Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #31: Prison Island by Colleen Frakes

Colleen Frakes grew up in a prison. Well, next to a prison, to be exact, on an island that contained just the prison and some houses for guards' families. That seems close enough to me, frankly.

In fact, you could even call it a Prison Island, and Frakes did, for this graphic memoir. (I was going to call it her first, but I'm not sure -- it looks like she's had a book-format collection of her Tragic Relief stories, and something called Woman King which might have been in book format as well. It's the first book of hers I saw, which means precisely nothing.)

Frakes uses a quick, modern, almost sketchbook-like style here, mostly crisp black lines and occasional tones for texture. It feels informal, which matches the tone of the book: conversational, discursive, as if Frakes herself was telling the story to you directly.

That story is one part her life during those ten years she lived on McNeil Island, next to that state prison, out in Puget Sound -- it seems to be almost-but-not-quite the same as her teen years, which is a rough time to live on an isolated island next to a prison. And the other half of Prison Island is the story of the island's closing: she flew back to be there with her family for the ceremony, on one of the very last days the public was allowed on the island at all, and they drove around to see the sights one more time while they could.

The modern story is the frame: Frakes drops into flashbacks to tell the story of the McNeil Island years repeatedly before coming back to the present day. And that life was tough in odd, unusual ways: the island was basically a company town, with only fifty families living there and no amenities besides a ferry to the mainland. (No grocery, no movies, no shopping, no restaurants, no candy shop or convenience store closer than a scheduled ferry ride away, and getting back always meant racing to catch that ferry again.) And convicts do try to escape, now and then, and when they do, the whole island goes into lockdown -- including teenage Frakes, wanting to have a normal sixteenth birthday party.

Add all that to the usual issues of living in a small town and having a long commute to school every day: that was her life growing up. On the positive side, it sounds like the island was mostly unspoiled, with a lot of wilderness and nature to enjoy. And, after a childhood spent moving all the time, as her parents got jobs in different prisons across the state of Washington, McNeil Island was the home she had.

Home doesn't have to be perfect: it just has to be home. And McNeil Island was, for a while. Prison Island celebrates that sense of home: the places with memories, that annoyed you at the time but that you miss afterwards, the places that you'll always remember if only to tell the stories about how much trouble it was. And Frakes makes that real; reading this book is a lot like listening to a good storyteller talk about her life and adventures.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #30: Paul Has a Summer Job by Michel Rabagliati

A decade can be a long time: I read Paul Has a Summer Job in the fall of 2007, and praised it here. I went on to read all of Michel Rabagliati's books that had been translated into English at the time, and keep up with his work since then.

And when I re-read Summer Job this month, I had the distinct feeling that this was a book in the loose series that I hadn't read; that this was, maybe, the last of the older books that I finally found. I knew the character; I knew the series -- but I'd forgotten reading this book so thoroughly that it was brand-new to me.

Is that the power of art or early-onset senility? I'm hoping for the former. But we'll have to see if I start walking into things...more than usual, I mean.

Paul Has a Summer Job was originally published in 2003, and translated into English for the Drawn & Quarterly edition (by Helge Dasher, who translates so much for them, and so well) in 2005. It was the first full-length book in the series -- leaving aside arguments about what constitutes a "full-length book," especially with a creator hearkening to the European model of Spirou and Asterix -- after the album-length Paul à la campagne in 1999. It is as autobiographical or not as any of the books in the series: we all guess that means "as true as anything is," but we are not Michel (or Paul), so we never know for sure.

But that's the way of art, of course. With good art, you don't know for sure. Bad art is flat: it can only be taken one way. Good art has depths and nuances. Rabagliati makes good art, which means we can disagree about it.

This is the story of "Paul's" first real job. He quit school, just before his final year, because the school head maneuvered him into getting a grant to beautify the school and then cut Paul (whose entire project it was, and who was heavily invested in it) out of the work entirely. That sets the tone for a lot of the Paul stories: he can come across as lazy, or diffident, or unconnected, but Paul has a powerful urge to work on things that matter to him, that he can put right. This is the story of the first time that really worked out well for him.

Paul got dragged into being a counselor at a summer camp for disadvantaged kids that summer, at the last minute, through a friend. And he did start out with the wrong attitude, and little understanding of what it all meant. (He was seventeen; need I say more?) But it did all work out -- and Rabagliati had enough distance from the real events, however different they might have been, to shape them into this story, which loops back (like so many of the Paul stories do) to the man as an adult.

Rabaliati's style was fully-formed even this early, with that mid-century look that I tend to call "UPA" as shorthand. Even in this first long book, he was a fine storyteller and a diligent cartoonist. And that's true even if I'd forgotten how good this book was, or exactly what happened in it.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #29: Mr. Higgins Comes Home by Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

The world might not have expected a homage to The Fearless Vampire Hunters. The world may not have needed a homage to The Fearless Vampire Hunters. The world may not have wanted a homage to The Fearless Vampire Hunters. But the world got one.

Mike Mignola has been making comics about vampires (and similarly ghoulish monsters) and the people who stop them (most usually, with punches from a massively oversized red fist) for close to thirty years now. And I suppose he can't be serious all the time.

Mr. Higgins Comes Home is not entirely serious. It's not entirely comic, either, but it falls more on the goofball side of the ledger than the creepy side. Some of that is due to artist Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, whose work is more stylized (in a way that feels European to me, like a Donjon volume) and who uses brighter colors than usual for a Mignola story. And some of that is due to the story itself, which is more matter-of-fact and less ominous than Mignola's usual. This isn't quite Mignola parodying himself, but it feels a little like the Wes Anderson version of Mignola: straight-faced but not quite right.

So we have Count Golga and his Countess, in their massive Carpathian castle on the eve of Walpurgis, when all of the vampires who are anyone will arrive for the big annual celebration. And we have the two vampire hunters, who do not look overly dangerous, just arriving in the local village for a bit of staking. Both are wary of the other; both think the other is a worth opponent. We the readers may feel otherwise.

And then there's Mr. Higgins. He and his wife were previous victims of the Count: Mary became one of the usual blue-faced vampiresses, and her husband is distraught and wants revenge. He has become...something different, which we see as the book goes on. He does not really go home in the conventional sense in the course of this book, but, then again, didn't a great man once said that we never could go home again? Maybe that explains it.

Mr. Higgins is pleasant and fun, but I can't help but see it as another pierce of evidence that Mignola needs to do something else for a while. He's been doing supernatural mystery, almost exclusively in the Hellboy-verse, since the early '90s. I suggest that he needs to do something substantially different: a space epic, an espionage caper, a noir mystery. This particular well is not drawing like it used to.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/27

These days, I use this space to list any books that arrived in my hands over the past week, no matter how they appeared. I obsess about making clear the different methods, because I suffer from an excessively tidy mind. But, in my calmer moments, I do realize that hardly anyone cares whether I got a book as part of some publicity effort or because I paid money for it.

(The people who send me books as part of their publicity efforts are probably the only ones who might care. And they probably don't, either, as long as I keep mentioning their books up front prominently.)

