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, 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 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.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #134: We Can Still Be Friends by Mawil

German cartoonist Mawil was not very good at talking to girls when he was young. So far, so typical. (I suppose there are people out there who were immediately good at conversation with their preferred sex, but they're probably also all tall and thin and rich, so we hate them anyway.)

Mawil (real name: Markus Witzel), though, turned that youthful gawkiness into art, which most of us don't manage to do, in his wistful early graphic story We Can Still Be Friends.

Mawil, when he made these pages, was still young and mostly unable to talk coherently to the girls that he liked -- this book was his "diploma," as the acknowledgements puts it, which I think means it was the rough equivalent of a thesis for a MFA. (It's dated 2002, which would make him 25-26 when he completed it.) I also think the "relationship" documented in the last section was actually going on at the time he was making these pages, or that it ended just before that: this is a comic made in a moment, looking backward to contextualize where its maker was right then.

I say "relationship" in quotes because Mawil didn't actually date any of the women he tells us about here. He knew them from school, or other activities, and they hung around together...but, after he built them each up hugely in his head and finally got around to the "do you want to go out" stage, he was let down easily. This book shows the slow process by which he got through a number of "we can still be friends" conversations as he gradually learned how to have that conversation at all, and maybe even to move it up earlier in time.

So these are autobiographical comics, of the "I'm no good at this thing" subcategory, with an emphasis on personal relationships. Mawil is funny, and his style works well for both young gawky people and young attractive people. And his point is that he did get better, if slowly, and that this kind of thing is part of growing up. We all meet people we're crazy about; the trick is finding the ones where it's mutual.

This was very early in Mawil's career, but it looks a lot like the later books of his I've seen -- Home and Away and Sparky O'Hare and Beach Safari. His style seems to have crystallized early, which is really interesting: it's an idiosyncratic, very cartoony style, but I guess he came to it quickly and naturally. (Or worked at it for years on things that will never see the light of day -- which seems the same on the outside.)

We Can Still Be Friends, despite the rejection inherent in the title, is a fundamentally positive book -- Mawil's frame story has him telling these stories to a group of friends, who encourage him and push him forward. This is not a book about how women hate him; it's a book about how it took him a while to figure out how to talk to women, and how he's still getting better at it. Getting better at talking to people is a good thing: I love books that encourage that.

P.S. This book's title always reminds me of this bit from the 1996 song "Eddie Vedder," by Chicago's greatest two-man band, Local H:
Okay I understand
But I don't want to be your friend
I don't need another friend
I've got too many friends
If I was Eddie Vedder
Would you like me any better? 
That has absolutely nothing to do with the book. But, hey, what good is a blog if you can't make random pop-cultural connections there?

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/12/18

Oh, this is embarrassing -- nothing again this week.

Well, there'll be a Book-A-Day post coming along in a few hours. You'll just need to wait until then.

(For any first-time visitors utterly confused: every Monday morning I list here any new books I've seen -- sent by publishers or bought or checked out of a library or absconded with or revealed themselves in a coruscating halo of brilliance. This week there are none, in any category.)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #133: Abe Sapien, Vols. 8 & 9 by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, and many others

I was slightly surprised to sit down to read two books and then to find that the first of them had the big ending. Not horribly surprised, since I like stories that have endings, but it did seem unusual for the big ending to be, you know, not at the end.

But that's comics for you, isn't it?

Those books are the penultimate and last volumes collecting the Abe Sapien series, individually titled The Desolate Shore and Lost Lives and Other Stories. Abe is one of Hellboy's buddies, and a potential Apocalypse Being hisownself, though fish-based apocalypses are inherently less cool than those with flashy red demons -- that's my explanation why HB is the series star and AS is the sidekick, and I'm sticking to it.

As usual with all things Hellboy-related in the 21st century, series creator Mike Mignola has a hand, but how much of a hand is not as clear. He gets a credit for co-writing all of the stories, but we all know that "co" can cover a gamut from "not at all" to "everything on the page and then some." Most of the time here, he's co-ing with his long-time editor (and noted serial sexual harasser) Scott Allie, with one story in Vol. 9 done with John Arcudi (who, as far as I know, has never been accused of biting people in public, and good for him).

Lost Lives, the final book of the series, is easier to describe -- it collects a bunch of fill-in stories and single issues that came between the longer stories, by a large number of different artists, and only loosely ties into the overall "Abe wandering through post-Lovecraftian apocalypse America" plot. In fact, they're all set before that apocalypse -- though they do each provide some backstory or additional details, since the Hellboy-verse is a very continuity heavy one, and every seemingly minor evil magician or monster has some connection to at least one of the many potential apocalypses churning in the background.

