Saturday, June 30, 2018

Unlikely Connections

I've always been a sucker for songs that sound cheery and poppy but have darker lyrics and subject matter. So it's only right that I share with you the first single from Okkervil River's new record, In the Rainbow Rain, which sounds very sunny indeed.

Here's "Famous Tracheotomies:"

Book-A-Day 2018 #181: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Vol. 2 by Jacques Tardi

Adele Blanc-Sec is the star of nine album-length stories in French -- with a tenth supposedly upcoming (promised for the past decade) -- but she's had less luck on this side of the Atlantic. The first attempt in the 1990s to translate the series as individual volumes almost caught up -- bringing out five of the then-six books -- but faltered there.

And this more recent project from Fantagraphics -- to collect the books two-by-two -- announced a third volume for 2014 (to follow the first two in 2010 and 2011), but that has still not appeared, I think because of the tragic death of Kim Thompson in 2013. [1]

That's unfortunate, because these are fun stories, and Adele herself is a great prickly character. I want to read the rest of her adventures, but it seems like even the recent Luc Beson movie -- which I haven't seen; it didn't make much of a splash in the US -- didn't do anything to raise her profile.

But we do have The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Vol. 2: The Mad Scientist and Mummies on Parade, as we had the first volume, and, frankly, if a reader didn't know there were more in Europe, the ending of this book would seem pretty definitive. (I reviewed the first volume twice -- once in print in 2010 for Realms of Fantasy, and then here in 2014 during my last Book-A-Day run.)

Adele is a novelist in early 20th century Paris -- the first two books took place in 1910, and these two (original French titles: Le Savant fou and Momies en folie) start in the wintry January of 1912. She keeps getting caught up in mad-science plots -- the first two stories had a Pteranodon and what we might call a bridge troll, while this one has a reanimated caveman and the mass awakening of all the mummies of Paris -- and is usually in danger from one scheming group or another shooting at her or trying to kidnap her. Personally, she's grumpy and self-sufficient and pretty damn competent without turning into a Superwoman -- but still a woman in her time, and taken only slightly more seriously by men than any other woman then.

The books are madcap, and move just a hair too quickly: they're forty-eight page French albums, and Tardi wants to cram the maximum amount of action into them in that traditional Euro-adventure-comics style, so there are a lot of panels to the (large) page, a lot of explanatory dialogue, plenty of names shouted out in shock or surprise, and many quick plot reversals before we reach the ending.

The Fantagraphics volumes are in the large album size, which is best for this kind of Euro comics -- it gives everything more space to breathe and lets the action flow more smoothly.

Frankly, the Adele stories are a little silly -- they're adventure stories, not meant to be taken entirely seriously, full of bizarre complications and Byzantine plots and fiendish scientists who all but cackle and wring their hands in glee. But they are gloriously true to themselves, and commit entirely to telling that kind of nutty, danger-filled story in what's only a slightly cartoony version of the real Belle Epoque era.

If you do read the Adele books, note that the ending here is not as final as it seems to be -- Adele returned in five more books set after The Great War. And maybe we'll even get to read those books in English, once of these days.


[1] Thompson was co-publisher of Fantagraphics, and the motive force behind their European comics program at the beginning of this century. He also translated most of those books, and all of their Tardi books, himself. (And, frankly, he was really good at it: the stuff he translated reads cleanly and colloquially, as if it were written in English.) I've seen books published as late as 2017 crediting translation by Thompson, which makes me hope he left a stack of scripts for all his "must-do" European projects and that they'll all see the light of day eventually.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #180: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Peter Watts is famously a dour and depressive writer: the money quote on his works is from my Internet buddy James Nicoll: "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts."

So perhaps I need to say up front that his new novella-as-a-book, The Freeze-Frame Revolution, does not feature the extinction of the entire human race [1] or any major character being tortured in horribly inventive ways for eternity.

Well...but no. That's not an accurate way to describe the situation.

Sunday Ahzmundin is part of the crew of Eriophora, a starship on a relativistic journey over tens of millions of years, threading a wormhole network around the periphery of the Milky Way, part of a small fleet of similar ships. As Revolution opens, they've been out there for sixty million years or so, the crew mostly in coldsleep except when small teams are woken for a few days for some of the wormhole-threading operations, and the network has gotten fairly large and robust. They would never have contact with the other ships -- space is vast and hard-SF travel slow -- but they did expect to be seeing the network used by the descendants of the people they left behind on Earth, even if only at a distance, looking backward as they speed on to the next job.

But nothing human or even vaguely human-derived has ever come through a new wormhole. There's an occasional "gremlin," some kind of entity or weapon that tries to attack the rapidly-disappearing Eriophora, but that's it. The expected next generation of faster human ships has never appeared, and the people the network is being built for have never used it. The crew of Eriophora is concerned about this, quietly, but it's not entirely clear how much of the activity they would see in the best of cases -- their job is to drop wormholes and then continue on at high speed to the next place they can drop a wormhole.

But they're thinking they would have seen something by now, if humanity were still out there. And so not seeing anything implies something about humanity not being out there.

The human crew of Eriophora comprises about thirty thousand people, divided into "tribes" of several hundred each. They tend to wake up with others of their tribe, for social cohesion, and only meet a few others here and there. Only a dozen or so are awake at a time anyway; individuals probably only are awake for a few days every couple of hundred years at best. Given the quantities of people, the frequency some of them are woken up, and the distance between stars, it's not impossible that some of those sleepers have never been woken up in those sixty million years.

The only permanently awake mind on Eriophora is The Chimp, a not-quite-human-level AI that was deliberately left dumber and less capable than the ship's human crew so that they would be the ones to do most of the wormhole-creation. It can fly the ship and keep the plan and single-handedly execute most of the simpler wormholes, but it's programmed to have humans support and augment it most of the time.

So what can the crew do if they want to change the programming of The Chimp? What if they start to think Eriophora's mission is pointless, and want to change it?

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is the story of a mutiny -- one that takes millions of years to plan and execute, among a population that spends the vast majority of its time asleep and alone. Sunday is important to the plot, though not the center of it -- she's The Chimp's best friend, and so the one who needs to lie to the AI to keep it all secret.

This is a Peter Watts book, so it won't be surprising that it's about people in a strange, dangerous situation, far from any outside support, dependent on complicated systems to keep them alive, and trying to effect a change that is effectively impossible. Those who have read Watts before will have their guesses as to how well the mutiny works out -- I couldn't possibly comment here.

I didn't pull out my flying slip-stick, but this strikes me as impressively hard SF with big ideas: the kind that SF readers eternally complain that there isn't enough of. Watts is also a compelling writer, and the novella length is proverbially the best for SF for a reason: it's just enough space to create a world and tell a specific, pointed story. So this is the kind of thing a lot of people should be looking for-- I hope they are, and I hope they find it.


[1] Well, maybe it does, offstage. Our characters don't know for sure, but have their suspicions.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #179: My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

It's a cliche to say we're all alone. It's also not true.

Some of us are much more alone than others: physically, mentally, emotionally. Some of us have a harder time connecting to other people, or even wanting to connect. Some of us have wants different enough from the average that figuring them out and working them through takes time and effort. Some of us are in societies that generate more loneliness to begin with.