Anyway, I have one book this week, which I bought myself. It's Ofelia by Gilbert Hernandez, one of the uniform paperback volumes reprinting the Love & Rockets series Hernandez does in tandem (side-by-side, rather than together) with his brother Jaime. (And, in the past, with another brother, Mario.) I have most of a shelf of Love & Rockets books, and vaguely intend to re-read the whole series once I'm sure I have all of it.

The "having all of it" is the tricky part. There are about a dozen of these uniform paperbacks now, and I have nearly all of them. But L&R was a comics series for twenty-some years, scattered books after that, an annual book-format comic after that, and then another series of pamphlet comics, I think -- and I've probably simplified the whole thing. Someday I will find the obsessive bibliography of L&R that I'm sure exists somewhere, and can use it as a checklist to make sure I have everything up to that date...and then, maybe, I can dive in.

For now, I have this book -- it was published by Fantagraphics in January of 2015 -- and it's going on the shelf with the others.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #28: The Star Wars Poster Book by Steven J. Sansweet and Peter Vilmur

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of an impressive collection, must be in want of a book to display it in. When push comes to shove, sometimes that man will even write the book himself to show it off.

So thus with The Star Wars Poster Book, which was assembled by Steven J. Sansweet (Lucasfilm head of fan relations, at least as of 2004 when this book was published) and Peter Vilmur (Lucasfilm content developer, timing ditto) from their combined collections and a few additional materials.

As you might guess from the title, it is a book with a lot of pictures of posters that all promoted various Star Wars properties, primarily the main movies (with some side excursions into books and videogames -- not their covers, but posters promoting them, because fans are fanatical about categories). Since it was published in 2004, it covers the original trilogy and the unfortunate prequels, but not the current flourishing of Star-Warsian IP.

I'm pretty sure I had a copy of this because we did it in the SFBC, back when it was published, and so I put it on a shelf. Back then, I figured on reading everything: the books we did, the books we couldn't fit in, the books we lost at auction, and the ones that weren't even my genre but I liked 'em. It didn't work out that way, because it never does. But it was a glorious dream.

This is even more a book for poster collectors than for Star Wars fans -- and in particular the overlap of the two categories. The authors include a helpful listing of all known Star Wars posters in their backmatter, and show pictures of all of the major variations along the way, including a lot of really weird variations for the early movies. (By the prequels, messaging control had been achieved: all posters worldwide were identical in everything but text.)

The pictures are generally pretty, and, for many of us, they will be a reminder of days of youth, and that is probably the purpose for a lot of people. I'm not that emotionally invested in things owned by other people, but there's a lot of interesting designs here, and I did manage to get a big, heavy book off the shelf after fourteen years. So a win all around.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #27: Wandering Star by Teri S. Wood

It is not common, in a space opera, for the main character to spend pages struggling with herself over the morality of war, and even addressing God outright, looking for meaning in the universe. But the best books are always the uncommon ones.

Teri S. Wood's Wandering Star was unusual from the start: a space opera in comics form, originally self-published with minimalist covers (starting in 1993, the heyday of big and flashy comics), planned to run for twelve issues but eventually running to twenty-one. There were three trade paperbacks collecting the series, during and soon after its run in the mid-90s, but both the book and its creator had mostly fallen off the comics radar by 2016, when Dover reprinted the whole series as one big fat hardcover.

(Yes, Dover: the publisher best known for cheap-but-durable editions of classics, for coloring books, and for other things that are cheap to create and produce. I don't know why they decided to get into the reprinting-90s-comics business, but they clearly are in it: I also have an even larger volume of Puma Blues from them sitting on my too-be-read shelves.)

Wandering Star also had a complicated structure, with an older Cassandra Andrews narrating the story of her younger days -- telling the story of how she was the first human to attend the Galactic Academy, and her troubles there. But we also know this won't just be a simple school story, since Cassandra and her interviewer start talking about "the war" on page three.

Unlike a lot of comics, Wandering Star had a structure to begin with. It may have taken more pages that Wood thought to finish that structure, but it was the same story from beginning to end. (And, as I keep saying about lots of different kinds of comics, stories require endings, and the best stories have their endings implicit in their beginnings.)

So Cassandra went to that Academy, and found first scorn and hazing, and then a few friends. That would have been an interesting story, and possibly even space-operatic enough. But they also found war -- or war found them. And Cassandra, with her new friends and their spaceship Wandering Star, ended up at the center of that war. Partially because Cassandra's father was the President of Earth, and partly just because of who they were, and where they were.

This is a talky book, for a space opera: how people think and feel about the huge events is as important as those events, and the pew-pew space battles aren't the point. Those battles, actually, are scary and dangerous and horrible here -- the way real battles actually are, for civilians stuck in the middle of them. In best space opera fashion, Wood has a magnificent villain, with splendidly horrible justifications for everything he does. Even if she had kept the battles off the page entirely, just Narz's dialogue would be enough to make Wandering Star a space opera.

(For my SF-reading friends: I said space opera, and I meant it. Do not expect serious science, explanations of FTL drives, or intricate politics. Do expect planet-killing weapons, esper powers, and crazy ideas to save the Galactic Alliance that Just. Might. Work.)

Wood uses Cassandra's doubts and fears to give Wandering Star a real grounding: this is a space epic where the deaths matter, and the coruscating beams of power do more than superficial damage. If you like space adventure, and you like comics, you have a treat ahead of you.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #26: Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden

I don't know what it feels like to work on a major project for years, and then see the world turn sour and make it all moot immediately. I think Sarah Glidden does, now. I think she wishes she didn't.

I think most of us wish she didn't.

Rolling Blackouts was published in October of 2016. It reports, in comics form, as faithfully as Glidden could make it, on her trip through Turkey and Iraq and Syria in late 2009, along with two reporter-friends, founders and prime movers of the journalism start-up Globalist, and their friend, an ex-Marine named Dan. It's about refugees and the legacy of the Iraq war, about guilt and responsibility and how to rebuild things that have been shattered, about coming to terms with hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and millions of displaced people, about knowing your country did this and finding ways to tell the story of the refugees and survivors and children of war in ways that are honest and true and that people will care about.

And, just a few weeks after the book hit, the USA collectively said Fuck All That Shit. And we've been fucking all that shit ever since. What Rolling Blackouts sees as a bad, broken situation that desperately needs to be improved is now a lost utopia for a country besotted with walls and deportations and demonizing anyone darker than our spray-tanned leader. And Europe is only slightly better: the Iraqi refugees interviewed here, who never wanted to go to the US, the country that got their entire families killed, didn't get a much warmer reception there.

Glidden visited in the era where Iraqi refugees were living in Syria and Turkey, leaving about a year before the Arab Spring erupted across the region. Not too long afterward, Syria fell into its own civil war and massively increased the refugee crisis. Again, this is a situation that looked bad at the time, until we all learned that it could get even worse.

