sovereign citizens: who declare they can separate themselves from the country they live in by pure force of will and ignore all outside laws and powers. To be positive about it, the Grass Kings and their vassals seem to be substantially less racist than real-world sovereign citizens -- and may actually shade somewhat to the left-wing back-to-the-land side rather than the right-wing this-is-mine-because-I-can-hold-it side, despite the regal language. But they're our heroes, and they're emblematic of one of the worst kinds of rot in America today, the idea that you can separate yourself from the bad people and make a purer, true society with just your hand-picked few.

If I'd realized that, I don't know if I would have read Grass Kings; I don't want to any way normalize that kind of radical separatism, the idea that if you're smart enough and have enough guns, you can hole up on Your Land and keep the rest of the world out.

Or maybe, like so many of the smarter comics series these days, Grass Kings is a lower-budget version of classy cable TV. No one thought Breaking Bad was advocacy for the meth-dealing lifestyle, after all. But a certain rot sets in when too many of your heroes are the wrong kind of outlaws.

Anyway, Grass Kings is the story of "the Grass Kingdom" -- a peninsula on a lake, somewhere in the USA (my guess is the Upper Midwest), just outside the small town and presumed county seat Cargill. The Grass Kingdom is home to a group of squatters, and has been for a century or more: there's no indication, in the first six issues collected here, of who the actual owner of the land is or if that entity knows or cares about the squatter community. Three brothers, Robert, Bruce and Ashur, are more or less in charge of the area, seemingly just because their father was before them.

How many of them are there? We see perhaps a couple of dozen: about as many as might be extras if this were a TV show. Maybe that's the whole Grass Kingdom, maybe there's as many as a hundred people. But that's the upper limit of their size, and it's shown as hermetic enough that new squatters arriving is a major event and anyone leaving would be a shocking event.

The land is full of real houses and barns -- built according to some building codes, sometime, by professionals who we won't think about too much -- and some bashed-together dwellings from shipping containers and other materials that we similarly won't think about how they got there or who assembled them. (Insert a vague speech about "barn-raising" here, heavy on the community spirit.) The Grassites -- they're not actually called this; they're not called anything; I just need some word to describe them -- sneak into Cargill, now and then, but mostly seem to be self-declaredly self-sufficient. They do have a small general aviation field, and so presumably can do some small trade with other people. But what other people, and what kind of trade goods can this postage stamp send out that's valuable enough to ship in a small plane?

They wear manufactured clothes and use manufactured guns and drive manufactured cars. Their houses have sinks and lights, which I assume work, somehow. They have all of the trappings of modern consumer society, achieved mysteriously, while they insist that they are entirely separate and distinct from that society. They need plumbers and carpenters and farmers and mechanics and shopkeepers and light industry and water works and power generation. What we see they have is an alcoholic "king" and his brother the ex-cop and a whole bunch of guys with guns.

(They seem more like a sedentary biker gang: it would all make a lot more sense if they were making and dealing meth.)

You might guess that I don't actually believe them, or think what they claim is a good thing at all.

I said I thought Cargill was a county seat. That's because there is a Sheriff there, and I'm afraid Sheriff Humbert is  just what you'd expect: autocratic, declared to be corrupt, clearly fond of his power. We see no sign Cargill also has courts or anything else county seats have; this is presumably a very, very rural county in a state that has a very light hand and Cargill is just the widest part of the road in those parts.

On the other hand, the Grassites are mad at Humbert mostly because of a single criminal investigation more than a decade ago, where there may have been a serial killer terrorizing the area. Their complaint is that Humbert buried the investigation, but it seems like all or most of the deaths took place in "the Kingdom" -- and don't they claim to be independent? How can you demand to be sovereign and separate and in the same breath whine about a lack of police protection from the people you insist have no power over you?

So Humbert is definitely a power-mad asshole, and probably a deeply horrible person in multiple ways (including, I would bet, either being the serial killer or protecting him), but he's not exactly wrong here. And the way to deal with a corrupt Sheriff is definitely not to wall yourself off on a peninsula and pretend he doesn't exist.

The story in these issues is set in motion by Maria, Humbert's wife. She's an illegal immigrant, trapped into marriage and trapped into staying with her horrible husband, who sneaks away and swims all the way to the Kingdom. Humbert, being a monstrous asshole as well as a possessive creep, now has two reasons to destroy the Kingdom: not only does he hate it because it's a thing he can't control, but now they've stolen something he considers he owns. So there's small violence and threats and lots of yelling, and, eventually, a major assault by law-enforcement on the Kingdom, which leads to multiple very serious federal felonies being committed by our heroes. (And by the faceless goons on the other side, if that helps any.)