Nagata Kabi, a young Japanese woman, has all of that, and maybe more: she has serious anxiety issues, and it's not clear how much mental-health support she's gotten from her family and society. She identifies as lesbian, but I wouldn't be surprised if, later in life, she calls herself something closer to asexual or aromantic -- she's twenty-eight at the time of this story, and still doing hard work to figure herself out and build a life she can inhabit without falling apart.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is her story: the hook is that she hired a lesbian escort for her first sexual experience, but the point is how she got to that point, and how she was trying to move herself forward. It's a story of a triumph, in a small way: this was a big thing for her, both to do it and to make art about it, and we should celebrate both.

Nagata is deeply honest here; she gives us essentially the story of her adult life: anxiety, eating disorders, an overwhelming urge to please her parents, the desire to live a "normal life" when that is painful every single day, and, underlying everything else, a constant fear and uneasiness about being around other people. She opens with the hook -- that call to the lesbian escort agency -- and then drops back to show us who she is and how she got there.

It's a painful journey, because it was painful to be Nagata Kabi. (It may still be: I hope a little less so every day. I hope this book, and what she's done since, has helped. But we never really know anyone else's pain.)

Nagata tells it clearly and honestly, drawing herself just a little bit chibi and using a pink wash for a second color. It's a deeply honest and true book, informed by a lot of hard lessons that Nagata learned -- there are a lot of people with similar issues who could take guidance and solace and companionship from it. And, for those of us who aren't crippled with anxiety, maybe it can help us understand better other people, and make us less quick to judge the "lazy" or the "weak."

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #178: On the Camino by Jason

Why does someone go on a pilgrimage in modern Europe? The obvious reason would be religion, but that's rarely the central purpose these days. It's not part of general cultural life for Christians -- not the way the hajj still is for Muslims -- and many of the people who make those journeys aren't particularly Christian to begin with.

But pilgrimages continue. People find a reason to walk, and find something for themselves at the end of the walk. The Norwegian cartoonist who works as "Jason" trekked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in northern Spain in 2015, soon after his fiftieth birthday. And he made a book out of it, On the Camino. He doesn't say why he went; it's not clear he knows, or has a single "why." And he doesn't tell us what he found out, for the same reason.

What he does is tell us the story of the trip, placing us in his head and shoes for that month-long walk, and to let us feel what it was like to be Jason on the Camino. (Well, his real name is John, and that's what he tells people his name is in the book. But you know what I mean.)

It's all told in a very Jason way: matter-of-fact, almost affectless, with animal-headed characters moving through a world depicted fairly simply. He works entirely in black-and-white for this book as well. Jason himself is at the center of the trip, obviously, and is the viewpoint the entire time. This is what he saw and did in thirty-three days of walking, told like a Jason graphic novel. He even gets in his abrupt shifts of points of reference, as when he sees a giant slug on the trial -- first drawing it "giant" and then it's actual size.

The story is inherently different from Jason's fictional works: there's no twists to the plot, obviously, and he can't throw in genre elements for complications or interest. On the other hand, how do we know this is all true? We think it is because Jason tells us so, and because it has the everydayness and banality of real life -- but that's justification rather than proof. That's the case for any non-fiction story, of course: how can we believe the teller and the tale? If there's no reason not to tell the truth, we assume it is the truth -- we're all lazy, both as storytellers and listeners.

Jason is an introvert, most comfortable alone -- as you would expect from someone who spends his life sitting in a room to think up stories and draw them -- and much of On the Camino, starting from the very first page, is his struggle to be more open, to come out of his shell and engage with the other pilgrims and the locals. He has no gigantic epiphanies -- we wouldn't expect them from Jason, anyway. His hopes aren't dashed, either, which would be more in keeping with his fiction.

Instead, he walks. He meets some people, and runs into some of them repeatedly. He has some good conversations and interesting thoughts while walking alone. He also has blisters and bedbugs and food that doesn't agree with him. Every life and journey has good and bad, yes? It's a cliche even to mention it.

And he tells that story, in his four-panel grid, with his stone-faced characters with animal heads -- this is a Jason book, and it looks like one. He will not tell you what to think of it in the end; he's never told you what to think of any of his stories. But you can take the trip with him. I think it's worth the time.

(Note: this book does not credit a translator. And, in the story, "John" speaks English much of the time. So my guess is that Jason translated it himself, or wrote a text for this edition in English. I think I've found the original French edition, Un norvĂ©gien vers Compostelle, published only four months before the US edition.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #177: Baboon Metaphysics and Other Implausibly Titled Books

So far in this run of Book-A-Day, I've avoided what I think of as Emergency Books: the ones I can "read" in almost no time and write something equally quickly, just to keep the streak going. Previously for Book-A-Day stints, I'd have a shelf of books like that -- collections of single-panel cartoons, one-quote-to-a-page books, and similar counter-next-to-the-cash-register book product.

And, frankly, I do have a small clump of books like that ready for emergencies this time, since it's important to be prepared for various possibilities when running a big project. But I've gotten ahead, and generally managed the reading day-to-day, so I've stayed ahead and been able to pull in multi-book series as I go on.

(Yes, most of what I'm hitting this year is comics, of one kind of another. I like reading those books, and I had a lot of them waiting to be read, and they do read more quickly than pure prose. Win-win-win.)

But today's book looks a lot like an Emergency Book. And I did, in fact, read it the day I did because I was going more slowly through Jaime Hernandez's Maggie the Mechanic than I expected, and I didn't want to rush through a hundred pages of that at the end of a night.

But Baboon Metaphysics and Other Implausibly Titled Books is so much more than an Emergency Book. It's the second compendium to come out of the best book award ever, the Diagram Group Prize for Odd Titles, which is also the only literary prize to come into existence because of alcohol-fueled lunches and boredom. I've written about the Diagram Group Prize here off and on over the years, and covered the first collection of winners, How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books.

Baboon Metaphysics followed in 2009, though, unlike How to Avoid Huge Ships, this one didn't bother to list an editor, compiler, or other human being responsible for it. It contains the covers and basic details for forty-seven books with very odd titles, of all kinds: academic texts, self-help, very specialized history or medicine or cookery books, humor, children's' books, animal husbandry, odd novels, and the unclassifiable remnant.

Every single one of those books makes sense, to the right person with the right experience -- some are very narrow in interest, and some seem to be fiction from an alien world, but somebody thought they were worth writing, and somebody (possibly even a different person) thought they were worth publishing.

I don't work in book publishing anymore, but I miss it, and this is why: it's a big, weird field, full of little corners and nooks, populated by oddballs and cranks, devoted to knowledge and stories and the written word. That's why the Diagram Group Prize is the best book award out there; that's why this book is so wonderful.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #176: Maggie the Mechanic by Jamie Hernandez

Since Dungeon Fortnight just ended, I thought I might as well dive into the other comics-reading project I've been thinking about for a while. This time, though, I'm going to space the books out, so each one can get its own moment and so they don't blur together.

So, once a week from now through nearly the end of the year, it will be I Love (And Rockets) Mondays. I'll be running through the current Fantagraphics omnibus editions in order, then the trade paperback series of about a decade ago, and including other related stories wherever they make sense as I go. I'll begin with the first Jaime book, since that was listed first in the current reprint series....

Margarita "Maggie" Chascarrillo was originally a SF heroine: her world slightly futuristic, with hovering cars and regular rocket travel. She was a mechanic -- a little clumsy and accident-prone, but good at fixing things. She had dreams to be a world-class "prosolar" mechanic, and she was the assistant of a world-famous mechanic, Rand Race.

