Friday, February 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #54: Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota

To be a sad sack, a character has to be sad. If she's just as put-upon by life, but has a chipper attitude the whole time, she turns into something else. I'm not sure if we have a name for that something else, but maybe we can start calling her a Lucky Penny.

Penny Brighton would be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she were a supporting character in someone else's story, but Lucky Penny is her story, so she's just manic. She's also a mess, but it's not entirely clear how much of that is her fault. In a fictional universe, luck can be a real thing that molds lives, and maybe Penny is just cursed to fail every single luck roll.

Her book is Lucky Penny; it's a comedy in graphic novel form -- not quite a romantic comedy, closer to a comedy of errors. It's by writer Ananth Hirsh and cartoonist Yuko Ota, who work together regularly and also appear to be a couple.

It opens with Penny, who is somewhere in her twenties but not precisely an adult, losing her clothing-retail job and her apartment in the same day. (The apartment should have been a longer-term issue, since her roommate Helen is moving away to get married, but I get the sense that Penny doesn't make "plans" the way other people do.) So, since her judgment and adult skills are so good, she moves into Helen's vacated storage unit (cheap!) and cajoles Helen into getting her a job at the family-owned laundromat, where she will be bossed by Helen's kid brother David. (I can just barely believe in a laundromat that has one person working there full-time, to watch it, but two at once? That doesn't seem right. What do you do working in a laundromat?)

Penny is energetic and lackadaisical and would be happy-go-lucky if she consistently was lucky or had more things to be happy about. But either her own lack of adult skills or the weight of the universe continually throws obstacles in her way -- luckily for her and us, this is a comedy, so they're funny obstacles. She does fail to plan for a lot of things -- how will she stay warm in that unheated storage unit? how will she handle showers and other bodily needs living there? what kind of security does a roll-up door provide when you're inside it? is she saving up to get an actual apartment? does she go shopping for food ever, or just live on her own manic pixie energy? -- but, again, this is a comedy, so I should just relax.

And it is funny. Penny is a Weeble -- she gets bounced around, but nothing in this particular fictional universe can actually knock her down. This is not the story of how she learns adult skills and finds a sensible apartment that she can afford, and starts taking night classes in double-entry accounting to get her foot on the ladder of success. It is the story of how she meets a cute guy at the community center, tries to scam him to get free shows, and ends up dating him in the end. Oh, and saves him from her evil boss's plot of destruction, because Lucky Penny makes a hard left turn into another, but equally silly, genre at the end.

This is not a book to take seriously. Penny is a world-class goofball, and her world has strong goofball tendencies to begin with. And that ending genre-switch comes totally out of nowhere. But it is funny and amusing: Hirsh's dialogue and captions are smart, and Ota is a fine cartoonist of moods and manic energy.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #53: Spinning by Tillie Walden

The cliche is that you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to get good at it. But what if you get good, and then realize you don't like it? And what if those hours started when you were five or six years old, before you really had a choice?

Tillie Walden was a competitive skater for twelve years, quitting near the end of high school. So that first choice wasn't hers. But somewhere along the line, it became her choice, as it always does -- no one does something seriously and competitively for a decade by accident. And no one stops doing it by accident, either.

Spinning is Walden's first major work of comics: it pretty much has to be, since she was born in 1996. But maybe the same drive that kept her getting up at four in the morning for practice all those years is what motivated her to write and draw these four hundred pages. Spinning exists because Walden was a competitive skater: not just in the trivial way that this is the story she's telling, but in the deep sense that she's the person who can look at her life this intensely and turn it into art because she did something difficult and taxing and demanding for so long at such a high level. Most people don't work that hard before they turn eighteen; a lot never work that hard at all.

Walden tells the story of her skating life starting with its big dislocation: her family moved from New Jersey to Texas at the end of her elementary school years, when she was already serious about skating and part of a competitive synchro team. Her life wasn't wonderful in New Jersey, with a nasty coach and relentless bullying in public school, but it was the only life she knew. Everything was different in Texas -- private school, different names for skating routines, a whole different competitive landscape. But Walden still did well, on the ice as she didn't, quite, in school.

We all need something we can be good at. Especially if we feel isolated and alienated to begin with. And Walden did: not just a Jersey kid in Texas, but a girl who realized early on that she was attracted to other girls, in a family and among schoolmates and fellow skaters who she knew would not understand or support her. Walden's first love was a fellow skater; she tells that story here, touchingly. She was forced out of the closet, earlier than she wanted, by the forced break-up of that relationship, and got none of the love and support she deserved.

Spinning is about skating, but skating is just the lens: it's about Tillie Walden, and how she grew up and started deciding what she wanted for herself. She was gay. She wasn't going to go to college. She wanted to draw and tell stories. And, finally, she was done with skating.

It is frankly amazing that Spinning is Walden's first long story, that she has this level of control of her art and story at the beginning of her career, that she has this distance and clarity about her own life so early. Spinning is a major graphic memoir, full stop -- not just good for a first book, not just good with qualifiers. From the evidence here, Tillie Walden is a major talent: smart, hard-working, tenacious, with a relentless eye and a light, Adrian Tomine-like line. I hope to keep reading great comics from her for the next forty years or more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #52: Bizarro Heroes by Dan Piraro

There's not a whole lot to say about this book as a book, so it might be time for some Book-A-Day behind-the-scenes. You see, to keep the hopper fed -- especially early in the year, which sets the tone and energy for the whole project -- I'm making sure to read at least one book a day, and that generally means a book of comics. (Call it a graphic novel or a bande dessinee or a tankobon or a trade paperback or whatever you want: a book-format work of comics.)

Actually, so far, every single day it is a book of comics. Some other things, too, on top of that, but the one book every single day is comics. (I've got a book going in the smallest room of the house, one going by the bed, and one going here next to my computer, and I'm also reading a "real" book of prose every week, but the comics are the day-in, day-out engine that keeps this running.)

Sometimes I plan to read a particular book: I'm working through my longer graphic novels right now, for instance. But I might find, as I did one day recently, that it's deep into the evening and I haven't touched that book. So it's late and I'm tired, but I want to keep the engine going. For times like that, I have a few things I know I can read quickly.

One of them was Bizarro Heroes, a 2011 collection of Bizarro comics by Dan Piraro with a superhero theme in one way or another. Bizarro is a single-panel daily cartoon anyway, with no continuity, so it's all one-off jokes to begin with. So it would be the perfect strip to birth a series of one-off thematic books like this -- get some intern earning "college credit" to tag all ten-thousand-plus strips in a database, input some search criteria, and prepare to pump out product.

Sadly, the era for one-off thematic books (Bizarro Golf! Bizarro Tennis! Bizarro Smug Vegetarianism! Bizarro Inexplicable Melancholy!) ended not too long after Piraro launched Bizarro in 1985, and his obsessions were never all that in tune with mass America to begin with. So I don't think the glorious era of themed Bizarro books ever got off the ground. But this one does exist, and superheroes are even hotter now than they were in 2011.