Now, Matt Kindt is a fine writer: his people are true and believable, and he molds events skillfully in the directions this kind of story should go. I haven't seen Tyler Jenkins's art before, but his work is stunning: evocative watercolors that sometimes flirt with expressionism on borderless pages but usually give this story a dark, autumnal feel. They are telling this story very well, even as I think it's a bad story saying entirely the wrong things.

There's a vogue these days for stories about naked power and violence, about societies without democratic controls and where scheming and ruthlessness win the day. Think Game of Thrones, or Walking Dead, or a dozen others. Grass Kings is very much in that tradition. It may be alarmist of me, but I think too many stories like this are bad for a democratic people: they tend to make us think in terms of hard power, of righteousness, of situations in which any action can be justified, of destroying our opponents rather than talking to them.

So I can't really recommend Grass Kings, no matter how good it is. There's too much of this already.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #194: Why Are You Doing This? by Jason

We're in early-period Jason here, soon after his mature style solidified -- Why Are You Doing This? was published in 2005, in between You Can't Get There From Here (doomed love with the Frankensteins: doctor and monster and bride) and Meow, Baby! (a collection of various silent short stories).

Why Are You Doing This? has Jason doing Hitchcock: a regular guy is caught up in events he doesn't understand when he accidentally witnesses a murder, and is then framed with another murder. In Hitchcock, of course, the regular guy meets a girl to fall in love with, learns the truth of the plot he's fallen into, and triumphs in the end.

In Jason...well, two out of three ain't bad, right?

The regular guy is Alex, an artist who just had a bad break-up with his girlfriend Claire. His best friend, Claude, asks Alex to water his plants while he's away -- and, when doing so, Alex sees a mysterious man in a window across the street, Rear Window-style. The man is some kind of assassin, and soon Alex is on the run, helped by Geraldine, a woman with a young daughter who he met by accident. And he does get the truth to the police, and confront the assassin in the end. But Jason, as usual, uses genre materials to tell more fatalistic stories, and to ask existential questions. The one that comes up repeatedly in this book is "how many unique stories do you have that you can tell other people?"

He tells this story in a cinematic way, with lots of panels to the page for the comics equivalent of a restless, moving camera, and short dialogue that could easily be spoken. His people are as blank-faced and self-contained as ever, their emotions only shown through direct action or the occasional outburst. (Like most real people in a real world: we don't have access to their inner monologue, and only know them from what they do and say.)

The plot, like all of early Jason, is familiar: what he did was to take those stories and generic characters and use them for his own purposes. This is less garish, and so maybe less obviously Jason-ized, than the stories with werewolves and vampires and time travel, but it's just as bleak at bottom, just as stark.

In the end, this book is asking all of us: why are you doing this?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 20-18 #193: The Chuckling Whatsit by Richard Sala

Richard Sala is one of the comics world's great originals, telling Gothic-infused stories in gorgeous pages equally rococo in art and text -- even his lettering is that bit more ornate and distinctive than expected. Doom stalks his pages, often of a supernatural kind: mad scientists and maniac killers and secret societies of assassins, monsters and fiends and lunatics. His main characters are young and plucky and very unlikely to make it to the last page -- slightly less so if female, but their odds are never good. He comes from some of the same influences as Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Gahan Wilson, but works much more specifically in the comics medium than any of them, focused on telling stories -- his equivalent of penny dreadfuls -- to thread together the creepy pictures.

The Chuckling Whatsit is one of his best books: his first long story, serialized in the mid-'90s in the Zero Zero anthology and then collected into a single volume in 1997. (And then brought back in 2005 in a slightly spiffed up edition, which is the one I read.) Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote about this book quickly, but maybe I can say something new, or at least different, this time.

This was a serial, and Sala takes advantage of that form -- each eight-page chapter is an episode, with its own action and mysteries, like some downmarket 19th century shudder tale. It centers on a young man named Broom, a jobbing writer in this dark, moody city, who is hired by a newspaper to take over the horoscope column temporarily.

What Broom doesn't know -- but learns quickly -- is that someone, dubbed the Gull Street Ghoul, has been murdering astrologers in this town. And now he's next on the hit list.

Also quickly mixing into the stew of plots and secrets and murder and mysteries and death: a secret organization of assassins posing as a group studying the Ghoul, an independent female French assassin and her mysterious masked boss, a psychiatrist with deep secrets about the current Ghoul and one from twenty years before, and a collection of bizarre little dolls -- which may be art or may be the records of crimes, or both -- the most important one of which makes a horrible laughing sound when jostled.

Sala runs those complications through seventeen chapters of fiendish action and devilish suspense, building up a large cast so that he can kill large numbers of them as those plots go on and the monsters turn on each other. On the last page, we do see one character walk away, as we must.