The art in the Lost Lives is quite varied, from Michael Avon Oeming, who has a dark, blocky version of the standard Hellboy-universe look, to the lush detailed faces of Alise Gluskova to the more traditional comics look of Kevin Nowlan to what I think is fully painted work by both Mark Nelson and Santiago Caruso. Dave Stewart provides color for a few of these stories, but they're more often colored by the artists.

They're all basically standalone pieces, and are just fine as such -- monster stories of one kind or another, even if some of the monsters are human. But they are all here primarily as teasers, each to highlight some shadowy cabal or potential end for ol' Abe.

The Desolate Shore, on the other hand, is drawn tag-team by twins Max and Sebastian Fiumara (like much of the previous few storylines) and is the culmination of the previous few volumes -- The Secret Fire and the three books before it -- which saw Abe transformed again into an even fishier-looking version of himself and his leaving the BPRD after that frog-monster apocalypse actually happened. For those four volumes, Abe has been the piscine TV-Incredible-Hulk, wandering into one town after another, meeting the locals, and mostly not being particularly successful in keeping those locals from being eaten or otherwise destroyed by the inhuman monsters of apocalypse. It's a nihilistic and nasty world, and various supernatural folks have repeatedly told Abe that humanity is doomed, but that some other sapient race will arise, so that's all OK. (Abe's new form is apparently that of a predecessor race that perished in a previous similar apocalypse, which is supposed to be... reassuring?)

Frankly, I don't consider that any kind of consolation, and dragging it out to this length has gotten annoying, even if each individual Abe story is done well. There is a place for tragedy, but this isn't a tragedy. It's a story that says "everyone else will inevitably die very soon in horrible agony, but you, Abe, are special and wonderful and so can become part of the new world," and I have to wonder if Scott Allie is the source of that very sour moral, or if it's baked into the Hellboy universe by Mignola. (I think the former, since Hellboy himself did fight against the apocalypse he was supposed to begin, and stopped that one. But this universe is so rife with apocalypses that it's difficult to make a general statement.)

Anyway, it's all over now, and Desolate Shore ends limply, with Abe fighting some rando evil magician who wants to steal his power just because he's there. It doesn't really connect to the larger apocalypse -- again, the overall message is that Abe should give up, since he can't make any difference anyway -- and Abe doesn't even win clearly, in a fight scene with that evil magician transformed into a creature exactly like him.

Eh. It's done now. And some of the middle was good. But, all in all, Abe Sapien is one of the weakest, most problematic pieces of the Hellboy universe: it has a bad message, doesn't go much of anywhere, and ends pointlessly.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #132: Building New York by Bruce Marshall

Sometimes you need to figure out why a book exists before you can really understand it. If you think a book exists because of X, when it really was Y, you can get a confused sense of its success.

Building New York is a classy coffee-table book, published by the Universe imprint of the very classy art-book publisher Rizzoli in 2005, featuring a lot of glorious, mostly black-and-white, pictures of New York buildings and other major construction projects (bridges, tunnels, subways, etc.)

So far, so clear. Ah! But it's written by Bruce Marshall, who founded Reader's Digest's "general books" program and afterward became a noted book packager -- and the book itself is copyright Getty Images. That gets us much closer to the truth.

This is a book that exists because Getty has a lot of pictures, and wants them to provide a revenue stream. They get a certain amount of money from passive licensing -- an ad campaign here, a random designer pulling an image from their site there -- but every content owner wants more leverage, more active programs, and more money. I have to presume that the gigantic Getty database is tagged in various ways, and some smart chappie realized they could output the overlap of "New York City" and "Construction" for the purposes of building a book around those pictures.

This is that book. It doesn't have as much structure as it seems like it should, and its coverage of major architects and other figures (Robert Moses gets his own section, but no one else) feels perfunctory and beside the point. And that's because all of those things were beside the point. Getty had pictures: Getty made those pictures into a book that would generate more revenue.

Those pictures are quite nice: Getty is the gold standard of picture archives, after all, and NYC has been heavily documented for its entire existence. People who know more about photography than me would probably point out that there are some actually famous photos in this book, by actually famous photographers. (I'm pretty sure of that, though I couldn't tell you exactly which or why.)

So Building New York is not a book to read: it does have words in it, pleasingly arranged, covering all of these construction projects in turn, but those words are primarily to keep the pictures from bumping into each other and only secondarily to tell the reader facts. This is a book to look at -- to place, slightly askew, on a big glass-topped coffee table, and to pick up now and then when you can't find anything good on Netflix. If you're in the market for a book like that, this is a good 'un.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #131: The Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli

Contradictions are inherent in any work of fiction, like they are in the real world. Nothing is pure and clear and exactly what it is -- everything contains the seeds of its opposite.

