Saturday, March 31, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #90: The Nemo Trilogy by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

One of the core joys of comic books for the past fifty years has been playing with other people's toys. I'm not hugely in sympathy with that impulse myself, but I can recognize that a lot of people want to do it, either directly (by writing comics) or indirectly (by reading those comics and arguing about how it should have been done).

Alan Moore, I'm coming to think, became a famous and respected comics writer because he has that urge on a level previously unknown to man: he wants to play with everyone's toys, all at once, together, making some massive Lego set that takes over his living room and forcing his family to quietly leave and go live with relatives. (My metaphor may be breaking down slightly.)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories are clearly the strongest expression of that love: they take as many other people's fictional characters as possible -- those from authors safely dead and their works in the public domain, so their current corporate guardians can't cause problems -- and mash them together in various permutations.

(Lost Girls, on the other hand, is the fictional equivalent of taking the clothes off GI Joe and Barbie and making them kiss, then pretending they're having sex.)

I finally caught up with a League offshoot recently -- the three short graphic novels Moore wrote for League collaborator Kevin O'Neil to draw about "Princess Janni Dakkar," the daughter of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo. The three Nemo book, like the rest of the League stories, are entirely filled with other people's characters and settings and ideas: that's the point of that universe. It's Moore's only personal Amalgam universe, with all of the bits that he likes of every fictional world he's ever enjoyed.

And so these books are stuffed with other people's characters and ideas -- so many of them that you have to be a pop-culture scholar to know who all of them are. Since I'm not Jess Nevins -- there's already one of him! -- I'm not going to go that deeply into the specifics. (Though I might be better read than I expected, since I recognized the Thinking Machine from his real name -- the benefits of a childhood spent read everything that came to hand.)

The trilogy covers most of Janni's life -- she's young and energetic in Heart of Ice, set in 1922, middle-aged and concerned about her family in The Roses of Berlin's 1941, and a dying, haunted old woman by 1975 for River of Ghosts. The three books are closely connected by the same antagonist -- H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha (aka "She"), the immortal white African queen. I call her the antagonist and not the villain because Janni sets the whole thing in motion by stealing what seems to be the entire wealth of the exiled Ayesha at the beginning of Heart of Ice.

Of course,  Janni is in the old family business -- she's a pirate. And if one sets up as a pirate, one can't be surprised when other people take offense to their things being stolen. It's not quite true to say that one unwise attack blighted the rest of Janni's life, since this is a horrible 20th century full of monsters and villains (not least Janni and her fellow megalomaniacs and criminals, who seem to run roughshod over everyone else and may actually rule the world! bwaa ha ha ha!), but it certainly didn't help.

So Heart of Ice tells the story of a badly planned expedition to Antarctica, to what Moore does not exactly call the Mountains of Madness. Janni's rapidly shrinking forces, who I think are all minor British adventure heroes of the 19th century, are harried by a group of American "science heroes" hired by Ayesha's current benefactors. The group is led by a thinly veiled Tom Swift, here under a veiled name because trademarks are far more durable than copyrights.

Then The Roses of Berlin sees Janni and her husband, Broad Arrow Jack, fighting their way into a Rotwangian nightmare Berlin to save their daughter and her husband (the second generation Robur) from the evil clutches of the worse-than-Nazis, who are inevitably allied to Ayesha. And, again, Robur and "young mistress Hira" were engaged in war on Germany when they were captured -- the enemies in these books may be horrible and cruel and entirely wrong for this world, but they're equally sinned against by our putative heroes.

Finally, an obsessed Jenni chases rumors of a reborn Ayesha up the Amazon to the obligatory den of hidden Nazis and their robot bimbo army in River of Ghosts, bringing an end to the story of Janni and Ayesha, though the Nemo family will live on, for potential sequels.

At the end of it all the world is still, as far as we can see, run by the villains of popular literature, and there's no sign it's anything but horrible for anyone who isn't the star of a story Moore liked as a child. We did have three gorgeously-drawn adventure stories full of wonders and terrors, and a game of spot-the-reference that many of us will have enjoyed a lot. But it all does feel faintly pointless, as if Moore can write these everybody-else's-characters-fight stories in his sleep, and is now doing so.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #89: Nothing Left to Lose by Dan Wells

This is the end. (My only friend, the end!)

After five previous books, organized into two trilogies (of mostly-independent books), John Wayne Cleaver's years hunting inhuman monsters are finally over at the end of Nothing Left to Lose.

(Is that a spoiler? I think the title gives it away to begin with.)

To catch up, you might want to take a gander at what I wrote about the first trilogy, The Devil's Only Friend, and Over Your Dead Body.

But, to sum up: John is a teenage sociopath. He doesn't feel the normal emotional connections to other people, and he has other serial-killer markers: he fantasizes, sometimes uncontrollably, about killing people and starting fires. And, in the first book, he learned that there are evil post-humans in the world, who partook in a supernatural ritual ten thousand years ago, losing some essential piece of themselves forever and gaining horrible power and endless life in return. Each one of them is different: they all gave up something particular, and got related benefits and defects because of it. Those monsters are variously called the Withered or Blessed, depending on how negative they're feeling at the moment, and they have to kill regularly for various reasons related to their inhuman conditions. John discovers they exist, and soon after learns that they can be killed, by killing the one he discovered.

That was a couple of years ago. John has spent the time since then mostly hunting down and destroying the Withered, first alone, then briefly as part of an FBI team, and then alone again once the monsters slaughtered pretty much all of the FBI agents. He's still just eighteen, and was very far from neurotypical even before he dedicated his life to killing immortal monsters with bizarre powers.

As Nothing Left to Lose opens, John has arrived in Lewisville, Arizona -- barely more than a dot on the map -- because an old lady died from drowning in the middle of her living room. He's been wandering semi-aimlessly, looking for weird deaths and checking to see if a Withered was responsible, for some time now. And, to get to see this body, he ends up at Ottessen Brothers Funeral Home.

It turns out that John has been really good at hunting Withered, and that there were fewer left than he expected. (Leave aside the question of why all of them are in the USA; popular fiction here is always all about the USA.) So this is the endgame, and the last few Withered aren't going to go quietly. And they know John has been hunting them.

Dan Wells ends this series well here -- I probably shouldn't say much more than that. I've already said more than I probably should; the book itself doesn't say it's the end of the series. But this is the end of the story of John and the Withered: the story that begin in I Am Not a Serial Killer ends here. These are excellent contemporary fantasy/horror novels with a compelling protagonist who tells his story well in first person. I like this series a lot: it's a great entertainment with excellent characters.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #88: Reindeer Boy by Cassandra Jean

I try to be as polite and as upbeat as possible in these posts, and not to spew bile over anything if I can help it. (Sometimes I can't, generally because some once-strong creator has gotten lazy and obnoxious with age.) But today's entry is going to be a challenge.