Bizarro Heroes is about what you'd expect: a hundred pages of comics, generally one to a page, all with jokes about superheroes. Piraro knows the obvious stuff, but clearly isn't a superhero geek: he makes a Batman/Manbat joke that shows he didn't know there was an actual Man-Bat in the Batman comics. So these are sometimes jokes about other things using superheroes, sometimes jokes about how superheroes are silly, and sometimes jokes about the usual furniture of capes and secret identities. About half of the cartoons are in color; the rest are black and white. They seem to be entirely from the decade before the book -- I found some dated as early as 2000, but they mostly come from 2007-2010.

If you're in the market for a book of single-panel cartoons about superheroes, you probably don't have many choices. Even with the lack of competition, though, this is a pretty good choice -- as long as you aren't so much more geeky than Piraro that his lack of geekitude will annoy you (and there definitely are plenty of guys like that; you'll know if you are one).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #51: Black Kiss and Black Kiss 2 by Howard Chaykin

Nearly all of us like sex in our own personal lives. (A few years ago, I would have just said "all of us," but I'm coming to think there's nothing that's true for "all of us." Still, liking sex is about as close as it gets.)

But narrative art about sex is only very rarely as positive as we are in our own lives. Maybe it's because people having sex happily has a tendency to devolve into porn, or because art requires conflict, but the "erotic thriller" is much more common than the "erotic comedy" -- comedies about sex keep the sex as a joke and hidden behind those multiple slamming doors, not front and center. And cautionary stories about sex causing bad things are even more common than that.

Howard Chaykin is no exception: his most famous comics about sex are Black Kiss from 1988 and it's belated prequel/follow-up Black Kiss 2 from 2013, and there's very little happy sex in either of them. Oh, a lot of people get it on, pan-sexually, over and over again, but a lot of that sex is rape, a big chunk of the rest isn't terribly consensual, and a hell of a lot of people get killed during or after getting it on. (There are also serious arguments to be made that the Black Kiss stories are transphobic, or just plain sexist/misogynistic, but I won't make those arguments here. And a lot of that desire mixed with disgust for femininity is baked into the "erotic thriller" concept to begin with -- I don't know if that excuses anything, but it's inherent in the genre.)

Some of that is down to Chaykin, though: the first Black Kiss marks the moment when his early cynicism (as seen in projects like American Flagg!) curdled into sourness and his essential plot for the next several decades solidified into a cliche: the up-for-anything Jewish guy (with a big dick) gets caught up in something horrible, is tormented by at least one blonde vixen, and then generally kills her (and maybe several others) to escape with the brunette girl, who is more eager to follow his lead. In Black Kiss, that guy is Cass Pollack, a small-time jazz musician who we never see actually playing an instrument. (I am studiously avoiding making a joke on "instrument" here.)

Unusually for Chaykin, we don't open with Cass but with Dagmar Laine, a blonde trans* woman who is the lover of (and dead ringer for) faded movie star Beverly Grove. Laine appears to be the smart, organized one of the two, masterminding a complicated plot to get back a scandalous movie of Bev from a priest, while Bev rampages around, usually dead drunk and having dangerous sex with nearly everyone she meets. The plot goes wrong, of course, as a secret society and the usual nasty crooked cops get involved, and the movie is not destroyed as expected. Bev runs into Cass, on the run from those crooked cops for a mostly unrelated reason, and Cass is drawn into the pan-sexual orgy that is Dagmar and Bev's lives. As I said above, a lot of people have sex, occasionally by choice, and some of them even live to enjoy themselves afterward. But it's not the way to bet.

In the end, there's a shocking secret, more death, and anyone who's read a Chaykin story knows who walks out alive in the end.

Black Kiss 2 drops back to 1906 to give the backstory of that shocking secret, moving forward seven to ten years (most of the time) for each of its dozen ten-page chapters. The sex is more explicit here -- Chaykin avoided drawing genitalia and penetration in 1988, but not in 2013 -- but just as dreary and unpleasant, a relentless parade of nasty people doing nasty things to each other and the occasional innocent. We do learn Bev's full history, and Dagmar's -- all of the Dagmars, since there have been several -- and finally the plot catches up to the original Black Kiss and brings it up to the present day, with all of the dreary coercive sex intact.

The two Black Kiss books accomplish the difficult task of making sex seem deeply unpleasant and horrible: giving them to young impressionable people would be one of the best ways I know of making lifelong celibates. From these stories, no one could ever guess that sex is something people do together, or even that human beings are able to feel positive emotions for each other, once in a while. The pictures are well-done, I guess: scratchy noir blondes in expensive lingerie romping in vividly imagined spaces, with gouts of black blood at regular intervals for spice.

I can't actually recommend these books. If you're interested in Chaykin -- and you might well be; he's an interesting and deeply talented comics creator, both as a writer and an artist -- you do need to read them at some point; they channel a pure id Chaykin unlike anything else. But I really hope you don't enjoy them: to do that, I think, you need to identify too much with the sexual predators here.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #50: The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

What makes a city work? Well, the easy answer is "people," but there are much more complicated answers about systems and expert knowledge and technology and history and infrastructure.

Those bigger answers can very quickly get beyond the understanding of laymen, but they don't have to. It's possible to explain what makes a city work on a level we all can understand. Kate Ascher did it, a little more than a decade ago, anatomizing the various central systems of New York City in The Works: Anatomy of a City.

My guess is that one of the bookclubs offered The Works back around 2005, when it was published -- probably Book-of-the-Month Club, since it's got that kind of high-minded seriousness to it -- and those days I was in a mode of grabbing every book that looked like it could possibly be of interest. (It was a glorious time: books were everywhere, I could grab more than I could read, and nothing had ever happened to take books away from me. Things changed, of course.) I finally read it this year, when as part of my Book-A-Day exercises I took a hard look at that lower shelf with coffee-table books that I haven't touched in at least five years.

Some of the details in The Works are probably out of date, particularly since Ascher included a section at the end on then-current plans to upgrade or repair the various systems, and those plans are now either accomplished or abandoned. (Farewell, ARC tunnel!) But I expect the general plan is still correct: a city with hundred-plus-year-old water mains doesn't change overnight.

Ascher divided her look at NYC infrastructure into five big chapters: Moving People (streets, subways, bridges, tunnels), Moving Freight (by rail or ship or air, plus a section on markets), Power (electricity, natural gas, and the yes-they-still-use-it surprise of steam), Communications (phone, mail, and wireless spectrum), and Keeping It Clean (water, sewage, and garbage). That's a lot of systems, many of which interrelate -- trash travels by barge on the waterways and conduits can carry more than one kind of pipe or wire.

The Works is a well-designed, highly visual book, with useful sidebars on every page and clean, easily-understandable graphics. Ascher's acknowledgements credit the design and imagery to Alexander Isley, George Kokkinidis, and a larger team, so they should get a lot of the love for making this an easy book to view and understand.

It's fashionable these days to hate on urban-dwellers, but cities are where most economic activity happens, and the engines of the modern world. Even if you have to drive your pick-up fifty miles to the closest Wal-Mart to go grocery shopping, The Works is a useful, informative book that explains how the vital infrastructure of the modern world operates in one of the most demanding environments today.


Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/17/18

Welcome back to the weekly Antick Musings post about whatever new books have wandered close enough for me to take a look at them. Once upon a time, I only listed things I got free in the mail, as part of Big Book Publishing's publicity efforts, but why limit myself? So now it's more varied, depending on what happened that week.

This time out, I've gotten a few books form the library, and these are they:

Romeo And/Or Juliet is a Choose-Your-Adventure version of the Shakespeare play, rewritten by Ryan North and illustrated by a whole lot of people. I've played the game version of North's previous iteration of the same idea, To Be Or Not To Be, and that was fun. I did think this was more deeply in comics format than it actually is: it's a regular mostly-text book with about 400 pages and 500 numbered text sections, but it does have a bunch of illustrations.

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects was a webcomic (by Andy Warner) that ended just about as soon as I discovered it, which is right about my luck. I think it ended because Warner got the book deal, and needed to save his cartooning efforts for this paid gig, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the book eventually appeared, I intended to read it for a long time, and now it looks like I will.

Kaijumax: Season Two is the second collection of Zander Cannon's giant monster prison movie in comics form, and I guess this means I've given up on actually seeing and buying this series in an actual store. (The problem with the modern world is that you can get anything you desperately want delivered immediately, but things you want to check out or aren't as immediately focused on just don't show up anywhere at all near you.) Anyway, I liked the first volume, and now I've got the second one, even if it took library systems in two states to do it.

The Best American Comics 2013 is a five-year-old book in a series I thought I was going to keep better track of. Well, you know what kind of road-building happens from good intentions. This one was edited by Jeff Smith -- all of the "Best American" books have series editors, who do the initial cull to get a long list of good stuff, and one-off yearly star editors, who select the final contents most from that long list.

And last is a new comics version of Beowulf, by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin. The book itself isn't clear about their roles: did one write and one draw? One layout, the other do finishes, and the first come back Marvel-style to do the dialogue? Did they work simultaneously on the same pages and argue about wording? Did they swap out days, on working Monday-Wednesday-Friday and the other Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday? I simply don't know, and I'm running out of silly options to pretend to care about. However they did it, they adapted the Old English poem into comics, and Image published it as a big hardcover.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #49: A Pelican at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse

In 1969, I was busy being born and learning such important things as object permanence. But P.G. Wodehouse was at the other end of a long productive life, with nearly a hundred books behind him and a worldwide adoring fanbase. (Practically the only thing we had in common was that we both lived in New York State -- he on Long Island, me up in Albany.)

That has nothing to do with anything, but we do like to try to connect ourselves to our favorite authors, don't we? And Wodehouse is definitely one of mine: he found something he could do well and elevated light comedy to brilliance over and over again across more than seventy years. His work ethic was hugely admirable, his devotion to craft was amazing, and the results are just as purely entertaining now as they ever were.

A Pelican at Blandings was his new novel for 1969, that year I was born. (In the US, it was originally titled No Nudes Is Good Nudes, because it was the late sixties, and something had to be titled that.) It wasn't quite his last novel, either -- Wodehouse in his eighties was down from his earlier pace of production, but he was still good for a novel nearly every year, and had five more novels still to come after Pelican (plus one close enough to completion that it was published after his death in 1975).

As the title implies, this is a Blandings Castle story featuring Galahad (famously of the Pelican Club). The plot, as usual with Wodehouse, is almost beside the point: one of Lord Emsworth's domineering sisters returns from America for an unwanted visit, along with an even less pleasant friend, the Duke of Dunstable. Young lovers are sundered by their elders' meanness and unfortunate circumstances. Several impostors appear at the Castle. A valuable object is stolen, and is the center of several plots. The majestic Empress of Blandings, second-fattest pig in the county, is in danger of losing her appetite. But, in the end, it all turns out all right.

That's the joy of Wodehouse: he crafts intricate worlds full of complication and seeming heartbreak where everything does turn out all right, every time, and makes it sprightly and amusing the whole way. A Wodehouse book is the purest form of escapism, transporting us to a world that never was or could be, no matter how much we wish it did. Pelican is not one of his very best, true -- you can just see a glimpse of the tighter, brilliant book it could have been, with multiple attempts to steal and/or replace that nude painting happening simultaneously -- but it's funny and sunny and entirely plummy. If you haven't read Wodehouse before, what on earth are you waiting for?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #48: Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, Vols. 4 & 5 by Satoko Kiyuduki

Reading a book at four-year intervals is probably not the best way to keep it in the front of one's mind. But I read the first two volumes of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro (one and two) back in 2010, and then the third in 2014, so, since it's 2018 now, I couldn't continue any earlier than now, can I?

(It would be nice to have a time machine, but, in real life, "today" is always the earliest anything can be done.)

So here I am in 2018, having just read Volumes Four and Five of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, a comic I remember enjoying quite a bit back then. But, this time, I'm not as enthusiastic about Satoko Kiyuduki's world and storyline -- much of the dialogue feels like a lot of pseudo-philosophical windiness that doesn't actually say anything (that could be translation issues, though, or lack of cultural context on my part) and the vertical 4-koma format (except for some pages that read right-to-left like regular manga, to trip me up) forces every interaction and conversation into the same four-box structure with a punch-line-like zinger at the end.

Kuro is a young woman, but precisely how young is difficult to say. She's drawn to look pre-teen, but that could just be a style. She was cursed by a witch, for reasons and in a way that still isn't entirely clear at this point, and has to wander the world, lugging her coffin, until she either becomes a witch herself or dies. (As finally becomes semi-explicit in these volumes.) This is not nearly as dramatic as you're hoping it will be. Instead, she does a lot of vague talking about what it means to be a traveler, except when other characters are saying similar, and if possible even vaguer, things.

We also get an origin for that witch -- I think; it's someone's origin and it's not Kuro's -- somewhere in the middle here. It's sad but vaguely pointless, unless meant to underline that life is arbitrary and capricious and that everything kinda sucks. The witch is also traveling, though she doesn't have strong opinions on the subject the way other characters do. And they're traveling through vaguely fantasy-ish lands, nowhere in particular and far away from cities and large groups of people and anything particularly exciting.

Kuro does occasionally wander through pieces of other stories along her travels, but she's always at the center: everyone is happy to stop whatever they're doing to engage in long conversations with the little girl lugging her own coffin. Late in the second volume, someone actually tries to kill Kuro, which at least adds a bit of variety. It doesn't take, of course.

Kuro is not as mopey as she could be: she's more dogged, in that essential manga way, devoted to keeping on moving forward and being as positive as she can be until something new happens. That's encouraging, but I still wanted things to happen here, and not just have a moment of "oh, gosh, we all perceive this area differently! isn't that odd" before Kuro and her companions move on.

So: the 4-koma format is inherently episodic and distancing, and is tending to make Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro spin its wheels through the same few philosophical thoughts at this point in its life. And sometimes mysteries are much more enticing than their solutions: I think this is a fine example of that effect. The fact that this book is published at really long intervals -- a sixth volume, I see, just came out last fall -- doesn't help much, either.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #47: Manga Sutra, Vol. 2 by Katsu Aki

I believe I've had this book on the shelf for ten years, which means it's one of the small number of things that survived my 2011 flood. (That destroyed my entire basement and somewhere around 4,000 books.) I'm not sure why or how this book survived, but I'm pretty sure I haven't managed to read it until now largely because Manga Sutra is unsuitable for reading on a public train, where I read most of my book-format comics.

