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there was no feasible way to make those clean and bright on the page -- it does look like he's showcasing roughs and unpublished work over final cartoons, so that's a plausible explanation.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.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #12: Satania by Vehlmann and Kerascoet

"There's a world going on underground," a great man once growl-sang, and Satania just is the book to explore that hidden underground world.

One might think the naked redhead at the center of the cover is Satania, but no -- she's Charlie (short for Charlotte), the teenage force behind an underground expedition to find her missing brother. Also in the group is the requisite old, crusty guide, Father Monsore, who was on the ill-fated prior expedition where Charlie's brother Christopher disappeared. There are several others -- the party starts out with about six people-- but those are the ones to be concerned with.

Christopher had a crackpot theory that Neanderthals moved underground and therefore mutated into demon-looking humanoids who are the source of all worldwide stories of hell and its inhabitants. But these evolved Neanderthals are actually highly civilized, sexually free, and possessed of uniquely high technology that he will discover and share with the world. Now, Christopher deduced all of this -- he has no evidence of any kind -- and it seems that his book expounding his stupid theory was roundly panned out in the world. So, in a huff, he planned the expedition to prove his theories, heading into this cave somewhere in Europe to film the people he already knows everything about.

I think the reader is supposed to take Christopher's theories seriously. But this, frankly, is impossible for anyone with a lick of sense and scientific knowledge -- if he was right about anything, it could only be by pure happenstance. Luckily, it's not necessary to believe in those nutty theories to enjoy Satania; he does not turn out to be entirely correct, though he did correctly guess that there's much more going on in this massive subterranean cave system than surface-dwellers suspect.

So: Charlie, and Chistopher's collaborator, and some other people somehow related to the crazy theory, are looking for him, in the cave system where a flash flood separated Christopher from the rest of his party months ago. And do they encounter their own flash flood practically as soon as the book begins?

Reader, of course they do.

They do not die in the flood, but their scrambles and running and propulsion by water leaves them somewhere they've never been before, with no way back. They set out to explore, in hopes of getting back to the surface. They have limited supplies and light, but, as with any self-respecting tale of underground worlds, they soon find edible and luminescent growing things to keep them going. (From that point on, everything is illuminated, and finding food not a serious issue.)

They find a lot more than that, of course: dangers aplenty, strange landscapes both made by sentients and shaped by nature, strange and dangerous creatures, allies and enemies, deadly heat and chilling cold. Satania turns out to be huge, and full of horror and wonders.

It does not, though, correspond closely to anyone's image of Hell, even though several members of this party really really want it to, and this leads to certain unpleasant disagreements within the party. This is a story of hardships and stunning vistas, of a series of strange revelations, each stranger and more revelatory than the last. (But, to be clear: this is not a fantasy. They are not in Hell and everything they see should be roughly acceptable to physics, biology, and chemistry as we know them.)

Satania is a gorgeous book, as you might expect from the wife-and-husband art team credited as Kerascoet. The colors are exquisite, giving color to emotions and places, and the book contains a succession of amazing images, culminating in a fantastic double-page spread near the end. Even if this book hadn't been translated from the French, I think it still would be worth "reading," just for their work.

But it was translated (by Joe Johnson) from a script by Fabien Vehlmann, here just credited by his last name. He previously worked with Kerascoet on the stunning Beautiful Darkness, and I also really liked his script for the chilly SF graphic novel Last Days of an Immortal. So Satania is just a little disappointing: Christopher is a crank, and his crankishness sets in motion the whole plot, and there's no way around that. The story is also more episodic -- bad things happen, they flee, and have a moment of peace until the next episode starts -- than the stronger Vehlmann books I've seen.

Not being as good as something amazing wonderful is not that much of a criticism, though: Vehlman has excellent dialogue here, making his very different people all come alive, and he particularly has a way with mania...perhaps he does realize what a crank Christopher is. Satania is an interesting, gorgeous, twisty journey through a vividly imagined world, by a set of world-class talents.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #11: The Secret Door at the White House by Rick Geary

I can't remember if I bought this from Rick Geary's webstore along with some other things, or if it was some kind of freebie/reward from one of his Kickstarters (of which I've backed a bunch over the past few years). What I can say is that it's a weird little book, probably only available directly from the creator.