Chuckling Whatsit is presented well in this edition, with a larger page-size than Sala usually gets, plus a "Rogue's Gallery" at the end: over a dozen inky pages depicting all of the characters of the book, in various thematic groups. Each chapter also gets a two-page frontispiece to separate them, and emphasize the serial nature of this story.

If you've never read Sala before, this is where to start: it has all of his trademarks, deployed well and shown to best effect in this edition. And if you've ever liked Wilson, Addams, or Gorey, Sala should be right up your alley.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #192: Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge by Tardi & Leo Malet

Someday I'll seriously investigate the tendency for Euro-cartoonists to only use one name. Jason, Mawil, Kerascoet (two people in one name!), Mazan, Obion, Stanislas, Keramidas -- the list seems to be endless.

And even the renowned cartoonist (or whatever the adjectival form of bandee dessinee is) Jacques Tardi seems to have succumbed to the lure of the single moniker. The Fantagraphics edition of Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, which I think is his most recent publication in English, refers to him as just "Tardi" throughout.

It's not necessarily a fame thing, since many of those names above started their careers with a single name -- though it may be so for Tardi. If I were feeling more energetic, I'd concoct a bizarre theory based on how Eurocomics are mostly sold as thin albums, hence they have thin spines, and so the market selects for authors with short names, since those are more readable to consumers. But, for now, I should probably get to the book at hand.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is a mystery set in postwar Paris: Tardi adapted Leo Malet's 1956 novel Brouillard au pont de Tolbiac in the 1980s.

He later adapted four more novels by the same author, all featuring series detective Nestor Burma. And Tardi adapted other mystery novels before and afterward -- I've seen myself one of the books he adapted from Jean-Patrick Manchette, West Coast Blues. Tardi has had a long, varied career, but one major strain of it has been "adapting other people's mystery novels into comics," which seems unusual from my side of the Atlantic. (It may be less so in France, which has a large, robust comics ecosystem.)

Malet's series eventually comprised thirty-three novels, eighteen of which were set in a specific arrondissement of Paris. Tolbiac Bridge is one of the smaller set, a story of the XIIIth, the famous bohemian "Left Bank."

I've never read any of those novels: I can't say how Tolbiac Bridge fits into the Nestor Burma series. He shows up here as a "detective," and it takes a while before the narrative even makes it clear that he's a PI. He's not hired by anyone, and isn't working as a PI -- he's just a guy nosing around the edges of a police investigation, in that old Agatha Christie style. He gets dropped into this murder mystery with a letter from an old comrade -- Burma was an anarchist in his youth, between the wars -- referring to him as a "cop" and using a name Burma doesn't recognize. He's supposed to meet this supposed old friend, but the friend is already dead, as Burma learns from the mysterious gypsy woman Belita Morales.

(Every mystery must have a mysterious woman. And she does fill all of the important plot functions of one -- she tells Burma things he wouldn't know otherwise, she sleeps with him, she....)

The dead man was known to Burma, and his death is inextricably linked to the crew Burma knew in those old anarchist days. So he goes to talk to his other old friends, and inevitably finds his way into plots and schemes -- and, eventually, to that cold bridge of the title, in the driving rain, for a final confrontation.

The plot is quite Tardi-esque, full of colorful characters who nevertheless often seem really similar to each other, who run around his large pages very quickly to get through the whole story in a short page-count. As always, I'm not as skilled in talking about art, but Tardi gives his Paris an architectural weight and solidity here, so that a reader almost feels like he can step into the panels and walk around the Left Bank of 1956.

This isn't my favorite Tardi book -- his Great War books are more solid and weighty, the Manchette adaptations I've seen are more exciting and vivid, and the Adele Blanc-Sec books are more fun and frivolous. But even not-favorite Tardi is impressive -- and other readers might well react more strongly to this Ross Macdonaldesque story of regret and lost chances and how choices you made thirty years ago will always come back to haunt you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #191: Mickey's Craziest Adventures by Lewis Trondheim and Nicolas Keramidas

Let's say there was a little-known Disney comic: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories: Mickey's Quest, which was published somewhere obscure for most of the 1960s and entirely forgotten since then. And let's say there was a serial in that comic, called "Mickey's Craziest Adventures," a single page a month for almost that entire decade, with an ongoing story of a crazy caper involving Mickey and Donald and their supporting casts.

We can say all of that.

It's not true, though it seems like it could be. Writer Lewis Trondheim and artist Nicolas Keramidas are telling that story here -- "re-presenting" the "surviving" forty-four of the original eighty-two pages of that serial. But Mickey's Craziest Adventures is actually by the two of them, it was actually created new this century, and all of the "missing pages" are gaps because this is the way they wanted to tell and present the story.