That all started ebbing quickly, though. The other side of Maggie's stories were more down-to-earth: living in a rented house with her best friend and sometimes girlfriend Hopey (Esperanza Glass, whose real name will hardly ever be seen in this series), worrying about money or her weight, hanging out with friends, working odd jobs for low wages, living the life of a young Mexican-American woman in a minor Southern California city. (Hoppers aka Huerta, loosely based on Oxnard.)

Eventually, the mechanic career almost entirely disappeared...although some of the other fantastic elements, like the aunt who was a world-champion wrestler and the occasional eruptions of superheroes, would pop up more regularly. But those happened around Maggie, or to her: she was the grounding element, entirely in the real world. She and her friends no longer had access to the fantastic parts of their world -- except, notably, "Penny Century" (aka Beatriz Garcia), the closest thing Jaime's stories have to a main character who lives equally in both worlds. Penny was a childhood friend of Maggie and Hopey -- and also an occasional superheroine and the wife of globally recognized billionaire H.R. Costigyan.

Penny was never taken all that seriously, though: the stories didn't get into her motivations and inner life the way they did with Maggie or Hopey, or their friend Izzy. Even Daffy, a younger friend who is mostly the rich girl slumming with her wrong-side-of-the-tracks punker buddies, has more of a character arc than Penny, who exists to be beautiful and impetuous and untouched.

Note that all the important characters were women: men existed, but they were secondary -- love interests, bosses, guys who were around. Maggie and Hopey were the important characters, and secondarily Izzy and Daffy and Terry -- all women, all depicted like real people and not sex objects, all flawed and interesting and real.

Maggie the Mechanic collects the first batch of Maggie stories, the ones where Jaime Hernandez was working that all out: starting with the mildly SFnal premise, mixing in some real life and his own love of punk rock, and gradually dialing back the fantasy in favor of the real. The dial doesn't turn all the way back in this book -- and Jaime will tinker with that dial, on and off, for all of Love And Rockets's run -- but here is where he tries out Maggie as a globe-hopping mechanic's assistant and then seems to think better of it. There are two long stories in this book -- "Mechanics" and "Las Mujerdes Perdidas" -- that send Maggie on larger adventures to exotic parts of the world, but it's the third long story here, "100 Rooms," that signposts the way the series will go: stories of the women, together or apart, taking what they can out of a life that's not going to hand them anything.

Some people call these the "Maggie and Hopey" stories, or the "Locas" stories, from the Spanish for "crazy." Both have been used for book titles along the way. Maggie is central most of the time, as she was here in the beginning: her friends and boyfriends and girlfriends come in and out, and some, like Hopey, are nearly as important. These are the foundational stories, where Jaime was finding his style and substance.

The earliest stories sometimes have too many panels on a page -- too much dialogue, too much activity, too little space. That opened up pretty quickly, and Jaime's Dan DeCarlo-influenced style was clearer and more distinct just a couple of years into the series. But all of these are strong stories with crisp characters from the very beginning -- Maggie and Hopey show up here, fully-formed and entirely themselves. Jaime Hernandez might have needed to write his way into his world to figure out which stories he was most interested in, and might have been able to grow and strength his art style, but he was telling great stories well from the beginning.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/23/18

This week, I have books from two of the categories of "Reviewing the Mail" books -- two that actually came in the mail, and three that I bought at a newish book/record store right in my town. [1] So, then, here they are:

From the Mail:

Low Chicago is the twenty-fifth novel in the Wild Cards shared-world SF/superhero series, edited by George R.R. Martin with (credited only inside the book) Melinda Snodgrass. It's the middle book of the current triad, but it looks like that "triad" is mostly linked thematically -- this one looks to basically stand alone. Something weird happens at a high-stakes poker game among the criminal elite of Chicago, and a gaggle of super-criminals are sent into the past: probably mostly or entirely the 1920s, for obvious reasons. Writers this time out include Saladin Ahmed, Paul Cornell, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Marko Kloos, and long time series regulars John Jos. Miller and Snodgrass. I read the first dozen of so of the series, and wandered away either when the initial series died out or when it got too relentlessly dark -- with every volume featuring a body-swapping super-evil villain who tortured everyone endlessly -- but I always liked the idea and keep thinking I should try it again someday. Low Chicago is a hardcover, which went on sale June 12.

Babymouse: Tales From the Locker: Miss Communication is the second in a middle-school-themed spin-off from the regular, very popular, Babymouse series. This time, she's somewhat less of a baby, since she's in middle school. It's still be series creators Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, and still the mixture of text and comics panels familiar from the original series...and from Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a dozen other things aimed at the same audience. This time out, Babymouse desperately wants a cell phone (read: smartphone), like everyone else in school, since she's being left out without one. This is on sale July 24.

Bought in a Bookstore:

100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them is a 2006 book from Stanley Bing, a business writer not known for being overly serious. I know I read his novel Lloyd: What Happened, and I think I had or glanced at others of his books in the past. But that was far enough in the past that it was before this blog, so I have no record of it. My memory is that Bing is entertaining, and this also looks like Peak Bush Economy -- the moment when all the big swinging dicks were sure the expansion would go on forever and keep making them piles of money, which was the trigger for it all to blow to hell.

Live Nude Elf: The Sexperiments of Reverend Jen is a book I heard about somewhere and kept almost buying on Amazon. (Like, for close to a decade now, it's been rotating through my shopping cart and never making it to checkout.) "Reverend" Jen Miller was a sex columnist for some publication -- the book is from 2009, which squares with my sense that "sex columnist" is a thing that flourished briefly in the Aughts, probably for Carrie Bradshaw-related reasons -- and those columns were collected here. (Hey! Searching my archives, I find I read two I-am-a-sex-columnist! books back in the Aughts: Porn*ol*o*gy by Ayn Carrillo-Gailey and Working Stiff by Grant Stoddard.) So, when I actually saw it in person and priced at five bucks, I kinda had to actually buy it. Plus, y'know, sex is interesting and fun, both to do and to read about.

The Chuckling Whatsit is a Richard Sala graphic novel from 1997 which I owned (and wrote about here in 2006) but which I lost in the 2012 flood I try not to mention all the time.


[1] If you live anywhere near me -- you probably don't -- it's Station 1, housed in the old train station in the middle of Pompton Lakes. It's quirkier (more Chuck Palahniuk than Nora Roberts) than the typical used-book store, which I found interesting and refreshing.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #175: The Wrong Case by James Crumley

Private eye novels were traditionally about men with something wrong -- whether it was the vague white-knightism of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer's detached voyeurism. Eventually, the field opened to women -- Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski and their sisters -- who were just as damaged in their own ways. And, maybe, eventually, there was even room for some relatively normal men and women along the way.

Anything's possible, I suppose.

But here were are back in the old PI tradition, in James Crumley's first mystery novel, The Wrong Case, from 1975. And his Milton Chester Milodragovitch (the Third) is a detective in the old tradition: drunk, tired, and not a bit better than he should be. We meet him in the small city of Meriwether, somewhere unspecified in the Pacific Northwest but probably out in the Eastern end of Washington or Oregon -- far from the coast, closer to logging and hunting and fishing and the mountains. Milo was a specialist in divorce proceedings, tracking wayward spouses and getting proof of their sordid affairs, but his state has just enacted no-fault divorce and destroyed his entire business: no one needs proof of adultery to get divorced anymore.