The Secret Door at the White House is a 52-page book, in a small format with covers only a little heavier and brighter than the interior pages. Like some of Geary's odder projects, each page is a single illustration with a short typeset caption below. It's narrated by a young woman, presumably on the White House staff, and, after three brief pages introducing her, the bulk of the book is made up of full-page portraits of the Presidents of the country, with her memories of her time with each of them.

The reader, depending on how sensitive one's innuendo detector is, will eventually realize that this unnamed young lady is describing her sexual encounters with all of these men, tastefully and in a veiled manner. And that reader will realize she can't be all that young by even the middle of that string, as shown by an image of the now-elderly woman at the end of the book, upon her retirement.

Geary has done comics that are series of related images -- items in one particular motel room, various dull-looking apartment buildings, etc. -- without much commentary, though that was mostly in the early, zany years of his career. Secret Door has a similar premise, but the execution is even quirkier. One could read political commentary into the Presidential descriptions, but, except for the very last one, I don't see any basis to do so.

I suspect that this book was mostly an excuse to draw all of the Presidents, but the unifying theme is pretty weird and uniquely Geary as well. The portraits are good likenesses, all in that particular Geary style. Again, this is a weird little book, but the world needs more weird little books.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #10: The Complete Iron Devil by Frank Thorne

Full disclosure alert: I definitely am using Book-A-Day as a way to clean out my shelves, to read things that I'm not sure why I have them in the first place, to poke into those obscure corners and see what's accumulated.

And so today I have for you The Complete Iron Devil, collecting two closely related Frank Thorne comics series from the early '90s. For those of you who were around in those days, let me add that they were published by Eros, Fantagraphics' sex-drenched sister imprint, and that may explain a lot. I don't remember buying this, but maybe that's just because I've read it now and have developed convenient amnesia.

There is a lot of sex in this book. There is a lot of chattering in lieu of plot in this book. There is a lot of pseudo-mystic bullshit in this book, generally in the vaguely Satanic category. There is not a lot of sense in this book, but I'm not confident its audience wanted sense at all. I do suspect its audience, being Thorne loyalists, did get what they wanted: characters who look just like all of his other heroines having a lot of sex.

Characters completely disappear from the narrative -- mostly between the first and second series collected here, but not always. One begins to suspect that every action in the book is only happening because it will lead to the next sex scene -- never more than a page away -- or to further whatever mythical point Thorne thought he was making.

Now, I like sex. And I like porno comics quite a lot of the time. But this is just a weird, random mess, and that's before the last issue turns into a metafictional attack on the local Oklahoma sex cops who busted a comics shop for selling the previous issue.

We start out with some random unnamed fertility goddess -- naked and the modern version of gorgeous, obviously -- telling us the supposedly intertwined stories of two young blonde women who look a lot like her [1], both of whom are in the sex business in their respective eras. They have, I'm sorry to say, very silly names: Fey Brith is the one in vaguely olde-timey times with lots of candles and forsoothly dialogue with too many dropped letters. And Tristi Joie -- those may be her first two names, since she suddenly develops a sister slightly later who has a normal last name -- is a high-priced whore in Harlem of the then-near-future of The Year 1999!

We bounce back and forth between the two of them, in scenes with a lot of clunky dialogue and lovingly-drawn sex and some vaguely mystical foreshadowing. The vaguely mystical foreshadowing leads to actual sex demons appearing in both timelines, for no specific purpose or reason that's ever explained clearly. (Unless that is just: screw the hot girls, maybe kill a bunch of other people, and leave.) Other stuff also happens, but we generally don't know why, and often aren't clear on who.

The first series ends with a Satanic orgy, more or less, which doesn't entirely follow from the preceding scenes. (Neither of those two supposed main characters take part; the old-timey one has disappeared for good.) And then the second series starts up with Tristi's kid sister pregnant with the spawn of Satan or something like that, giving birth a eventually to a baby girl sex-demon.