Rolling Blackouts is also deeply concerned with how to do journalism right -- how to tell stories clearly and transparently, how to understand a situation to describe it carefully while not being captured into one view of that situation, how to find an audience without twisting the story to suit that audience. Globalist seems to be plugged mostly into the left side of the spectrum; they talk several times about how getting a story on NPR would be a big win. And, of course, that means that a third of Americans would call everything they do "fake news" and ignore it entirely. (Well, those Americans aren't likely to care about Muslims or people they keep confusing with Muslims, so it might be a moot point to begin with.)

This is a depressing book to read at the beginning of 2018. It's nearly a decade later, a decade and a half since the US marched into Iraq to break it apart, and things have continued to get worse. It's almost as if random military adventures do vastly more harm than good! Even more depressingly, a huge swath of American opinion has religiously ignored or denied that the US has any responsibility at all for the things we broke.

That's all stuff external to the book, though. If you aren't plugged into the news, Rolling Blackouts will be only mildly sad, as Sarah and her traveling companions talk to various people across three countries. Some of them (especially the Kurds, whose territory they travel through early in the book) are in better situations because of the US war, but most of them are not -- and that's leaving out the still-argued-over number (definitely no less than a hundred thousand; possibly over a million) of Iraqis killed because of the war.

Glidden and her friends are serious and committed to seeing what is actually true and communicating that as clearly as they can -- there's a lot of talk about "finding the story," but it's all in the context of reporting on what happened, not twisting to suit some particular slant. That's gratifying and encouraging; it would be more so if Globalist weren't three people and a couple of cameras in Seattle.

This is true and real, and you should read it. Especially if you think the Iraqi war was justified -- not because it will change your mind (Dan the Marine will be mostly on your side throughout), but because you need to see what actual Iraqis say about it, and how it shattered their lives.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #25: The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond

Over Easy was not a fluke -- Mimi Pond really is back in the world of comics, after time spent away doing whatever else. (Writing for TV, I think, and raising a family, and probably making comics I just didn't see, like a long-running series in Seventeen.) That would be a wonderful thing even if Over Easy hadn't been a great memoir-ish story.

But it was, and The Customer Is Always Wrong picks up that same story and moves it forward. This is fictionalized, at least somewhat, with all of the names changed and details of the crimes and drug use possibly altered, enhanced, or downplayed. (I hope not the last: there's a lot of it here.)

The main character is Madge, in her early 20s at the end of the 1970s -- she went to art school the same place the real Mimi Pond did, worked in the same restaurant the real Mimi Pond did, and sold her first cartoons to the National Lampoon like the real Mimi Pond did. My sense is that it's all been fictionalized just enough to be deniable and in the direction to make it a better, more coherent story. And both of those are solid reasons.

Madge is central, but nearly as important is her boss, Lazlo, who keeps the Imperial Cafe and its crazy staff running. This story is true, more or less, which means the reader shouldn't expect the two of them to have a romantic relationship just because they're the main characters. He is important in her life, but not that way -- and it's good to see stories about other relationships among people than just "reader, I married him."

Always Wrong is more about drugs than sex, looking at the famous trio. (There's only a tiny bit of rock 'n' roll, mostly songs that get stuck in Madge's head and the punkiness of some co-workers.) Everyone is doing something at least casually, and several of those Imperial waitresses and cooks are dealing more seriously -- seriously enough for real gangsters to show up once and threaten Madge, mostly out of mistaken identity.

The book covers a year or so in Madge's life, which in retrospect is the time she got serious. The story doesn't show her working on her comics -- that would be a bit too circular for Pond, I think -- but she was, and cut back her hours in the Imperial to give more time for that. And it is the time when she started selling nationally, and when she finally decided to move away -- to go to New York and try to make a career out of this. The book opens with her finding a new love, a boyfriend who's perfect until it isn't, and it ends with Madge heading off on something just for her, pushing her career forward and proving that her ambition was justified.

Pond's art is still lovely, all green-tinted here: her people mostly too tall and thin (doing too much coke at the end of the '70s, admittedly) and the spaces they move through solid and real. It's a look back at a time and place that's worth remembering, and the memories are strong and well-chosen.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #24: The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance by Kevin Underhill

Some books are better than they need to be. In the same ground where a dozen others have hacked out something quick and easy, a diligent author works hard to do it right, finally. In a better world, we wouldn't be able to identify them, because the quick hackwork wouldn't exist at all.

But this is very much not a better world, and Kevin Underhill's The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance is the Platonic ideal and sole example of the perfect "weird laws" book. As an initial proof point, I will note that it was published by the ABA itself, which knows something about this law business.

Underhill is himself an attorney, working out of San Francisco [1], and the author of the law blog Lowering the Bar. (It was one of my happiest discoveries after I wandered into marketing to lawyers; the standard multi-author blog for attorneys is less fun than the one for accountants, but lawyers are more likely to be good writers, due to their training.)

Typically, bloggers who graduate to writing stuff between two covers find ways to re-purpose their old material, but it looks like Emergency Sasquatch is all new material. Underhill here looks at various odd, quirky, and outdated laws -- starting with a Reform Edict from Sumeria circa 2350 BC, which prominently mentions beer (because some things, both reform and beer, don't change), and moving up to the present day -- either that he saw listed in other "weird law" articles or otherwise came across in his researches.

Emergency Sasquatch is made up of a myriad short chapter-lets, each one covering one specific law or provision that Underhill finds particularly silly, and organized into several sections, covering the ancient world, the not-quite-as-ancient world, US federal law, US state law, US city/county law, and finally laws of other countries in the modern day. And every single law is cited; if you had access to Westlaw (obligatory plug for my day-job), you could look them up for yourself. Underhill even thanks an associate in his acknowledgements for checking those citations -- these are not just weird laws, they are verifiably real weird laws.

All that could be kind of bland if Underhill weren't such an entertaining, sprightly writer. I don't know if he's a natural humorist or if he sweats over each page, but his final work-product here is impressive and funny: each little bit is funny and amusing.

Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance is a quick, funny read, easy to pick up for a page or two when you have time, and also quite enjoyable to read straight through (as I did). Again, it's vastly better than it had to be, both in the legal and humor realms, and the fact that it exists at all is at least a minor point in favor of the theory that there is a benevolent Creator.


[1] Purely for people in that world, as I am these days: he's a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a litigator specializing in complex class-action defense. For the rest of you, all of those things add up to "knows what he's talking about, and good at this law stuff."

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #23: Royal City Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

I respect the hell out of Jeff Lemire. He's a creator who could easily go Bendis: stop drawing entirely to concentrate on writing, which is generally quicker and more lucrative. But he never has, and the books he draws are smart, literary, and usually more demanding than the ones he writes for other people.

He walks the walk, man. He not only does good comics, he does them on hard mode, over and over again.

Royal City is his new series from Image -- I can't imagine that it's "ongoing" in the sense that it will run forever if allowed, but it doesn't have a pre-defined length. It's most like Sweet Tooth in that; it will run until this story, in all its permutations, is over, and Lemire needs to get further into the story to have a good sense of how long that will be.