Telling roughly half of a story that's already designed to be madcap and full of random zany adventures does make it even faster-paced and more random, obviously. That would be the point. Trondheim and Keramidas want to make some moments, and vaguely sketch the larger shape of an already pretty shaggy-dog plot, and not worry about how it all fits together and whether any of it makes sense.

So Pegleg Pete and the Beagle Boys team up, first to steal a new shrink ray that Gyro Gearloose has invented, and then to use that ray to shrink and steal Uncle Scrooge's fortune. (This all happens off the page, and is discovered afterward -- even in the "full" version of the story that doesn't exist. Trondheim is making this an story that bounces from one moment of high action or comedy to another, and then leaving out half of those moments.) Mickey and Donald set out after them, through jungles and oceans and deserts and snowy mountains and the moon, usually being chased by something large and hungry. In the end, they retrieve the fortune and capture the villains -- without a lot of fuss, and mostly by happenstance.

What we have here are forty-four comics pages, full of running around crazily, with funny dialogue and cartoonish monsters, drawn lovingly by Keramidas and given a pseudo-aged Ben-Day dots look by colorist Bridgette Findakly. Every page is zany and fun.

If you're hoping for a single coherent story, though, you will be disappointed: that's not what Mickey's Craziest Adventures is here to provide. If you want forty-four crazy pages of Trondheim and Keramidas, you are in luck.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #190: The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S. by Jaime Hernandez

The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. follows immediately on the heels of Maggie the Mechanic: these aren't different stories but more from a long story-cycle that began in the first book. This is a separate book for size and scope reasons, not because they have anything to separate them.

(And, actually, they have been all together, in the giant hardcover Locas.)

So we have the back half of the 1980s here -- these stories originally appeared in the first series of Love and Rockets from 1984 through 1989 -- and the women here could conceivably be a decade older at the end than they were when we first saw them. But Jaime Hernandez didn't let time grab them that quickly, or maybe he didn't start to think about it immediately.

Time does start to pass as these stories go on -- maybe two or three years have gone by since that first "Maggie the Mechanic" story by the end of this book -- but that's the thing about serial fiction. It takes time to tell one story, and then the question is whether the next story will be set immediately after the first (and so further in the past) or "now" (and so there will be a gap of time from the end of one story to the beginning of the next). Mainstream comics traditionally solved that problem by resolutely ignoring it; Hernandez is telling the story of regular people in a regular world, so he doesn't have that option.

He could have gone on telling stories about young punkers, poor and struggling and squabbling, changing the background details each story so they're not stuck in 1981. Or he could have kept telling stories about 1981, moving on only after giving every last detail.

Instead, Maggie and Hopey and the rest started to grow up. They did different things, met other people, had wider lives. They were still stuck in Hoppers most of the time, because they were still young and poor and didn't have much else to do. (The SF elements of the early stories are gone, now -- Rand Race is a mechanic Maggie used to work for, who she doesn't want to see or think about because she still has a crush on him. Maybe he's still in that SFnal world, but she isn't.)

And the real world is tougher and nastier than that SFnal world, with dangers both subtle and overt. Hopey goes on tour with her band, which is disintegrating as they go, and disappears for more than a year. Maggie is dragged off by her aunt Vicki onto the wrestling circuit -- and it's more like the real 350-days-a-year grind of hard athletic/dramatic action here, and less glamorous like Hernandez made it in the first few stories. And we get short, devastating looks deeper into some of the cast and their lives, like "Tear It Up, Terry Downe."

It's a less female world, as well. Two men who will be important for a lot of later Locas stories show up strongly here: Ray Dominguez and Doyle Blackburn. Ray will become Maggie's long-term boyfriend while Hopey is missing, and Hernandez uses Doyle as a lens to see many events from a more outside perspective. And, of course, in the middle here is one of Hernandez's major stories, "Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy Ortiz," all about male posturing and anger and competition -- over women, over territory, over respect, over nothing at all.

This is all strong material; Hernandez distilled Locas down from a more complex mixture in the first book and now is telling the stories he needs to tell about this cast. He's showing rather than telling -- many of the stories here imply vastly more than they say, from small things like scene changes or thematic echoes. So much of modern comics for adults is built on the foundation Jaime Hernandez makes here: the inky blacks, the focus on gesture and body language, the emphasis on the comics language of panel and page for effect, the willingness to change tone radically, the use of real people living ground-level lives, the lack of captions, the way details accumulate over multiple stories over time, the ambiguity and openness to interpretation.

