Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #151: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

The point about James Morrow is that everything in his novels is the most. There are no minor conflicts or personal spats: everything is the pure Platonic version of itself. A war will be the war, as in This Is the Way The World Ends. A young woman from Atlantic City is Jesus's younger sister, in Only Begotten Daughter. God will be not just dead, but floating, immensely and shockingly, in the North Atlantic in Towing Jehovah.

And so, when I tell you his 2017 novella The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is about a painting, you will immediately understand that it is not just a painting -- it is a uniquely potent painting, one that can, and will, change the course of history.

(Actually, there are two paintings, because Morrow tends to be Manichean that way-- ultimate power is not a monad, but is shaped either for good or for evil.)

This is Morrow's fourth short novel, following 1990's City of Truth, 2009's Shambling Towards Hiroshima, and 2014's The Madonna and the Starship, I wrote about Morrow's obsessions when writing about those books as well; it's hard to avoid it when thinking about Morrow. He is his obsessions: the meaning of life and history, the possibility of personal or societal salvation, the teleology of the world.

His Dr. Caligari runs an asylum, in a tiny Ruritanian principality tucked away in Europe on the eve of The Great War. Our narrator, Francis Wyndham, is an American wanna-be painter, in Paris to soak up the atmosphere and to become what he desperately wants to be. (All indications are that he's solid, but not inspired.) As the War begins, Francis gets a job at that asylum -- a sanitarium for the wealthy and well-off, with what seems to be just a few inmates with strange obsessions of their own who live there, mostly peacefully, as long as their money allows.

Francis is to be the new art therapist of the asylum -- helping the lunatics to become sane again through making art. The book is not about how he makes them sane. It is not even about how the world is insane, in the throes of a massive destructive and pointless way, and so madness is a noble and reasonable response.

No, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is about the mysterious painting Dr. Caligari is just finishing: one which will compel war-fervor and blind jingoism in the fighting men who view it, a painting embodying working sorcery to make it the perfect piece of propaganda and the maker of ideal soldiers. Francis, his new lover (the only female inmate of the asylum we see), and a tiny handful of others know this is uniquely horrible and must be stopped. And, in Morrow's world, the only thing that can stop a sorcerous evil is an equal and opposing sorcerous good: they must paint their own painting, and somehow trick the bulging troop-trains of soldiers from all warring armies to view the good painting instead.

Morrow, here as always, has the courage of his convictions and the fervency of his belief to brush aside any concerns about plausibility or reasonableness. Yes, all of the armies of The Great War are funneling through this one small country, detouring on their way to fight each other. Yes, the paintings have mystical power, changing the men who view them forever, for good or ill. Yes, this is the only way to save the world. Yes, the paintings are more than just paint on canvas -- they are real worlds of Platonic ideas, with the painting itself just a gateway.

Saying that any of that is too much to swallow is a possible reaction to a Morrow book, of course. But all of his books are entirely too much in the same way, and are too much from their very foundations -- it's like complaining that a novel has named characters who do things in a time sequence. This is a Morrow book, and he's not about to change now -- if you can come along on that journey with him, you will have an fascinating and unique ride.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #150: Chew: The Omnivore Edition, Vol. 4

So, there's a world where all of the superheroes get their powers from food. It's not actually weirder than any other superhero universe, to my mind, but it's definitely weird in a different direction. I like that, since superheroes tend to be all too much of the same thing all the time, but I know mine is a minority taste in the vast land of ComicShopia.

(Oh, and I'm sure a lot of people -- maybe even the creators -- would object vociferously to my characterizing bizarre and impossible food-related abilities as "superpowers." Those people are wrong, and probably too uptight, as well.)

Anyway, there are "food weirdos," as one character calls them. They have long, silly, Latinate terms to explain what it is they can do, which are often dangerous or violent and are also, of course, silly. John Layman and Rob Guillory told a long, funny comics story in that world, and called it Chew. That comic ended a couple of years back, but I'm still catching up.

(If you are also catching up, I started off by reading the smaller paperback collections: see my posts on volumes one and two and three-through-five and six. I've now switched to the medium-sized hardcovers, which each collect what would otherwise be two paperbacks, and have discovered there are now jumbo-sized hardcovers, making the just medium-sized ones difficult to find.)

So this one is Chew: The Omnivore Edition, Vol. 4, at the roughly two-thirds point in the overall story. If you're new to Chew, don't start here.

A very sad thing happened to our central hero, Tony Chu, at the end of the previous volume -- I'm not going to say what it is, because many of you reading this might actually want to read Chew yourselves. I will instead be vague. The aftermath of the very sad thing permeates this entire volume -- all ten issues reprinted here. The overall plot -- the search for the evil "vampire" who has been hunting other food weirdos and killing them to harvest their powers, the secret behind the bird flue epidemic that is this world's immediate divergence point from our own, and various interpersonal and inter-departmental squabbles involving Tony and his friends and the various government organizations they work for -- is also charging forward, in its own weird and quirky way.

So, frankly, there's not much I can say about this volume. Lots of stuff happens, and it is generally silly and/or goofy stuff -- though it can all be taken seriously within the deeply quirky world of this story -- but it's all stuff that follows on from stuff that happened earlier.

Don't start here. But do read Chew, if you haven't before. You can probably get the first collection cheaply, in print or electrons, and this is a book that definitely continued as it began. It is weird from top to bottom, in a lovely, fun way.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #149: The Question, Vol. 2: Poisoned Ground by Dennis O'Neil, Denys Cowan, and RIck Magyar

It's always nerve-wracking to go back to something you remember enjoying a lot, many years later. Is it still worth reading? Or has the Suck Fairy slinked around sometime in between and stolen away everything that was good about it?

(And sometimes it's not just the Suck Fairy -- her nastier sisters the Sexism Fairy and the Racism Fairy delight in rampaging through older stories. I haven't noticed the work of the Transphobic Fairy much yet myself, but the Gay Panic Fairy has also been very active in recent years. Truly, the world of the past just gets worse and worse the longer ago it gets.)

So it was a relief to pick up Poisoned Ground, a collection of a chunk of middle of the 1987 The Question series -- written by Dennis O'Neil, drawn by Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar -- and discover it was only a superhero story by courtesy, that the crime-story aspects were still strong and real, and that the Cowan/Magyar art was just as impressive -- and expressive -- as I remembered.

(It does make me half-wish I'd bothered to dig up all of the other collections of this series first, to read them through -- but I can always do that next.)

The Question is more of a noir character than a traditional superhero, a descendant of The Spirit rather than Batman: just a guy with fits and wits, and one strange device. That device is a mask that turns his features blank and a gas that activates the mask and simultaneously changes the color of his clothing and hair. He was originally created by Steve Ditko, was the inspiration for Watchmen's Rorschach when Alan Moore didn't get permission to use the Charlton stable of characters, and he's been on various super-teams now and then despite not fitting into that role well at all.