This first collection is called Next of Kin, and it sets up the story: the is the story of a family, and, through them, their city. The Pikes are an unhappy family, which means they're particular: sour mother Patti and quiet father Peter, content to putter with his old radios. They had four children, all of them now near or north of forty: Patrick, a novelist who got out of town and is now getting sucked back as he tries to figure out a third book; real-estate dynamo Tara, ready to rip out the factory the town limps along on to build it a new future it doesn't actually want; and drunkard ne'er-do-well Richie, in too much debt to men too bad to cross.

Oh, and Tommy. Tommy killed himself when he was fourteen, in 1993. He's the most prominent character in the book, in nearly every panel.

That's Tommy on the cover: all of him. Each of the surviving Pikes has a version of Tommy -- Patti sees him as a young priest, Richie as a instigating hellion who leads him astray, and Peter as a young boy -- who seems as real as they are. The Tommies talk to the other Pikes, accompany them through their days, comment on their actions, push them to do the things they really want to do anyway.

Patrick doesn't have a Tommy when the book opens; he got out long ago and has been away too long. But he sees Tommy as he crosses into Royal City -- ghosts are traditionally tied to their haunts in life, of course. And Tommy has a particular reason to haunt Pat, something at the core of Pat's writing life.

Royal City is going to be a book about secrets, obviously, as much as it is about family and the places that aren't dead but feel like they're headed that way. It is fantasy, inherently, but not the kind that makes it into comics all that often -- it's a ghost story, a story of loss and regret and broken things, about the people we wanted to be and the people we became.

It's a Jeff Lemire book. It's strong and vital and true. It's worth reading. He's worth celebrating. Check it out.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #22: Sex Criminals, Vol. 4 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

I have a hard time telling if I'm supposed to take this seriously. I mean, the volume subtitle is "Fourgy," and there's a food truck, apparently a franchised operation, called "Wide Wiener," with a humorously double-entendre theme song. But it also has a melodramatic comic-book plot, and a more kitchen-sinkly dramatic human story.

So I suspect it's meant to be just barely serious enough, so that creators Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky can continue to make silly sex jokes to their hearts' content but that the whole thing doesn't descend into farce. And I guess that's OK with me: after all, this is the story of two young lovers who discover they can stop time when they orgasm.

(That is a sillier superpower than, say, Spider-Man's, but of more immediate use to most people's lives. And not all that much sillier, to be honest.)

So, here we are with the fourth collection of Sex Criminals, which is indeed subtitled Fourgy. We got here, in case you're unfamiliar and need to brush up, from the unnamed first volume and Two Worlds, One Cop and Three the Hard Way.

Sex Criminals is, at this point, already at least halfway to being a Marvel Max comic -- the sex is mostly tasteful and 90% hetero, with no on-panel insertions, and the cast is roughly half superheroes. Just classify orgasm-based metahuman abilities as a mutant power and Bamf! you're there. Oh, there aren't any big fight scenes yet, but just wait. Everything in mainstream comics eventually becomes about superheroes, no matter how hard it fights the pull.

Ostensibly, this is the story of Suzie and Jon's relationship -- which goes through some serious ups and downs this time out -- but we're really here because we want to see them finally have it out with Kegelface's Sex Cops. (Note: her name is not Kegelface and her guys are not actually sex cops.) Sadly, that doesn't actually happen here -- as I said above, the fight scene is still on the way. Given what Sex Criminals is about, it might be more of a fuck scene anyway.

This is goofy and it can be hard to take seriously, even when it wants you to. It's definitely fun, and it's a different take on wild talents, I'll say that much -- not quite as different as it could have been, but I already made the superhero/black-hole comparison. If you've avoided it so far, I can say that it's still weird and quirky, and that it is not trying to titillate you. And it is about Sex Criminals, and they are interesting people, with more characterization than usual for either a comic book about sex or one about strange powers.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/20

This has been relatively simply up to now: this series of blog posts started off listing books I got through publishers' publicity efforts, and then, when those started to falter, I started listing other books as they came in as well. Up to this point, I haven't had a week when I got publicity books and bought some things.

But this is this point, and now it has.

So the first book will be a brand-new thing, sent by its publisher for publicity purposes. And then everything else will be comics I bought on a recent trip to a comics shop. I'll try to make the separation clear.

The brand-new thing is Starlings, a collection of short stuff from Jo Walton. The back cover calls it "her first collection," but the card page lists three previous books (one with Joan Slonczewski) under the heading "Collections." My guess is that the previous books were either very small-press and probably tiny, or that they were primarily or entirely poetry. Because Starlings is about half stories and half poetry, which those of you allergic to poetry -- or who claim that they are, for whatever reason -- will want to know. In any case: a new collection of short material from one of our best writers. In trade paperback from Tachyon Publications, available right now.

Please Consider This a Clear Separation

Bluesy Lucy is a small-format hardcover from Humanoids, created by Catel and Veronique Grisseaux, about a youngish woman (just turning 30) and her travails in love and life in the big city (probably Paris, since they're French). I've seen this a few times at this particular store, and finally took a chance on it.

King City by Brandon Graham -- I've read Graham's other major book Multiple Warheads and enjoyed it (despite the surprise of hardcore sex for a couple of pages deep into a 400-plus-page book), so I figured I might as well check this out eventually. I have no idea about the shape of this guy's career or what he's doing now; I'm still in "liked one book" mode.

And then there's a big cluster of stuff from the supernatural world of Mike Mignola -- which phrasing makes me think of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and fantasize about major theme-park lands about Hellboy in some better, quirkier world -- because I found them all on the shelf and because I seem to read Hellboy-verse books in big clusters anyway.

So I've got two Abe Sapien collections -- Volume 8: The Desolate Shore and Volume 9: Lost Lives and Other Stories -- both of which are written by Mignola with his alleged-sexual-harasser-editor Scott Allie. The art is by a cast of thousands: Desolate is by brothers Max and Sebastian Fiumara, while Lost Lives lists seven artists. (Plus Dave Stewart, the longtime colorist for all of Mignola's work.)

And then there's The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed, written by Mignola with Chris Roberson and drawn by Paul Grist. (Ruining my note in the previous paragraph, the colors are by Bill Crabtree -- but I do think this is the first Mignola project not to be kaleidoscopically enhanced by Stewart.)

Also co-written with Roberson: The Rise of the Black Flame, with art from Christopher Mitten. I think this is a historical story, in the how-the-villain-came-to-be mode. So I expect it to be pretty darn dark.

Last from Mignola is Mr. Higgins Comes Home, which he wrote all by himself and was drawn by Warwick Johnson-Cadwell. It's a short paper-over-boards hardcover, and, while supernatural, might not be in Hellboy's world.

I also got two big fat collections of Doom Patrol, collecting the first two-thirds of the Grant Morrison/Richard Case run from my salad days. I already have volumes 5 and 6 from the last time this series was reprinted, and these bigger books each reprint two of the older ones...so, by some basic algebra, I now have the whole series and can re-read it.