Now, there may be a time and place more conducive to the exploits of a poorly-written baby girl sex-demon than an Oklahoma City comics shop in the mid-90s -- or than comics shops in general at that time -- but that doesn't mean it was a good venue. Or that making a story about a baby girl sex-demon was a good idea to begin with. And, yes, we do see a short female person that we're told is a baby girl sex-demon, just born and then a few days old, having sex. You can argue that shouldn't be considered child pornography, on account of how it's drawn and not real, on account of how flamboyantly goofy it is,  and on account of Thorne probably meaning some of it as satire on something-or-other, but I would guess there are plenty of jurisdictions, in 1995 and now, where it definitely would count.

So the second series, which by the way was vaguely narrated by a nonspecific voice that definitely isn't the goddess from the first series and isn't anyone else, either, goes not much of anywhere for two issues, with a lot of sex mostly with adult and consenting women, and then turns into an attack on Oklahoma, the American anti-sex forces, and bad parody-names of then-famous right-wingers.

I expect that a lot of people have and will enjoy this book, but I also believe they do because relatively little of their blood is left to keep their brains, and its attendant critical facilities, operating normally while reading The Complete Iron Devil.

Now I have to figure out what to do with my copy. I really doubt the library will take it as a donation....


[1] This, as far as I can tell, is not particularly meaningful; Thorne has one model for "hot young blonde woman" and he uses it at every occasion. And it's not like his brunettes or redheads are all that different, either....

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #9: The Someday Funnies edited by Michel Choquette

We all love a good story. And a behind-the-scenes story can be even better than the story told in the book itself. "Heroic editor spends years of his life trying to assemble a massive, global collection with contributions by the best in the field, but the book never sees the light of day" is a great story. That's the story Bob Levin told in a 2009 issue of The Comics Journal, about Michel Choquette and his massive book The Someday Funnies, which was almost published in the 1970s, and how all of the pages of completed art were still in storage, never seen but ready to go at a moment's notice.

That was a wonderful story, and it led to the actual publication of The Someday Funnies in 2011, with those hundred-and-fifty pages of 1970s comics displayed on oversized pages and introduced with commentary by comics historian and critics Robert Greenfield and Jeet Heer plus Choquette's own account of the path to creating Someday, and closed out with the usual author bios and behind-the-scenes details and an index.

Unfortunately, the actual comics don't live up to the hype. They're often jokes, almost all time-bound -- because the stated theme of the anthology was to be a look back at the just-ended '60s -- and only a page or two apiece. Yes, the list of contributors is impressive -- from Russ Heath and Jack Kirby to art spiegelman and Vaughn Bode, from Frank Zappa and William S. Burroughs to Rene Goscinny and Jean-Claude Forest, from R.O. Blechman and Ed Subitzky to Harlan Ellison and Federico Fellini -- but what they contributed is much less impressive. There's nothing here that I'd expect to see again outside of this context, other than spiegelman's strip "Day at the Circuits," which he reworked from the '72 Someday original into a '75 version for his comic anthology Arcade. Some of it is OK, some of it is incomprehensible without notes or specialized knowledge (I remembered who Vaughn Meader was, but how many people will?), and some of it rises to the level of pretty good. And some just looks like self-indulgence, of the kind that the '60s has been inspiring at the time and ever since.

Now, it's true that thirty-nine years is a long time for expectations to build up, and Someday Funnies grew out of a planned comics supplement for Rolling Stone magazine in 1972. But it kept growing, until the Rolling Stone piece would be just a teaser for the upcoming book, and then RS pulled out, and then a series of actual or potential book-publishing deals also fell through, leaving Choquette with a Montreal self-storage unit full of comics and correspondence and no use for them in 1979. It's not Choquette's fault that it didn't happen...well, maybe it was. He could have delivered that original RS supplement and then moved on to a larger project. He could have closed out the book at some point, and kept the scope limited and specific. Frankly, at this distance, it looks like the usual story of a deal-maker high on his own deal-making, wanting to keep going with the fun part of the job (signing up artists, finding new talent, flying around the world) and avoid the vital anthology work of making choices and finalizing the package. (I think he did do the latter, eventually -- but probably too late, and maybe not strongly enough to make a publication date in the 1970s.)