Reindeer Boy makes no damn sense. No damn sense at all. And, even worse, it has some very anti-feminist (even anti-personal-choice) undertones towards the end.

I don't know creator Cassandra Jean's work, so I'm not sure what her intentions were. This feels like a manga-inspired lark -- a single-volume story mostly about people and their emotional connections, with some quirky spins on pop-culture mythology thrown in for spice. But I had trouble believing in the people, their emotional connections seemed to be assumed rather than shown, and the spin was far beyond quirk into full-on dementia.

Before I go further, let me admit I'm not a fan of whimsy to begin with. I don't think Reindeer Boy is meant to be particularly whimsical, but, to the extent it is at all, I'm a bad reader for it. (I may be a bad reader for this book in a whole lot of ways, frankly. But I did read it, and this is how it struck me.)

Quincy is a teenage girl, somewhere in a random town, presumably in the US. It's Christmas morning, and, like she has every year for about a decade, she has a dream about a little boy with antlers leaving her one present wrapped in tinfoil. And every year she gets one little present wrapped in tinfoil, which no one seems to have noticed isn't given by any one in her family, even though "her family" seems to be only her and her father. This year, the tinfoil present is a reindeer charm, on a cord to be worn around her neck.

Oh, and on Christmas morning, she also ran into a door, and got bumps on her forehead. This will be important.

Back in school after break, there's a new kid: Cupid, a boy with antlers. Yes, antlers -- seemingly extending two to three feet above his head. He's never shown hitting them on anything or stooping to get through doorways, so perhaps this fictional world has twelve-feet ceilings everywhere. It wouldn't be the least likely thing about it. Cupid starts hanging around Quincy and her friend Irena (and with Conway, the boy Quincy has a crush on but hasn't said anything to).

And Cupid tells Quincy that he's one of Santa's Reindeer, and that she is, too -- her bumps are going to grow into antlers like his. She can't stop it; she's just gotta live with a future as a reindeer. So that's a thing.

Soon, there are other antler-headed people in town -- Comet is another transfer student, and then Dasher and Blitzen also come to school. A couple of others with similarly obvious names seem to be in the mid-twenties. They all live together, even though they're not actually related. Eventually, Quincy comes and visits their house, on a road that she never saw before Cupid moved into town, and there meets their guardian, Kris Kringle.

It turns out that Kris runs a package-delivery service...somehow. It's worldwide despite no one ever having heard of it...somehow. They deliver via magical teleporting chalk, which I swear I am not making up. And Kris and the eight antler-heads are the entire staff, which includes no back-office people or order-takers or any of that boring business stuff, just a boss (Kris) and delivery people (the reindeer, who just write in chalk on the package and it goes wherever magically).

In case I wasn't clear up top: none of this makes any damn sense at all. Jean doesn't even nod in the direction of the obligatory elves, or explain what this mini-FedEx has to do with the legend of Santa, or what the hell is the deal with the antlers. It's just random stuff that vaguely resembles a popular Christmas story.

Oh, and they all just packed up from wherever they used to be and moved to this town, setting up show in this big old house, because Cupid wished for Quincy, and now he's going to get her, because that's how wishes work. (All the reindeer get a wish every Christmas, which always comes true. None of them have apparently wished for riches or superpowers or immortality or just to get free of fucking Kris Kringle at any point, because -- I assume -- they are all totally brainwashed from birth.)

Now, this was a weird and random enough story that I wasn't heavily invested in Quincy, but even I got pissed at that utter lack of respect for her as a person: she gets to make her own choices, Cupid! You don't get to claim some cute girl -- at the age of five, which is doubly creepy! -- throw antlers on her, and declare she's going to love you and work with you forever! (Apparently the target audience thinks this is "romantic," which is a definition of that word I don't understand and never care to learn.)

Oh, and the reindeer aren't immortal or anything -- Kris is, but he can't or won't extend that to the employees he keeps seeing dying over and over again for hundreds of years -- they just crop up again and again in the same families when the old ones die. And my guess is that they tend to die young, since all of them are very young right now, and what are the odds of that happening randomly?

So...yeah. Reindeer Boy set my teeth on edge in several different ways, from the blithe disregard for a young woman's autonomy to the insane worldbuilding to the dull, sparse dialogue. This is so not a book for me or anyone like me. I will not try to characterize who this is a book for, since I dislike it so much that any such characterization would turn into insults very quickly. I would not recommend this book to anyone, and I would be very quizzical about anyone I knew who liked it, because that's the kind of judgmental bastard I am.

(Jean's art is nice, though: loose and energetic in a manga-inspired style. I'd like to see her draw other things, even if I'd be leery about anything else she wrote.)

In short: Bah, humbug!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #87: Paper Girls, Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Can I admit something embarrassing here? I don't really remember the defining features of the four pre-teen girls at the heart of Paper Girls in between one volume and the next.

I mean, I know the one with curly hair is the "new girl," and that one of them is dead as an adult in at least one timeline, but I can't remember their names or seriously differentiate the other three of them. They're just "the paper girls." Maybe if I read all of the collections back-to-back that would be enough to stick, I dunno. But it's an inherent problem with telling a story about a bunch of people with major superficial characteristics in common (Army platoon, single-sex boarding school, convent, etc.)

It doesn't help that they've mostly been just running around, trying not to die, for the equivalent of fifteen issues now. They say character is shown in repose -- I'm sure someone said that, sometime -- and these girls haven't had a second of repose since Hell Morning began.

(I suddenly realize than new readers may be completely lost. If that describes you, you might try checking out my posts on volumes one and two of this series.

So, anyway, I just read Paper Girls, Vol. 3. It's as always written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Cliff Chiang. Our four intrepid female temponauts found themselves in a wilderness at the end of the last book, and that wilderness turns out to be deep in prehistory, but also about as busy as Grand Central Station. Things get yet more complicated with the separate arrivals of the two characters on the cover, one of whom may be the inventor of time travel and the other a local girl only a little older than our core foursome. There are also three menacing local men, who have some high technology that they probably shouldn't and seem to know more about time travel than you'd expect. They are also much lumpier than modern people, for no reason the book explains. I'm not sure I want to know.

Vaughan is still throwing in complications here -- the ending gives us yet another one -- and the model of time travel hasn't settled down at all. If I were more suspicious, I would take the fact that we see completely different time travelers in each volume as an indication that Vaughan is just throwing random ideas out and doesn't have any plan to tie them all together. But I am certain that he would never do such a thing, so there must be some fiendishly complicated plot behind it all that explains the generation-gap timewar, the Apple-branded timeship that just works, and the robomech that was created by Y2K.

Gotta be.

For now, it's zippy and fun and full of adventure, though this volume does get into threaten-the-women-to-show-how-dangerous-everything-is territory. I can hope that was just a momentary aberration, and not a sign of things to come.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #86: Descender, Vol. 4 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

At some point, writing about an ongoing series becomes gibberish to the uninformed and spoilers to the slightly behind. (Maybe not both at exactly the same moment, but both eventually.) I'd like to think that can still be a long way off, that I can spin out interesting things to say about the fourth volume collecting a SFnal comic, but it's not me that will be the judge of that.