And these comics -- the series written by O'Neil and illustrated mostly by Cowan and Magyar, running for almost exactly three years -- are generally considered his high point. Well, by people my generation, at least -- definitely the epitome of the first Question, Vic Sage. (Every major character in a superhero universe has multiple versions and successors. They're all dead at least once. They all pass their names on to young women or minorities or both. They all keep changing until something is actually popular for a while, and then change again once it stops being popular.)

Poisoned Ground is middle, but it's middle from the era when comics stories still mostly only took one issue. The set-up for this series -- resetting The Question's temperament and fighting style somewhat -- is over, with those issues in the first book. And Vic's eventual departure from Hub City is still far in the future. Here, he's trying to fix a corrupt, ruined, beaten-down town, a Rust Belt city (eventually revealed by O'Neill to be based loosely on East St. Louis) that doesn't want to be fixed and doesn't have the materials needed for fixing.

So we start here with two standalone single-issue stories, one that may be supernatural and one that's just about a vigilante nastier than The Question. Then there is a multi-issue plotline, as Vic's mentor/friend Dr. Rodor disappears, kidnapped by unknown forces, and The Question has to find him. Even there, it's that same mix -- a little megalomania, a little philosophy, some science that may shade into mysticism or just into insanity, and a whole lot of The Evil That Men Do.

The Question isn't going to save the world. He's not even going to save his city. And what he accomplishes is almost as much as Vic Sage -- going on the evening news to tell the world about the rot and corruption and evil -- as he does as The Question, punching it. This is one of the few superhero series that really understood the role of the media in letting things get worse or making them better.

And now I definitely need to find the rest of the collections of this series -- and maybe even see if The Question has done anything similar since then.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #148: The New Yorker Book of Mom Cartoons

Sometimes my timing sucks. I realized I had this book sitting on my shelf on Mother's Day. So I was able to read it on Mother's Day, but I really should have posted this review on Mother's Day.

Well, such is life. Que sera, sera, as someone's mother said once.

So here, belatedly, is The New Yorker Book of Mom Cartoons, a 2008 book extruded from the Cartoon Bank and The New Yorker apparently without the aim of human hand. (In other words: it doesn't credit any editor.)

Like the other New Yorker books in the same oblong paperback format, it has one hundred cartoons, each appearing alone on a page, all on one loose theme. Some of the cartoons are about actual mothers and their children -- small or adult -- and some are about people acting like mothers, or referring to mothers, or threatening others with mothers. Basically, these are cartoons that could be tagged "Mom" in some large database...which, coincidentally, is probably exactly how they were identified in the Cartoon Bank.

There are forty-six total cartoonists: the book may not have an editor credited or any front matter, but it has a useful index of cartoonists, because the New Yorker knows what cartoon fans really care about. Barbara Smaller takes pole position with eight cartoons here, followed by Bruce Eric Kaplan, Donald Reilly, and Danny Shanahan all tied at six. Nothing is dated, but my sense is that the choices skew more towards the modern than the classic period -- and that breakdown of cartoonists tends to reinforce that impression.

I've written about New Yorker cartoons before, and the same rules still apply: they do tend to be arch and allusive, and the least of them are very Zeitgeist-y in a way that can make them opaque as soon as a few weeks later or as far as a couple of states away. I didn't find this particular book to have much that fell into that category, but then again I tend to like New Yorker cartoons (obviously).

This series is generally fun: they each have a good mixture of cartoonists in various flavors of the New Yorker style, and so are great as a way to sample New Yorker cartoons. Pick one on a topic that seems funny to you, and it's one of the best ways to see if these cartoons will click with you.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/26/18

Every week, I list whatever new books I've seen in this space. Once upon a time, it was only things that came from Big Publishing, because I got a lot of those, but nowadays it's just anything new, to save me doing all different kinds of posts.

This week I have one book, which was sent by an intrepid publicist: Et Tu, Brute? by cartoonist Jason Novak. Novak has illustrated the deaths of every Roman emperor -- from Augustus in 14 AD to Romulus Augustulus, who Novak says "outlived the Empire." (Note that there's an implicit definition of "Roman Empire" here which may not match your own. If so, I'd recommend hoping this book is successful enough for Novak to follow it up with one on the Byzantine emperors, from Constantine I to XI.)

I love the idea, and I'm surprised no one has thought of it before: perfect title, perfect little one-death-to-a-spread format, and Novak has a great loose inky style (which looks a little like Kate Beaton's more madcap historical work to me) for the material.

It's cheap, and fun, and actually a decent reference for this one narrow string of data -- all good things!

You can find Et Tu, Brute? at the usual places books are sold -- it's being officially published June 12th by the fine folks at Norton.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #147: Skeleton Key (5 vols) by Andi Watson

I have a weakness for stories that don't go the way the creator expects them to. It's not always easy to tell -- you generally only get to experience something when it's been finalized and all of the rough edges and false starts sanded off -- but sometimes the bones of the original plan can be seen. It's more common in serialized stories, obviously -- TV or comics or similar things, where episodes have to be released before the whole thing is done.

Andi Watson's early series Skeleton Key, I think, went in a very different direction than he expected. And it's fun because of that, on top of the usual joys of seeing a young creator get better and smarter on almost every single page and just telling good stories along the way.

Skeleton Key ran monthly for thirty issues from 1995 through 1998, and then came back for a four-issue miniseries, Skeleton Key: Roots, in 1999. The whole series was collected in five volumes -- Beyond the Threshold, The Celestial Calendar, Telling Tales, Cats & Dogs, and Roots. (Watson has since come back to the same world for a few short stories, but even that was close to a decade ago.) I think I discovered the series somewhere in the middle, and had all of the collections before my 2011 flood. And, since I've been re-buying and re-reading Andi Watson books for the last few years, eventually I got all five collections and re-read the whole thing.

Watson was clearly finding his way in the early pages -- this was only his second big comics work, after Samurai Jam. In fact, he radically changes his lettering style in the middle of the fourth story page, which I find endearing: not bothering to re-do anything, just changing and doing full steam ahead.

Beyond the Threshold opens with Tamsin Mary Cates, a grumpy teen goth stuck in the dull provincial town of Garfield, Alberta, Canada, among jocks and snow and not much else. Preparing for the town's Day of the Dead parade -- do Canadian prairie towns have Mexican celebrations that much? never mind; Watson needs it for the premise -- she wanders into the kind of strange little shop that we all know from a million other stories. It has unique and odd things, and she finds just what she needs: a skeleton costume and matching large ornate key. And when she returns later, the shop was never there in the first place.

She goes to the parade, though not necessarily the one in Garfield, and gets back safely. But she also brought someone back from what she thought was a dream later that night: the young fox spirit Kitsune, on the run from magicians who want her liver. It turns out the key can open doorways to other worlds -- out of any door, anywhere -- but only by some people, and only when they're wearing the suit. By the end of the first book, three nasty magicians have teamed up to get the key away from them and kidnapped a school friend of Tamsin's as a first step. And so the two girls set off to rescue him, through one of those doors.