In any case, I read Vol. 1 of this series for a "Manga Friday" post at ComicMix back in August of 2008, and finally got to Katsu Aki's Manga Sutra, Vol. 2 in February of 2018.At this rate, I could get through the remaining two US collections by the time I retire, which would leave me time to learn Japanese to read the seventy-two tankobon volumes (to date as of now; it's still running) in my copious spare time.

Or maybe not.

Manga Sutra, sometimes known as Step Up Love Story (the title of the anime adaptation) or Manga Love Story, is a combination romance story and sex manual. It's an odd romance, since it begins after the two main characters are already married and in love. But it's a more typical sex manual: those tend to be for people who don't know what they're doing, and these two very inexperienced young people have no idea what they're doing.

Makoto and Yura Onoda appear not to have had sex before getting married, with each other or with anyone else. They also seem not to have thought about sex, or possibly even known sex existed before that point, at least on Yura's part. (They both have families filled with horndogs, though -- his older brother and her younger sister most prominently -- implying their extreme inexperience is purely for ease of storytelling.) They're having a lot of sex now: this second volume takes place a few months into their marriage, when they've most mastered inserting Tab A into Slot B in ways that both of them generally find appealing, and they do it most nights.

There are problems, of course, or else what use would be the sex manual? Makoto has trouble getting and keeping an erection some of the time, which is largely solved in this volume by Yura learning that blowjobs are a thing and being taught how to do them by her kid sister, with the aid of the requisite banana. On the other side, Yura has not had an orgasm from sex, and probably hasn't had one at all, and that's not quite solved yet. (Makoto was performing oral sex on Yura earlier than she on him, so perhaps he just hasn't had as effective a teacher as Yura did. Or maybe one breakthrough per volume is the maximum allowable.) And both of them are hugely apprehensive, and Yura deeply embarrassed, about talking to each other about sex other than the most basic "tonight?"

Starting to write this review, I was surprised to learn that this series is still running, after twenty years. And I wondered: is it locked into time like Kinsey Milhone, so that Makoto and Yura are still newlyweds in the late '90s and not that good at sex? Or have they been leveling up consistently since then, and have sex powers over 9000? Either way could be fun.

Manga Sutra is a bit old-fashioned, so that it's not too far ahead of anyone who might come to it. It's also a bit old-fashioned because it's a bit old at this point -- twenty years is a whole generation. Old-fashioned generally means the sex is tasteful: penetration is only shown as cutaway graphics and genitalia are never clearly drawn. But old-fashioned also means those wacky families nudge-nudge wink-winking tediously, and a gaggle of office ladies trying to entice Makoto into an affair -- luckily, he's too in love with his wife (or too oblivious) to even notice.  In many ways, Manga Sutra is your father's sex-instruction comic. And, if you need or want that, four volumes like this are out there for you.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #46: Museum of Mistakes by Julia Wertz

We all regret our twenties. Some of us regret how quickly we settled down and got boring, and some of us regret that we didn't settle down and get boring, at all or quickly enough.

I'm one of the former; I think Julia Wertz is one of the latter. Museum of Mistakes is the big collection of the comics she made at the time, and somewhat afterward, about her not being boring.

(Well. not exactly: Wertz shows herself as a massive introvert and an alcoholic, who spent way too much time in a tiny apartment making comics and drinking. One might well think of that as being boring.)

These days, artistic development happens in public more often than not, and it was that way for Wertz: she started publishing comics about her early-twenties life in San Francisco as "The Fart Party" about a decade ago, turned some of those comics into self-published zines soon afterward, and then turned those into books. She had two collections of Fart Party -- I reviewed the first one, more or less, for Comic Mix in 2008 -- and then went to a bigger company for Drinking at the Movies, which was billed as a full-length memoir but was really another collection of somewhat linked stories, all about her life at the time. It could have been Fart Party 3, but it wasn't. (Big companies are not likely to start off a brand-new relationship with a #3.)

The big-company thing didn't entirely work out for Wertz: she was part of the land-rush for cartoonists (especially autobiographical, especially female) in the wake of Persepolis and some other big successes. And the thing about a publishing land-rush is that a lot of stuff -- good, not-as-good, half-baked -- is published by people who haven't figured out yet how to replicate success, and are hoping they can hit the target enough times to work out a coherent plan. Wertz's comics were real and raw and true, but they were pretty far from the things that were working really big in those days, so it's not surprising that Drinking didn't rocket her to fame and fortune.

(And, possibly as important, Wertz was really ambivalent about fame and fortune. Around the same time, there was nearly a TV show based on Fart Party, but, as she's told the story afterward in her comics, she sabotaged it, partly on purpose and partly unconsciously.)

Since the world loves irony, her book after the big-company book was stronger and more of a clear step forward in telling longer, more unified stories -- that was The Infinite Wait, which brings us up to as close to now as Wertz got in her career. She hasn't published much in the past half-decade or so; she got into "urban exploration" and maybe just living her life for a while instead of turning it into comics immediately.)

So this book, from 2014, is still (I think) her most recent. It collects all of The Fart Party and The Fart Party 2, plus another book's worth of other strips: a section of stuff that wasn't Fart Party 3 because she did Drinking instead, some pre-Fart Party work, sketches, zine work, and other things.

This is the definitive early Wertz: the snotty slacker who had a series of lousy food-service jobs, had her boyfriend move cross-country and then break up with her, and who herself moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn. She loved cheese and wine, she took as little shit as she possibly could, she swore a lot, and she had a weird childhood.

She's probably still some of those things, or is the person formed by being those things in her twenties. Any book, especially a memoir, is a snapshot of who that person was at the time, and Wertz was very good at snapshots, with her deliberately crude art and sarcastic dialogue. No one wants the burden of being the voice of a generation, but Wertz did speak for a lot of millennials in the late Bush II years-- grumpy, disgruntled, stuck in a crapsack world built by other people, looking for their own moments of happiness and fulfillment. She was good at it by not trying to do anything like that: she just told stories of her own life, which was close enough to a million other lives to catch fire. It was a Fart Party, and we won't see it's like again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #45: Jack Staff Vol. 1 by Paul Grist

This book has more panels introducing its characters than any comic I've ever seen in my life. I know it was originally published as twelve individual issues of the Jack Staff comic, but it's much more common than that -- so often that I started to think this had been serialized somewhere, no more than five pages at a time, for an audience with short-term memory loss.

It's clearly on purpose, even if I'm not sure why creator Paul Grist is doing it. Is it some meta-commentary on superhero comics? A sly jab at the big comics universe-building instinct, so that every important character gets a hook and a logo, ready to spin off into his own book at the drop of a hat?