A lot of plot has come before we hit the first page of Descender, Vol. 4: Orbital Mechanics -- by the way, does that title feel like it's just a random skiffy-sounding reference? asking for a friend -- full of character and incident and shocking revelations and worldbuilding and all that good stuff. (See my posts on the first and second and third volumes for more details of the good stuff.)

We're also into serious split-the-party multi-threaded plotting here: as we begin, TIM-21 is running away from TIM-22 on Machine Moon, while Telsa and Quon are trying to escape that same place, seeing as how they're meat-based organisms and the robots take a dim view of that. Meanwhile, Andy has reunited with his now-cyborged ex-girlfriend Effie and is back on 21's trail. That sounds like they're all going to get together, doesn't it?

But no -- writer Jeff Lemire has plenty more complications to work through in this space-opera universe, so any tearful (or gunfire-filled) reunions will have to wait for a while. We're still in frying-pan-into-fire mode here, as nearly all of the characters we're supposed to like are in worse positions by the end of the book. I have to admit I wonder how long Lemire can keep that up: eventually, everybody is going to get killed or the last-second escapes will get silly. But, for now, there's enough stuff going on in this universe to keep it all plausible.

Artist Dustin Nguyen is still chugging along here -- I particularly like his use of color in this book to indicate mood and environment. It's a seemingly small thing that can be very effective, particularly when one person is making all of the art.

I still hope that Descender has a specific story to tell, with a real ending -- that it's not going to just spin out complications for as long as people will buy it. The only way to tell that will be through time; we'll have to wait and see. For now, this is still an excellent space opera in comics form.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #85: Groo Vs. Conan by Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, and Thomas Yeates

Something can be both an obvious idea and a bad idea. I think we've all had that weird vertiginous feeling when looking down from a great height, like we want to jump off.

Nearly all of us manage to foil that impulse, and, of the few who don't, a large proportion have tethers or parachutes or other safety apparatus to save them from immediately dying. But that's the feeling I mean: the sense that doing this thing would be really dumb, and yet wanting to see what it would be like anyway.

I have to assume some such impulse led to the 2014 comics series Groo Vs. Conan. It's such an obvious idea -- two barbarian adventurers! utterly different worlds and personalities and styles of story and even art! -- and just as immediately a bad idea.

And yet, as we can see, it happened.

The story is by Groo creator Sergio Aragones with his long-time collaborator Mark Evanier. The art is by Aragones (the cartoony, Groo-filled bits) and by Thomas Yeates (the heroic-fantasy stuff with Conan in it), regularly drawing radically different images in the same panel. And, yes, it is about Groo meeting (and fighting) Conan.

But wait! There's an even worse idea lurking within!

Groo Vs. Conan tells two stories: one is the regular fictional story that starts in Groo's world, heavily features the words "mendicant" and "Crom," and has a lot of swordplay of varying levels of silliness. But the other story, and I swear I am not making this up, is about Aragones himself trying to save his favorite comic-book store from an evil developer (who is also very, very parallel with the villain on Groo-world) and along the way is treated with so many random medicines that he goes crazy and starts believing he is Conan.

This may be a spoiler, but I will at least admit that the two levels of story never interact: Aragones does not summon Groo to cartoony-Los-Angeles through the power of his dementia. And this is entirely a good thing.

Now, many of the panels here are amusing, particularly the all-Aragones ones. Aragones and Evanier are good at humor involving dumb swordsmen; they've been doing this for decades. But the Yeates art sits very uneasily alongside Aragones's art to begin with -- they don't mesh at all, or seem to depict the same world -- and the more serious tone of the Conan bits are a drag on the whole proceedings. There's no way to take Groo Vs. Conan seriously, but the reader keeps running into serious sword & sorcery art and dialogue that are supposed to be taken seriously.

Groo stories were never high art, and never tried to be. But they were internally consistent, and stayed on a particular level of abstraction. This thing, though, is all over the place, trying to be serious, silly-funny, satirical-funny, and just plain goofy, all at the same time. I don't want to say that level of tonal shift is impossible in one work, because it isn't. But it's as hard as all of those individual things put together, and they're each already difficult. Plus doing it with cliched, well-known characters adds yet another level of complication and difficulty, and then throwing the metafiction on top of that...

Groo Vs. Conan is a mess: a weird, shambling combination of things that don't really work together. That it exists at all is impressive, I'll admit. But it's the book equivalent of Doctor Frankenstein's creation, and I'm afraid I have to lift my pitchfork at this point.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/24/18

Welcome back! Every Monday morning, I list here new books I've gotten -- some sent by publishers for publicity purposes, some bought because I want them, some from libraries because I want them only temporarily. This week, there's one library book, and a stack I bought.

(Some of the ones I bought came from a sale run by a library, just to be confusing.)

I'll start with two graphic novels I bought so I can finish off their respective series, since those are the ones I was specifically looking for out of this week's haul:

Sunny, Vol. 5 is the penultimate volume of the manga series by Taiyo Matsumoto; I've reviewed volumes one, two, three, and four here, and I already have the sixth book on my shelf. So I was waiting to run across this one in a store for a good six months, and finally broke down and bought it online.

Demon, Vol. 4 is the end of the Jason Shiga story originally as a webcomic -- again, I've had the first three volumes for a while and finally just bought the last one from a gigantic hegemonic online bookstore so I'd have all of them. Expect a review of the whole series sometime this year, when I'm far enough ahead on Book-A-Day to spend four days reading something for one post.

Next up are books I found at the annual library booksale in the neighboring town; I'm going to list them in the order I found them, just because.

Gilgamesh the King is a little-known Robert Silverberg novel, from the Majipoor years. I think he was trying to become a general bestseller at the time, and so writing various things that might do that for him -- it didn't exactly work, but we all got some interesting books out of it. I know I had this book before, and I think I read it back in the '90s. But that was a long time ago.

The Drop by Dennis Lehane -- as far as I can tell, this is a novella published as a book, possibly slightly expanded from its original appearance in an anthology. I really liked Lehane's early novels -- especially the mystery series about a couple of Boston PIs -- but I haven't read as much of him since I left the bookclubs and he moved to writing big thrillers aimed at becoming movies. This one also became a movie, but it's short, so it looked like a good way to get back to Lehane.

The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes is another book that I know I had before my 2011 flood and probably read. (It might even have been on the syllabus of a "Latin American Literature in Translation" course that I took in college -- I'm pretty sure something by Fuentes was.) I'm an Ambrose Bierce fan, and I have no memory of reading this, so spending 50 cents on it was easy.

And last from the library was Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, which I bought almost entirely because it was published as a NYRB Classic. I only vaguely remember hearing about the book, and while googling to find this here image of the cover, I was surprised to discover that it was a movie way back in the before-times. I really have no idea what the story is, or why I might want to read it -- again, it cost 50 cents, it's from a respected press, and so it stood out from the sea of Evanovich and Patterson at the library sale.