But it's still really weird that what's supposed to be the great late 20th century poetic ecological comic, a story about impending doom and inevitable biosphere destruction, is all about a guy hanging out in what is shown as a lush wilderness, full of lovingly-rendered large animals at the top of the food chain, who all look really healthy and active. It's almost like the idea of impending doom is more interesting than telling a story of that doom -- just assume the doom and use it in phantasmagorical ways.

This may be another case of a book that I either neglected to read at the right time, or that I'm utterly the wrong reader for. It happens.

I never read The Puma Blues when it was running as a periodical comic, in the late '80s. My kid brother was a fan, I think, but I don't remember more than glancing at his comics. I knew it was there, and I respected it -- it came out of the Renegade/Aardvark-Vanaheim/Aardvark One International "stable" of Dave Sim's Cerebus -- but I had some sense that it wasn't really my thing.

Thirty years later, creators Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli finished up the unfinished story for this big fat hardcover from Dover -- over five hundred and fifty pages of comics. And I think I was right not to jump into it, back in the day -- it isn't really my thing, as interesting and compelling and distinctive as it is.

Gavia Immer is a young murderer -- literally the first thing we see him do in the comic is mope around and straight-up kill a bum, in a scene that is never referenced again -- who gets a vague game warden-esque job at the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, where he's free to wander around and muse about stuff apparently all day long. The world around him is seriously crapsack, we're told (though we mostly don't see it until near the end of this book): white supremacist terrorists murdered President Kemp and detonated a small nuke in the Bronx in 1995, and the biosphere may be on the verge of a complete collapse. The main story takes place in 2000, in a world Murphy says has been going straight downhill in the intervening fifteen years.

All that is vague -- we know the world is horrible and getting worse, but the comic is about one guy wandering around what looks like unspoiled nature obsessing about his dead father and that father's various loony-tune conspiracy theories. (I am afraid aliens are deeply involved, because Puma Blues is from the '80s, before ubiquitous good photography definitively nailed shut the UFO coffin.)

In fact, Puma Blues is almost two different comics: Zulli's evocative drawings of nature and quiet visual storytelling is one thing. And Murphy's script -- more allusive than literal, prone to fly off on wings of attempts at prose poetry, besotted with its own words and wordiness -- is a base for that Zulli art, but not always a script for it, the way two jazz musicians interweave their separate lines without ever actually harmonizing.

There are events in Puma Blues, but it's a comic of tone and atmosphere and mood more than a story -- Gavia mopes around a reservoir, watches his father's paranoid apocalyptic rants, and occasionally interacts with his superiors. It's not a story meant to go anywhere; the charitable explanation is that the world is falling apart, so where is there to go?

Puma Blues ended, unfinished, in 1989, its apocalypse still imminent. This hardcover collects all of the '80s material plus a jarring new forty-page final chapter -- which is even wordier, particularly in the early pages, than the original series -- in which Murphy merges the Puma Blues alternate history with our real history to give him every possible real and imagined horrible thing in the world. Puma Blues was already ornate and overwrought; this ending pushes that up to eleven, than cracks off the knob in trying to amp it even higher. The good news there is that the new Zulli pages are just as impressive as, and thematically consistent with, his earlier work. But, as an ending, it's loud and shrill and haranguing, and this reader was mostly happy to finally get to the end of it.

The hardcover collection of Puma Blues also features a long introduction by Dave Sim, who shows that even when he's trying to be polite and positive in public, he's still a crazy autodidact with deeply confused ingrained notions about the universe which will never be swayed by mere facts or logic. Similarly, Stephen Bissette uses a long afterword to tell the story of Murphy's and Zulli's subsequenct careers and to re-litigate Puma Blues's and Dave Sim's fight with Diamond that was the proximate cause of the title's collapse in the '80s.

What all of that has in common -- Murphy's prose, Zulli's images, Sim's insistence that the Earth was formed when one cosmic sphere fucked another, and Bissette's loving description of Murphy's years writing Ninja Turtles stories -- is that it's all deeply inside baseball. Which particular baseball game it's calling balls and strikes for varies by person, and Zulli's work is the most accessible, but it's all hermetic in its own way. Puma Blues does not open out to the world; it closes in to form its own world. It's a unique world, and deeply interesting in some ways, but you have to make the journey to go there -- it will not meet you halfway, or even one step towards where you are now.

If you're interested in that world, though, there is nothing else like Puma Blues.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #130: Louder and Funnier by P.G. Wodehouse

When you're famous for writing one thing, people try to get you to write other things for them. Often, they'll offer you a lot of money to do it. And so, if you're the kind of writer who likes writing and is good at it -- particularly if you have a style and manner you can adapt to slightly different purposes, or just shove every commission into the same framework -- you can find yourself doing really varied things, because people keep dangling checks in front of you.