I am not quite done with Jason Shiga's Demon series, but I'm getting closer: I also got Volume 3, so I just need to find the fourth one, and I can read the whole thing straight through. (Yes, it was all published as a webcomic, and I actually had it in my feed reader the whole time. But I was waiting for it all to be done, and I like reading paper better than screens anyway. So I'm happy to buy #4 when I finally see it.)

And last is something that might be another reading project someday, or just something to dip back into: Cerebus by Dave Sim. I read about two-thirds of the series as it was coming out -- I gave up at around the point a lot of other people did -- and have intermittently tried to get through the whole thing by starting at the beginning and powering through. I used to have most of the big fat "phonebook" collections, but I lost all of them in my 2011 flood. And Sim's work is not found in comic shops the way it used to be -- whether because he turned into one of the world's most unique cranks or because he's not publishing much.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #21: Vallista by Steven Brust

I periodically fall into a reviewing slump, and a book like this is usually the culprit: a new book in a long-running series by an author I love, another in a line of works I've enjoyed for a long time and already spent thousands of words (here, and before that, for pay at the SFBC) trying to explain and entice people like you.

But this year I'm doing Book-A-Day, which means I have to write something about Vallista today.

That's not as liberating as it should be, honestly.

First up, I should explain some background. Vallista is the fifteenth book in a series expected to run nineteen books, which began as paperback originals in the early '80s, when both Steven Brust and I were young. (Well, I was quite a bit younger than him, but you take my point.) I've written here about the last few books: Dzur, Jhegaala, Iorich, Tiassa and Hawk. 

Each book stands alone, though that statement needs a "technically" as the series has gone on. You could start with this book -- the way the series has bounced around in time, you could start with any of them, almost equally well -- but many of the mysteries explained here won't be mysteries unless you've read some of the prior books. All the books are short, they all read quickly, and Brust has been a compellingly readable writer his entire career -- my advice now, as ever, is just to start with the first book, Jhereg, and then read whichever books you feel like, in order or not.

As for the "Who He Is and How He Came To Be" details, let me quote myself from four years ago, writing on the occasion of Hawk's publication:
The Vlad Taltos novels appear to be sword & sorcery, first-person caper novels set in a fantasy world where humans are a minority and tall, magic-using, long-lived Dragareans (whom humans call "elfs") are dominant and whose empire has a complex clan-based social structure and a millennia-long history. Vlad himself is a human who by this point in the series has attained and lost a high position in the Dragarean House of the Jhereg (organized crime), gotten an Imperial title, become reasonably adept at human witchcraft (quite different from Dragerean sorcery), made close friends with many of the most powerful and dangerous Dragareans alive, and been on the run for nearly a decade from his ex-friends in the Jhereg. Underlying that surface is a deeper story Brust will probably never tell completely: this all takes place millions of years in the future, Dragareans are a genetically modified successor race to humanity, much of the sorcery may have a mildly SFnal explanation, and these stories (with a few minor exceptions) have been narrated directly by Vlad to a mysterious figure from beyond his world who is taping them for unknown purposes.
I'll add to that the facts that the aliens who created the Dragareans -- they're called the Jenoine -- have turned up in the series, and so are not entirely gone. And the Jenoine's helpers, who did the heavy lifting to transform humans into Dragareans over some unclear time-frame, are in many cases still alive, hundreds of thousands of years later, as the gods of this world. (Gods, as Vlad mentions in this book and before, have in common with demons that they can manifest in more than one place at the same time. What demons are, exactly, is still somewhat murky, but they are clearly From Elsewhere.)

Vallista continues that story, with something like a locked-room mystery. Except it's Vlad who's locked in, and he's very eager not to be murdered. He follows Devera, a mysterious girl who has appeared in every book in the series, and who is not a goddess but has some elements of her life in common with gods, into a manor house on a cliff overlooking the ocean-sea, because Devera says he needs to save her from that house.

But he can't get himself out of the house. And Devera keeps disappearing when he tries to ask her what's going on. And the rooms of this stately home do not seem to be connected to each other in any ordinary way. Some of the rooms, in fact, clearly seem to be several hundred years in the past -- not a huge deal for long-lived Dragareans, but discomforting for Vlad. More confusingly, this house doesn't work like any sorcery or witchcraft he knows, and offers direct access to the Paths of the Dead, an extra-dimensional space Dragarean souls travel through after death and which connects directly to the home of the gods. And both the sorcerous lord who owns the house and a demon are lurking about, with possibly murderous aims towards Vlad.

So Vlad does what he does best: he skulks around the house, tries to figure out how the rooms connect, talks to everyone he meets with threats and cajoling and subterfuge, and once in a while draws some of the many pointed and deadly objects on his person. Eventually, he figures it all out.

(Of course he does: it's a series. Surely we all know how series work by now?)

To repeat what I said up top: I like this series a lot. Brust finds new ways to write about this world each time, and Vlad's voice is fun and zippy as always. At least one of these books -- my guess is Dzur, looking back at cover blurbs -- was a New York Times bestseller. If any of those things sound enticing, give Brust a shot.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #20: Vip: The Mad World of Virgil Partch by Jonathan Barli

I'm torn here. I could lead off by talking about the substance or about the style. Both are a little off-putting, for very different reasons, but only one is deliberate.

That's enough of a distinction. We'll let that settle it.

Vip: The Mad World of Virgil Partch is a modern look at the work of the cartoonist who flourished most in the '40s through the early '60s, one of the quintessential ink-slingers of that era. His work is awfully sexist to a modern eye, full of men who frankly seem intent on rape -- but he's an inherently exaggerated cartoonist, so all of his people are doing ridiculously exaggerated things. Is that worth a pass? For me, it's unfortunate, but fits in with the whole mid-century madcap gestalt of Vip. His characters have lumpy, deformed bodies, too many fingers, and maniacal grins a lot of the time. That the men are often maniacal about sex is just par for the course, I guess.

Vip's artwork is inherent in the project: if you're celebrating it, you have to show it. Avoiding the men-and-women cartoons would be as ridiculous as avoiding the drinking-and-hangover ones. (Did I mention he was a quintessential mid-century cartoonist?)

What is less defensible is reproducing those cartoons as artifacts, on yellowing backgrounds. I've seen this in a lot of comics-world art-books over the past couple of decades, but I still hate it. Maybe author Jonathan Barli wanted to showcase Vip's lesser-known work, and there was no feasible way to make those clean and bright on the page -- it does look like he's showcasing roughs and unpublished work over final cartoons, so that's a plausible explanation. If so, he could have said that, somewhere in the book. As it is, I have to assume he wanted it to look like that, like an album of yellowing clippings from the collection of some super-fan.

This is deeply annoying for someone who wants an art book to showcase art and not the physical artifact of the artwork, but it's very common these days. You need to be able to overlook that, as well as the sexism, to appreciate Vip.

Luckily, there's a lot to appreciate here: Vip was a natural cartoonist, and his line is supple and cracking with energy in nearly all of his work. (Like so many others, he got softer and gentler as he got older and settled into the straitjacket of a newspaper strip.)