The one library book was Nina Bunjevac's Fatherland, a graphic memoir of her family and especially her Serbian-nationalist father. I got it entirely because there was an excerpt in one of the Best American Comics books I read recently -- it's the one thing from those books I both wanted to read more of and was able to find in a local library.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #84: Super-Powered Revenge Christmas by Bill Corbett and Len Peralta

I could make up all sorts of excuses why I read this book. Perhaps the MST3K connection, since I'm in a hotel in the Twin Cities area right now, on a business trip. Maybe I could pretend to have planned to read it at Christmas, and neglected it for a couple of months.

The answer is equally silly, but more boring. I'm on a week-long business trip, yes. I brought four books to read -- three comics and one novel. I haven't yet touched the novel, but I read one of the comics on each of the first three days of the trip. But now, on Day Four, they're all done. So I was left to rummage through one of the e-reader apps on my tablet, after an evening excursion with my co-workers, to find something to read and then write about. I've had a couple of drinks, so I might not be thinking entirely like my normal self. And this book was up near the top in the default sort in GoodReader, I couldn't remember why I had it at all, and it looked silly.

So that's how I came to read Super-Powered Revenge Christmas, which by the way is a 2014 graphic novel written by Bill Corbett and drawn by Len Peralta. It's a quirky take on Christmas, with a brooding Superman-esque "Red Avenger" whose is secretly Sa'nn Tah-Kl'awwz from the planet Yoool. (Look, I said it was silly, didn't I?) RA battles an evil corporation -- HEROD, which is a silly acronym, and run by a thinly-veiled Scrooge -- and soon is joined in his battle by Caribou, a deer-man whose nose lights up when he gets angry. Then there's a snow goddess as a gender-swap take on Frosty, plus two very nice people who are going to have a baby who will be the greatest mutant of all time. Oh, and there's a frame story about a comics creator team-cum-couple who broke up over telling this story and are now recounting it to three strangers in a bar on Christmas Eve. And it apparently was both adapted from a stage play by Corbett and Kickstarted into existence in this form.

Super-Powered Revenge Christmas is deliberately designed so that it can't be taken seriously at any point; it is impregnable to all criticism in its hermetic goofiness and sprawling pop-culture Xmas ambitions. It is very, very, very, very silly. Very. It's not really funny, but it's not trying to be -- it's aiming at knowing smirks rather than full laughs.

I don't know why anyone would want to construct a story like this. But someone did. (Two someones, one of them twice.) And this now exists. I've just spent an hour or two first reading it and then typing this. None of that makes any sense. You can't explain any of it. And yet it happened. Let that be a lesson to all of you.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #83: You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis

What is this book about?

Well, the title is You & A Bike & A Road. It's by Eleanor Davis. It was published by Koyama Press in May 2017.

The outside of the book will tell you no more. Opening it doesn't give much more information -- some legalese on the copyright page, and more of the pretty cover scenery on the French flaps.

The only way to know what You & A Bike & A Road is about is to read it. But it's a comic, so reading it is easy. You might as well just jump in and see what you find.

The same spirit drove Davis to try to bike from her parents' home in Tucson, Arizona to her home in Atlanta, Georgia. Her father had just built her a bike, so why not ride it back? Why not draw a couple of pages each day along the way, and see what comes of it?

So this is a travelogue, of what Davis hoped would be a month or two of biking across the southwest and southeast US, starting March 16, 2016. Davis works in what looks like soft pencils, and gives us an impressionistic view of days on the road -- knee pain, headwinds, flowers, friendly fellow bikers, and the omnipresent Border Patrol. It was over two thousand miles, but she sets off in good spirits: alone but happy to see the world and push against it for a while.

Any travel book is as much about its creator as the territory covered, and You & A Bike & A Road is no exception. Davis was riding alone, camping alone, spending most of her days alone with her thoughts and her bike beneath her. That'll lead to a lot of introspection, a lot of thinking.

You & A Bike & A Road is a lovely, thoughtful book, as much a meditation on life and physical activity as anything else. Davis makes great pictures and thinks serious thoughts -- and is open enough to meet people and learn about the landscapes she travels through. This book is as wide and open as the desert and as welcoming as the people you meet. If you see it, pick it up, even if you're not sure what it is.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #82: Nicolas by Pascal Girard

Early success is the most dangerous kind. Great success for something you did quickly can be even worse. When the two are combined...well, it's hard for your career to be other than disappointing afterward.

Nicolas wasn't Pascal Girard's first comics work, or first book -- but it was really close, on both counts. And it's pretty clear I wasn't the only one really impressed by this short book -- it was widely praised for its raw honesty and authentic grief at the time.

Girard has an introduction in this expanded 2016 edition of Nicolas about how it came to be and how it affected him. And his other memoirs -- I've seen Reunion and Petty Theft; there may be others still lurking in Quebecois French I don't know of -- show other sides of Girard, of the man who lived through this as a boy. I don't think it's something you get over.

Nicolas was Girard's younger brother. Girard was born in 1981, and, around 1990, when Girard was nine and Nicolas was five, Nicolas died. Girard didn't know what killed him for a while -- he eventually learned it was lactic acidosis, which was probably just as meaningful to him then as it is to you or me right now. It's two medical words, technical terms, that mean "your kid brother is dead."

Nicolas, the original book, is bookended by scenes with Nicolas alive. The two boys are playing with a tape recorder, making Ghostbusters jokes. I have to imagine that tape still exists. I have to imagine Girard listening to it, years later, when about to make this book. But I can't imagine what that must feel like.

Girard says, in that new introduction, that he wanted to do a quick book, inspired by Jeffrey Brown. That he planned it out a bit, writing some stories and memories in a notebook. But that the comics pages themselves, one or two quick borderless panels to a page, came out over a long weekend. Sometimes strong material is like that: it needs to come out, and forces its way onto the page.

This new edition of Nicolas includes the original book, that new introduction, and a comics afterword -- twenty-five pages about Girard in the years since Nicolas was published. As Girard says in his introduction, those pages ended up being about Girard's other brother, Joel. The one even younger than Nicolas, the one who didn't die. The one that grown-up Girard mostly ignores, even when they live in the same city.

Girard, as always, is unsparing of his own flaws and foibles -- his comics sometimes feel like penance on his part, as he drags his worst self out for self-ridicule and as the butt of every joke. Nicolas, maybe, explains why, or points to a possible reason. It's still the strongest comics work I've seen from Girard, for all its rawness, for all it was done quickly by a novice creator. Some stories need to be told, and this one made Girard tell it brilliantly.

Quote of the Week

"They call me the greatest
'Cause I'm not very good
And they're being sarcastic."
 - The Greatest, They Might Be Giants

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #81: I Am Not Okay With This by Charles Forsman

Sydney is fifteen. She's skinnier than she wants to be, she's annoyed at best by school, and confused by the fact that she's attracted to both men and women. So far, she's like any other teenager -- unhappy in her body and life, and not seeing any way to get away from any of the things she hates.