Start with Maggie the Mechanic, obviously. But know that it gets even better, even stronger, very quickly. 

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/7/18

I'm writing this on Sunday morning, the last day of my vacation -- so if I get wistful or melancholy, that's my excuse. But I hope that won't happen: I have a varied stack of books to write about today, most of which I just bought. (Because vacations are the time to go book shopping, of course! Other times can also be the time to go book shopping -- don't get me wrong.)

But first up is a book that came in the mail just yesterday; since that's in the title, those books always get priority:

Keepers is the second book in Brenda Cooper's "Project Earth" series, after Wilders; it's coming from Pyr on July 31 as a trade paperback. The series is set about fifty years in the future, in the middle of some variety of eco-catastrophe; almost all of humanity has been forcibly relocated into megacities and forbidden from leaving, unless they're special novel protagonists NGO-aligned "Wilders." The landscape between the cities is being mildly terraformed by massive robots, to erase all trace of humanity. (It's not clear from my quick glance where food comes from, in a world divided between megacity and wilderness.) There are, of course, people who are unhappy with this -- they're called Returners, and are out in the wilderness illegally. They are our villains, since only the correct people are allowed to be out in the wilderness. Presumably they will all be killed or re-educated by the end of the series, to usher in the glorious utopia.

And from here on I'm listing stuff that I bought -- one book by mail from that giant hegemonic bookstore that is supposedly taking over everything (though you folks don't use my links to it much these days, so maybe not) and the rest from the Montclair Book Center, my local indy store.

Eurekaaargh! by Adam Hart-Davis is a book about inventions that went wrong, featuring a title quite difficult to ensure you spell it correctly. It looks silly -- it's illustrated with old clip art, reminiscent of Wondermark -- and I think it will be a suitable book for the smallest room in the house.

One for the Road, a travel book about Australia by Tony Horwitz. I picked it up because I read Bagdad Without a Map a couple of years ago, and liked that, so I wanted to see what Horwitz had done since 1991 when Bagdad came out. I was surprised to see that Road is from 1987; there's an author photo of Horwitz looking very young and sunburnt and barefoot. So this is instead what he was doing before that.

Apologies to My Censor is another travel book; Mitch Moxley was a reporter from English-language publications in China for at least six years (went there in 2007, book came out in 2013, for all I know he's there still). This is a then-new collection of his stories about being in China, I think, rather than a fix-up of his actual reportage.

Mrs. Fletcher is the most recent novel by Tom Perrotta, who I have the vague sense is in that weird twilight realm between popular and literary fiction -- selling too well, and a bit too glib, to be "really" literary, but more serious than the usual airport novel. I found his early novels really close to my personal experience of life -- Perrotta writes about suburbanites in New Jersey, generally from Generation X -- which was exciting and eerie at the same time. I still have The Leftovers, his previous novel, sitting on my shelf: I guess either the Rapture plot or the fact that it was quickly turned into a TV show turned me off. But this new one is about a middle-aged woman's porn addiction, I think, so maybe I can get to it.

Everybody Lies was one of the big, talked-about books of last year, from reporter and former data scientists Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. I suspect it's going to be more glib than I'd like, in that Explain Everything bestseller non-fiction style, but I'll give it a try. It's about what Big Data is telling us about what people actually do, as opposed to what they tell us they do. (Hint: the title gives away the size of the gap between those two things.)

Is Sex Necessary? was a quickie book in 1929, written by James Thurber and E.B. White to capitalize on the then-current trend for pseudo-Freudian "serious" books about sex, love, and relationships. Since it was by Thurber and White, who both got much more famous afterward, it's survived much better than most quickie books. I've never read it, but it's short and silly, so I just might get to it this year.

Annihilation is the first book of Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy. I was a World Fantasy judge with Jeff, a decade ago, and liked bouncing off his ideas a lot as the panel argued about books over email. Since then -- hell, since before then, if I'm honest -- I've felt guilty about not getting around to actually reading his books. This one is short, pretty famous, and became a shiny movie this year. (I oddly both gravitate to books turned into movies when sampling writers I haven't read and avoid books turned into movies from writers I've been following. I can't explain me; I can barely describe me.)

Artificial Condition is the second of Martha Wells's books about Murderbot, after All Systems Red. I'm happy to read more in this great series, but also melancholy because, if the world hadn't changed, I bet I'd be vaguely planning to do a 4-in-1 of the series for the SFBC as The Murderbot Diaries, and I'd rather be living in the world where I'm doing that. (If I haven't said it before: fuck Jeff Bezos.)

Blackbird Days is a collection of comics stories by Manuele Fior, who I believe is Italian and who I've never read before. It's pretty new, and it's gotten good reviews, and it was half-price.