Someday Funnies is an interesting artifact, a comics time-capsule of both comics-makers in the early '70s and the cultural impact of the '60s when it was still fresh; as far as I can tell, all of these strips were done between 1970 and 1974. (For all of the details of Choquette's travels and work here, there's no explanation of which strips were delivered and finalized when; no timeline of the actual work assembled here.) One of Choquette's less inspired requirements of the original project, that every piece include a blank space that would be used for some unifying element to be decided on later, was eventually filled by new 2011 art by Michael Fog, depicting Choquete's travels in the '70s. Again, the background story is the more interesting, vital one -- the way this book came to be is more exciting than the actual thirty-five-year-old strips it contains.

One last consumer note: Someday Funnies is a physically big book, the size of a tabloid newspaper. So it can be cumbersome to hold and read as well, and some people may find it difficult to store. (I don't intend to keep my copy permanently, so I don't have that problem.)

I'm glad Someday Funnies was eventually published, and all of the contributors -- well, those who hadn't died in between -- got to finally get paid and see their work in print. That also was the perfect end to the real story of interest here, of Choquette and his travails. But you don't need to read or care about the book to know and appreciate that story, and it may be easier to care if you haven't read it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #8: Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

Dictionopolis and Digitopolis are still deeply separate and often-warring cities, despite various peace offerings over the years. Dictionopolisians in particular scorn the idea that mere numbers could tell them anything important about words.

Ben Blatt gently disagrees. Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve is his argument.

He gathered the full texts of a number of books -- about 1,500, primarily novels, including classics, recent #1 New York Times bestsellers, and recent award winners -- and ran various tests of bits of literary advice and supposed genre markers, to see if the books generally considered better or more commercially successful actually did this or that more consistently.

There are obviously quibbles to be had about his methods: literature is a vast field, and even the fairly large data-sets Blatt assembled for this book are small compared with the vast ocean of published fiction. (Though he also runs some tests against fan-fiction, where he has an even larger pool, and is a good comparison to traditionally-published work.) But his tests seem well-planned to me, and I didn't catch him claiming anything the data didn't support -- this is a measured, reasonable book with disclaimers about assuming too much on too-slim evidence.

So Blatt starts off by looking at the common advice to avoid adverbs, expands on that a bit to other kinds of words and constructions new writers are often told to eschew, and explains his methodology in the first chapter. After that, he dives right into the question of whether male and female writers have definable differences: this is the most interesting chapter in the book, and I'd love to see it expanded with further research into larger data-sets. Later chapters investigate the differences between UK and US writers -- besides the obvious giveaway word choices -- how to determine the authorship of an anonymous work, first lines, cliches, and the question of what idiosyncratic words particular authors use more than anyone else.

It is filled with charts, and has an extensive section of notes at the end (including lists of all of the books used for the tests). Frankly, this book is about as good as I could have hoped it would be, and better than I expected. I thought I'd have my usual "the author has completely neglected to consider X, which makes conclusions G, H, and K very shaky" argument to make, and Blatt was conscientious and organized enough to forestall all of those. (Others may have different objections, but mine were mostly minor -- he sometimes says "New York Times bestseller" when he's only looking at a set of books that hit #1, and all publishing hands know the set of all bestsellers is vastly more diverse than the very top few.) And his lists are all chosen, as far as I could tell, by the closest things to objective criteria he could find, so his own tastes and preferences don't seem to enter into selection criteria or the data-set in general.