And she thinks she has a psychic power that she can use to hurt other people.

(Well, OK -- "thinks" is me weasel-wording it. We see her do it. We know it's true.)

In a healthy world, Sydney would have support from friends and family, maybe even teachers and guidance counselors at school. But she doesn't really have friends; just a couple of people who she ends up having sex with, out of proximity as much as anything else. Her kid brother annoys her, her mother ten times more so, and her father is dead. We don't see her interact with any teachers. And her guidance counselor suggests that Sydney keep a journal -- which becomes this book -- but doesn't otherwise help her out.

So Sydney is alone with herself, with her dark anger and the things that anger can do. I would not be okay with that -- none of us would. But we don't have to live with it: Sydney does.

I Am Not Okay With This collects a series of self-published minicomics by Charles Forsman. It contains Sydney's full story. She has more reason for teen angst than most people, and fewer resources for dealing with it. She's damaged in ways that she can't ask for help about, and subject to a power or force that threatens to overpower her, especially when she's angry or aroused.

Forsman takes her story to the extremes inherent in his set-up: he doesn't flinch or hesitate. It is almost unbearably sad. Almost.

I haven't seen Forsman's work before: this is impressive. It's entirely within Sydney's head, entirely focused on how she sees the world. His art is cartoony in a nearly '30s style, with big noses and gangly limbs. And he can tell a story, following it exactly where it needs to go. I'll have to see what other stories he's told, or will tell.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #80: Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers by Paul Grist and Phil Elliott

It was just a little over a month ago that I covered Jack Staff Vol. 1 here, a decade after it was published. I'm accelerating a bit now, getting to 2010's second volume with what passes for blinding speed around here.

Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers sees Paul Grist's superhero universe transformed into full color with the addition of Phil Elliott as colorist to the team, and possibly some increased distribution from a then-new publishing management with Image. (The first series of Jack Staff came out from Grist's own Dancing Elephant Press.) Otherwise, this is still an all-Paul Grist production: he writes and draws and (I'm pretty sure) letters as well.

Since this was the big relaunch, it needed to stand on its own. Traditionally, that's the time to trot out a retelling of the origin, but Grist hadn't revealed that yet -- I'm not sure if he has even now, actually, and I hope he hasn't. So, instead, we get a less-deep flashback: the story of the case that sent Jack Staff into retirement "twenty years ago" -- roughly the late '80s, given when the Jack Staff series started.

Jack, to refresh your memory, is a really long-lived -- we don't know how long, but he's looked young and exactly the same since WW II, at least -- who is a mid-level brick. In this book, we learn a little more about what he can do, but he's basically a strong guy with a big stick and occasional glowy hands. He was, as the cover claims, Britain's greatest hero, though he seems to spend all of his time hanging about a minor provincial city called Castletown. (Maybe that's why Britain did fine for twenty years without him.)

Anyway, Soldiers is told in a complicated flashback structure, jumping between twenty years ago and "now," sometimes on the same page, in a style I'm coming to think Grist particularly likes. (And I'm completely in sync with him: if you're telling a story about big guys punching each other for pages on end, it definitely helps to do something to mix that up and make it more interesting.) So Soldiers bounces back and forth in time like a yo-yo, also bouncing around the large cast almost as much as the stories in the first book did. (Becky Burdock, {Spoiler} Reporter gets less obvious on-page time here, but there are some new superheroes, from the '60s and '80s.)

The big fight scene twenty years ago was between Jack and Hurricane, the British Army's secret and greatest weapon, who of course is a Hulk-ish guy with an anger problem and an exceptionally limited vocabulary. In between bits of that fight, there's a more complicated plot going on in the present day, plus some military machinations back twenty years ago. It may sound confusing, but on the page it's always entirely clear who is doing what when and to whom.

There is a lot of talking in between the fighting, and plenty of fighting in the modern day as well. This is a superhero comic, after all.

Grist tells a zippy story here, and his art is dynamic and fun -- he still uses a lot of black here (as he did in the early Jack Staff stories, as well as Kane), but the addition of color does make the whole thing that much more superhero-y.

Nobody needs any more superhero comics, but this is a good one, unencumbered by any stupid continuity and entirely owned by the guy that thought it up. If you need superheroes in your life, this is the kind to have.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #79: Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

I am in great danger of dancing about architecture here, so I'll acknowledge it, first, and then try to move on.

Nat Turner is a nearly wordless graphic novel: it contains only narration taken from The Confessions of Nat Turner (a contemporary account), and some sound effects. All of the characters in it are silent as we see them -- for dramatic effect or because the vast majority of them were silenced at the time and by history, you can decide for yourself. So what I'm here to do is use words to talk about a story told only in pictures.

"Dancing about architecture," as I said.

Nat Turner was written and drawn by Kyle Baker, and originally self-published by him as four individual comics. The book edition came from Abrams exactly a decade ago, in 2008. The copy I have in my hand has a slightly different cover than the one I've found online: there's only a light spattering of blood drops over the word "Turner" and down the left side, connecting to a red-patterned spine and back cover. I light the brightness and visual metaphor of the version shown here, but maybe the bookstores of America balked at so much blood.

Nat Turner [1] was born into slavery in Virginia in 1800. His father is believed to have run away and escaped from slavery when Nat was very young. Nat was very intelligent, and self-taught as much as he could, learning to read on his own and devouring every book he could. He led a rebellion of local slaves in 1831, which had some immediate success but was quickly suppressed. And, of course, he was tried and killed soon afterward. (Depending on how cynical you are, it can be counted a victory that a black man in 1831 Virginia was actually tried and found guilty before he was killed by white people.) Those are the bare facts.

Baker takes that story and extends it, beginning with Nat's mother, captured by slavers in Africa and shipped to America. That was the first issue; the second covers Nat's youth, growth to manhood, and religious awakening. (Like so many others who led massacres, Nat thought God talked to him and made him for a special destiny. Unlike most of them, we still have sympathy for Nat.)  The third issue has the events of the rebellion, in all of their bloody, chaotic fury. And the fourth is the aftermath: Nat's hanging and Baker's notes and afterword.

Baker's art is dark and moody, a chiaroscuro of browns and blacks. The faces are expressive and with just an occasional touch of cartooniness -- much more realistic than most of his work. His choice of images and panel-to-panel storytelling is superb, and the whole thing -- even told originally across four issues -- is entirely unified. Nat Turner has a massive moral and imagistic power, even to this white guy whose ancestors were entirely Northerners.

I don't see Nat Turner listed in those standard compilations of the "Best Modern Graphic Novels" much -- maybe because it's too raw, too shocking. It should be; it does stand that comparison and should be in that company. And it's a good reminder to oppressors everywhere -- even if they don't think themselves oppressors, even if they think they're the ones oppressed -- that when there are people under you with no way out and no recourse, they will rise up eventually, and you may not survive the experience.