Milo is also the latest in a line of once-prominent men in town: his great-grandfather parlayed an encounter with a local outlaw into a long and successful law-enforcement career, and the line has been dwindling into obscurity and alcoholism since then. Milo's father died drunk, leaving Milo a sizable inheritance that he'll only get at age fifty-two -- still more than a decade away. So Milo is trying to live on what he has -- and support two ex-wives, since he's never been known for making good decisions -- until the big money comes in and he can enjoy life. At this point, he still thinks the money will let him enjoy life; that will change.

This was the first novel about Milo; he turned into something like a series hero -- not so much hero, and not all that much series, either -- over the years, as Crumley returned to him now and then. The second book was Dancing Bear, almost a decade later; I looked at that when I thought I could get through one Vintage Contemporary a month and read them all by now. (We all think we can do things that turn out to be impossible -- it's one of the things I share with Milo.)

But here Milo was as much of a private detective as he ever was: hired by a woman to investigate her missing brother and soon churning the underbelly of Meriwether, in these just-past-Vietnam years of freaks and drop-outs and druggies. He was never one of the more organized PIs, but he did actually go around to talk to people and learn things in this book -- it didn't work out all that well, but that's Crumley's world. Nothing ever works out all that well. Nothing can.

This is a fine detective novel in the old tradition, about men and the stupid things they do and the women who come into their world. Crumley's women are more rounded and real than the standard for the genre and the time, but they do have their cliches, and they're seen entirely from outside -- by men who never have understood women, and never will. I'm glad I read it again, now that I'm older than Milo, and have a better acquaintance with failure and regret: this is the kind of book that rewards that kind of experience.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book-a-Day 2018 #174: 5 Worlds, Book 2: The Cobalt Prince by Siegel, Siegel, Bouma, Rockefeller & Sun

I don't read enough books aimed at kids to really know the shapes of subgenres these days, and so it's dangerous for me to speculate. But I'm pretty sure the 5 Worlds series is not the only graphic novel series these days marching down the trail that Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series blazed.

I'm not saying that to point a finger: the opposite, in fact. I think there's a whole bunch of books like this: fantasy adventure stories for middle-grades readers, told in graphic novel form, with groups of spunky kids and their quirky adult allies racing to save their entire, weirdly-constructed worlds from some manner of Dark Lord that particularly resonates with kids.

What I am saying is that I won't be able to explain the places the 5 Worlds series breaks away from that subgenre, and what ways it's faithful to it. I can only say that I see a dim territory stretching out behind this book, full of other wonders, and then describe what's right in front of me.

What is right in front of me is the second book in that series, The Cobalt Prince. (I didn't see the first one, The Sand Warrior.) It's co-written by brothers Mark Siegel (Editorial Director of First Second and cartoonist of the excellent graphic novel Sailor Twain) and Alexis Siegel (writer and translator of various things, including Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat), and drawn by a team of three: Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Neither the book itself nor the cover letter explained how the three divide art duties, so insert a graphic of me shrugging here. Maybe it's the old pencil-ink-color, maybe it's figures-backgrounds-finishes, maybe they all work in the same style on different pages, maybe something entirely different.

Our Chosen One this time is Oona Lee, a preteen girl who is one of only two Sand Dancers -- the particular kind of magic used in this universe -- who can call the Living Fire. Our universe is made up of five worlds: it seems to be one large planet and four moons, all habitable. (I don't see how that can be possible, but this is not hard SF.) Each planet has a magical beacon which can only be lit by the Living Fire, and Oona believes the beacons of all five worlds must be lit to make everything right. (It is not hugely clear in this book exactly what was not right, though there is a big evil thing called the Mimic lurking around and threatening everyone.) In the first book, she lit the beacon of Mon Domani, the central mother world.

So, at the beginning of this book, she's off to the next world -- Toki, the blue one, seat of a militaristic blue people -- to light the next beacon, along with her friends Jax Amboy (a popular professional athlete who is secretly an android) and An Tzu (who is slowly disappearing because of some mystical disease which will definitely be plot-important).

Possibly new in this book is Oona's long-lost older sister Jessa, who went away with the Toki people when Oona was very young, Jessa has since become blue, like the Toki people, lost her ability to call the Living Fire and may have been ensnared by a body-possessing spirit of evil called the Mimic (the Dark Lord of the series).

There are shocking revelations, several Everything You Know Is Wrong moments, lots of magical and physical battles, at least one noble sacrifice, and one character coming back from what seems like certain death. It's a good adventure story in this middle-grade mode, and will be very appealing to fans of Amulet or The Last Airbender (which seems to have seriously influenced the magic system here). Its appeal to adults is not quite as strong; we've seen things like this many times before. But it's good at what it does, has nicely rounded, attractive art, and delivers on what it promises.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #173: The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell (and others)

I wonder about the audience for Chad Sell's The Cardboard Kingdom. It's officially aimed at "Ages 9-12," which straddles the end of elementary school and much of middle school. But it's about a group of kids who build costumes out of cardboard and fabric and run around their neighborhood having imaginative play one summer -- an activity that feels very elementary-school. Most middle-school kids would immediately call that "babyish" and want nothing to do with it.

So my badly-informed guess is that it skews slightly younger than that, maybe more like 6-10. (But, as I understand it, the official category breakdowns for Young Readers are 6-8 and 9-12, and I guess the subject matter tended to skew this upward.) It's for the kids who would be running around the neighborhood pretending to be sorceresses and banshees.

Whether the 6-8s or the 9-12s more need Sell's message of acceptance and inclusion is an open question...but no one will get that message if they don't read the book. (I hope they do: it's a good message, and Sell makes it appealing and fun here.)

The Cardboard Kingdom is a book about being yourself and accepting others as themselves -- these kids are diverse in a bunch of different ways, with the first story being about a boy who wants to pretend to be The Sorceress, and others being too loud or too pushy or too something else for others or their parents. Some have parents divorcing, some have too-traditional grandmothers, some have conflicts with each other. But they all fit in, eventually: they all find people to pretend to be in this fantasy world, and they all play together and are happy.

Some of that diversity may seem political, to the kind of people with a vested interest in pretending that everyone important is really like them and that anyone acting differently is playing politics. Those people are tendentious and wrong, but they're out there. I expect a certain number of them will protest this book, and complain that it's on school library shelves -- that fact that such people are against something generally shows how important it is. If you're buying for a library or a school, it may be something you have to take into account -- because our world is unlike the Cardboard Kingdom in many ways.

The Cardboard Kingdom is made up of a dozen stories, all scripted by different people (probably with some input from Sell) and all drawn, in the same style, by Sell. The first one is in pantomime, but the rest have dialogue: these kids are probably a little more articulate and better able to talk about what they want than the average kid their age, but this book is meant to be a model. It's a utopia of sorts: a summer haven where everyone can be who they want to be right then, and then pack it away and go back to school with great memories in the fall.

Sell turns these various stories into bright, colorful pages full of action, making a vision of a wonderful but realistic childhood -- one where there are struggles and problems, but where they can all be worked through with love and compassion and understanding. It's a gorgeous vision of what we'd want life to be, and I hope it sits in the corner of a thousand classrooms and school libraries to nurture the rising generation of Sorceresses and Big Banshees and Alchemists and Animal Queens.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #172: Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo, Vol. 2: The Middle-Route Run by Ben Costa & James Parks

I don't really like kicking puppies. So I'll try to be kind to this book, which is very puppyish.