Celestial Calendar follows immediately from that moment: it's a twelve-part story themed to the Chinese calendar. But each installment doesn't take a month, and the girls make it back to their own world at about the mid-point. In retrospect, here's where we really see Watson's plans being abandoned and a more organic idea for Skeleton Key coming forward. The first half of Celestial Calendar is a view of what Skeleton Key might have been: adventures across strange worlds with quirky characters, serious enough to have real danger but essentially light-hearted.

Instead, Tamsin and Kitsune rescue their friend, defuse the conflict with the magicians, and get back to Garfield. They won't leave the mundane world again, and the key itself basically disappears from the story at that point. From here on out, Skeleton Key is the story of two friends, mixed in with a measure of high school drama. There are still some minor supernatural elements, but they tend to be humorous, like Tamsin's raccoon backpack, which a magician brought to life.

The aftermath of rescuing that boy in Celestial Calendar becomes important later: he finds out about it and is mad that they didn't tell him he was kidnapped into a fantasy world. And that speaks to the core of the back half of Skeleton Key, focused on personal relationships: tentative romances for both Tamsin and Kitsune, Tamsin's protectiveness of Kitsune, Tamsin's parents growing annoyance with the girl who is living in their house and eating all their food, and the question of Tamsin's plans after she graduates high school.

Skeleton Key is one of the very rare cases of a story that radically de-escalated as it went on. It would have been very easy to have the girls get into supernatural scrapes on one world after another -- maybe returning home in between adventures, maybe not -- learning more, getting paraphernalia and allies and friends and a complicated history. But Watson instead pulled them back to the real world, using Kitsune's magical origins as just another way a new friend can appear suddenly in a life and transform it.

That's the opposite of the usual choice, and it's worth celebrating: serialized stories don't have to keep getting bigger. There doesn't need to be a new Dark Lord; the world doesn't have to be saved; people are enough for a story.

Skeleton Key signposted the entirely domestic stories Watson would do in the early aughts -- a great string of individual graphic novels about people, all stories with beginnings and ends and real heart. This is where he wrote his way into that mode, and seeing again how he did it is still a lot of fun.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #146: Erotica: The Fine Art of Sex by Edward Lucie-Smith

I'm sure there are worse literary offenses than quoting your own poetry at length in a supposedly non-fictional book.

None come to mind at the moment, but there must be some.

Edward Lucie-Smith does that in Erotica: The Fine Art of Sex. I've tried to forgive him for it. He also presents what's basically a art-history monograph, in a somewhat popularized form, with copious references to specific paintings and other artworks, but then embeds that monograph in a book with copious illustrations of other paintings and other artworks, of similar style and appeal.

(Speaking of quoting, Lucie-Smith has another odd habit: in every chapter, he has a long quote from someone, generally someone old and dead enough to be in the public domain, and then has a shorter pull-quote from the middle of that longer pieces, within a couple of pages of each other. I'm not sure if it's that these are his very favorite quotes of all time, so he wants to keep using them, or if he had a very limited budget for permissions or just words, and had to budget himself severely.)

I'm sure some of the paintings referenced in the text are also reproduced in the book. It would have to happen at least a few times by chance. But the text never says "see page 47," so connecting the two is left to any obsessive readers.

Erotica is a 1997 British book which I saw in its 2003 American edition from Hydra Publishing. I'm sure it existed entirely because sex sells -- and low-priced art books of sex sold quite well in those years before we all had high-speed internet. And I have a copy, I'm pretty sure, because the book-club company I worked for was publishing an edition of Erotica, and I was in the habit then of just grabbing every single book that looked even vaguely of interest.

It sat on the shelf for around fifteen years because a random book of sexy art isn't generally the next thing anyone wants to read under normal circumstances. But I'm doing Book-A-Day this year precisely to clear out random books of various kinds, so I took a whack at it.

And my considered opinion is that no one connected with the publication of the book -- except possible Lucie-Smith -- actually expected anyone to read the text. It's dry, dull in a vaguely academic way, organized haphazardly, and, as I said above, only very loosely connected to the art reproduced here, which is the whole point of this book.

What a reader would want from a book like Erotica is, on the low end, to be titillated for a while and then go on to other things. On the high end, one could hope it would give a potted art-history lecture, focusing on the saucy stuff, that would give you some interesting new facts you could use in your life. Erotica does hit that low end, though the art reproduced here is mostly newer and more heavily photographic than that discussed in the text -- still art photography, though, not anything from skin magazines. But I didn't kind it hit anywhere near the high end: I didn't learn a thing from it, and was bored and confused much of the time, which is not what one wants from a book about sexy art.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #145: Eating Aliens by Jackson Landers

I have to lead off with a disclaimer that I haven't used much in recent years: I read this book in bound galley form, so the real book might be different in some ways. I'm not saying this to give myself an excuse for getting things wrong -- that's just an unexpected bonus! -- but to be clear.

And, yes, this is a 2012 book that was still sitting on my shelves in pre-publication form six years later. You know how I've mentioned that publishers don't send me books for review much anymore? That's why. Six-years-delayed coverage is possibly worse, or at least more annoying, than no coverage at all.

Luckily, I never claimed to be a major media outlet....

Anyway, that's the sordid backstory. The book is Eating Aliens, a travelogue by Jackson Landers about finding various invasive species in the Eastern USA, hunting them, cooking them, and eating them. Landers's aim is simple: he knows that invasive species take over because they out-compete the local fauna, and that getting rid of those species before they drive natives to extinction is important -- or at least knocking down the invaders over and over again to keep those extinctions at bay.

But relying on big government programs to find all of these invaders and kill them is probably not a viable strategy -- it would be too expensive, and bureaucracies tend to find ways to perpetuate themselves and the situations they were created to address. On the other hand, concerted human action has repeatedly decimated or eliminated animal populations -- witness the passenger pigeon and bison. If only there were a way to harness that destructive power for good.

That's what Landers wants to do: get people to want to eat invasive species, to create a market for their meat, to give incentives for individual hunters and fishers or larger operations to semi-industrialize the destruction of the right animals. In most of these chapters, he's got a local guide -- sometimes the guy hired to knock down this particular invasive species in the area, sometimes just a local hunter who knows the territory -- to help him locate and bag the particular prize.

Call it the carnivore's response to vegetarianism: only eating animals that deserve it. (Landers grew up as a vegetarian, actually, and then made a living as a hunting instructor and writer. I'm using the past tense here because this book is six years old, and he could have moved on to something completely different by now...googles...well, he's moved slightly sideways into science journalism with a current sideline in civil rights. )

Eating Aliens has a dozen chapters, each of which chronicles an expedition to hunt and eat something invasive, from two different kinds of iguanas (neither native to Florida; both flourishing there) to feral hogs to lionfish to Asian carp to nutria to Canada geese to the evocatively named Chinese Mystery Snails. Landers also has a shorter afterword about cases where he didn't manage to bag something, so each of the main chapters does include cooking and tasting that particular thing.