[1] "Turner" was the family name of Nat's owners. It's not clear to me if he ever used a second name while alive, or if that was a luxury held by white people.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #78: Batman: The Dark Knight: Master Race by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson

I was hoping for crazy old man Frank Miller yelling at clouds (or people browner than himself), but DC Comics had wised up between 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again and this series in 2016, and so saddled Miller with Brian Azzarello for a co-writer and Andy Kubert as a replacement penciller. (They did bring back Klaus Janson, who inked Miller for the original Dark Knight Returns back in 1986.)

So what we got, instead of another run at the craziness of DKII, was a rehash of Grant Morrison's first couple of JLA stories, with an older, grumpier Batman and more Miller-ian annoying teen slang in tiny little boxes all over the pages. It's more coherent and professional than what I was expected, but that's not precisely an improvement. Crazy and genuine trumps professional and dull every day of the week.

In case that was confusing, let me explain: Miller wrote and drew (inked by Klaus Janson, colored by Lynn Varley) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 -- I can't believe you haven't heard of it -- with a grumpy retired fiftyish Batman brought back to deal with an even more crapsack than usual Gotham City and a showdown with the Joker. It was dense, stylish, "adult" -- one of the major examples for the "comics are growing up!" stories of the late-80s, along with Watchmen. Fifteen years later, Miller and Varley came back to Dark Knight for an ugly (artistically, morally, and story-wise) sequel that showed mostly that Miller had discovered a Spinal Tap-style dial on his art, and had cranked that sucker up to about twenty.

Fifteen more years passed, and someone had the idea to make Dark Knight a trilogy - because every artistic work constantly aspires to the condition of trilogy. The result was Batman: The Dark Knight: Master Race. (See above; start over if you have to.)

Those of us who enjoy trainwrecks delighted in the title. Miller has been unnervingly sympathetic to fascism in his works for the last two decades or so, and this looked like he was finally going all-in. But, sadly, it turned out to be a bait-and-switch. The Master Race here are Kryptonians, some random crazy religious sect from the bottled city of Kandor, who vaguely trick the Atom into growing them large and setting them free. (As with so much late Miller, the plot does not make as much sense as one would hope.)

The DC Universe has been attacked by armies with Superman's powers many times -- I think "The Great Darkness Saga" in Legion of Super-Heroes was the first, but I could have missed one -- so this was not exactly a shocking new idea. And Batman doesn't fight these villains alone, which at least would have been thematically appropriate for the series. No, our man Bats (who still don't shiv) has to bring back Superman, of course, and Wonder Woman gets involved, and The Flash, and Aquaman, and Green Lantern...and, yes, it does feel like that Grant Morrison White Martians story all over again, only with a Batman who swears more and prepares less.

Frankly, Master Race feels less like the third Dark Knight book and more like a random pointless Elseworlds story. What is Batman was an old man when Kryptonians attacked? Well, he'd still win!

Kubert and Janson make serviceable pictures for this story, and those pictures look a little bit like old-school Miller, sometimes, if you squint. There are interstitial stories by other artists, including Miller himself, which feel like they're almost unnecessary, but not quite. One assumes Azzarello is primarily responsible for the story -- since Miller would have done something more exciting, even if it was offensive or stupid -- and so one gives him a golf clap as well. But, all in all, this is a thing that didn't need to exist at all, and only just barely does exist. It's an echo of so many other more distinctive things that it's a wonder you can look directly at it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/17/18

I'm back again, to list whatever new books wandered into my house over the past week. This time out, I have just one book, which came via old-fashioned publicity channels.

Black and White Ball is the 27th novel about Detroit PI Amos Walker, by Loren D. Estleman and published by Forge in hardcover on March 28th. Back in the early days of this blog, one of my first reading projects here was HELP -- a horribly tortured acronym for "Hornswoggler's Estleman Loren Project" -- under which moniker I read ten of the earlier books in this series. (There only were about 18-20 of them then; Estleman has been putting them out annually recently.)

This time out, Walker meets another one of Estleman's series characters, hit man Peter Macklin -- this, presumably, either because it was a fun idea or to try to get fans of both series to buy the book. I keep looking at my accumulation of Walker novels and thinking it's time to run through another big clump, but I haven't pulled the trigger yet -- maybe this one will be enough to get me to do that.

This is a strong traditional-PI series, with the requisite man who walks down the dark streets to do what has to be done; I've enjoyed all of the books I've read by Estleman.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #77: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

Doreen Green is still cute, still a bit chunky, still indomitable, and still the most upbeat character in comics. But she's now a second-year student in Computer Science at Empire State U -- which state is weirdly referred to as a "second-year alum" more than once -- which means she's that much closer to actually being able to create {insert technical thing that I don't really understand here}.

The "big" change in her status (oh, she's also a New Avenger, which is mentioned in the first issue and ignored otherwise) is because this third collection starts up what was in late 2015 a new series of comics about Doreen, aka Squirrel Girl, after she was involved in whatever crisis was going on that summer. (I think it was the one where all mutants died, since there was a fourth-wall-leaning reference to her very definitely not being a mutant of any kind. But who can keep track of which money-grubbing Marvel Secret House Civil Infinity Age of Death Fear Chaos Shadow happened when?) It was the second issue #1 that year for Squirrel Girl, which game creators Ryan North and Erica Henderson mock here, but not so much as to piss off their Marvel overlords.

Anyway, it's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now. Given the way Marvel keeps books in print, it's probably impossible to find now.

It starts out with a done-in-one story re-introducing Doreen and her supporting cast -- who knows! maybe there's a substantial comic-shop-going audience that missed the first first issue that year! hope springs eternal! -- and then dives into a longer story involving Doctor Doom, time travel, and fashions of the early 1960s. Along the way, there are lots of pseudo-alt-text comments at the bottom of the pages by writer North and extensive letter-column pages with responses from both North and Henderson. (Do most comics reprint letter columns these days? Is that a thing? Because it's nice that people like the comics and send in pictures of themselves as Squirrel Girl, but it's kind of a distraction from the actual story here.)

Reader, Marvel did not have to change the title to The Only Beaten That One Time Squirrel Girl after this volume. But you knew that already, if you know anything about how comics work. It's a lot like the first two collections -- see my posts on volume one and volume two, if you have some time to waste -- showing that the relaunch was entirely pointless. This is sad, but reinforces what I already believe about big corporate comics, so it makes me Schadenfreudenly happy. If you think comics about a superhero with a great attitude, a realistic body, buck teeth, and the proportional whatever of a squirrel would also make you happy, for whatever specific reason, I think you're probably right. You might as well try it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #76: The Soddyssey and The Werewolf of New York by Batton Lash

I'm not a lawyer. But I'm a lot more familiar with lawyers these days, having spent the last three years working with a bunch of them (including more "recovering lawyers" than one would expect) and marketing things to lawyers all day every day. So maybe this time I came back to Batton Lash's long-running "Supernatural Law" comics series with just a bit more understanding of who he's talking about and what some of the jokes mean.