This is not exactly science. But it's the closest thing to science I've ever seen applied to the world of literature, and has interesting, reasonable results based on defined, transparent data-sets and test cases. That is really impressive, and any reasonably numbers-obsessed book-lover should definitely take a look at this one.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/6

Hi there! In keeping my my new simplified Reviewing the Mail policy that Everything Counts®, this week's post will include both books that came unexpectedly from purveyors of publicity and books I bought myself because a comic shop was having a great sale.

First, the former:


(It was a quiet week.)

Then, the latter:

Fire!! by Peter Bagge -- this is a comics biography of Zora Neale Hurston, who is, if not the last person I'd expect Bagge to focus on (I'd put Anthony Trollope or Marcel Proust even further down the list), at least pretty far down. I've only ever read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston, like a lot of other people, but she always seemed like an interesting, larger-than-life character, so maybe that's it. Anyway, an interesting choice for Bagge, and I want to see what he did with it.

King David by Kyle Baker -- One of his more obscure books, in that animation-derived style that's not my favorite thing in the world. But I'm trying to catch up on the Baker stuff I missed, since he does good stuff and does change up his style and matter, and I never actually read this one as far as I can remember.

Nexus Archives Vol. 2 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude -- I'm trying to collect these, more slowly than I probably should, with the aim of reading all or a big chunk of Nexus sometime in the future. This one gets me to a full run of volumes 1-5, so that could happen if I want it to.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 4: Fourgy! by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky -- The book collections of this series come out irregularly enough, and the premise has been getting continuously more complex, that I'm not confident I remember what was happening for the cliffhanger at the end of #3. Well, let's see if I can pick it up from context.

Prison Island by Colleen Frakes -- Some manner of memoir, I think about a family member in some hard-to-get-to-prison. (I have the book in front of me, so I'm deliberately not checking it, so I can record the vague impressions that got me to spend money, quirky as they may be.)

Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden -- A big reported book about various journeys in the Middle East. I know I've seen good reviews of this, though I think it's over a year old at this point.

The Iron Duchess by Roger Langridge -- Langridge serialized this on his website, though I think I came in somewhere in the middle and never bothered to go back to the beginning. (I find reading narrative in comics pages online is vaguely annoying, so I tend not to do it.) This is another Fred the Clown story.

Royal City, Vol. 1: Next of Kin by Jeff Lemire -- I'm a little behind on Lemire, since I still have his big book Roughneck sitting on the shelf, but this is the beginning of what should be a longer series, and it was cheap. And Lemire is dependably good when he's drawing his own stuff -- and maybe even dependably good when he's not writing about people who wear their underwear on the outside.

The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond -- Another big memoir-ish book of comics from Pond! Only a couple of years after the equally-large and impressive Over Easy! It's great to see her back, so I hope this is a huge success and she has a big book every second or third year for a couple of decades to come.

Paul Has a Summer Job by Michel Rabagliati -- I seem to be re-buying and re-reading all of the books in this semi-autobiographical series without really meaning to. Well, they're all good, so why not?

And last is Sh*t My President Says by Shannon Wheeler, in which my fellow Wheeler illustrates some of the more appalling Tweets of the guy who didn't expect to be President and is determined to prove that he shouldn't have been.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #7: The Bloody Cardinal by Richard Sala

I wish I had a picture to share with you, but I don't, so you'll have to imagine it.

I live in a small town in northern New Jersey, and the mascot of our high school sports teams is the cardinal. In the manner of all true sports mascots, it has to be a tough cardinal -- hard as nails, bulging with muscles, threatening violence.

Now, I don't know if there's a fur-suited version of this mascot that shows up at football games -- I've avoided all high school football since I graduated myself -- but there definitely are pictures of the Cardinal. Every year, there's a new one in the auditorium with some sort of pun on the year of that graduating class. And the cafeteria has similar murals, rotating around the walls so that the last eight graduating years or so are represented by some red creature declaiming how awesome they were, drawn by (I assume) whoever had the most talent and zeal in that year's class.

So I'm quite familiar with the idea of an anthropomorphic Cardinal bringing mayhem. (I haven't made a serious study of it, but I can't imagine there are many schools with a cardinal mascot. So I think I'm one of the few.)