P.G. Wodehouse was primarily a comic novelist. He worked up to the novels through comic short stories, and did some general mostly-comic journalism in his very early days (around the turn of the last century), and also wrote for a bunch of comic musical comedies, but that all came from basically the same place. So I expect when large, well-established, well-paying magazines (in this case, Vanity Fair) started asking him for non-fictional humorous articles, sometime in the late 1910s or early Twenties, he said something like "yes, please" and dove in.

Louder and Funnier is a 1932 book that collects -- in what it says is a substantially revised and funnier form -- nineteen Vanity Fair essays that originally appeared over the previous dozen years. The essays are on various subjects: there are a number of short series (theatre, literature, sports, gambling), but even those are loose, baggy categories. It's pretty clear Wodehouse wrote about whatever he thought he could make funny that particular month, and that he then punched up those jokes when assembling the book later.

For a book of writing about a century old, Louder and Funnier is still pretty modern and zippy -- Wodehouse is on this side of the big Victorian/Modern divide, and thinks about life in ways that still resonate today. His style may be more ornate that is usual in the Internet Age, but it's got a very familiar focus on trivial, silly things. His particular concerns about Hollywood -- that they ambush unsuspecting writers and lock them away in bungalows for years at a time -- may be different from the current crop, but the jokes are in the same continuum.

So this is a silly book and a trivial one, about why falconry is no longer popular and why people write letters to newspapers, about butlers and income tax, about ocean liners and forming a union for theater-goers. Yes, a lot of the specific concerns are very particular to the technology and society of his day -- just like modern comedy. But Wodehouse's point of view and air of quiet befuddlement are eternal. I'd still recommend that new Wodehouse readers start with his best novels -- they are so good -- but this is a fun look at The Way We Lived (Trivially) a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #129: Tank Girl Two by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin

Tank Girl is punk -- I said that writing about the first book a couple of weeks ago, and I stand by it. Punk is that impulse to say what you want to say, to say it loud, to say it right in their faces, and not to worry about how good you are at saying it.

But that impulse cools more than a little if you don't have anything in particular to say.

Tank Girl was an attitude and a burst of enthusiasm and a lark and probably about half a joke. What she wasn't was a coherent character or viewpoint or world or statement, and her creators (primarily Jamie Hewlett, with Alan Martin joining early on to help with writing and lettering) didn't actually have any statement to make with her or coherent stance for her to have.

So she very quickly got into Wild One territory: Tank Girl was rebelling against...well, whatever was there. And the stories in Tank Girl Two show how Hewlett and Martin hit the end of that initial impulse really quickly, and then had to keep writing stories about a character whose generic plot (TG breaks a lot of things, looks cool and says cool things, to no particular purpose) they had clearly cooled on.

The stories in Two are more about Hewlitt and Martin themselves, or about the world of comics/fame/success, than they are about Tank Girl herself. Oh, she's in the stories, even often supposedly at the center of the stories, but one notices a certain non-Tank-Girl-ness when she spends four and a half installments going to visit her grandparents in rural England and then having a cosmic orgasm on the kind of bicycle her creators wanted as boys. (Admittedly, she does find an old WWII tank to drive around in during that time.) Or when there's a two-part day-glo installment featuring Booga as half of a Starsky & Hutch piss-take (and not featuring TG at all). Or when there's another three-parter turning Hewlitt and Martin into Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, with TG as a hitchhiker. Or another multi-parter in which TG gets officially kicked out of comics.

You could call it two creators looking for the outer reaches of their material. Or two creators doing their damnedest to kill of something they created, by driving away the audience it attracted. Or just having no clue and doing something at deadline each month, to diminishing returns.

Whatever the reason was, these are the stories where Tank Girl falls apart -- in-story, as she gets kicked out of comics, and as a property, because Hewlett and Martin clearly didn't have any specific thing they wanted to do with her. That can be annoying to a reader who wanted more of the same Tank Girl stories, or exhilarating to a reader who really connects with the concerns and enthusiasms they're throwing onto the page.

Hewlett was an excellent artist by this point, both in his ink-drenched black-and-white pages and the more and more common full-color work, and those pages are wonderful to look at even if you think the stories are getting way too self-indulgent. (As one might.)

I gather Tank Girl rediscovered the joys of coherent narrative sometime after this, though I think I wandered away from her stories after this series, or sometime soon thereafter. (There was also the movie, which could have driven me away.) I'm not sure if I'm going to try to track down those stories: this is a pretty definitive collapse of the original conception of Tank Girl, and I'm happy to leave it at that.