Tubby is a collection of comics about the title character, a secondary personage from the Little Lulu comic books, written and drawn by John Stanley. It took me a while to click with Stanley -- I still haven't read any of his Little Lulu comics, supposedly his best work, though I really liked the collection of his manic teen comic Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" -- but I guess I have now, since I'm looking for more of his stuff.

And last is Lewis Trondheim's Mister I, a companion to Mister O, which I read and wrote about here many years ago. Like O, I is a silent simple figure in a cartoony world, just trying to do ordinary things and getting killed in inventive ways at the end of each single-page story. O was as stark and funny and precise as the best Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoons, and I have hopes this will be the same.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #189: In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle has written about unicorns before, of course.

I mean, yeah, The Last Unicorn obviously, but he also co-edited an entire anthology about the horned fellas back in the '90s and I'm pretty sure has used them in short fiction at other points. So I'm not going to make a big deal about His Return to Unicorns here.

That's not what In Calabria is about, first of all: it's not set in a world anything like Last Unicorn, or with a plot anything like that book. It's a novella about one man prematurely old -- he's only forty-seven! I'm already older than that! -- working a small farm in the rocky toe of Italy's boot, alone and happy or resigned to it, when something extraordinary happens to him.

He falls in love -- real love -- with a woman who loves him back.

Oh, and a unicorn decides to give birth on his farm. That's pretty important, too.

But falling in love -- opening up to another person, and more generally to life and the rest of the world -- is more important. And maybe that's why the unicorn chose his farm, or maybe the love is just catalyzed by the unicorn. Either way works.

This is a short book -- again, it's a novella. So I'm not going to get into details of plot. Claudio Bianchi has his small farm, with a collection of animals. His contact with humanity as the book opens is almost entirely through the thrice-weekly visits of his postman, Romano Muscari. Romano's kid sister Giovanna takes over one of those days before too long. And that unicorn appears: first seen by just Claudio, then GIovanna, and then rumored to the whole world, leading to the usual complications: media, tourists, wonder-seekers and the unscrupulous and nasty looking to profit.

And, of course, it's by Peter Beagle. So it's wry and thoughtful and filled with his special way with words: a lovely, true fable of a unicorn in one of the most unlikely corners of our modern world.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #188: Royal City, Vol. 2: Sonic Youth by Jeff Lemire

Any self-respecting family story needs a flashback. Whether it's a Ross Macdonald novel finally explaining just what horrible thing happened twenty years ago in Canada or a family saga that stops in the middle of Chapter Two to explain just how Sadie McGuffins first came to the Maritimes from Scotland as a teen domestic servant so many years ago, before too long the narrative needs to roll up its sleeves, dive into the past, and dramatize the things that are still casting a shadow over the present-day cast.

(It's even required if a family story has no connection to Canada, though I'm not sure if that's even possible.)

Jeff Lemire's currently ongoing comic Royal City is a family story. And this second volume, Sonic Youth, is the big flashback -- to 1993, when Tommy Pike was still alive.

(See my post on the first book, Next of Kin, if you're not familiar with it.)

Lemire is either writing for the trade or his publisher (Image) is matching the books to the plotlines -- either way; the first book was one "chapter" of this story, introducing everyone in the present day, and this whole second volume is set in 1993, in what the back cover calls "the last week of Tommy Pike's life."

This isn't a spoiler for anyone who's read the first book: we all know Tommy is dead, he know he died in 1993, and we basically know how he died. But now we get to see him alive, when we only saw him as a ghost or a memory in Next of Kin. The parents circle the main plot this time but are less connected to it, which is only to be expected in a story about teenagers. It's all about the four Pike siblings: aimless recent grad Patrick, hell-raiser Richie, secretly pregnant Tara, and thoughtful, clearly doomed Tommy.

Tommy's been having severe, debilitating headaches -- more and more often, complete with hallucinations. He sees a doctor, has a scary giant machine scan his head, gets the "there's something here that we need to explore more" speech, and is given a prescription for pills to take when his headache is bad. He's told to absolutely avoid any drugs or alcohol wile taking those pills, but he's only fifteen, so that shouldn't be a problem, right?

But that weekend is the big blowout party -- with most of the teenagers in town, in an abandoned factory outside this decaying industrial town. All of the Pikes will end up there, eventually. And will Tommy take other intoxicants on top of his medication?

Well, we know he dies, don't we?

Lemire is telling a single longer, complex story here: it's being broken up into single-issue comics and then collected into these books for cash-flow and market-need purposes, but it's clear that Royal City has an overall shape and structure behind it. Unlike some creators, he's not spinning out a single issue of complications at a time, or even one plotline. It's difficult to say, at this point, how long that will be, but I'm confident that Lemire basically knows -- he may have already written the last scene; he strikes me as the kind of writer who might do that.