I'm also a longtime follower of the comics of Richard Sala, which have featured all kinds of bizarre monsters creating mayhem, in a colorfully detailed illustrative style, for thirty years or so now. (See my posts about his books Black Cat Crossing and The Hidden and The Ghastly Ones and The Chuckling Whatzit.)

And thus there is, I insist, no one better positioned to tell you about Sala's most recent book, The Bloody Cardinal. I've got the cardinal, I've got Sala -- I have the whole package.

Sadly for me, Bloody Cardinal is a minor Sala book, without the rococo trappings and more complex plots of his major works. Some years ago, there was a costumed hero, calling himself The Bloody Cardinal, who started out with the usual destroying-evil thing, in something like the mode of The Shadow (violent means, lots of helpers and secret messages), but soon turned to just killing people at random. As you might imagine, he was eventually betrayed to the authorities, ambushed and believed killed. Since then, most of his associates have been murdered and their copies of his secret book burned, but the usual Sala nosy young people are searching for copies of that book and the hidden secrets of the Cardinal.

We follow a succession of those young people in this book, and they don't come to good ends. Unusually for Sala, it's mostly young women who are killed -- he more typically has some square-jawed dope get himself killed by rushing in, while his smarter, sneakier girlfriend/compatriot escapes (frequently barefoot) to tell the story. This time, there are some older male authority figures who warn everyone, but all of the active characters are young women, who disappear one by one.

So the plot is a bit repetitive: girl discovers something about TBC, girl meets horrible fate, and scene. The Cardinal does eventually return, in more than one way. And this could be seen as the first of a series of Cardinal stories, making it more foundational -- and Sala has been serializing another Cardinal tale online recently. So the larger Cardinal story is not done, and might have a more pleasing shape when it's done.

The art is also a little less interesting than usual for Sala; he's working almost entirely in a four-panel grid, though he does move the borders around a bit occasionally and combine panels for major moments. But, all in all, this would not be my first recommendation for a Sala book -- there's no character the reader can follow or root for, and it's not as visually enticing as something like Delphine or Mad Night.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2016 #6: Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld

Is Tom Gauld our most erudite cartoonist? From the evidence of his work, he well could be -- there's a parade of authors both classic (Shakespeare, Austen) and genre (Ballard, Gaiman) and modern literary (Franzen, Mantel), and a dazzling awareness of tropes and ideas and genre furniture in his work, and it's hard to think of any other cartoonist who has worked so much with this material.

Naysayers might point out that all of this material originally appeared in the book section of the British newspaper The Guardian, and so one could thus expect that bookishness would be baked into the premise. That's true, but, still Teh Grauniad asked Gauld to be their cartoonist in the first place for a reason, and it's not because of his amazing facility at drawing likenesses of famous writers.

(Just in case: Gauld does not have an amazing facility for drawing likenesses of famous writers. At least, I've never seen such from him, and his minimalist style would tend to go in the opposite direction. But there I go explaining the jokes again.)

Baking With Kafka is a collection of Guardian cartoons. Some of them may have appeared elsewhere, before or instead of or also, because this book, like so many others, doesn't explain where it's contents appeared previously. (Cue my standard if-I-ruled-the-world complaint.) They are all about books, in some way or another, or, at least, about the kinds of things that bookish people care about.

It contains such awesome works as "The Four Undramatic Plot Structures" and "My Library" (with books color-coded as to whether or not they have or will be read), "The Nine Archetypal Heroines" and "How to Submit Your Spy Novel for Publication," "Jonathan Franzen Says No" and "Niccolo Machiavelli's Plans for the Summer." All of those are a single page in size; no one must keep a thing in memory from page to page -- except, perhaps, a sense of object permanence and the ability to read the English language.

Some people will hate this book. Perhaps they hate it because they hate literature, or books in general. Perhaps they hate it because Gauld's style is too simple and illustrative for them. Perhaps they hate it because they are hateful people full of hate who live only to hate. There are many reasons, none of them, I insist, good ones.