Generally, human beings have gotten pretty good at turning the flora and fauna of our planet into tasty food -- it's one of the things we as a species are best at. So it comes as no surprise that Landers generally manages to get something worth eating out of each of these species -- Eating Aliens is not a cookbook, so there aren't serious details of cooking time and preparation, but a diligent reader could pull out enough tips to get started himself if he wanted to.

And, to fit the cliche, an awful lot of this stuff ends up tasting more or less like chicken -- or like what you cook it with. That's a bug rather than a feature, I think: we already eat a lot of chicken, and having something "chicken-y" that we could gather in our own neighborhoods as a hobby could be appealing to a lot of people. (And having something new and exotic that interesting men harvest for you will be appealing to a slightly different lot of people.)

I love the idea of this book, though I assume it will never work out quite the way Landers wants: humans are too ornery, cross-grained and stupid to jump onto obvious win-win situations, as has been proved too many times. Still, even if it only gets some more local hunters bagging nutria or iguanas on the fringes, that's a big positive.

This is a great book for fans of adventure journalism, for adventurous eaters, and for hunters and fishermen looking for a new challenge. Landers is an entertaining writer on top of being on the side of righteousness, and the structure makes it an easy book to pick up and read a chunk at a time. Even if you're unlikely to eat any aliens yourself -- I don't expect it to come up much in my diet any time soon -- it's still enjoyable and interesting, and might give you a slightly different perspective on hunters and sustainability.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #144: Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat!, Vol. 1: Hooked on a Feline by Kate Leth, Brittney L. Williams, and Natasha Allegri

Continuity is a bitch.

For example, how old is Patsy Walker? She first appeared as a teenager in 1944's Miss America Magazine #2, which would make her an octogenarian in 2018. If we use her in-universe high school graduation date -- 1964, after twenty years of high school -- she'd still be in her early seventies.

Even the superhero version of Patsy should be in at least middle age, given that she was on the Defenders in the mid-'70s. Admittedly, she's been dead at least once, which might have provided some rejuvenation -- but, still, there's no reason she should be running around like a crazy Millennial when she's clearly Greatest Generation.

But Marvel Comics has a powerful interest in keeping Patsy Walker as a property they can exploit, and they know well that the Wednesday Crowd doesn't buy comics about old ladies. [1] And there are creators with inexplicable fondness for any random character you could name, which of course includes ol' Patsy.

(And Marvel did realize, not all that long ago, that women are actually half of the human race, and so making more comics by and aimed at women might not be as stupid an idea as they'd insisted for the past four decades. We all know about the backlash to that, because superhero comics fans get really shirty when they get an inkling the world does not revolve around them.)

So, yes, we got a rebirth of Patsy Walker, befuddled Millennial, who seems to have been born no earlier than the first Nirvana album (as opposed to Benny Goodman) and who somehow is still clueless about life despite being a superhero for forty-five real-world years. Hey, it's a living, right?

The first collection of the recent Patsy comics is Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat!, Vol. 1: Hooked on a Feline. It's written by Kate Leth, with the first five issues here drawn by Brittney L. Williams and the last drawn in a radically different style by Natasha Allegri.

It apparently launched out of a She-Hulk series that had Patsy as a supporting character, since she's just been laid off as an investigator as this series starts. (Which is fine, since my understanding is that law firms tend to contract for investigative services as they need them, not keep people on staff as full-time snoops.) And, I guess because "comics for women" these days means "young and free-spirited," Patsy's life is in turmoil -- she was living in a broom closet and has essentially no possessions.

But the young and free-spirited young female protagonist is also indomitable, and so Patsy is equal to all of her obstacles -- quickly finding a new place to live with a new roommate, reconnecting with old friends, and hatching a plan to start a superpowered odd-jobs service. (I frankly find it hard to believe that business services companies and tech start-ups haven't already leveraged superpowered individuals into multiple billion-dollar businesses, but nothing actually happens in the Marvel Universe unless the star of a comic makes it happen.)

Meanwhile, the comics that Patsy's now-deceased mother wrote about a fictionalized version of Patsy and her friends -- which are now, what? the equivalent of The Babysitter's Club in this timeline? -- are being republished, because Patsy's old frenemy Hedy owns the rights. This deeply annoys Patsy, not least because she isn't getting a cent from them.

There's also some actual super-heroing, mostly against a supervillainess who even the plot admits is a cut-rate Enchantress and whose plot is basically to gather a bunch of lousy brand-new powered villains, have them break stuff, and then profit through the miracle of Underpants Gnomes. It doesn't work, of course -- funny, isn't it, how naughty dentists always make that one fatal mistake?

Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat  is fun and zippy and youthful and energetic, even if I personally think Ms. Walker should be a lot less youthful than she's shown here. The art is crisp and very colorful -- Allegri has a different, almost chibi-esque style for the last issue here, but the coloring ties it all together and it's art with a similar feel and bounce to it.

Very little of this had to be about Patsy Walker -- any minor superhero with a complicated past would do, and they pretty much all have complicated pasts by this point. But it's a fun story, and doesn't take any of the superhero furniture seriously, and actually tries to find a socially useful purpose for people who can do weird things. That's all good stuff. So, of course, this series only ran seventeen issues.


[1] Although a superhero midlife crisis comic -- where the main character isn't drawn to look late-twenties like everyone else all the time -- could be interesting. We get the "why do I spend my time punching guys with panty hose over their heads" Superhero-No-More! plotline regularly, but it's never tied to the fact that Random Hero X has been doing this for decades like a treadmill.

Patsy Walker could be a good choice for a Lady of a Certain Age comic, with her long history of never being that major and actually being divorced from the Son of Satan -- that catty dialogue writes itself. It's a good question: is she really supposed to still be in her twenties after everything that's happened to her in seventy-four years of comics?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #143: The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay

I can't prove this is the best strategy, but I tend to read a book first and then research it afterward, when I'm trying to figure out what to write here. As you may have noticed, I can be opinionated, so I try to minimize the chance of having strong opinions about something before I read it -- oh sure, it never entirely works, since you have to know something about a book to even want to pick it up, but I think it helps.

So when I tell you that I had a suspicion that The Last Dragon was based on something, I mean exactly that: a suspicion, lurking in my head as I read the book and particularly Neil Gaiman's introduction. The book itself just said that it was a graphic novel, written by Jane Yolen and painted by Rebecca Guay.

Now that I have finished reading it, I can google away. And so I find from Yolen's site that it was based on something: her 1985 story "Dragonfield."

Does that change anything? Well...not really. I don't think I've ever read the original story, and it's not like Last Dragon is set in a wider fantasy universe or anything. This is just one story about one place and one group of people. But if you're a huge Jane Yolen fan, you might know the story -- so think of this as a consumer notice.

Last Dragon is vaguely medieval, in the sense that things seem to have been the same way for a long time. There's no sign of lords or wars or that kind of thing -- it's the usual fantasy medieval world, with only as many details as the story needs. There's an archipelago where dragons used to live, long ago before men came. When men came, they killed all the dragons, of course -- that's what men do.