(The supernatural side of Supernatural Law is much simpler: Lash's bedrock sense of the supernatural is pretty much that of monster movies from the B&W era, all Draculas, Frankensteins, and Wolfmen. There are no hot-to-trot young women with lower-back tattoos and complicated love lives, no modern wizards, no elves hidden in plain sight, no unexpected Grail quests. Actually, given that Lash isn't a lawyer himself, his take on both sides of the equation come from similar places: general cultural knowledge. It's just that lawyers are more common in everyday life and more apt to have complained to Lash about perceived slights.)

I read Supernatural Law back when it ran in CBG as Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre -- yes, I am old -- and I think I used to read it in floppy-comics form through the '90s and early '00s, too. (I gave up on floppies about a decade ago, and lost twenty-five years of accumulated comics in my 2011 flood, so I can't check.) But, like everything else in comics, Lash has been moving his creations into book and webcomic form, since that's where the readers are these days. (Some of the comics used to be available at supernaturallaw.com, but there's just a single "cover" image there now.)

There were two Supernatural Law collections sitting on my shelf, for longer than they should have been: The Soddyssey and Other Tales of Supernatural Law and The Werewolf of New York. Since I'm doing Book-A-Day this year, I'm running through books more quickly and actually clearing out those shelves. (Stop me before I turn into an infomercial.)

Soddyssey collected issues 9-16 of the comics series -- which I think I vaguely recognized from reading in the '90s -- while Werewolf was a brand-new graphic novel created for book publication and funded by a Kickstarter campaign a few years back. But they're both the same kind of thing: stories about supernatural creatures in legal trouble, told mildly tongue-in-cheek but with realistic legal outcomes. Soddyssey has several stories; Werewolf one. But Lash was telling a soap-opera-style story to begin with, full of life and romantic complications for his series heroes and their supporting cast, and that continues throughout, even as one case ends and another starts.

Alanna Wolf and Jeff Byrd are the principals of a small law firm, one that concentrates not on a particular area of law -- though they do end up involved in litigation more often that not, since that spells "law" to a non-legal audience -- but on a particular kind of client. One might wonder how all of these diverse creatures know to make their way to Wolff & Byrd, or how likely it is that they all have legal troubles in a state where those two are barred, but that's the premise. We'll be here all day if we start to question premises.

Supernatural Law always felt old-fashioned to me, in the best way, as if it should have been a daily-comics strip like The Heart of Juliet Jones or Mary Worth -- something more culturally central than it really was. These two collections give me that same sense: Wolff & Byrd do the kind of law you'd see on TV fifty years ago. They're not brokering the merger of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, or negotiating the transfer of IP from a banshee to a hot new pop star, or handling the import paperwork on a half-ton of grave dirt. They're filing briefs, traipsing back and forth to court to plead in front of a judge, and counseling their current client to keep his mouth shut. (Always good advice, from any lawyer to any client.) It's the kind of law you recognize, even if you don't know anything about law.

These are fun stories about that kind of law, with some inventive twists on the kind of supernatural creatures you know the same way. Creator Batton Lash has been doing this, off and on, for forty years, and he makes it all smoothly entertaining.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #75: The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

I always say that I don't like or read horror stories, which means I'm pretty much required to make the case that this is not a horror story.

Well, I can't do that: The Night Country is a horror story. It's a literary story too, or maybe more so, but it's definitely horror. And maybe the fact that Stewart O'Nan uses horrific elements so well is equally responsible for why I think he's one of our very best writers and why I still don't get to his books except every few years.

(Possible objections: I seem to focus on the most horrific of his books, which is probably true. But I prefer to think that I like genre elements in my literary fiction, and horror is the genre element O'Nan works with.)

It's about fifteen years ago -- The Night Country was published in 2003. It's Halloween, in the small town of Avon, Connecticut. One year ago, five teens were in a horrific crash on Halloween night, which has haunted the town, and especially the policeman, Brooks, who was chasing them at the time.

One of the teens tells us the story. His name is Marco. He died in the crash. Also dead is Toe (real name Chris, the driver) and Danielle, the three of them called over and over again all around Avon as people remember them. But they can't touch the real world; can't affect anything.

Tim was Danielle's boyfriend. He survived the crash unscathed -- physically. And his friend Kyle survived with massive head trauma, turning him into a simpler teen, a quieter teen, a more childlike teen. (The ghost of who Kyle used to be also lurks around The Night Country, but he's not with Marco, Toe, and Danielle. They're as mystified by him as the reader.)

The Night Country takes place over just over twenty-four hours, from just before midnight on Mischief Night (or Goosey Night, as we call it in my neck of the woods) to the anniversary of the crash. The living characters are Brooks and Tim and Kyle, Kyle's parents and two dim admirers of Toe. The dead characters are just as important -- and, again, our narrator is one of them.

This is a novel of ghosts and hauntings - literal and figurative. It's a horror novel and a literary novel. It's a tragedy: one in which the tragic end has already happened, and we're just waiting for the bodies to fall. It's brilliant and compelling and beautifully written and pitch-black. It has amazing sentences and awesome passages -- the entire first chapter is a tour de force. If horror was like this more often, I'd read a lot more of it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #74: The Best American Comics, 2015 and 2016, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Roz Chast

A couple of weeks ago (if I'm looking at the written-but-unpublished buffer correctly) I wrote about the Jeff Smith-edited Best American Comics 2013, and talked about "the usual suspects" and how that annual book could be counted on to give a general view of the comics field any year, and recommended any annual volume to any reader.

This is because I'd forgotten how radically they can vary.

Now, the series editor did also change between 2013 and 2015 -- Bill Kartalopolous took over from Jessica Abel and Matt Madden with the 2014 Scott McCloud-edited book -- but I think the guest editor is the biggest piece of the puzzle. A guest editor who comes out of a certain wing of comics will tend to know and enjoy that world -- and learn to love other things during the editing, sure, but essential tastes don't change that much that quickly. When a guest editor is chosen who isn't from any specific wing of comics, because he's from an only loosely connected field, then it's anyone's guess where he'll come down.

It's not true that comics always comes down to a battle between Story and Art. At their best, comics use both brilliantly, and meld the two inescapable together into one visual storytelling thing. But, if it were true, Jonathan Lethem would be firmly on the Art side, and I would just as firmly on the Story side. (Roz Chast, from a wing of comics that doesn't show up much in this context -- the dwindling world of magazine single panels -- seems to be firmly on the cartooning side, which is both and neither.)