It's made for people much younger and more innocent than me, minds as yet unsullied by baser concerns or the day-to-day problems of an adult life. And I'm coming in on the second book in a series, so I missed all of the set-up and explanation that might have been in the first one. So I'm going to try to give it every possible benefit of the doubt and good feeling I have.

Rickety Stitch is a skeleton bard in a cod-medieval world, a guy who would prefer to sing songs and make people happy but feels compelled to go off on an epic quest try to figure out who he is and how he got there. The fact that he's a skeleton who can talk and act intelligently is anomalous in his world, and he doesn't seem to remember his own origins, or even however long ago they were.

His best friend is a blob of goo, who speaks in this world's Wookie-equivalent: Rickety can understand it perfectly, but no one else can, including us.

Their second adventure is Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo, Vol. 2: The Middle-Route Run. It's co-written by childhood best friends Ben Costa and James Parks, and drawn by Costa. (That is, they're still best friends but aren't children. Oh, you know what I mean.)

Our heroes live in a world is filled with lots of intelligent races, and it's not always clear whether different individuals are from different intelligent races or are just from different regions. There are people who look human, people who look like muppets, people who look like goblins of various sizes and skin colors, and several others. It's a nasty, dangerous world, but a middle-grade nasty, dangerous world -- good people are attacked but not killed, evil people obsess about money but not sex, and there can be a lot of fighting but not a drop of blood.

We are in a fallen age: there were once great empires ruled by the good and the wise, but now there are just small, scattered settlements and the only large-scale activity is run by some vaguely predatory mercantile companies. (As usual in stories for young people, if you're trying to make a living, you're evil, and if you're living on accumulated probably-aristocratic wealth, you're good.) Oh, and all of the good characters make supposedly humorous near-pun wordplay to show what nice people they are.

We begin with Rickety and the Goo ensnared by some kind of tree: possibly carnivorous, but they don't stay trapped long enough to find out. They are rescued by what turns out to be minions of a local hedge witch, who unfortunately wants Rickety for an experiment. She has already dismantled and destroyed several other ambulatory skeletons, but this time she's sure she can not just destroy Rickety but also accomplish her aims.

Since this is an ongoing series, she does not. But she is meant to be strangely sympathetic: yes, she's tormenting and dismantling sentient beings, but she's doing it to bring her beloved pet back from death, so surely we should forgive her? (Note: I did not.)

Rickety goes to investigate the "other ambulatory skeletons" the witch tells him about, once he's free and her plot foiled. Sadly, they don't talk, don't seem to have his level of intelligence, and are being used as cheap slave labor in a nearby mine by a low-level mercantile flunky who Rickety met in the first book. And so Rickety is dragged into mine-work, because people find it hard to say No in a middle-grade book, which leads to the main plot.

There is a great treasure in the mine, and it is discovered. And then it is stolen. And then Rickety and the Goo chase it. Eventually, they join a caravan heading north, guarding the treasure. Rickety wants to sneak into the strong-room of the giant central stagecoach of this caravan to see the treasure because he thinks it's from Epoli, one of those long-lost legendary empires which he also thinks is his point of origin.

Several other groups also want the treasure, leading to attacks on the caravan and some running multi-way fights. And a hired hero who Rickety was hero-worshipping turns out to be less than heroic, which is much sadder for a possibly immortal skeleton than it seems it should be.

Finally, we learn that the treasure is not actually valuable in the sense of being tradable for large numbers of highly-denominated exchange tokens (well, it might be, actually; this isn't clear). It's True Value is that it is a collection of legends from those ancient times, and if People Today would only learn those legends, it would instantly make them better people and just by knowing that people were once True and Strong and Honest, the world would stop being so lousy and the Dark Lord would be forced to pack up and haunt some other fantasy world. The things in the treasure chest do not seem to have any actual magic: they will accomplish this purely by being stories of people being nice and excellent to each other.

(So, basically, the treasure is the fantasy-world version of Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues.)

This is not the most satisfying of plot twists for anyone as old and cynical as I am, but it's fine for Rickety Stitch, and is a nicely positive message.

I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone's minor child: it's entirely harmless and even appealing, in it's heart-on-its-sleeve way. The art is colorful and generally attractive, though I do still wonder if so many characters are supposed to look like muppets. The story is both amusing and adventurous, and the authors clearly really care about this material.

It may be somewhat less appealing to adults, but mileage will vary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #171: Demon by Jason Shiga (4 volumes)

When religious people talk about the dangers of pure scientism, they're talking about Jimmy Yee. Maybe a bit about his creator, Jason Shiga, too.

But Yee is the poster boy for why believing in only what you can prove is really, really bad: he murders an appreciable fraction of the entire human race during this story, mostly because he sees no reason not to. And the only possible ethical justification is that, most of the time, he's only killing himself.

Without getting into the traditional arguments against suicide, I think we can all agree that killing yourself is at the very least generally less bad than killing someone else. But what if every time you kill yourself, you also kill someone else by taking over their body?

Demon is a very Jason Shiga comic, which is to say it takes a particular premise and then inexorably rolls out all of the entirely logical consequences of that that premise, leaving human feeling (except for a certain glee in destruction and mayhem) entirely out of the equation. The worldview here is a kind of happy nihilism: nothing matters, everything is disposable, and that's wonderful for our viewpoint character.

Or, to put it another way: Demon is Miracleman #15 from the viewpoint of Kid Miracleman, going on for several hundred years.

Actually, that's another thing that's annoyingly cartoony about Demon: it goes on for well over two hundred years, but society and technology don't change in the slightest. Oops, that might be a spoiler.

I should probably explain all of those disjointed thoughts.

OK. This long, multi-volume graphic novel [1] opens with Jimmy Yee, in a cheap motel room. He hangs himself. He wakes up in bed in the same cheap motel room, and slits his wrists in the bathtub.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And kills himself with the gun he finds in a drawer.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And takes an overdose of pills.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And runs out into traffic to be hit by a semi.

And wakes up in Intensive Care, with the truck driver's daughter crying over him. And manages to go for several hours without killing himself.

Eventually, Yee figures it out: he's a demon. (Why a "demon?" Metafictionally, for shock value on Shiga's part. In-universe, it just seems to be the word Yee randomly fell upon to describe himself.) When he dies, he instantaneously takes over the body of whoever is closest to him. He wasn't waking up in the same motel room -- he was serially possessing, and then killing, every single person staying at that motel.

There are a few other rules to his demonic self -- and it turns out to be a SFnal rather than fantasy explanation, as one would expect from Shiga -- which come out in time. But that's basically it: live forever, take over other bodies when you die, do whatever you want without consequences as long as you can find a way to kill yourself.


The Javert to Yee's Valjean is "Agent Hunter, OSS," part of a super-secret US government operation designed to control and utilize demons...of which Yee is the only one when the OSS finds him. (OK, it's not quite that dumb, but it's close -- Shiga is rolling out complications at speed and not worrying a lot about how plausible any of them are.) As usual, Shiga is good on complications and logical extrapolation and sometimes shaky on worldbuilding -- "but what if" is generally good enough for him.

Hunter wants to use Yee, and any other demons there may be -- and Shiga isn't going to let the opportunity to add more baroque complications pass him by -- for a grandiose and supposedly humanitarian purpose. But, of course, to do that, he needs to set up fiendishly complicated control structures to keep Yee confined.