All of the smart readers will love it. And you consider yourself a smart reader, don't you? There you go.

(For those unsure as to how smart they are: the cartoons here are much like those in You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. You might also want to consider Gauld's recent full-length graphic novel Mooncop.)

Friday, January 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #5: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is the modern master of travel writing, at least as far as selling books in the US goes. (And I spent enough years in the book-publishing industry to take "getting people to spend money on books they like" as a serious metric.) But the problem with travel books, at least as Theroux does them, is that they take a long time: up to a year for the travel itself, plus time to write and publish afterward. For an industry that would really like to publish a book by Author X at the same time each year to the same or increasing sales, it can be a frustrating category.

But there are ways to extend a travel writer's brand. Eminent authors often, after a career of suitable length, turn to editing or compiling similar works, or to combining their old works into a mix-and-match, and often are successful in retaining a sizable fraction of their usual audiences for these secondary works. In the best cases, those assemblages can even be more productive than original works, as they introduce the main author's (presumably large) audience to other books they might like.

I don't know the behind-the-scenes wrangling that went into The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux's 2011 compilation of his favorite bits from other travel writers. But I suspect something like the scenario I sketched above had something to do with it. (Although I look slightly askance at the fact that Theroux gets credited as author rather than editor, when most of the words here are by other hands.)

This is not a book by Paul Theroux; there are words in here that he wrote, but those words serve to introduce and contextualize excerpts from other people's books about travel. The point here is to see what other people have written about the places they visited, and only secondarily what Theroux can tell us about those places and those writers -- though, in some cases, contextualizing is very important. For one blatant example, take Theroux's chapter about travelers who pretended they were alone when they actually had anything from a wife up to a full pack train accompanying them and taking care of the drudgery.

Theroux pulls out short chapters of quotes from some of his favorite writers in the genre -- Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Sir Francis Galton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Freya Stark, Claude Levi-Strauss, Evelyn Waugh, and Paul Bowles -- and intersperses those chapters among longer ones, each devoted to one aspect of travel writing. So he has chapters on what travelers brought with them, fear of travel, writers who spent inordinately long or short times abroad, various forms of travel (walking, trains), blissful journeys, horrible journeys, the books that crystallize a particular place, strange food, outrageous lies, and the inevitable chapter on writers who never went anywhere at all.

Each of those chapters has a Theroux intro, often giving us in miniature what the original authors will provide moments later, and then a series of quotes from other writers, sometimes as part of a general narrative with connecting tissue by Theroux and sometimes just a series of extended individual quotes. Everything is well-chosen and on topic, and Theroux is clearly very well-read.

So this is the kind of book that can send its reader scurrying to other books -- or, if they are a different kind of reader, scurrying to their travel agents to make plans to visit some of these places for themselves. Either way, it's successful in its aims, and what more can you ask?

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #4: The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

There are always people who would be happier if other people weren't around. And some subset of those unhappy people try to rectify the situation. Since the penalty for murder has been death, more or less and  most of the time, the smarter would-be murderers have always been looking for ways to kill undetectably, to mimic natural deaths.

As Deborah Blum puts it, "[u]ntil the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse." So the smart would-be murderer, for many centuries, turned to poison to achieve their ends. But, sadly for them, the march of science did keep moving forward, and eventually it was possible to detect a toxic substance. First one -- arsenic. And then more and more.

Of course, science was also creating new poisons as it went along -- some on purpose, as tools of war, and some by accident, with other useful properties for industry. And those two rising lines converged, in the early twentieth century, with the rise of forensic chemistry and toxicology as standard disciplines, and with the not-unrelated progressive push for safer working and living conditions.

Blum wants to tell that story -- how this and that poison could be detected, and what that meant -- but to make it specific. So, in The Poisoner's Handbook, she tells us about Charles Norris, the first Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, and his career from 1918 to its end in 1936. Norris was put in place by a crusading administration; the role of a CME was an attempt to professionalize what was previously done by often-incompetent coroners, whose primary qualification was their loyalty to the local political machine. As Blum tells it, Norris was the first big-city CME in the US, and hugely influential in the spread of that model, and of professionalizing that role.