Barli tells the story of Virgil Partch's life with a solid emphasis on facts and places and high points. Nothing here sings, but it all works -- and Partch's life wasn't all that exciting to begin with.

At the time, it probably looked like Vip would be major, but he turned out to be very much of his time. He had the bad luck not to latch onto either of the major cartooning powerhouses that actually lasted throughout his career -- he was never right for The New Yorker, but I'm not sure why he didn't do more for Playboy. So he did a lot of work -- a lot of single panels, a lot of jobbing illustrations, a lot of quick books, and about two decades of that strip cartoon, Big George -- all of which was solid and professional and nearly all of which was apparently very funny at the time.

Who knew that getting plastered at any opportunity and trying to molest any women in range would turn out to be less funny to later generations? Truly, it is a puzzlement.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #19: On the Ropes by James Vance and Dan E. Burns

"Aw, this is a sequel to somethin'!"
 - Crow T. Robot

I never read Kings in Disguise. On the Ropes is a sequel to Kings in Disguise. So anyone who is looking for a comparison to Kings in Disguise will be disappointed. Anyone wondering how many consecutive sentences I cram Kings in Disguise into, though, may be intrigued.

Kings in Disguise was a comics series by James Vance and Dan E. Burr, published by Kitchen Sink Press over several years in the mid-'80s and eventually collected into book form. Telling the story of plucky Depression orphan Fred Block, Kings in Disguise was critically lauded, winning both the Eisner and Harvey awards. Luckily, we're not here to talk about Kings in Disguise. Because, as I said, I never read Kings in Disguise.

To repeat: On the Ropes is a sequel to Kings in Disguise, set about five years later. Since -- and this will, I hope, be the last time I mention this -- I never read Kings in Disguise, I'm not entirely certain which flashbacks in On the Ropes are to the earlier story and which are to things that happened after that story ended. I think Fred lost a leg in a freight-car-hopping accident after Kings in Disguise, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he's now 17, and it's 1937, and he's working as the assistant to an escape artist in a WPA circus traveling the small cities of Illinois. [1]

Fred is also a labor organizer, or at least associated with a group of organizers trying to get together a major strike against steel mills across the Rust Belt (then still moderately shiny, at least for the bosses). In particular, he has a small but vital role in that organizing effort, which will cause him danger and distress.

His boss is Gordon Corey, who I'm afraid is that semi-cliche, the escape artist who yearns to die. Gordon also has secrets in his past, which would-be novelist Fred will ferret out as he tries to ingratiate himself with a female stringer who he thinks can help him with his writing and maybe make some introductions to help him get published.

The narrative also follows, in parallel, two very nasty men -- one smaller, smarter, and fond of a knife, the other big and strong but not quite as stupid as you'd expect -- who are employed by the usual shadowy rich people to do some union-busting, and who rack up a serious body count along the way. This element feels pretty melodramatic; they kill more people than is plausible for traveling freelancers -- they need to be more solidly plugged into a specific power structure to have the cover-ups of multiple murders in multiple places be reasonable, even in a deeply corrupt time and place.

Again, I didn't read Kings in Disguise; I can't compare the two. This is a solidly lefty book about labor agitation in hard times, with a melodramatic plot and a certain stretching for meaning, which I didn't find entirely convincing. My understanding is that it did not take twenty-five years to create -- Kings in Disguise was published as a complete work in 1988 and On the Ropes came out as an original graphic novel in 2013 -- but Burr's art sometimes varies from page to page, making me wonder how long it did take. (He also sometimes draws different characters in slightly different styles in the same panel, which is mildly surprising -- I couldn't figure out if there was a specific artistic purpose there.)

On the Ropes is a solid, historically grounded graphic novel, shining a light on a piece of history a lot of people have forgotten now. (A lot of working people in this country, in particular, have forgotten how much blood people like them shed to get unions, as they run headlong away from them into the cold embrace of corporate generosity.) I don't think it's a masterpiece, but it's worth reading for people interested in the period, the creators, or the subject. And, of course, for anyone looking for comics about actual people in real-world situations, of which there are always fewer than there should be.



[1] Note that this is the first sentence in this review not to mention Kings in Disguise. I could have kept it up, if I wanted. I'm not proud. Or tired.

Quote of the Week

"I don't like to threaten someone and then discover that he's got the edge on me. I've had that happen a couple of times. It's embarrassing."
 - Steven Brust, Vallista, p.47

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #18: Equinoxes by Pedrosa

The hardest thing, for me, is to write on a book about normal people's normal lives -- without the genre trappings of excitement and violence, without the framework of some standard plot, without being able to do the Hollywood high concept thing of matching a new work with X and Y from the past. When that book is in comics form, and a lot of the heavy lifting of emotion and connection and scene-setting and time passing is done through art, it's even harder: I'm not artistically trained, and I don't have a strong vocabulary to talk about those elements.

So, um, Equinoxes is a big, stunning book, sprawling across a whole year and a large chunk of France, with a large cast, not all of whose names we learn. It comes from Cyril Pedrosa, who in that European-comics style is usually credited with just his last name, and whose work I haven't seen since the heartbreakingly wonderful Three Shadows in 2008.

Pedrosa organizes his book around the four seasons, starting in autumn -- and, yes, he is eliding solstices into equinoxes to make the structure work, but let's not be too much astronomical sticklers right now, OK? Each section begins with a wordless series of small panels about a Mowgli-like hunter-gatherer, somewhere at some time. (We will get other hints about him later.) Then the main action begins, set in France in what I think is the present day. (But everyone has flip phones, so maybe it's supposed to be about ten years ago, sometime in the mid-aughts.)

There are two main clusters of characters, one centered on the middle-aged divorced orthodontist Vincent and his teenage daughter Pauline and the other on the aged ex-radical Louis. There's also a photographer, not connected to either of those groups, who wanders through the action, another young woman, a little older than Pauline, trying to find her place in the world and work that will give her meaning. There are two kinds of text interruptions to the flow of comics -- one is directly the thoughts of the photographer as she grapples with her life, and the other, I think, is her flow-of-consciousness impression of the person she's just photographed. She adds another level of art to Equnoxes, which already is about, at heart, the big questions: what gives meaning to life, how should we live, how do we relate to each other, what brings people together and pulls them apart.

This is not a book of plot. It is a book of connections and daily life, of moments that feel small at the moment but maybe aren't, of what to do with today and tomorrow and tomorrow, of the things that break into your life and shake it all up.

If I were French, I think I'd know where this takes place: it's somewhere specific, I think, a small city on or near the coast. The places in it are real and solid, and we see a few of them repeatedly from different angles and in different seasons.

The people are equally real: Vincent is a bit of an asshole, but he knows it and fights against it. Louis is worn out from his life and detached from the things others think he should engage in. Pauline is quiet except when she explodes, hiding behind earbuds like so many other teenagers. And there are many more -- some of whose names we figure out easily, some who appear once in one context and then loop back doing something else, some who only wander through once.