And it's that fiendish complication, both of control and of breakthrough, that Shiga really cares about. Demon is not about what it's like to live forever, to be be able to be anyone, it's about how to do the seemingly impossible using just the demon ability. Even when having the demon ability would let one find more elegant and interesting ways to solve problems, Demon always comes down to "kill lots and lots of people, often but not always yourself repeatedly." Yes, Yee does have his Sad Jaded Immortal moments, since those are required of any story like this, but at least Shiga gets them over with quickly.

What Shiga does take joy in is those complications, and the megadeath is really just a way of keeping score -- for all the gore and horrible things here, Shiga's cartoony art and relentless eye for a weirder, more complicated way to keep demons out or fight their way in is what makes it exciting and fun.

It's a borderline sociopathic kind of fun, admittedly. But it is fun nonetheless.

I don't think the ending entirely makes sense -- Shiga makes one more twist on his demon concept, and I don't see how that actually works -- but he needed to do something like that, just to make an ending for this thing. It's certainly as plausible as anything else in this crazy story.

Fort many, many readers, Demon will be too much. That may include a few of you who think it'll be just fine -- it's the kind of story that just keeps going, and hits places you might not want to go with it. But it's an interesting book by a great comics creator, and it's in many ways the purest Shiga book yet. It is horrifying and laugh-out-loud funny and nutty and goofy and appalling in its inventiveness. It's all Shiga, bless his heart.


[1] It was originally serialized as a webcomic, and then collected. In fact, it seems to still be available online, though I think it's not supposed to be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #170: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

If you're going to do an alternate history about the end of the world, there comes a time when you have to crack your knuckles and end it.

The Delirium Brief is that point in Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" series. Those books started as a cross-genre mix-up that seemed like it shouldn't work: Dilbertian bureaucracy meets Lovecraftian horrors, with an overlay of Comp Sci and a satirical take on spy-novel tropes. It did work, though, and brilliantly -- my theory is that Stross is such an essentially depressive writer, always focused on the worst possible outcomes, that only by setting the failure condition of his stories to Utter Destruction of Humanity can he be freed to unleash the fullest power of his imagination.

Stross's central character, the hacker-turned-IT-demonologist-turned-Deeply-Scary-Sorcerer who calls himself "Bob Howard" in these stories, at first saved the world almost inadvertently. But, as time has gone on and the stars have gotten ever more right, the number of potential apocalypses have risen exponentially, and the secret British agency called the Laundry have given him more and more responsibility and power -- and some of that power accrued to him in the act of surviving some of those near-apocalypses.

(The previous books in the series are The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, and The Nightmare Stacks. They all basically stand alone, in the manner of a mystery series, but they work much better in sequence. This book in particular can be seen as a sequel to The Apocalypse Codex, and also follows up particular elements of Fuller Memorandum, Annihilation Score, and Nightmare Stacks.)

The Laundry, like most such fictional organizations, was supposed to be secret. Some cracks in that secrecy were showing in Annihilation Score, but they could be papered over, more or less. But the events of Nightmare Stacks -- an army of elves invaded Leeds, to be really reductive about it -- blew that wide open. Hundreds were killed, massive amounts of property damage were done, and, worst of all, the government was embarrassed.

So now questions are being asked in Parliament, and I'm afraid Stross has about as high an opinion of the ruling classes of his country as I do of mine. What happens is horribly plausible in our world of radical free-market ideology and government disdain for knowledge and expertise. You see, the Laundry is privatized. Quickly and completely, like a stab in the back.

Even worse, it's not sold off to some well-connected Old Boy who's spent widely to grease the skids and expects to make a killing from the public purse -- that's true also, of course, since that's how privatizing works -- but it's sold off to the worst possible new owner. One whose secret intention is to claim the brains of all Britons, before too long, for his other-dimensional master, the Sleeper in the Pyramid.

Yes, Reverend Raymond Schiller is back. And his link to his inhuman master is even more unpleasant and horrible this time than before.

The Delirium Brief is the story of what happens when the Laundry is torn apart by its enemies: what re-forms in its place, what plans that new entity can make, and what bargain it needs to make to avoid the worst of the most immediate apocalypses.

This series, very deliberately, will not run forever. It's coming to the endgame now, actually: my guess is that Stross might have two more books to finish out this timeline. Maybe three. Maybe just one. Stross has said that this timeline ends in 2015, and it's creeping up on that deadline -- now, whether the timeline ends because the brains of everyone on Earth are eaten or for some other reason, I can't say.

But the series is by Charles Stross, so I'm not placing any bets on the side of a happy ending.

We're not at the end yet. The Delirium Brief is a dark, dangerous book of spycraft and Lovecraft, set in a world where merely dying is often the best possibly outcome. But at least we have Bob Howard and his compatriots to stand against those monsters...whether or not they're "The Laundry" or not.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #169: My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt

I never met Andy Offutt. Maybe it's better I didn't: he was one of my favorite writers, in the early Thieves' World age, when I was around that golden SFF reading year of twelve. And that admiration and enjoyment might not have been able to survive meeting the man himself, at least as his son depicts him.

But then all sons can tell stories about their fathers, can't they? I could tell a few about mine, though this isn't the place. And I'd like to hope I'm giving only light, pleasant stories to my two sons to tell someday, even as I know that's never how it works out.

Chris Offutt had it worse than me, obviously. Worse than a lot of people, particularly those living in comfort in the first world in what looks like a stable family with a nice house. He had something that looked like that, too. A lot of things can look like that.

In my mind, Andy Offutt was a fantasy writer, author of the "Shadowspawn" stories in the Thieves' World shared-world series (including one novel named after the character), a couple of trilogies, some other stuff. He was a SF writer, too -- major enough to have a story in Again, Dangerous Visions, major enough to have a term as SFWA president in the mid-70s. Enough to look like the trajectory could have continued upward, and he could have become one of that small handful of writers able to actually make a living from writing SFF.

But he was already making a living from writing, almost a decade before Thieves' World. Like so many others before him, Andy Offutt was also a writer of pornography -- it paid at least as well as genre fiction, and those markets could take vastly more from one writer than SFF would. Andy Offutt wrote a hell of a lot of pornography, mostly under the pen-name "John Cleve," in the '70s and '80s. He had other pen-names, too, and others took over entirely from Cleve later.

It was an open secret at the time -- open enough by the early '80s that it was discussed in fan publications, and generally known. His SFnal soft-porn series Spaceways, as by Cleve, traded at least as much on Offutt's reputation as Cleve's. Still, that still could have made a single career: SFF with sex in it, sexy books with SFF in them. By that point, no one was actively censoring books anymore.

So what happened? Why is this book My Father, the Pornographer rather than My Father, the Fantasist or My Father, the Alcoholic or more generically My Father, the Raging Asshole?

Andy Offutt was at the end of the mid-century porn boom, and stayed in that world far longer than the other genre writers who started there. Silverberg, Westlake, Block -- and a dozen others -- wrote some softcore porn, and sometimes harder stuff, as the years piled up and the line of what was allowed in "legitimate" books kept moving forward. But they all moved on. They all thought of porn as journeyman work. They could eventually write sex into their "real" books, under their own names, and make their own money that way. They did, or moved on entirely, as with the writers we don't remember at all.