I try to avoid predictions, mostly because I turn out to be wrong more often than not. But I don't think we're done with the flashbacks in Royal City. The next volume might return to the modern day (or maybe not), but I'm sure we'll return to 1993 eventually, to see what happened after Tommy died.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #187: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I don't want to say that you should never read famous children's books for the first time as an adult -- the world is vast, and none of us have enough time to read everything at the exact right time. But you should be aware that it won't be the experience that people who read it at the right age had.

It may be a good-enough experience; it may be an excellent experience. But you are not as young or innocent as the reader of that book is assumed to be, and that will make a difference.

I first read Joan Aiken's 1962 novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in June of 2018, fifty-six years after it was published and roughly fifty years after the point when I could have first read it. And so one of the things that struck me the most was that this must have been an influence on "Lemony Snicket's" Series of Unfortunate Events books -- I suppose they could both be riffing on the same 19th century originals, but they seem more similar than that.

If I'd managed to read Wolves in the 1970s, of course, I would have been thinking entirely of the book itself.

Wolves is the first of a series, but it wasn't when it was written. As the new introduction by Aiken's daughter explains, this book alone took around a decade to write -- Aiken started it and then almost immediately had to put it aside for years due to pressures of a sick and then dying husband and the need to make a living. It became the first of a series later, after it was successful. Many series begin like this, when a success inspires a writer to see what else she might be able to do with that particular world. But Wolves stands by itself, as a world that is not entirely explained and is not entirely fixed in time.

It is England, but not the England of the 1950s and 1960s when it was written. Large bands of feral wolves roam the countryside, particularly in the very bleak winters, and Britons have only fairly primitive firearms -- muskets and fowling pieces -- to defend themselves. It also seems to be a traditional world: nothing like The Great War (let alone WWII) has happened to shake up the social structure.

So it's entirely normal for Sir Willoughby, lord of the ancestral home of the title, to set out on a long sea journey to repair the health of his sick wife, and equally as normal for him to leave behind his young and only child, Bonnie Green, in the care of a distant cousin-cum-governess, Miss Slighcarp, who he meets only briefly before departing. And it's basically as normal for Sylvia Green, another cousin and an impoverished girl about Bonnie's age, to be brought to the house at exactly the same time to also be put into Miss Slighcarp's care.

Well, maybe that's all pretty darn melodramatic, come to think of it, and reminiscent of a Gothic novel from the early 1800s. That is all deliberate, of course.

No governess in such ominous circumstances will ever turn out to be good, and so it is with Miss Slighcarp. She has fiendish plots, and torments the two girls horribly for a short time, until she actually sends them off to an even more horribly Dickensian school-slash-workhouse in the closest oppressive industrial town.

This is a short book, so all of these things happen quickly -- and thoroughly. Luckily, it's traditional in more than one way, so Miss Slighcarp's comeuppance is inevitable and won't be delayed much in a book only 181 pages long.

Wolves is evocative in the way of short classic books for children: it states things, and lets the readers fill in descriptions in their own heads. As I said up top, this is a trick that works much better on ten-year-olds than fortysomethings, so I found it amusing but the world a little undescribed and mysterious.

I don't know if I'll read the later books in the series: I understand the second one, Black Hearts in Battersea, follows a secondary character from this book, and the books after that follow a secondary character in that book. And apparently the world becomes more specific, and specifically alternate, in time.

I guess I was hoping for more wolves. This book has two kinds: the metaphorical ones, embodied by Miss Slighcarp, and the actual physical ones, who are a looming danger several times but never more than that. I may have been hoping for the wolves that come out of the walls. They don't appear here...and, of course, it is not all over at the end of Wolves.


Thursday, July 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #186: Paper Girls, Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

So there's a time-war, right? People further up the timeline (the "kids") are trying to fix things they don't like in history, and people closer to our time (the "parents") are trying to keep history as they experienced it. It's not entirely clear if they really are two subsequent generations of the same population -- or, actually, if that concept even makes sense in the context of a time-war to begin with. But one group is "younger" and the other is "older."

This is a universe where time is infinitely malleable, so each change rewrites the timeline until it's in turn rewritten by the next change. But maybe the people in the middle of the time-war know what the changes were, so they can keep reverting them, like some transdimensional Wikipedia edit war.

Well, maybe not infinitely malleable -- there's at least one zone where time travel can happen spontaneously, which is the kind of thing that a writer may later mention was caused by some sort of "wearing out the tape" metaphor, that the successive time-changes actually start to break down the fabric of space-time itself.