It's now two hundred years later, and dragons are barely a memory in the town of Meddlesome, far out at the end of those islands. But we the readers know one lost dragon's egg has emerged and hatched, and that there is one dragon, growing and eating, not too far from Meddlesome.

But in that town, there's a herbalist who has three daughters -- a serious, hardworking one; a dreamy, wool-gathering one; and an inspired, driven one. That third daughter, Tansy, is our heroine, as of course she must be -- it's always the youngest child of a matched set.

Eventually the dragon is found and the threat understood, but it takes a while: meeting the dragon is generally equivalent to being eaten by him, so there are only rumors and fear for a while. Meddlesome knows it must slay the dragon, but those skills are long dead. A few young men set off to find a hero, and come back with someone who looks like a hero.

And, eventually, the heroine becomes part of a plan that bears an odd resemblance to the plot of A Bug's Life. (But, again, the original story here was from 1985; much earlier.) And the title is both true and, in the end, not true, when there is no longer a "last dragon."

This is a relatively simple fantasy story, with a dragon that is a destructive force but nothing more. It doesn't talk, like those of Tolkien or Le Guin, doesn't hoard treasure, doesn't have old secrets. It's just a big, destructive animal that's difficult to kill -- but "difficult" is not the same as "impossible." There are moral lessons along the way, but fairly benign and positive ones.

Guay brings a painterly feel to this story -- the cover doesn't well represent her work inside, for whatever inexplicable reason. Her work here is generally realistic, but becomes flatter at times, perhaps for that fairy-tale feel. It's evocative art that grounds the world well -- these are real places and people, and a dragon of flesh and blood and fire.

Last Dragon is a perfectly nice little fantasy story: I didn't love it, but I liked and respected it. It may just be that I have seen far too many stories about dragons for far too many years to be able work up much enthusiasm for this fairly basic version. If you've read much less fantasy yardgoods than I have, it shouldn't bother you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #142: Bloom County: The Complete Library, Vol. 4: 1987-1987 by Berkeley Breathed

I am reading this series all backwards and sideways, and slowly to boot: I started with Volume Two back in 2011, backed up to Volume One the next year, and took six more years to get to this one, with numbers three and five still waiting. Of course, I did read these strips the old-fashioned way the first time around, once a day in an actual printed newspaper, so maybe that's not a problem.

And any book should stand on its own at least somewhat, right?

Anyway, this is solidly in the middle of Bloom County's run, heading into the back half of the '80s and with the winds of the 1988 election beginning to stir in the background. (Bloom County was always a political strip, somewhat in the oblique Pogo vein -- changing things enough to be deniable, and not directly attacking anyone by name on-panel.)

At this point, I should probably sling in a link and the actual title of what I'm calling "this book" -- so here you go: Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume Four: 1986-1987.

Berkeley Breathed was never the most restrained or subtle comics-maker; the plotlines here skitter around like some rustic metaphor, with little lasting more than a week. It always felt like Bloom County had big plotlines, but they were smash-bam things, sometimes returning a few times over the course of a month but never sticking around for long.

So this book has the epic Wedding of Opus plot -- parceled out, a week or so at a time, over close to a year -- and, delivered similarly, the sordid history of the band known both as Deathtongue and Billy & the Boingers. Before that, Billy the Cat sent to Russia as part of a spy swap with Cutter John, and then gets back to Bloom County in some random way because he's part of the cast.

It was all very loose and random -- that was the great appeal of Bloom County. It was a strip where anything could happen on a given day, and did a lot of the time. It wasalso  pretty zeitgesit-y along the way, as evidenced by all of the annotations, by either Breathed or some overworked editor at the Library of American Comics, explaining who Edwin Meese and Fawn Hall were and what was the deal with those giant first-generation satellite dishes.

If you were around at the time, it's a fun reminder that crazy isn't limited to one generation (or Presidential administration), even if the media landscape has sped up a lot over the past thirty years. I'm not sure what Bloom County reads like for anyone under the age of about forty, though: I have a sense it might be like Smokey Stover is to all of us now, a manic dive into something that looks thrilling but doesn't correspond at all to the way we view the current world.

But nostalgia publishing projects are for old people like me, anyway, so this one certainly does the job. It's a well-designed and put-together book that showcases a unique strip, with enough context that a new reader isn't completely at sea.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #141: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Alan Moore is a deeply self-indulgent writer, always wallowing in his particular obsessions and loves. He gained huge fame for the times his obsessions lined up well with those of a wide audience -- and, of course, for being really good at making compelling stories out of those obsessions.

But the downside of being a writer driven by obsessions is that they can leave you vulnerable to making a major work hinge on something really trite.

For example, the central premise of the three-part third major "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" story, Century, is essentially that everything in the western world went to hell about 1969. To put that another way: the world is now a fallen place, utterly broken from the paradise it was when Alan Moore was younger than sixteen.

Well, duh. Most of us call that growing up. It takes a Baby Boomer to apply mystic, cosmic significance to his personal adolescence.

(A quick consumer note: I read Century as the three individual volumes -- 1910, 1969, and 2009. They're squarebound, and I had them on a shelf, but I'm not totally confident they would count as "books" to most people. The series has since been published as a conventional single volume, though, and that's what I'm linking to.)

Now, admittedly, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been extraordinarily self-indulgent from the beginning, and that was the point. This is a world stuffed full of Moore's versions of everyone else's characters and ideas, all done his way, so that everything makes sense in his mind. (I said something similar at greater length recently when looking at the LoEG spinoff Nemo Trilogy. And, ten years ago, I was less positive about the second-and-a-half League story, Black Dossier.) Very few fictional worlds develop wikis by third parties to explicate all of the background details, but LoEG demands them: I doubt anyone but Moore actually knows at first-hand what all of his references are, but just reading the story requires that you catch at least a third of them.

That can be entertaining or tedious. Which it is depends partially on the reader's fondness for outbreaks of cryptic crossword clues in the middle of a piece of fiction, and partially on the creators' deftness in weaving those clues in. It also depends, I'd say, substantially on the tone of the story -- the first two League stories were Victorian adventure tales, somewhat modernized but still with the pace and energy of a story told for young and rambunctious boys. Black Dossier replaced that with reams of metafiction, and was vastly less successful.

Century comes about half the way back: it's inherently episodic, since it takes place in three discrete years over the course of a century. But the core of the plot is a relatively straightforward "stop not-Aleister Crowley from midwifing an Antichrist," which is very Boy's Own. (It does make Century oddly resemble a Hellboy story a lot of the time, which can be a bug or a feature.)

But Century has a League focused entirely on the menage surrounding Mina Murray, perhaps because characters invented much later than 1910 are still owned by someone else. And, frankly, Alan Quatermain was always boring, and never more so after being rejuvenated as his own son. Orlando is deliberately shallow and trite, and a little of that goes a long way. That leaves Mina to carry the whole story herself, which is too much pressure for a character Moore wants to use as the 3682nd installment of that trite tale, The Immortal With Ennui.