Andy Offutt didn't. Andy Offutt couldn't. Andy Offutt was a porn writer at the core, a porn writer who sometimes wrote other things. That's the story Chris Offutt tells here, and I believe him. The list of books published doesn't lie, from Bondage Babes in 1968 through Barbi's World 16: Thade's World 10 more than forty years later.

Andy Offutt was obsessed with sex and bondage, for whatever central psychological reason -- a man entirely focused on being in charge and in control and who made fictional worlds all day long to be able to keep doing that every minute he could. Chris Offutt can tell you about that: as the eldest son, as the writer son, he inherited his father's books and papers, which constituted, among other things, nearly a ton of porn. Porn by Andy Offutt, porn he traded for, porn he bought, porn he drew crudely himself for decades.

My Father, the Pornographer is the story of three things: of Andy Offutt's life, as seen by his son. Of that son's life, as twisted by living with this domineering, cruel father. And of the ton of porn Andy Offutt left behind, and what it said about him.

Chris Offutt mercifully doesn't try to examine his parents' sex life -- his mother is still alive, and she's a character in the modern-day sections of the book. He does say that his parents had an open marriage, at least at SF conventions, at least for some long span of years, and that can explain some of the questions we all have bubbling up. But nobody is going to ask his mom if his dad liked to tie her up. And nobody will be upset that the question doesn't get asked.

And porn, of course, is not about sex: it's a solitary activity most of the time for most of us. Often a very fun solitary activity...if it has a healthy place in your life. Andy Offutt's porn wasn't healthy for him. Chris Offutt thinks he used porn to keep his urges in check -- has some evidence that Andy Offutt might have thought he was uniquely damaged, a potential serial killer or psychopath, and kept himself in check with massive doses of porn and iron will. Chris Offutt doesn't think that self-myth was true, and it's almost certainly not -- a lot of people in a lot of times have liked bondage and other kinks without being deeply damaged people. My Father, the Pornographer would be an interesting book to read along side Joe Ollmann's recent graphic biography of William Seabrook -- the two shared a lot of obsessions, but came from different places and took it to different places.

I'm neglecting Chris Offutt here: I'd never read him before, didn't know his work. He's a literary writer who's also worked scripting classy TV shows, like Treme and Weeds. He grew up with a horrible father, in a big old house out in the middle of West Bumfuck, Kentucky. He got out. He tells this story well, the personal parts and the hard parts -- and they're nearly all hard parts. I can't imagine what it was like to live this, let alone to write it.

This is one of the best books about a SFF writer I know, up there with Julie Phillips' biography of James Tiptree, Jr. And it's not about his being a SFF writer, except occasionally in passing. The most SFnal thing about it is the place of SF conventions in the family's life, and Chris Offutt hated those: they were opportunities for his father to indulge his worst impulses, to lord it over star-struck fans and shove his family aside for the duration.

But that's life, isn't it? You don't get what you want; you have to live with what you get. Andy Offutt never got the fame and admiration he was sure he deserved. Chris Offutt didn't get a father who could give him any normal human affection. And the SF world got the partial attention of a man whose mind was on other things. But, eventually, we got this book. And it will live on.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/16/18

Back again for another week!

This time out, I have the contents of a box of graphic novels -- a store I buy from regularly was having a "nearly everything is 40% off" sales, and, well, I'm only human. So these are things I paid money for, in case you care.

Hostage is the most recent book by French cartoonist Guy Delisle, and it's yet another departure for him. First Delisle did a couple of short alphabetical books about sex (more or less), then did a clutch of longer autobiographical books about particular, generally-authoritarian places that he'd lived, and then did a few short zippy books about how to badly parent young children. This one is back to nonfiction, and it's related to Medicins Sans Frontiers -- Delisle's wife works for them, and that's been an important element of his autobiographical books -- but it's the story of someone else, who was a hostage in Chechnya in 1997.

Mage: The Hero Discovered: Book One: Vol. 2 has about the most confusing possible way to indicate that it reprints the second half (vol. 2) of Matt Wagner's first major story (book one) about Kevin Matchstick, who is more or less the modern incarnation of King Arthur. Apparently the current reprinting of this series goes Book One Vol. 1, Book One Vol. 2, Book Two Vol. 3, and so on -- the third book is coming out in comics form right now, and will be reprinted matching this scheme pretty soon now. I expect to get the new one, once it's an actual book, so I want to re-read the old stuff first.

Royal City, Vol. 2 is the second collection of the comics series by Jeff Lemire -- see my post on the first one.

Nexus Archives, Vol. 7 is another book collecting the '80s SF series by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. I've been gathering these very slowly for quite some time, which is not the best idea: they're not going to be available forever, if they're even still findable now. But they're big and expensive, and buying a half-dozen fifty-dollar books at once isn't something I can see myself doing.

Grass Kings, Vol. 1 is a collection by Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins -- I think this is an ongoing comics series, but I don't know much about it. I like Kindt's work, so I figured I'd take a flyer on it.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is another Jacques Tardi adaptation of a detective story -- this one by Leo Malet. Malet had a complicated series about detective Nestor Burma: there were thirty-some novels total, but eighteen of them were a sub-series, with each one focusing on a specific district of Paris. Tardi adapted five of those books, starting in the '80s with this one, set in the "Left Bank," the XIIIth arrondissement.

And last is a book I came across randomly: Mickey's Craziest Adventures, written by Lewis Trondheim and drawn by Keramidis. It's some kind of super-wacky Mickey Mouse adventure -- Trondheim is good at kids' comics, and good at wacky adventure, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #168: Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon by Sfar, Trondheim, Allfred, and Mazan

Dungeon Fortnight #17

At least for now, this is the end of Dungeon: there's plenty of time and space left in the timeline to set other stories, but these were the last-published albums (simultaneously, in 2014) and they're at the very end of the timeline, closing out the Twilight sub-series. If Dungeon only ever has one end, it always would have been this one.

As always, the US book The End of Dungeon collects two French albums: High Septentrion (Haut Septentrion), illustrated by Alfred and The End of Dungeon (La Fin du Donjon), drawn by Mazan. They officially occupy levels 110 and 111, but actually cover overlapping time periods, with action often whipsawing from pages in one album to the other.

(I found it occasionally difficult, when reading The End of Dungeon, to go back and figure out what High Septentrion events they happened in between: the whole thing gets a bit confusing.)

These are the most epic-fantasy moments of the whole series: there's a bit of that Dungeon satire in the mix, but a lot of the action here is played straight. There is a Dark Entity that wants to destroy the world, it keeps possessing various people and calling up champions from the past to fight for it, and Our Heroes have to battle it to save Terra Amata. It's certainly not the ending we expected from the tone of the rest of the series, but that's the issue with epic fantasy: it tends to take over and impose its standard narrative whenever it gets in. It's the kudzu of the literary world.

We start off with the islets floating higher and farther away, so the air is getting thinner and harder to breathe. The forces of the Dark Entity are consolidating most of the islets -- they seem to be able to move them together as well, in a way that isn't explained -- and giving their loyalists breathing helmets. The alternative way to keep breathing is to put on "barbarian caps" -- those things with blue flames on the cover -- and to also stay slightly drunk on barbarian beer the whole time.

The shamans Orlandoh and Gilberto tell Herbert that he has to go into the land of the dead, where he can talk with people from his past -- they can only say things they said in life, though, since nothing new can happen in the land of the dead -- to find Julian of Craftiwich, the only one who ever defeated the Dark Entity. As usual for journeys through the underworld, it is portentous and confusing and provides no clear guidance...and, meanwhile, things are getting steadily worse back in the world of the living.