That explanation hasn't happened yet. It may never happen. But I wouldn't be surprised to see it.

Four tween girls, all out delivering newspapers early in the morning of November 1, 1988, were in that zone, and have been jerked around that time-war for four volumes now. (I've written about the first three volumes: one and two and three.) They've been to "our time" and to prehistory, and in this volume they make it to Y2K land, where the time warriors are using stealthed battle mechs to fight it out in the sky, for no apparent reason other than it is Really Cool.

It's a comic book -- Paper Girls, Vol. 4, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Cliff Chiang. It's an action story mostly about women, which is nice. And it's pretty smart and twisty so far, though a cynical reader (such as me) may wonder if there are actual answers to the mysteries -- the thing about a time-war is that you can always wipe out one set of explanations with another (better, we hope) one at any time.

So, this time, the girls get back to the early moments of The Year 2000! and the two sides are battling in giant robots -- something we haven't seen before. Why?

Why not?

And why do the future people speak a jarring horrible pseudo-leet-speek jargon -- both the younger side of the "parents" generation and all of the "kids" generation? And why do the older parents speak standard English? And are the group that speak in an alphabet that looks very vaguely Korean yet a third generation, or just an offshoot from the two warring sides we sort-of know?

(It's Cool! And distancing! And futuristic! But mostly Cool!)

We are twenty issues and over four hundred pages in at this point, and answers are still thin on the ground. One begins to suspect the whole point is to depict a time-war where everything changes continually, so there can be new stunning reversals and surprises into the future forever.

I'd take Paper Girls' occasional feints at an undertone of "look how your adult life turned out -- not what you wanted, huh?" more seriously if they connected -- to each other, to the main plot, to anything. More and more, it feels like a collection of moments loosely arranged, with a common theme and set of characters, like a Tarot deck than can be reshuffled and dealt out, over and over again.

They're still good moments, true. The characters are well-developed and as real as any people in modern adventure comics. And Chiang draws all the strange technology and people as solid and believable. So I might just be back for the next book.

But I do expect that we'll be talking about Paper Girls issue #50 before too long, with a brand-new shocking revelation that's completely different from the shocking revelations in number 40, 30, and 25. And that it will stay in that mode as long as people keep buying it. And I'm getting to an age where I don't like encouraging behavior like that anymore.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #185: Stories from a Theme Park Insider by Robert Niles

I'm doing a poor job of planning ahead and picking books for big days in this Book-A-Day run. On the other hand, I don't think I even considered choosing specific books to run on particular days when I've done Book-A-Day before. I may have leveled up without noticing it.

Today is the Fourth of July, the most patriotic holiday of what is arguably the most patriotic country on Earth. [1] So I should have a book about mothers, or apple pie, or bald eagles, or bone-deep rampant hypocrisy, or something else stereotypically American.

Instead, I have a book about Walt Disney World: Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

Hey, wait! You know, I might just have lucked out here....

Robert Niles is a journalist who runs the Theme Park Insider website: he had a traditional working-for-a-newspaper career for a number of years (he's roughly my age), but as newspapers and news organizations in general have been savaged by Internet businesses and bean-counters, he transitioned over to running a small related business connected to something he'd always loved.

And one of the reasons he was so interested in theme parks was because he worked at them during college -- at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, back when the '80s were turning into the '90s. This book is a collection of his stories from those days -- war tales from Tom Sawyer's Island and Pirates of the Caribbean and the Swiss Family Treehouse and the Country Bears Jamboree.

There's also some general memories of the ubiquitous features of WDW in summer: heat, thunderstorms, and parades. But it's mostly "stuff I learned about life while driving a Tom Sawyer barge" or "why I know five random Spanish phrases about keeping your hands in the boat" or "how people can be really stupid and yet totally endearing" and a whole lot of backstage not-quite-secrets and a fair bit of people-on-vacation-are-funny.

If you enjoy theme parks, and particularly if you're interested in both how they operate behind the scenes and amusing stories of what everyday working life is like in them, you will definitely enjoy Stories from a Theme Park Insider. The here-are-my-Disney-war-stories genre is not terribly large to begin with, and Niles is a pro writer.

(He's OK as a book designer -- this is some variety of self-published -- with no obvious mistakes but some elements, like paragraphing and the page headers, looking slightly off. But it's very readable and he clearly has the newspaperman's zeal for clean copy: I didn't notice any typos.)

It is a short book, which is usual for a book like this: no one remembers that many war stories. And it obviously is not for any reader who detests Disney, theme parks, Orlando, crowds, vacationers, and/or the outdoors. But it is fun for those who enjoy some combination of those things.


[1] I don't consider "patriotic" to be a compliment, mind you.