In any case, that's how Jack Staff, Vol. 1: Everything Used to Be Black and White goes -- every time the plot shifts to Jack, or to Becky Burdock, {Spoiler} Reporter, or to Tom Tom the Robot Man, or to The Spider, or to Bramble & Sons, Vampire Hunters, or to Detective Inspector Maveryk, old-fashioned copper, there's a logo-like treatment of their names splashed on the page, and usually some purple prose that almost but not quite tells the true believers to face front.

I suspect that Grist does not take his superhero comics entirely seriously, but that's fine: I haven't been able to do that for at least two decades now myself. And Jack Staff comes across as a book in which the creator is having an immense amount of fun, and is choosing the plot elements that make him cackle in delight as he draws them. That may make for a certain amount of whiplash, as he jumps from plot thread to plot thread every couple of pages, but it's all clear, and the reader certainly has no trouble remembering who any of the characters are.

In any case: this is a British superhero comic, so it's required by law to be somewhat self-effacing and to subvert expectations of the genre at least once per twenty-four pages. Grist is entirely happy to do that, but his subversion is of an older school than Moore or Morrison: he's someone who seems to doubt, down deep, that dressing up in silly costumes and punching people is really a good solution to serious problems. That is entirely true, but it can be a fatal attitude for superhero comics unless it's coupled with a light touch.

Grist does also have a light touch, so we're good there.

Jack himself is a mildly brick-like superguy, dressed in his nation's flag and first encountered during WW II doing his bit to defend democracy and battle the evil Hun. He's clearly tough to some level, but he can't fly or do any of that obvious super-stuff, and he needs a big stick to hit people adequately. On the other hand, he does seem to be much, much older than he has any right to be, and still looking mid-thirties in these stories from the late '90s. There are more serious supernatural elements -- I mentioned vampire hunters above, and they do have vampires to hunt -- and one villain we see has definite weather-control powers. So this is a real superhero universe, even if we're just seeing a quirky British corner of it.

I originally read Grist's crime comic Kane in the '90s -- it looks like I kept up with it almost to the end, missing the last collection -- and bought this 2004 collection about four years ago with a thought of maybe getting into his other big self-published series. There are three more Jack Staff collections, I see, though this series also seems to be definitively over. I might keep going, if I can find the books: this are fun adventure comics that don't take themselves too seriously, and Grist's inky art and smash-cut plotting make his pages lively and zippy.

If you, too, are willing to accept that superheroes are inherently goofy, you'll probably enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #44: King City by Brandon Graham

For those of you scoring at home, this is the major Brandon Graham comic that does not include a random hardcore sex scene thrown into the middle (The one that does is Multiple Warheads. Graham toiled in the sex-comics vineyards for several years, and one sex-comic idea blossomed or transformed into an idea that could be a comic about other things than sex.)

This is the major Brandon Graham comic that features a cat with drug-induced superpowers, though. So if that's the one you wanted: here you go.

(There's also Prophet, but I think he just wrote that and doesn't own it, either. I'm enough of a purist to have a preference for the comics that someone owns and does all the work on.)

As I understand it, King City is a slightly earlier work than Multiple Warheads, though I think the publication history of both stories is a bit mixed and mingled. (And Prophet is later than both of them. Maybe still going on now, for all I know!) In any case, it was eventually twelve issues of comics, in two big clumps, from first Tokyopop and then Image. This big collection of the whole shebang came out in 2012 and says it was co-published by the two companies. (My guess is that Image did all of the work and just cut Tokyopop a check based on whatever they owned/controlled, but I am a noted cynic.)

King City is a young man's comic, about a young man: Joe, the Cat Master who would have been the title character if Tokyopop hadn't balked at Cat Master for a title. He's back in King City after a few years away, learning the secrets of Cat Mastery somewhere in California and getting his weapon/partner Earthling along the way. In case you're wondering, the cat doesn't talk, or do anything particularly un-catlike except when Joe injects him with a syringe to unlock weird powers. Earthling is pretty much here to be Joe's random superpower, and to give Graham an excuse to draw a bucket full of cat regularly.

Joe meets back up with his old friend Pete, who doesn't have any particular super-stuff, but does strange odd jobs for one of the local gangs. King City is deeply weird, in a manga-meets-indy-comics way, so the gangs are inscrutable and hermetic and don't seem to spend any time doing anything we'd normally think of as criminal activity -- but they are dangerous, and have their own weird powers and abilities. There's also Joe's old girlfriend Anna, who he's still pining for, but she's now with Max, a shell-shocked survivor of the zombie war in Korea who is now addicted to the drug chalk (which turns its users, eventually, into chalk).

Those are the characters, more or less. There's also Beebay, the mysterious woman who hires Joe for her gang, Pete's nasty employers and the water-breathing nameless alien girl they hire him to transport (until he falls for her and pulls a double-cross), a few other cat masters who show up for the big showdown, and a gigantic Lovecraftian-cum-Akira-ball-of-flesh that must be stopped in the finale.

Well, stopped by someone. Not necessarily our heroes. It's not that kind of story.

Graham bounces from just-slightly-satirical spy-craft to kitchen-sink drama to goofball pun-based comedy, often the the course of a single panel. What ties it all together is this overstuffed neo-future city, where everything is unreal enough for anything to be possible. It's not a heavily plotted comic -- things happen, and they happen in a logical sequence, but it doesn't build up to anything, and Graham wants to subvert expectations rather than encourage them. His art is similar bouncy: here a little manga-inspired, especially in the buildings, here a little indy-goofball, here recovering sex-comics artist.

So King City feels a lot like another slacker comic: the characters aren't exactly slackers themselves, but it has that laid-back vibe, as if nothing can get too bad, as long as you've got your cat with you. And that's all right, man.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #43: Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

There are at least two Jeff Lemires. One is the writer of big superhero adventures -- I hear good things about him, from people who actually enjoy big superhero adventures, but I don't expect to ever meet him. Another one writes and draws comics about damaged people in Canada (Essex County, The Underwater Welder, The Nobody), and that's the Lemire I know pretty well. You could say, I guess, that there's a third Lemire, who tells stories of other kinds, somewhere in the middle -- the Lemire of Trillium and Sweet Tooth and Descender and Plutona -- and that one combines the strengths of the two extremes of Lemire. You could say that.

But what I have here is a book by the pure second Lemire, a book deeply Canadian, set in a small town way out in the cold and the emptiness, about a big palooka who used to play hockey and his kid sister who used to not be a junkie. Roughneck is a book about a lot of "used to be"s.

Derek Oulette is from a little town "up north" called Pimitamon -- "The Pit" to locals. To the north of it somewhere is a First Nations reservation where Derek's mother came from, a ways to the south is Timmins, which isn't much bigger than The Pit. All around is snow and pine trees and wildlife and snowmobile trails, and not much else. Derek got out of there young, away from an abusive father, to play hockey for the Rangers for a few years -- but, even there, he was "never really a hockey player...I was just a thug."

As Roughneck begins, he's back in The Pit, slinging eggs in the local greasy spoon and spending his evenings trying to drink quietly in the one bar in town. But there's always some yahoo who wants to get a rise out of the ex-pro, and it's really easy to get a rise out of Derek. The only reason Derek isn't in jail is because he lives in a small town where everyone knows everyone, including the cops.