So Century is one part spot the reference, one part rolling ones eyes at Orlando, one part realizing Alan is on panel but so bland one failed to notice him, and about five parts wondering if Hellboy could just appear and punch the evil magician already. (Oh, and one part Threepenny Opera, often staged as if this was an honest-to-God musical, with Jack the Ripper dancing fronting the whores he hasn't killed yet -- have I mentioned yet how deeply self-indulgent the whole thing is yet? It's deeply self-indulgent.)

Alan Moore has a remarkable mind, full of dazzling ideas and connections that he can sometimes make clear to the rest of us. And Kevin O'Neil is an incredibly simpatico artist for this series, able to draw everything Moore throws at him across the course of a century of history. Century has some remarkable scenes and moments, but they don't quite cohere into anything like a single plot. If you can accept that for the sake of the ideas and connections -- and nearly every fictional character of the 20th century, stuffed in around the edges somewhere -- go for it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/19/18

Every Monday morning, I post here about new books that I got in the past week. (Some sent by publishers, some that I bought, some from the library, and occasionally some from odder paths.)

This week, I bought three books:

The Commons, a fix-up by Matthew Hughes of stories about his character Guth Bandar. (It's from 2007, I'm chagrined to see -- there are a lot of books I keep thinking I'll get to any day now, when "any day" has stretched to a decade or more.) Hughes is always a lot of fun as a writer; I love his usual tone and style.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi is an autobiographical manga volume by and about a young woman with crippling social anxiety. It's been reviewed really well, and I'm not unfamiliar with anxiety myself.

And Paper Girls, Vol. 4 is the newest volume collecting the comics series by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang.

I spent money on all of them, which is at least one indication that I think they're worthwhile. They'll probably show up here again when I read them, and I'll be able to say more then.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #140: GIant Days: Not On The Test Edition Vols. 1 & 2 by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Max Sarin

Once upon a time there was a town named Tackleford, somewhere in the bits of England that Americans like me understand only dimly -- not near or part of London at all, not even defined by being near or part of some other UK city we've heard of. Cartoonist John Allison set his webcomic Bobbins there, telling a loose skein of related stories about the people in that fictional town.

Time went on, and Allison reconfigured Bobbins into Scarygoround, to feature longer stories and shift the cast of characters somewhat. One of the major characters of Scarygoround was Esther De Groot, a pale teen and half of one of Scarygoround's great love stories.

But time continued to go on, and Allison set his stories in time. So Scarygoround, in its turn, ended, and, as part of that ending, Esther left the main narrative to go off to Sheffield University -- name changed slightly, I think, to underline it is not exactly the University of Sheffield -- and appeared in three self-published print comics by Allison under the title Giant Days. But Allison's major follow-up project focused on a new, younger generation of Teckleford folks: Bad Machinery, in which six originally-tweens solve somewhat supernatural mysteries and take the piss out of each other.

And time? Yeah, it kept going on. And Allison came back to Esther, and Giant Days, with what was originally planned to be a six-issue miniseries drawn by Lissa Treiman. Today I'm looking at two big hardcovers that reprint the first sixteen issues of that now-ongoing series -- issue 38 has just hit as I write this -- so once again one of Allison's creations has surprised him and us and gone in unexpected new directions. (Which is, obviously, entirely a good thing -- repeated serendipity is something to look for in a creator.)

Treiman left the book after those first six issues, and was replaced first by Max Sarin alone and then Sarin inked by Liz Fleming. Whitney Cogar has provided colors for all of these issues. (And, yes, all of the creators besides Allison are women -- Giant Days is a story about women, something unusual in the boy's club of print comics.) In the way of comics, Giant Days was first collected into paperbacks, with four issues each -- and then, when those were successful, two paperbacks were jammed together along with additional material (so far, one of Allison's self-published Giant Days stories in each, plus variant covers and sketch pages) to make the Giant Days: Not On the Test Edition. Volume One came out last summer and Volume Two in January, with a third big hardcover scheduled for November.

The two books are subtitled with a semester: Fall and Winter. Since actual British universities generally only have Fall and Spring semesters, the titling may be slightly off -- and I'm curious to see how they'll handle the second and third year without being completely confusing. But, since the end of this second book seems to be close to the end of the actual second semester at Sheffield, my current estimate is that with three years of college, two semesters a year, and eight issues per semester-book, Giant Days could potentially run to 48 issues. (If a year has three or four "semesters," that will stretch things out somewhat, obviously.) Since all of Allison's previous projects actually ended, I'd expect Giant Days to run its course and stop as well.

I've already written about all of the pieces re-collected in these two books -- the original paperback volumes one and two and three and four -- as well as writing longish posts about the related Allison projects Scarygoround and Bad Machinery (collections one and two and three and four and five and six and seven), and this post is already quite long, even without actually mentioning anything that happens in these books. But let me explain..no, no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

At Sheffield, Esther (goth, drama magnet) quickly fell in with Susan (studious, sensible) and Daisy (home-schooled, innocent), who live on the same hallway. Male hangers-on comprise Ed Gemmel (quiet, nice, at first infatuated with Esther) and McGraw (good at building things, has a history with Susan). They do the usual young-people-in-college things -- studying, dating, fighting corrupt student administrations, taking tests, attending balls, making films for a contest, obsessing about where to live the next year -- with Allisonian twists on them.

It's good; it's mostly focused on women and their lives and is a great entry-point into the larger John Allison universe, since the quirky supernatural stuff is almost entirely absent. Allison writes great dialogue and sets up naturalistic but silly plots, while first Treiman and then Sarin (and then Sarin + Fleming) give it an expressive, open art style that rhymes with Allison's own work but doesn't try to imitate.

Look: if you read comics about anything like the real world, particularly the parts of the real world that actually have believable women in them, you need to check out Allison. And Giant Days is one of the best, easiest ways to do that. So do it.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #139: Jonah Hex: Shadows West by Joe R. Landsale, Tim Truman, and Sam Glanzman

Time never stops. And so the once-hot revisionist takes on a neglected character get neglected themselves, and re-emerge in a new format for something like an anniversary.

Or, maybe, y'know, Jonah Hex was always a  quirky character, even in the context of Bronze Age western heroes -- already pretty far out on the branch of quirky and unusual -- beloved by a small cult rather than particularly popular at any time.

Well, whatever.

If you're confused, here's the short version of a typically long and convoluted comics history: Jonah Hex was a scarred Western hero in '70s DC comics, jumped into a post-apocalyptic future for the '80s because all the other cool kids were doing it, and has bumped around the fringes of various DC media properties since then, mostly back in Western mode as if Hex never happened. Some of the best stories about him were three mini-series in the '90s, all from the same creative team: written by Western/horror/thriller/Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale, penciled by Tim (Scout, Grimjack) Truman, and inked by Sam Glanzman.

And, eventually, those three miniseries were all collected together, under the title of the third miniseries: Jonah Hex: Shadows West.

(It can be surprising to realize that miniseries you missed "a few years ago" and still intend to check out is now just shy of twenty. Again, time never stops.)