But I should introduce the books before I go any further. This series has been coming out for a little more than ten years now, with three different series editors and a new guest editor each year. The series editor tries to see "everything" eligible -- comics by cartoonists and teams either currently resident in North America or from here -- and passes on about a hundred stories/books/projects to the guest editor, who culls a final list from that and his/her own reading. And then the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has to try to get the rights to reprint those, which doesn't always happen. (The Lethem volume seems to have lost one story to lawyers in general -- too close to someone else's IP -- and another story that the creator wouldn't allow to be reprinted. That's how it happens with Best of the Year books, even if the dirty laundry only rarely makes it out where the audience can see.) Houghton Mifflin has been doing "Best American" books for a century, starting with Best American Short Stories and proliferating more and more over the last three decades.

Best American Comics 2015 was edited by novelist and occasional comics writer (Omega the Unknown) Jonathan Lethem, who I met briefly at a SFWA reception a million years ago, back when he was a SF writer and I was a SF editor. Roz Chast edited Best American Comics 2016; she's been a New Yorker mainstay for several decades and has committed graphic memoir with Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

As I think back on it, Best American Comics does occasionally dive into the aggressively artsy -- there was a lot of Fort Thunder-ish stuff in the early volumes -- but it's usually more middle-of-the-road. But Lethem in particular doesn't like the middle of any road: his book includes more weirder, further out, and actually difficult-to-read comics. (His cover is by Raymond Pettibon, a gallery painter who incorporates comics elements but is not a comics creator by the definition of anyone not named Jonathan Lethem. Pettibon also contributes a few "comics" -- actually paintings, and, even worse, all dated before the year supposedly memorialized here -- which I found impossible to actually read. I mean the words were physically that small/twisted/badly laid out that I couldn't get my aging eyes to make them coherent.) Lethem has some other bold choices, but Pettibon is the only one I'd actually object to -- some stories aren't too my taste, or not what I think that creator can do at his/her best, but nothing else felt totally out of place like Pettibon.

Chast's volume is more typical -- I don't want to say "middle of the road," since that sounds bland or reductive, but she's driving on the road all the time, at least. Lethem goes from the road to careening off a cliff semi-randomly, which is interesting and exciting but means he throws in a number of things that this particular reader was not impressed with.

Anyway, this is a great series, but -- which I didn't think about, or articulate, with the 2013 book -- the guest editor really matters. With a decade of them behind us, a reader can find the editor most sympatico to her worldview -- maybe Lynda Barry, maybe Neil Gaiman, maybe Scott McCloud -- and start with that book. Good stories don't date, so you don't have to grab the most recent book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #73: Shade the Changing Girl, Vol 1: Earth Girl Made Easy by Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone

Big Comics is all about the reboot. It worked for the Crisis and the Secret Wars. It worked for all of those Brits taking over minor DC characters in the late '80s and early '90s. It worked when Superman was killed and Batman's back was broken. It worked when everyone suddenly had pouches for about five years in the '90s. It worked for everyone's Year One and Year Zero and Year One Million and Year Minus Fifty-Seven. It worked for big crossovers. It worked every time some team wanted to revive a dormant character -- change everything and you were good for at least twenty issues or so.

Well, it worked up until the point it stopped working, which is the last couple of years. But if you trace that reboot impulse back to Barry Allen in 1956, it worked for sixty years, which is a damn long time.

And maybe it can keep working in the right circumstances. Maybe you can't reboot everything all the time, but you can reboot forgotten things at the right time. You know, like they used to do?

Shade the Changing Girl is a reboot, in the tradition of the Karen Berger British Writer Trans-Atlantic Express of yore that built Vertigo around itself. This time it's called Young Animal, since our celebrity-obsessed society needs a minor rock-star to lend glamor to it (Gerard Way, who I'm slandering here, since he actually is a writer of good comics). but you can't blame the creators for that. This Shade is a descendant of the Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo Shade the Changing Man Vertigo series, more so than the original character as created by Steve Ditko.

But where Milligan's Shade was a Brit's long examination of America and what was the hell its deal, new writer Cecil Castellucci's concerns are more personal and 21st century: who are we, who are out friends, what kind of people are we, do we enjoy what we do. I imagine there are already too many essays on the Internet comparing the Milligan/Bachalo "masculine" concerns with the Castellucci/Zarcone "feminine" ones, so I'll just point to that difference, and say I personally think it's more of an outer-world/inner-world difference.

Loma is young and fabulous on the world Meta, a recent college dropout whose vague dreams are too big for her actual life and circumstances. She's a bit obsessed with Rac Shade, the poet and space traveler and possessor of the M-Vest and protagonist of the Milligan/Bachalo series, and has struck up a fuck-buddy relationship with a young man, Lepuck, who has access to the museum where that vest is housed. (It was part of a government program to harness "the Madness," a purposely ill-defined zone of space/time/reality between Meta and Earth, and presumably there are other similar items elsewhere.) And so Loma grabs that vest, puts it on, and travels through the Madness to Earth to escape her life and be more like Rac.

"Shade" is more a title than a name, so she calls herself Loma Shade, or just Shade, on the other end.

Both Lepuck and Loma are non-humanoid sapients, on a world of mostly humanoform people -- we later learn because of immigration and refugees and similar background issues. This will probably become important at some point, if Shade the Changing Girl runs long enough.

As Rac did, Loma arrives on Earth in someone else's body -- that's how the Madness works. (Rac eventually inhabited four people, I think, during the Milligan/Bachalo series.) Her host is the brain-dead mean-girl teenager Megan Boyer. I say "mean girl," but Megan was far beyond that: she was a vicious force of nature, dominating her supposed friends on the swim team and her boyfriend. Castellucci doesn't underline the parallel, but Megan used people not all that differently than Loma used Lepuck -- it's just that Megan did it consistently and with a real end in mind, unlike flighty Loma.

This first volume, Earth Girl Made Easy, collects the first six issues -- mostly set-up. Loma settles into Megan's life, tries to figure out how to live on 2016 Earth when her main cultural reference points are Rac's poems and a not-I-Love-Lucy '50s TV show she loves, and learns that she can't just get back through the Madness for Whatever Reason. Meanwhile, back on Meta, Lepuck pines for Loma, who he thinks is his girlfriend. And shadowy forces gather, remnants of the government program Rac was part of, interested in the M-Vest and in grabbing back power. They will be our villains, eventually.

But for this first volume, Loma/Megan is enough of her own villain: she has to make friends in a school that old-Megan cruelly dominated, and overcome what's left of Megan in that shared mind. Again, this is mostly set-up: these six issues introduce the case on Earth and Meta and get them to what I expect will be the status quo for another dozen or two issues.

On the art side, I have to call out colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick as the real star: this Shade is bright and brilliant and coruscating, as a book about Madness must be. Penciller Marley Zarcone (with inkers Ande Parks and Ryan Kelly) do a solid job, which looks to me like a slightly flatter take on '90s Vertigo style to give those colors space to blossom.

This Shade is worth checking out, if you remember the '90s series with fondness, if you want to see if DC can do something Vertigo-ish in this new century, and if you're interested in a smart take on mean girls and teenage life.