Speaking of "meanwhile," there's a series of battles -- again, this happens confusingly across the two albums, which each tell some of the story but skip over events told in the other half. The two albums somewhat follow different characters -- Marvin the Dragon for High Septentrion and Herbert for End of Dungeon -- but the main cast is all together much of the time anyway.

It is all very epic fantasy: the Black Fortress is destroyed by Absolute Evil in one small panel at the top of a page, for example, since there's so much epic fantasy stuff to get in there's no time to waste. Somehow -- I'm really not sure at all what order things happen -- the Dark Entity possesses Papsukal and abandons him half-dead (?), possesses Zakutu and is driven out, and possesses Elyacin and is destroyed with him. (Because, if you have to sacrifice a child to defeat the Dark Entity, it will always be the adopted troll child.)

Similarly, Terra Amata re-forms, for no obvious reason, off-handedly in one panel near the very end of End of Dungeon, seemingly so the Dark Entity can be driven into the traditional pit of lava and destroyed forever. (Dark Lords can't stand lava, you know.)

Amid all of the hectic action, there are some good character moments and sequences of the goofy Dungeon style, particularly when Marvin the Red and Zakutu keep swapping bodies in the middle of the big assault on the Dark Entity.

Since this was two separate albums, it gets to end twice, Lord of the Rings-style. High Septentrion ends with Zakutu and Marvin the Red heading off together to have more adventures. And End of Dungeon does the "showing time passing" thing at the end, leaving us with first Marvin the Dragon and Herbert, old best friend together again, and then watching the ruins of the Dungeon weather over seasons or years or decades.

But this is a much bigger and straight-faced end to Dungeon than we expected, and not entirely an appropriate end to the stories and the tone we've had before. It is definitely an ending, though: co-writers Joan Sfar and Lewis Trondheim leave no doubt that this is over, done, finis.

Dungeon was a big, baggy thing: full of many stories in many modes and styles and drawn by different artists. It did have a tone that it kept most of the time -- sarcastic, a bit dismissive, fatalistic but oddly happy about it, and deeply French. With these books, it ended, at least for now: it could come back at any time, of course, but probably won't.

At its best, it's as good as comics get, a skewed view on standard fantasy tropes with quirky characterization and a clear viewpoint of its own. But, all too often, the translation was a little less than colloquial, with clunky sentence structure and confusing references -- maybe because Joe Johnson, who translated most or all of them, had to cram this very complicated dialogue into smaller balloons and captions than the original French size. That, I think was the major unfortunate moment of Dungeon: if the US market had been table to take these books at the larger page format, either individually or in combined editions, it would have all come cross much better in English.

But time is long, and the current edition of a book doesn't have to be the only one. Some day, it'll be time to republish Dungeon in English again, in a larger size and maybe in a slightly different organization or sequence. I hope the translation gets brushed up a bit at that time -- I'll be looking forward to it. For now, though, there are seventeen volumes in English, collecting thirty-four of the thirty-six French albums, and they all have good moments and strong points. If you haven't checked out Dungeon yet, I hope I've given you an idea of where you might want to start.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #167: Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 3: The New Centurions by Sfar, Trondheim, Kerascoet & Obion

Dungeon Fortnight #16

Twilight rolls onward, towards what looks like the inevitable destruction of the entire world of Terra Amata. The New Centurions collects two more French albums, and continues the split in tone we saw in the last volume: The New Centurions (Les Nouveaux Centurions) has big set-piece battles and political struggles, while Revolutions (it's the same word in French) tightens the focus back to the core cast (Marvin the Red, the Dust King and the nameless little bat) as they head out on their own for a smaller adventure.

Terra Amata was a normal-shaped world, but, for a poorly explained reason, it stopped spinning between the Zenith and Twilight series. The Grand Khan, who was Herbert the Duck before he joined with a Dark Entity, says that he stopped the world from spinning, which was the only way to keep it from breaking into pieces. That may be true: as soon as he lost the Dark Entity, the world did start spinning again, and broke itself into a myriad of flying rocks,  mostly each big enough for a habitat (or an adventure), each flying off in its own orbit over the now-molten core of the planet.

(Remember that this is a fantasy world. Yes, this is indeed preposterous geology. But it's fantasy geology, where preposterousness reigns supreme.)

The breaking happened in the last book, Armageddon, which also saw an Evil-Overlord power vacuum form when the Grand Khan killed himself briefly to get the Dark Entity to leave him. So now the Grand Khan is back to being just Herbert of Craftiwich, and many of his top-level henchmen -- including his nasty son Paksual -- are scrambling to fill those Evil Overlord shoes. Hence the big battle you see on the cover, in which Paksual and his allies attack the Dark Fortress -- which I've seen suggested some places is what used to be the Dungeon, though I didn't notice any hint of that in-story -- and various people named Marvin and/or Herbert defend it with flying armored suits and/or dragons.

There's also a rape plotline, which is handled too off-handedly and for humor until it disappears entirely without resolution. Perhaps it means that co-writers Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim are trying to think about the women of this world -- Zakutu also gets some good scenes, and gets to be strong -- but they're still not succeeding on the level we might hope. The rape exists to show the usual moments: how evil an evil person is, how noble and rule-bound a good person is, and how hotheadedness can ruin everything. All of those moments, of course, happen to men, which is the core problem.

All of that takes place in the first album collected here, The New Centurions, drawn by the Kerascoet team. (They are a married couple, and they also drew the previous Twilight album.)

Eventually, Marvin the Dragon and Marvin the Red, along with the character I guess we've given up calling anything but Little Bat, bug out of Dodge, since they don't want to bother with all of this responsibility and seriousness stuff. That sends them into Revolutions, drawn by Obion, a much smaller story and one with more pointed satirical aim.

They land on an islet, and lose their transportation almost immediately. This particular land is rotating, slowly enough that you can walk ahead of it but quickly enough that you'll fall off and die if you go to sleep somewhere. There's also carnivorous grass, if that's not bad enough. An aristocrat type, the Takmool, has a big villa mounted on wheels, which he has the locals pull unceasingly -- they get two shifts pulling, and then one shift resting in the villa, which he presents as a good deal.

(There are other accommodations, including a group that uses nets to keep themselves from falling into the void. This works most of the time, which is not as encouraging as it could be. No one has yet hit upon building something permanent right at the end of the axis of rotation, but maybe geography makes that infeasible. The plot also treats the world as if it were a very large and even roller shape rather than the depicted irregular spheroid, but that's my old SFnal mind trying to make sense of something meant as pure fantasy.)

Of course our heroes note the inequities of the villa set-up, and of course they cause trouble. Some of the trouble they cause is because one of them canoodles with the Takmool's daughter, and the other with his wife, which works out as well here as it does in any other Dungeon story. And of course they do not manage to usher in a new age of peace and equality, because this is Dungeon. But it is funny along the way, with a lot of inventive almost-falling-off-the-islet action. And it is, again, one of the most clearly satirical pieces of Dungeon.

All in all, though, the two stories here don't really move the Twilight plot forward. The world has been broken, but life is going on in the ruins. (I don't want to sound like that's a bad thing -- one of the core messages of Dungeon is that life does go on, in strange and unexpected ways, and so you just need to hang on to it as best you can.) That will all change in the next volume -- tomorrow we hit The End of Dungeon and the end of this series.