The first Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman story was Two-Gun Mojo, which started out the "weird West" direction slowly -- Lansdale has an introduction about that story where he points out that he thought Hex already was a character with a lot of supernatural stuff in his stories, but that when he went back to re-read the '70s comics, that had all been in his head. Nearly everything in this tale of a traveling medicine man and his "zombie" freak show could be explained with comic-book rubber science -- it doesn't have to be supernatural. But it could be.

Two-Gun Mojo also immediately showcases just how much chaos and destruction surround Hex: he manages to escape, in the end, but he tends to be the only one who does.  And it's got Truman in the full flower of his mature style, full of little lines going everywhere and loving depictions of every millisecond of violence. (It's a style that can't be easy or quick, which may be why Truman tones it down by the third story, Shadows West.)

In the middle of the book is the quintessential modern Hex story, Riders of the Worm and Such, the one that also almost put a legal kibosh on the series and its creators. You see, Landsale wrote in a pair of evil, creepy brothers named Johnny and Edgar Autumn, and Truman drew them to somewhat resemble the actual Winter brothers. It may have been meant as a weird homage, but the Winters were not pleased, and sued to have the comics suppressed on defamation grounds.

(Pro tip: if you're writing a real person into a story, even under a thin veil, make sure you have their approval if you want to make your fictional version cartoonishly evil. Saves a lot of time and aggravation.)

Riders starts from much the same place as Two-Gun -- Hex is in a jam, with a bounty on his head, trying to get away -- but quickly gets more baroque and clearly supernatural. Lansdale is at his best with the deeply weird, and Truman draws great monsters, which leads to great dialogue and action sequences.

Shadows West, the last of three stories, is shorter than the other two -- only three issues rather than five. It also has that less-obsessively detailed Truman art style, which means Hex's world doesn't feel quite as real or lived-in. It's supernatural almost from the beginning, and the plot is a little more simplistic and obvious -- mostly an extended chase sequence. It's still fun, and still the same kind of story as the first two, but there's just less of it, in a whole lot of ways.

But the whole package is impressive: three big weird Western stories, four hundred pages, with one very distinctive lead character and a wickedly twisted take on the Old West. The world needs more weird comics; buy this one to encourage the world.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #138: I Only Read It for the Cartoons by Richard Gehr

There are of course two schools of thought on New Yorker cartoons. Some people love them and think they're the epitome of wit and humor in the modern era, the product of the clearly top market after a century of increasing sophistication in single-panel cartoons. Others think they're dull and hermetic and stale, reworking the same few cliches over and over again for a self-selected and self-described "elite" audience but not speaking to most of the world or providing much actual humor.

I tend to fall into the first group, myself, but I can see the point of the second. Magazine cartooning used to be a lush, flourishing ecosystem, with junky dumb cartoons and sophisticated witty cartoons and specialized cartoons for housewives and businessmen and kids and midwesterners and fishermen and thousands of others -- but all of those venues either closed up entirely or stopped buying cartoons, leaving us with basically just The New Yorker and Playboy now. So we have cartoons about unhappy married couples in a room snarling at each other and horny men chasing showgirls, when we used to have much more.

Such is life.

Still, the New Yorker has an impressive stable of excellent cartoonists, and I do insist that at their best, they are very funny. Richard Gehr agrees, which is why he interviewed a dozen of those cartoonists for his 2014 book I Only Read It for the Cartoons.

Those twelve cartoonists are: Lee Lorenz, Sam Gross, Roz Chast, George Booth, Edward Koren, Charles Barsotti, Arnie Levin, Victoria Roberts, Gahan Wilson, Jack Ziegler, Zachary Kanin, and then-cartoon editor Robert Mankoff. Each one gets a chapter of 15-20 pages, providing a magazine-profile style career overview and a small sampling of their work, mostly sketches and unpublished cartoons. (Each chapter also leads off with the cartoonist's favorite New Yorker cartoon of their own -- buit this isn't an art book; there are only three or four illustrations for each cartoonist.)

Reading Only Read It For the Cartoons straight through is like reading a dozen New Yorker profiles back-to-back, and cartoonists tend to have a similar shape to their lives as well. It's how I read this book, but I don't recommend it -- spacing things out will keep them from blurring together. Each profile is just fine by itself, but cartoonists are people who sit in a room and think up funny stuff for hours on end, so their lives are not often conventionally exciting.

It's still a fine book, and a good snapshot of the top of the gag-cartooning world in the early 21st century. Sure, that field is much smaller than it used to be, but that doesn't mean it can't still have some exciting peaks. It does, and these are (some of) them.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #137: Twilight by Howard Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

In the late 1980s, DC Comics thought it could reimagine everything. Frank Miller's Dark Knight did it for Batman, Alan Moore handled Swamp Thing, and John Byrne changed Superman. Moore again took on the core idea of a superhero universe in Watchmen. And, to set the tone for all of that, Marv Wolfman (and George Perez) upended the DC Universe entirely a few years earlier with Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Even secondary reimaginings, like Mike Grell's take on Green Arrow and Grant Morrison's on Animal Man and the Doom Patrol, were strong successes. But DC had a very deep bench, full of characters who hadn't seen the light of day in years.

So someone had the crazy idea -- maybe writer Howard Chaykin, maybe some DC functionary -- to radically reimagine DC's minor space-adventure characters, mostly left fallow since the end of the Silver Age, into a major "serious" story and bring them into the then-present day. The idea was approved, and a three-issue miniseries rolled out in 1990, written by Chaykin and drawn by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

It was called Twilight. You've probably never heard of it.

It's not very good. That may be why you've never heard of it.

In common with a lot of Chaykin's work, there is a fascistic blonde using unsubtle Nazi imagery, sexual sadism, and boundless narcissism to conquer everything nearby. Somewhat unusually, this is a man, and it's Tommy Tomorrow, who was originally a hero. My guess is that all of the actual villains of the old DC space comics were so infinitely boring that none of them would be suitable.

Other folks that show up, in more-or-less recognizable form, include Star Hawkins, Space Cabbie, and Manhunter 2070. In the best 1980s fashion, they are all tormented, twisted people -- alcoholics, robot-lovers, robot-haters, fanatics, self-aggrandizing creeps, and general assholes -- as opposed to the sparkling cardboard cutouts they were in the 1950s. This may not be entirely an improvement, but it's definitely a change.

At the core of the story is two-thirds of the cast of the "Star Rovers" stories: Homer Gint is our narrator and fills the usual wisecracking Chaykin hero role. Karel Sorensen breaks from Chaykin tradition by being a blonde who is not evil, and who is transformed into a supposed goddess at the end of the first issue. The third Star Rover, Rick Purvis, appears a little at the beginning to be smarmy and obnoxious, then disappears entirely. The other characters circle the central narrative -- Karel becomes a goddess; Tommy wants to steal her power because he's the usual Chaykin wanna-be dictator -- at what is usually a great distance and to no clear purpose, until the end, when everyone does get to play a role.