The cover is appropriate both thematically -- two people, in a moment of conversation but entirely separate and not looking at each other -- and as an important moment of the story. But I'm afraid it will look cold and distant, and this is not a chilly book. Equinoxes does require time and a willingness to let events flow, like an independent film, but it is lovely and true and has a deep wellspring of humanity in it.

I thought Three Shadows was a masterpiece; Equinoxes is as much of one -- big and expansive and gorgeous. (Pedrosa is also doing a lot of things with his art -- colors for the season and places and people -- that I can point to but not explain in any depth.) I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who cares about people and their lives...which I hope is all of us.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #17: Fred the Clown in "The Iron Duchess" by Roger Langridge

Fred the Clown will not win, in love or in life. That is the rule. As long as you understand that going in, you can enjoy the stories about him with joy and a light heart.

(Except..he sort-of does win love here, in an odd way, because this book is basically a melodramatic movie, and that kind of movie has to have something like a happy ending. But it's a very Fred the Clown kind of happy ending.)

The book is Fred the Clown in "The Iron Duchess." It is basically a silent movie presented as panels on paper, but that's nowhere near the oddest thing creator Roger Langridge has done in comics over his career. He's good at this stuff; Iron Duchess is right up the middle of what he does best: longing love, amusing squalor, smirking villainy, mad science, trains hurtling headlong, mountains carved into the visage of a beloved ancestor, extended dream sequences, the power of the cinema, and amusingly communicative pigs and horses.

I could fill up the page with words about Iron Duchess, but that would be severely beside the point: this is a mostly-silent book, with some information conveyed through printed materials in the fictional world, but no dialogue or captions. This is a story that exists separately from words, in a movie-world that never quite existed, with characters who are sturdy and dependable because we know them on sight -- the beautiful love interest, the grumpy father, the handsome movie star. Well, and Fred. And his pig.

Which is rather the point, actually -- Fred and his pig takes the stuff of standard melodrama and makes it silly. Makes it something more slapstick while at the same time more emotionally true. A nice trick, that. Langridge is good at those kind of contradictions.

I suspect I'm not making the case strongly enough, so let me be blunt: Langridge is a great cartoonist, and this book is him at the peak of his strengths, telling a story in the ways only he can. Yes, it's a fake silent movie about a bumbling, penniless clown and the heiress he falls in love with. So what?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #16: Amazona by Chris Achilleos

There's no reason why taste in art should follow national borders, particularly if we're talking about popular art, designed as packaging for consumer goods. And yet there's a definite style to British SFF cover art -- more pronounced in the 1960s through '80s when the UK and US were clearly separate markets -- which is noticeably different to the American styles of the same era.

So it's not that I don't like the paintings of Christos Achilleos. It's that he works in an idiom and a milieu that I'm not attuned to; that he's spent a long career pleasing and delighting an audience that I was never part of. I appreciate his work, but I've never really seen a painting of his that I loved. (Unlike a lot of his American counterparts, from Eggleton and Whelan to Maitz and Dos Santos and Picacio.)

But I do find that difference fascinating, particularly when it's embodied in someone really skilled and passionate about his work, as Achilleos is. He's a really good maker of art, both commercially successful and willing to move away from the just commercial to make pictures the way he wants to, for vague commissions or his own purposes.

I tend to appreciate Achilleos's tighter paintings best: he works on-and-off in airbrush, and some of his work has a really tight finish and sheen, particularly for human skin. (And, like many fantasy artists, he has more than his share of paintings showing a lot of human skin, mostly female and always attractive.) That's the opposite of how I feel about some American SFF painters, particularly Bob Eggleton -- Eggleton, to me, as at his best when he's loosest, and you can see the globs of paint on the canvas. For Achiellos, though, his work always feels static to me, even the action scenes -- so the ones that are obviously posed and still work best for me, as they fit the feeling his paintings give me.

I figured out that what I like best in Achilleos's paintings are the single figures, highly detailed, frozen in a moment of contemplation or preparation. Others will have different preferences; he's worked in a number of styles and varies the tightness of his painting to suit a particular project.

So, when I realized this week that I had a book of his -- it's from 2004, and I think I've had it since then, metaphorically under a barrel, until my Book-A-Day rummagings turned it up -- I jumped right on it. And still didn't love it. But that's just the way it is.

The book is Amazona, and it collects mostly art that wasn't in his 80s-era books Medusa and Sirens because he made it since then. (Funny how that works.) It opens with a long foreword explaining Achilleos's career to date (well, as of a decade ago), including some details about his disagreements with his former publisher, Dragon's World, and how that led to the sixteen-year gap between books. (In my publishing career, I worked somewhat regularly with agents for Dragon's World in the US, but I was always on the opposite side of the table to them -- I represented someone who was paying them, while Achilleos was looking to get paid by them. The details here basically match murmurings I'd heard at the time and afterward from other artists.)

The bulk of the book is divided into three long sections: Amazons, Fantasy, and Glamor. Two of the three, as you might guess, are primarily pictures of attractive ladies wearing not very much, but what they are wearing is exotic and strange in various ways. (Fantasy art has been about the female for a large proportion of the time for decades now.) Amazons is the fantasy art, and some personal work, along with some mostly historical paintings that can function as fantasy covers. Fantasy, right in the middle, is the work that isn't mostly about the female form -- battle scenes, and a few mightily-thewed warriors, and the like -- but that doesn't mean it's entirely devoid of corseted women. And then the Glamor section has paintings Achilleos did for fetish magazines and nightclubs and some private commissions. In this section, he talks about his models a lot more, and the point of many of the paintings is to depict a particular model, because was then a moderately famous nightlife personality or just particularly striking.

I'm still not a huge fan of Achilleos, but he's very good at what he does, and has continually worked on his craft and passions over a thirty-plus year career. And who ever said I was ever the arbiter for anything?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #15: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Something can be impressive, even admirable, and still not be the best idea in the world. It can be both a major achievement, and less useful in many ways than the thing it was based on. It can be fun and amusing but also a chore.

I am talking about XKCD creator Randall Munroe's 2015 book Thing Explainer here, in case you missed the title and the big book image off to the left there. And it is: all of those things.

The impulse, when talking about Thing Explainer, is to try to ape Munroe's language. I'm not going to do that; I like long words and long sentences and complicated thoughts, and I don't like artificially constraining myself.

But I'm not opposed to seeing how it works out when someone else artificially constrains himself.

Thing Explainer aims to be a The Way Things Work for a new generation, with pictures of many common or basic things and labels to explain them all. But the title hints at Munroe's new wrinkle: he wrote the book using only the thousand (or "ten hundred," as he puts it, since thousand isn't on his list) most common words in the English language.

It's a fun gimmick, but it's still a gimmick, on the same level as Oulipo or Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby, the novel without the letter e. It becomes particularly silly when the reader realizes "nine" is not one of those words, leaving Munroe to repeatedly count "eight, the number after eight, ten."