And then one day Beth comes back -- Derek's younger sister, fleeing an abusive relationship of her own. They haven't seen each other for more than a decade: Beth ran off to Toronto not long after Derek went into pro hockey, both of them somewhere in their teens. And they're both pretty damaged, by their horrible father and what happened to them after they got away from him.

But Roughneck is the story of how they get beyond that. Derek does not have to be a roughneck. Beth does not have to be a junkie. Their horrible father does not have to define them.

Lemire tells this story mostly in muted blue-green tones, as chilly as the world he's drawing. Memories and flashbacks bring more color, to set them apart. The people all have Lemire faces: beaten down (or up) by life, lined and seamed, usually gigantic noses. This is a rough world he's writing and drawing about. But the message of Roughneck is that you don't need to be rough yourself to get through a rough world -- and that's a good message to hear.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/10/18

This week I have books in two categories to mention to you, which means the less mentally agile of you might get confused. (And that I'm turning to insulting my audience in this thirteenth year of my blog -- hey, it's something to do.)

First up is an epic fantasy novel that came from the publisher, and which is brand-spanking new. Then I'll get into some recent graphic novels that I got from my local library to feed the Book-A-Day maw.

So: direct from the fine folks at Pyr is Jon Sprunk's Blade and Bone, the third book in his series "The Book of the Black Earth." (Raising once again that old epic-fantasy question: how can a series be "The Book" when it takes three or four or twelve books to get through it?) It hits stores on February 27th, and does not promise to be the last in the series. This time out, our hero Horace -- Horace? that's an interesting name for a hero in a book at least somewhat inspired by ancient Egypt -- is still in charge of the slave rebellion and leveling up as a magician, but there's now also "an unstoppable army of undead creatures under the control of a mysterious sorcerer," so his dance card is getting pretty full.

Everything else is from the library -- I think these are all 2017 books, since I'm plundering some "best of the year" lists, but no promises.

Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell -- If I haven't lost track of things (which is a big "if"), this was Bell's first big comics collection since 2012's The Voyeurs. If I did lose track of things, then I have no idea.

Poppies of Iraq by Brigette Fidakly and Lewis Trondheim -- As I remember it, Findakly is Trondheim's wife, and this is her memoir of growing up in Iraq, which he drew. (Looking at the book itself, that's all true, but Trondheim is also credited as co-writer, possibly because he has more experience putting things into comics form.)

Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota -- This is some manner of contemporary comedic romance fiction, and I have no idea how I heard of it. Somebody recommended it, I guess, and now I'll read it.

And last is Tillie Walden's Spinning, a memoir of figure skating and coming out and the other things that happen along the way. I've never read any of Walden's work -- I think this is her first big book, but I could be wrong -- and this has gotten a lot of praise.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #42: Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

Sometimes, with comics, we forget the value of density. Particularly these days, when the needle has swung far in the direction of deconstruction and the popular models are from manga, with endless pages of the wind blowing evocatively over some landscape or other, we forget the power of a page full of things happening and messages assaulting our eyeballs.

Well, we live in a world like that now, so maybe we don't want it in our comics all that often. But there are comics that told us this world was coming, that said that random ethnic violence and lowest-common-denominator reality TV would numb our viewing eyes, that media barons would take over politics and make a profit off of it, that we can and will be seduced by bread and circuses.

They also said we'd get to Mars by then, but that's the besetting sin of SF, isn't it? Assuming that some big impressive things will happen to offset or backdrop the day-to-day shittiness. The real future is always more banal than the SF version, with all of the kipple and none of the electric sheep.

One of the densest, and most horribly prescient, SF comics of all time is Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! It wasn't all consistent -- in those days, comics came out regularly, so when Chaykin needed a rest, other people sharecropped his fields to much less effect, including a shockingly horrible Alan Moore story about sex cops -- but the best of it, meaning the all-Chaykin storylines, was electric and real in a way little in the comics was when it came out and still shockingly powerful today.

The first three storylines (each three jam-packed issues long) of Chaykin's masterwork were collected in the 2008 hardcover Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, Vol. 1, along with the next two semi-fill-in issues -- done-in-one stories with other artists -- and an all-Chaykin short story that I think originally appeared in an earlier collection of the first story, Hard Times. This isn't the whole of the pure Chaykin product -- as I recall, all of his multi-part stories from the original 1983 run were strong, and the rest of those would fill up another book about this size.

That book doesn't exist: the 2008 reprinting project got as far as two paperbacks, each with one half of this hardcover, and this book itself, and then petered out. That's unfortunate: American Flagg! does have dated elements (the clothes, the hair, the timeline), but Chaykin was never better than in this series. There's a hair-on-fire energy on every page, a damn-the-torpedoes headlong power to his plotting, and his art was super-detailed in a way then entirely futuristic and now still pretty damn impressive.

This book, though, is out there, if you can find it. It's set in 2031, in a US that collapsed in the mid-90s and has never come back. But the big corporations and rich folks got off-planet to the Moon and then Mars -- this is the most SFnal and unrealistic piece of the set-up, and not really necessary -- and a police-force-cum-broadcaster, the Plex, runs what's left of North America. What's left of the bourgeoisie live in giant "malls" near the old cities, and the rest of the country is a rabble of ethnic gangs, whose economic activity, as far as we see it, is entirely of the illegal kind. Thrown into this corrupt and profoundly cynical snakepit is Reuben Flagg, who recently was the lead actor in a Plex-promoting soft-core-porn TV show until technology advanced enough to eliminate actors entirely. (And, to be honest, as far as we can tell, all entertainment is at least soft-core porn in this future -- it's bread and circuses all the way down.)

Flagg is honest, as such things go. And, even more, he's got a great survival instinct and a desire to fix whatever is in front of him and broken. This world has a lot that's broken, so Flagg has his work cut out for him. It's still a thrill to experience this world along with him, to see one of the two great comics dystopias of the '80s (along with Tim Truman's Scout) again, and to wish there was more of it, or a decent collection or what else is already out there.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #41: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

It's a joy to pick up a book knowing almost nothing about it or the author -- and to find that book excellent. (If the book is lousy, you always wish you knew more up front.) I've never read J.M. Coetzee before, and barely know who he is -- when I picked up this book to read it, I had to check to make sure "he" was the appropriate pronoun.

This 2010 Penguin Ink edition of Waiting for the Barbarians presents the 1980 novel with tattoo-inspired art by C.C. Askew on the front, back, and French flaps, where a description of the book or author would usually be. Instead, there's a single paragraph on the first page to describe it as a "modern classic," characterize Coetzee as a Nobel Laureate, and and provide two sentences about the story. That's it -- but how much more does a 180-page book about a nameless man need? It's almost as easy to just read it.

If you want to repeat my experience, stop here, and add Waiting for the Barbarians to your to-be-read list. If not, let me tell you more...