Handbook has eleven long chapters, following a Prologue that brings us up to 1918, each one named with a particular poison and covering a span of a few years in Norris's career. I suspect that Norris and his staff did not actually pioneer every single breakthrough in forensic toxicology over those two decades, but Blum still has plenty of material to work with, from classic poisons like the cyanides and arsenic to Prohibition by-product deaths from various alcohols (wood, methyl, ethyl) to the wonders of chemistry like mercury and radium to natural gases fatal in concentrated form like carbon monoxide and dioxide. Each chapter tells the story of at least one major case, mostly murder with some industrial accidents, how Norris and his office were mixed up in that case and that poison, and moves the narrative forward another few years.

It's a pleasant structure, even if my ex-editor mind thinks it might be too much structure for a chronological, historical account -- I always tend to think my old friend Procrustes has stopped in for a bit of carpentry when things are that neat in a non-fiction book.

The Poisoner's Handbook thankfully will not teach you how to poison your enemies and rivals, but it will show you how others tried to do so in a time not all that long ago. It may also remind you how deeply stupid Prohibition was, and how corrupt government was before the reforms of the early 20th century -- both things worth keeping in mind, now that we have major political movements determined to go so far backwards on so many things.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #3: Two Treasuries of Murder by Rick Geary

Rick Geary has been retelling historical murders as small graphic novels for about two decades now -- first a series of famous Victorian crimes, and then moving slightly forward in time to the first half of the Twentieth Century.

I recently re-read two of them, because I'd bought new copies to replace ones lost in my 2011 flood. Since they're both old books, and part of basically the same series, I thought I might as well throw them together into one post. I didn't realize at the time that these two books straddled the switch from Victorian to XXth Century. That's potentially a major change...but it wasn't really. Geary just was extending the era he was writing about somewhat, while keeping the style and matter of the books consistent.

So The Lindbergh Child was published in 2008; it's obviously the story of the kidnapping and (accidental?) death of Charles Lindberg's infant son in New Jersey in 1932.  And The Saga of the Bloody Benders was published the year before, telling the more historically obscure story of a family (?) of murderous shopkeepers who terrorized Labette County, Kansas in 1870. (Geary was born in Wichita, and his work has often returned to Kansas -- it's a place he knows well.)

In both cases, Geary is working with historical records -- obviously there's a a lot more around the Lindbergh kidnapping, but the Bender case is reasonably well-known in Kansas, with plenty of research done over the years. What both have in common is what seems to attract Geary to all of his stories: an essential core of mystery, of things unknown and unknowable. Did Bruno Hauptmann kidnap the baby Lindbergh, or was he a minor conspirator framed by police? Who were the Benders, and where did they go afterward?

I don't want to attribute motives to Geary, but it's clear this project is important to him: no one spends twenty years doing the same thing artistically for no reason. He's clearly drawn to the mystery of murder, the questions of motive and culprit, and the ways news fans out into the world after something shocking. Both of these books have his trademarks: precise lines to delineate people, places and things in historical detail; panels that leap from one image to the next to cover a large subject in a short space; careful maps and plans of houses and spaces; laconic narration that occasionally asks those big questions of who and how and why; and copious quotes from the speech and letters and documents surrounding the case.

There's no explicit motive behind the series of books: maybe they exist to show what human beings are capable of, maybe they exist to cast light in dark places. Geary has no lessons for his readers. He's not as quirky and light of touch as in his non-murder books, but the murder books aren't dour. There's no tone of moralizing: just a questing mind, trying to lay out the facts as best they can be known, and sketch the possible explanations for those facts.

These are two good books in a good series; the quality level has been consistent since 1995's Jack the Ripper. They're not books about murder for people who want to be whipped into a frenzy of hate, or to know something for sure -- they're for those of us who live in the real world of possibilities and conjectures, who can be satisfied with what can actually be known. I hope there are a lot of us. I tend to doubt it.