Oh, since this is a Chaykin story, there must be a good brunette girl -- it's Brenda Tomorrow, Tommy's estranged wife, who I think was invented entirely for this series. She wanders around the outskirts of the plot as well, but, to be fair, there's a lot of going-nowhere plot to wander around.

Twilight is very talky, and dull in it's talkiness -- these are mostly highly unpleasant people yelling at each other for pages on end or spouting silly technobabble for equally long times. They are also deeply concerned with the ethics and ennui of immortality, which is no more interesting here than it usually is. So Twilight is a slow read. The only upside to that is that it gives the reader more time to savor Garcia-Lopez's very good late-80s art.

I suppose these characters were slightly better known at the time, almost thirty years ago, but they'd still been missing from DC Comics for at least twenty years at that point, and most of them for thirty. So there would not have been much of an audience clamoring for more Star Hawkins stories in the first place -- which I suppose is good, since any such large group would have been appalled by the changes Chaykin rang on the characters.

Frankly, it boggles my mind that anyone thought this was a good idea, on any level. Twilight might be the quintessential '80s comic: a badly fumbled re-imagining that makes a whole bunch of characters that no one cared about darker for no good reason and was published in a fancy format with ludicrously Lynd Ward-esque covers.

(My other possibility for quintessential '80s comic would be Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, which jumped equally hard on an entirely different bandwagon.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #136: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard

As far as I can tell, British cartoonist I.N.J. Culbard adapted four H.P. Lovecraft novellas into graphic novel form basically back-to-back in the early years of this decade, and then moved on to other projects. It's taken me a bit longer to track down and read all of those books -- At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are the others -- since I seem to have started reading them after he stopped making them.

I came last to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which is thematically appropriate: it was in the middle of the Lovecraft/Culbard years, but it's a clearly different kind of story from the other three, from a different end of Lovecraft's work and with a very different view on life.

Most of Lovecraft's work is in a negative, pessimistic mode: he was most commercially successful with stories of cosmic horror, where he sublimated his loathing of basically everyone in the world (including himself) and orchestrated an only somewhat informed sense of contemporary scientific developments into fever dreams of stolen bodies and coldly alien powers and inevitable shattering destructions of mind and body. That mode is what Lovecraft's best known for, even now, and is where most of his best work lies -- and a lot of problematic work as well, and a number of outright stinkers.

But Lovecraft also had a positive mode, which is traditionally associated with his early career. Those are mostly the "Dreamlands" stories, influenced by Lord Dunsany, in which characters who often resembled Lovecraft have adventures in a fantasy world safely separated from our own by the veil of sleep. "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is the longest and most fully worked out of those stories; it was written by 1927, a decade before Lovecraft's death, but never published in his lifetime.

Culbard leans into the usual interpretation by having Randolph Carter, the protagonist, very strongly resemble the historical Lovecraft. This might only work for those of us familiar with his face, but isn't that the majority of the audience for any Lovecraft adaptation?

Dream-Quest is an episodic story, here as it was in Lovecraft's original, with Carter dreaming three times of a glorious golden city in the distance and then trying to find that city in the often-dangerous realms of the Dreamlands. He faces dire perils, mostly escaping by stealth or with the aid of friendly cats and of people he knew from Earth, transformed either in his dream or as their own dream-selves. The Dreamlands seem to be a real place, with solid geography, that can be mapped and must be traveled across. Most of this book takes place in one night, or so it seems to the sleeping Carter.

And, yes, the end is positive, or as positive as Lovecraft got, showing the one thing he was willing to acknowledge could bring happiness. (If you don't know what that is, I certainly won't spoil it for you here -- read this book, or just read the novella.)

Culbard does just as good a job on this fantasy adventure as he did for the more horrific Lovecraft works -- this book has a lot more gold and light than the others, but the palette is similarly limited on each page -- Culbard doesn't go for the garish eye-popping colors so common in "mainstream" comics. And he skillfully navigates the many talky scenes of this story, keeping them visually interesting.

This is the best of Lovecraft's positive stories, well adapted here. Is that worth seeking out? Well, Lovecraft himself is more than a little problematic these days, particularly if you the reader belong to any of the many, many groups (women, blacks, Italians, New Yorkers, Jews, and so on) that he had strong and unpleasant opinions about. Those opinions don't feature here, if that helps. I still think he's a vital and deeply interesting writer, but I am a WASP with roots in the Northeast stretching back to colonial days...so I might be too close to him to be trusted.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #135: Cages by Dave McKean

Some books are "about" something obvious and clear -- maybe because they're genre entertainments, maybe because the author has Something To Say and is going to say it loudly. Maybe because the author is all about clarity, maybe because it's a screed. Maybe maybe maybe.

But some books are about everything and nothing. They don't tell you how to understand them -- they might not tell you enough to understand them. That doesn't necessarily make them better -- or worse. It might just mean that they're easier books to argue about.

Dave McKean's big graphic novel Cages would be excellent to argue about: it's long and meaty and visually inventive in a dozen different ways and about Art in several different forms and full of events and elements that are either unexplained or explained in a way our world would call insane.

The plot is loose and wandering, very appropriately for a book that came out in ten individual installments over a period of seven years. (For two of those years, in the middle, there were no issues, and we had no idea if Cages would ever come back again.) The final book is five hundred pages long -- big and solid, with evocative art that stays in an angular inky register much of the time and then darts, suddenly, into entirely different styles or media for dream sequences or other major events.

At the center, more or less, is Leo Sabarsky, a painter who arrives on the first pages to take a flat in the building that is one of the two centers of this story. (The other center is a jazz club-slash-bar.) He's looking to get away from his old life, to find a place to do some new work. Already living there, below him, is novelist Jonathan Rush, in Rushdie-esque hiding for what seems to be the Christian equivalent of a fatwa. And above him is the musician Angel, who has his own tragedies and mysteries. Circling around is a black cat.

This is all in England, somewhere, in a city never named. It's clearly some kind of city, but not anywhere famous or central -- it's a place you go to get away, or stay because you've been there for years.

Leo paints, and meets a woman, who becomes a friend and a model and a lover -- but this isn't the story of their relationship.

Jonathan is tormented by a group of fat men in masks -- seemingly sent by the government agency that is keeping him safe -- who invade his apartment randomly, stealing away the things he loves one by one. This isn't the story of the why or how of that, either.

Angel claims he can make stones sing, and gives one such stone to Leo. It's not the story of those stones, either.

It may be the story of the cat, though. It's his story as much as anyone's.

Cages is a book "about" creativity and how that interfaces with life, on one level. On another, it's a somewhat magical-realist look at some ordinary lives. It's a fundamentally positive book, told like an independent movie -- a book that shows and talks and wanders about but never tells.

It's the major comics achievement of Dave McKean, otherwise most famous for illustrating other people's stories (Arkham Asylum) or making covers for those stories (The Sandman). It is quite artsy, in several ways -- if you're not fond of that kind of thing you'll probably want to stay away. But if you know who McKean is to begin with, you likely have a higher tolerance for artsy-ness than most.