Somewhere at the edge of an Empire, down a long and lonely road, a small dusty town sits next to a small dusty fort, with a small garrison of men stationed there so long they're practically locals. Nearby is a lake that's slowly drying up and turning to salt, and between there and the distant mountains are scrublands and desert -- hard, bleak lands with little life or water and no permanent settlements. Roaming through the scrub and the desert and the mountains are the barbarians. Presumably the barbarians are made up of different tribes,  but to the Empire they are all just "barbarians." In that fort sits a magistrate. He's been in that town for decades, doing a decent enough job and administering the region reasonably well. He's old and fat and devoted to small pleasures, hoping to just live out the rest of his days in this sleepy town in a sleepy time.

But there's a rumor in the Empire: the barbarians are gathering. They're preparing for war. They will sweep across the entire frontier and threaten the heartlands. And so Colonel Joll, from the Third Bureau, comes to this small nameless town, a quiet and cold functionary in black-smoked glasses, to question the barbarians and find out their plans. Men like him are investigating all along the borders, each one with a squad of soldiers, outsiders loyal only to their Third Bureau commander, ready to do what needs to be done to save the Empire.

The Colonel starts with two men, one old and one young, found near the site of a raid. They claim to have nothing to do with the raid, to have been coming to town to see a doctor for the young man's wound, but the Colonel will not believe any story he hears before the questioning starts. Eventually, the questioning end, one of the two men leaves, and the Colonel is ready to continue.

The townsfolk wouldn't consider the fishing people on the lake to be barbarians. But Colonel Joll is from far away, and the fishing people are not townsfolk. So he and his soldiers drag back many of them, to fill up a makeshift prison and start a more intensive round of questioning. The Colonel's questions must go on, and they demand many bodies and much blood.

And then, one day, the Colonel is satisfied. He will head back to the center of the Empire, to consult with the other men like himself, to pool their knowledge and piece together what can be know of the plot for barbarian attack. And the magistrate wants to make things back to the way they were, to turn his little town sleepy again, to forget the torturers and the bodies they worked on.

He, unlike we readers, doesn't know he's still at the beginning of the story. Much more will happen from there, and Joll will inevitably return.

Waiting for the Barbarians is obviously a novel about imperialism, but it's about no particular Empire or time. This Empire has guns but, at least on this frontier, no cars. They ride horses through the dust. It could be any time in the last two or three hundred years, almost anywhere. The Empire and the barbarians could be of any mixture of skin color.

In 1980 in Coetzee's native South Africa, there was an obvious allegorical parallel.

In 2018, in the USA, after almost two decades of pointless imperial adventures and black sites and our own round of questions of clearly guilty barbarians, it has at least one more.

Every reader could find a different parallel, another atrocity to be reminded of. This is one of those horribly repeated human stories. Coetzee's version is taut and precise and devastating, true in its universality to evoke whichever imperial power a reader brings to mind first.

I'd like to say that reading Waiting for the Barbarians will help stop it from happening again. But reading doesn't have that power. This story will repeat as long as we're humans, as long as we're barbarians. Read it anyway.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #40: No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vols. 8 & 9 by Nico Tanigawa

It's been two and a half years since I last checked in with Tomoko Kuroki, world-class otaku and eternal contender for Most Awkward Person in The World. The last time I read a couple of manga volumes about her, I found the jokes were getting too "in" and the cultural references too decidedly Japanese for me to enjoy it the way I did the first few. (For more, check out my previous posts on volumes  1 and 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6-7.)

But I'm back for No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!'s eighth and ninth volumes, which were sitting gathering dust on my shelf. (Two more volumes have since emerged, and I'm not sure the series is done even now.)

These two volumes see Tomoko go on a class trip and compete in her school's bi-annual sports festival. The cynic in me takes that as an indication that the series has run longer than creator Nico Tanigawa expected or planned, and so she's now running Tomoko through standard Japanese high school events to see how Tomoko reacts. Even if that's the case, it's not a bad idea -- Tomoko is still so thoroughly living in her own world that she inevitably brings confusion and awkwardness everywhere she goes.

(And the target audience -- both in Japan and slightly less so over on my side of the Pacific -- will be very familiar with the cultural/social references that just whiz past me.)

I guess I'm still in basically the same position I was when I read the last couple of volumes: this is fun and entertaining, but it feels like this series should have been over by now. Tomoko is not going to change or learn, which limits the stories you can tell about her. A character like that is not built to sustain continuing, ongoing stories -- she's a caricature, so you want to show her from her best side, do the best stories right, and get out. I'm thinking two thousand plus pages of stories about Tomoko is probably too many, but I suppose there are people who want four or five thousand -- and capitalism means that if there's enough of them, they get their way.

In any case, don't start here. Starting any manga series at volume eight is a bad idea, but especially so with a one-joke character. Try the first book, see if you like it, and keep going as long as you do. (Not bad advice for anything, I suppose.)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #39: Sh*t My President Says by Shannon Wheeler

Sh*t My President Says has an uncredited co-author, but I'm going to try not to mention his name at all here. (It's probably visible on the book jacket anyway, in case the title didn't clue you in.)

Shannon Wheeler has taken a number of Tweets from a very prominent celebrity author -- one very fond of using that platform to insult others and declare himself such superlatives as "a very stable genius" -- and has illustrated them, puckishly or directly, to show what the author might have meant, or what he's implying. There's generally one Tweet to a page, with only an occasional string -- this author is not known for sustained, careful thought -- accompanied by Wheeler's drawing.

It's to Wheeler's credit that Sh*t My President Says isn't as soul-destroying and horrible as just reading the man's words directly: it proves that, sometimes, context really can make things that little bit better. Oh, they're still badly-informed, wrong-headed, self-aggrandizing and regularly disconnected from consensus reality -- nothing can change that. But Wheeler finds ways to make those flaws funny, as if Our Author is just some grumpy old grampa, hanging an onion on his belt and yelling at clouds.

Wheeler's buried lesson is that the old adage is exactly backwards: the universe starts with farce (like Shit My Dad Says) and then repeats as tragedy. Because this is nothing else. But a tragedy in real life can't be avoided -- so we might as well laugh at it, while we still can.

This book exists because this person is saying shit. Over and over and over again. Vile, factually-wrong shit that shows what a horrible human being he is. The very least we can do is be honest about that shit. Wheeler does us the service of that honesty, and wraps it in a little funny bow, to make some of that shit slightly less horrible.

I wish this book wasn't necessary. But it was, because shitty people decided they really wanted a massively shitty leader. Perhaps they will choke on that shit and die. Perhaps they will realize the error of their ways and turn from shittiness. Perhaps the rest of us will find a way to encapsulate their shittiness, like some kind of metaphorical septic tank, so it doesn't spew over the rest of the neighborhood. Any of those would be fine -- the shitty people can decide which they want. But we can't live with this shit forever.

(I note that Wheeler, unlike his model, is reticent to actually use the word "shit" in his title. If that gets this book shown and sold in more places, that's a reasonable trade-off. You don't need to say the word to recognize the stench.)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #38: Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

I am so glad middle school is far behind me. I even gladder my two sons are past those years as well, and that I don't expect to have any other kids to shepherd through those years. And I don't think it's purely Schadenfreude when I read a story about middle-schoolers -- but there might be an element of "thank ghod that's long over."