There are strictures that make a work stronger by supporting it, like a classical sonnet. This is not one of those. Instead, his limited vocabulary just makes Munroe avoid using the actual words that define things and instead call them "fire water" (petroleum) and "sky boat" (airplane) and "little house-food eaters" (mice). Some of those circumlocutions, admittedly, become pointed and nicely avoid the euphemisms baked into conventional language, like "machine for burning cities" (atomic bomb). But those are rare, and far outnumbered by the number after eight.

It all culminates in the least useful periodic table ever devised by the hand of man, where Munroe is unable to use the words "periodic" or "table" or "element" or "molecule" or "proton" or "neutron" or "electron" -- or, in fact, the names of any of the elements themselves. [1] So instead we get a lot of boxes in the well-known sequence with useless circumlocutions like "metal used in paint until we realized it made people sick" and "rock that looks like a cool tiny city" and "a rock that can change one kind of power to another."

Thing Explainer wanted to be a book that was simple enough to explain things to people who didn't know how this stuff worked. But, without using the right words, it instead becomes a book primarily for the people who already know very well how this stuff works, and and remember where Molybdenum and Thallium are supposed to be and what they do. Instead of being inclusionary with its simple words, it instead becomes exclusionary.

Using the right words is important. Knowing the right words to use is one of the central goals of education. Thing Explainer is a fun lark, but it's deeply wrong-headed at its core, and tends more to a smug "oh, I know what that means" response than actual learning. It is much more for scientists and technologists who get the joke than it is for children or other less-educated people trying to learn something real and true.


[1] This is untrue. The name of exactly one element is on his list of ten hundred words: gold. But having it there points out exactly how useless the rest of his labels are -- illustrating the difference between lightning and "sky light made when power moves."

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/13

Monday once again -- though this Monday is a holiday in my country, which is nice. [speculation about what current political leadership in the US would think of the gentleman that holiday honors has been expunged]

Anyway, what I do in this space every Monday is list whatever books showed up in my house over the past week, however they arrived. Oddly, this week I have exactly one book, which came from a publicist and which I saw once before.

So let me point you to the post from Monday, November 6, for more details about Terry Goodkind's new epic fantasy novel Shroud of Eternity, which was published by Tor in the US in hardcover last week. It's the second in "The Nicci Chronicles," a spin-off or continuation of his long-running and bestselling Sword of Truth series, so presumably a large number of readers will be interested.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #14: Home and Away by Mawil

I first discovered the German cartoonist who uses the single name Mawil from his books Beach Safari and Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician (both of those links go to round-ups that include something like a review of each book) a few years back, filed him as someone fun to watch out for, and promptly didn't manage to see anything else by him for roughly a decade.

It's entirely possible I wasn't paying attention, I admit.

But I re-read Sparky O'Hare recently, and was reminded of how much fun Mawil is. So I looked up what else he'd done, made some lists, and ended up getting his book Home and Away as a Christmas present.

This collects comics that originally appeared in 2005-07 in various German outlets (not specified here), then were collected into a German-language book in 2007 and finally translated into English and brought out by the UK publisher Blank Slate in 2011.

From this book and other evidence, I understand Mawil is known mostly as an autobiographical cartoonist; I think he has had semi-regular strips in German magazines and newspapers, mostly using his life (or the funnier, semi-fictional version of it, as usual) for material. And the stories here are all in that vein: the book opens with a number of shorter strips, about his life growing up in then-East Germany, or his then-current life and career, and then dives into two longer chunks of comics. The first longer chunk is still not that long, just eight pages of related comics about his first car, a Skoda -- which means very little to Americans like me, but I gather is one of the premier lousy cars of the world.

And then, to close out the collection, is the longest story, "Welcome Home." At forty-six pages, it's about half the book, telling the story of Mawil's week-long trip to a summer "hippy camp" in the South of France. A friend went in a past year -- and, apparently, met his then-girlfriend there -- giving Mawil the bug. But the friend bowed out this year, leaving our hero to hitchhike with strangers and end up in a big swirling mass of peace and love and roughing it essentially alone. Mawil is a introverted, self-tormenting sort -- he makes comics for a living! -- so his personality doesn't entirely mesh with the vibe of the gathering. He tries to meet girls, but it doesn't really work out. But he does manage to unbend a bit along the way...and he now has the same not-quite-true stories to tell to others that his friend told him!

Home and Away is a fun, light-hearted collection of slice of life comics, in a cartoony style that's basically the opposite of bigfoot. (Mawil draws feet very tiny, particularly on women.) You can easily see how it could be widely popular, and well-suited to be published in general national magazines. I liked it, and I hope it doesn't take me another decade to find more of his books.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #13: Fire!! by Peter Bagge

When I got this book, I noted here that Zora Neale Hurston seemed like an odd choice for cartoonist Peter Bagge to biographize. But his introduction to the book itself makes his interest clearer: Hurston had politically idiosyncratic views, and -- though Bagge never uses the word -- seems to be as close to a libertarian as a black woman could be in the early Twentieth Century. So all is much clearer now.

Like Woman Rebel, his biography of Margaret Sanger, Fire!! tells the long, event-filled story of one woman's life in probably too-few comics pages (seventy-two, in this case), so that every page or two is a discreet event that Bagge needs to get into his narrative. There are twenty-six pages of notes to contextualize and explain the comics pages, which does not make for the most smooth or integrated reading experience. (I wonder if Fire!! will have its best life in classrooms and school libraries -- it's a solid look at an important literary-historical figure in a format that will appeal to a lot of kids who don't want to read too much.)

In case you don't know, Hurston was a writer, published as a novelist and a collector of folklore, active mostly in the 1930s and '40s and associated with the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the early part of that time. She grew up in an all-black town in central Florida, the somewhat wild and somewhat coddled daughter of two of the leading figures in that town, to the age of thirteen, when her mother died and upended her life entirely. Her next decade or so was spent all over, in often rough circumstances, but she eventually finished high school in her late 20s (having shaved a decade off her age to pretend to still be a teen) and bounced through several colleges before landing at Barnard College in 1925 and graduating three years later at the age of 37. (Still pretending to be ten years younger, which she kept up the rest of her life.)

She's most famous these days for Their Eyes Were Watching God, her semi-autobiographical 1937 novel. But she was spent years on the road collecting and writing local folklore stories, first in the rural US South and then in several Carribbean nations. And she was a very colorful character, to put it mildly -- boisterous, demanding, flamboyant, opinionated, married multiple times, profoundly original and unique.

Bagge does some justice to Hurston, and all of his pages are good. But, like Woman Rebel, Fire!! feels rushed and cramped, like what's left of five pounds of flour after it's been dumped into a two-pound sack. His story would have been seriously improved by either focusing on a particular period of Hurston's life, or by giving the narrative more pages to breathe and consequently some space that isn't just hurtling from one major event to another.

Fire!! will be a boon to thousands of young people looking to write a short biographical paper on someone important -- young people still do that, don't they? And it's a nice reminder of a fine writer who was also a deeply interesting and grumpily particular person. But I do wish it was more than that, because it could have been.