Brave is a middle-school story -- about and mostly for middle-schoolers, though pitched so even adults (even us poor benighted adults) can enjoy it. It's from Svetlana Chmakova, and is set in the same school as her previous graphic novel Awkward. It struck me as stronger and more emotionally resonant than Awkward was, but maybe that's just me: I was a large, bullied middle-school boy who spent his time thinking about other things, so Jensen Graham's story strikes a chord and reminds me of things I'd rather not remember.

(And I still think this school's mania about clubs is a lot more from the Japanese manga school-story tradition -- and maybe from actual Japanese school life, as far as I know -- than it is from the way kids operate in the US today. But maybe there are a lot of super-club-centric middle schools out there that I'm not aware of?)

Jensen is the fictional version of that kid: too big, too distracted, too uninterested in what most kids care about, too easy to pick on. (A little more so than the real version of that kid, and a bit cartoony to make it funny as well as sad.) You might have been that kid at ten or twelve -- I was, pretty much.

He doesn't have any real friends as the book opens, but doesn't really realize it -- he's part of the art club, and thinks of those kids as his friends even though they make fun of him and don't include him in their activities. But, again, he's distracted and unconnected, so he doesn't notice that a lot of the time. Maybe it's just him, maybe it's a deeply-buried coping mechanism: it's harder for people to hurt you if you don't notice they're trying to hurt you.

Jensen thinks of his school life as a video game -- get through the level, avoid the monsters, and reach the treasure at the end (art club). But the monsters keep getting tougher, and he's fallen behind in math, so he needs to get tutoring...in a group with one of his main bullies. (Unlike a lot of popular fiction, Chmakova doesn't present Jensen's school as having one big bully who eternally schemes to make his life hell -- instead, like the real world, he has a lot of people who make fun of him a little and a few who get more nasty joy out of tormenting him whenever they have a chance. Nobody's obsessed with Jensen; he's just a convenient target.)

But, at the same time, he may be finding some people who could be real friends -- or, at least, friendly. Like the taciturn athlete he's been partnered with on a project in English. Or the students on the newspaper, who may be interested in Jensen as a subject for their bullying study, but also think of him as a real person and try to help him. As someone who was a geeky boy -- and now has a couple of geeky sons his own -- I wish that he found people who share some of his real interests, but he's at least on the right path.

Brave is a more realistic bullying story than most: there's no horribly nasty kid who can be easily defeated in the end, and the adult leadership of the school is often capricious and wrong from the kids' point of view. But it shows people -- kids, in particular -- seeing things that are wrong and working together to make them better. Jensen's new newspaper friends call out bad actors and publicize explanations of bad behavior, giving the less-engaged mass of kids tools to make their own lives better and to treat each other more fairly. It's not just a good book on its own, but one that can do good in the world, if put in the hands of the right kids -- I hope it will be.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #37: National Lampoon's Big Book of Love

I've been using the tongue-in-cheek tag "The War Between Men and Women" (note the Thurber reference) here for a few years now, calling out posts about love and gender roles and related odd things. But it has never been so appropriate as today.

According to the powers of Google, I've used variations of the word "misogyny" only twice before in the history of this blog -- once to talk about an undercurrent in Howard Chaykin's comics, and once about H.P. Lovecraft. This post, I'm afraid, will probably shatter that record.

You can't talk about National Lampoon's Big Book of Love without talking about misogyny -- you probably can't talk about the classic National Lampoon without at least mentioning misogyny, frankly, but this book is a collection of the most blatantly misogynistic pieces from that magazine, as if its purpose was to distill the brandy of misogyny from the thinner wine of general NatLamp content.

(See: I told you. That's 5 in just three paragraphs. It can be horrible to go back to things you liked in your youth and see just how problematic they really were. For example: I'm not going to even mention a single one of the many, many rape jokes.)

Big Book of Love was assembled in 2004, during one of the periodic Frankenstinian attempts to jolt life back into NatLamp's corpse and extract some more value out of its intellectual assets for whichever hedge fund or group of shadowy investors owned it at the time. The book was edited by Scott Rubin, Sean Crespo and Mason Brown, who also provided a few new pieces to add contemporary spice to the collection. But 90+% of the material here appears to be shot from the original magazine film -- wasn't there a big digitized collection of the whole run of the magazine around that time? this looks very much like a brand extension from that work -- and the book itself does not have page numbers at all.

The positive spin is that all of the pieces in here are parodies of the depicted misogynistic attitudes, and that is basically true. That can help to explain, but it doesn't excuse: nearly all of this is by men, nearly all of it takes those attitudes as being as natural as air, and nearly all of it is trapped in a hellish Platonic version of the '50s, where the boys have D.A. haircuts and raging libidos, while the girls are virginal creatures who have to be coerced or tricked into sex. (Well, a very few of them enjoy sex, because they're whores -- we all know the drill. And by "whores," I mean, tautologically, the standard '50s definition of "women who enjoy sex.")

It should be said here that NatLamp was always juvenile in its enthusiasms and very energetic in pursuit of those -- it was deliberately loud, raucous, taboo-breaking, and obnoxious. That was the point. It was very, very juvenile about sex, because that's what it did. But, even given that the writers were primarily Boomers in the twenties and early thirties looking back at their own teen years, it's remarkable how much of a '50s artifact this book is. None of the pieces feel like they were about the '70s, even though that's when they were written and originally published.

Obviously, it isn't the '70s anymore -- hell, it's not even 2004 anymore, when this book was assembled. And Big Book of Love reads quite differently after #MeToo than it did at the time.

Well, it does for me. And, I hope, for many other men. But I'm sure a lot of this was ugly for a lot of women longer ago than I realized.

So Big Book of Love has a lot of forty-year-old humor that has aged really badly, with attitudes towards women that range from fart-at-the-dinner-table unfortunate to avert-your-eyes horrific. It includes several pieces by John Hughes (yes, later the director of Breakfast Club), including the famous "My Penis," which must be read to be believed. Other famous names from that era of NatLamp, like P.J. O'Rourke, Doug Kenney, Michael O'Donoghue, Henry Beard, Ed Subitzky, Tony Hendra, and Michael Reiss are also represented. As far as I can tell, there are only two women (aside from the naked ones in the "Foto Funnies" and on a couple of old covers): Shary Flenniken ends the book with a four-page "History of Sex" in comics form, and Anne Beatts wrote a four-page piece purporting to be the world's first "stroke book for women." Both of those are better than the average here, which isn't difficult.

I have several other NatLamp books sitting on my shelf, and I hope to get to them during this Book-A-Day year. So I'll make a prediction here, and see if it turns out to be true. I think -- or maybe I'd like to think -- that the political humor in NatLamp, or the general social humor, was stronger than these lazy (and, yes, often misogynistic) war-of-the-sexes pieces. I want to believe that this book was put together quickly out of the most obvious pieces to fit the pre-chosen title, and that there is stronger NatLamp work, which will not read as horribly out-of-date in 2018.

But I'll have to see about that. This book, though, I can only recommend to those who were teenage boys in the mid-70s and have remained so since then.