Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #264: Nobrow 9: It's Oh So Quiet

When you pick up a large trade paperback -- eight by twelve issues, roughly, 128 pages -- in a library, you expect to have a book on your hands. So you can image my surprise when, while googling after reading today's choice, I discovered the awful truth: this object is not a book at all.

It's a magazine.

Oh, sure, it looks like a book, and the publication schedule is pretty attenuated at once a year. (At the publishing company where I work, we put out a lot of books annually, but we don't claim that makes them magazines.) But Nobrow 9: It's Oh So Quiet, the 2014 edition of a showcase of comics and illustration, declares itself to be a magazine, and so it's upended Book-A-Day entirely, and wrecked all of my plans.

(Well, I might be exaggerating just slightly.)

As far as I can tell, since this, um... object itself has no words besides minimal author credits and the requisite copyright announcement, Nobrow is published by a UK group every spring with a different theme, collecting both comics and illustration by a wide variety of creators. (The copyright notice indicates that this one was edited by Sam Arthur, Alex Spiro, and Ben Newman.) All of the work is in soft, desaturated color -- the cover is a good example -- and I have to admit that the artists with work in here are entirely unfamiliar to me.

That's not a bad thing, though: the illustration is stunning and impressive, with each of thirty artists getting a full-bleed spread for their work. And the comics are almost as good, fifteen elliptical four-page stories about quiet moments and strange events. They're all aggressively multi-panel affairs, requiring time and close attention to appreciate -- this is a wordless book, but that doesn't mean you can, or should, roar through it at speed.

Nobrow 9 is instead a publication to be savored, to linger over pages and think about what's so quiet about a particular picture. It's full of interesting art and ideas; if you see it, at least take a minute to look through. But don't forget: it's actually a magazine!

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #263: Fables, Vols. 15 & 16 by Willingham, Buckingham, et. al.

It's not that I avoided writing about the Fables series for the past three years -- since I covered the fourteenth volume, Witches, in early 2011 -- it's that I haven't actually read any of the Fables books since then, as my flood later that year threw a giant hitch in my reading plans and discombobulated everything. (I've still got the last two collections of Jack of Fables on the shelf, plus a Cinderella collection -- and that's not even counting Fairest, which I haven't gotten around to even picking up in a store.)

But I used to really enjoy this series, and I've been following writer Bill Willingham's work since Elementals back in the 1980s -- and that's a property that's been completely forgotten for some unknown reason; I'd have expected a nice fat collection of it any time in the past eight years -- so I decided to jump back in with both feet, and read the next two collections, Rose Red and Super Team, back to back. As usual, the penciller for most of the stories is Mark Buckingham, who has been with the series since the beginning, and he's mostly inked by Steve Leialoha. But, as usual, the maw of monthly comics publication require fill-ins, and big complicated stories that can range across all of imaginative literature call out for varied visual presentations, so there's also artwork here from Eric Shanower, from Inaki Miranda, and from Terry Moore.

Willingham has always written this series in rather vague arcs, more Claremont X-Men than Gaiman Sandman, with a much larger plot going on overall and the smaller stories -- from a single issue to five or six, twenty pages to about a hundred and fifty -- usually illuminating some piece of backstory for that larger story, or moving it forward just a bit, or providing a bit of color. So there have been about twenty collections of Fables so far, but only two stories to this point, really: the battle against the Adversary, and then the battle against Mister Dark.

The latter story comes to a climax in both of these volumes, seeming finished near the end of Rose Red only to flare up again until what I believe is a more lasting ending in Super Team. But most the pages of these books tell other stories -- a long digression to Rose Red's youth in the first volume, along with a single-issue tour of Mister Dark's ever-more-dangerous and depressing New York; and the second one focuses mostly on an eventually useless (and always silly and comics-fan indulgent) plan to defend the Fables' last home against that Mister Dark, while their salvation happens somewhere else, at someone else's hands.

It's all very periodical comics-style: there's twenty-some pages to fill this month and every month, so there's plenty of time to digress over here and there as long as the audience is still interested. Willingham's building blocks here are always issues; he may have arcs that cover several issues, or issues broken into shorter stories, but the issue is always there, always the core metric of a mainstream comics series. Fables isn't exactly tired by this point -- it's a huge, nearly infinite conceit, with more stories than any creative team could exhaust -- but this particular core cast has a lot of miles behind them, and a shrinking story-space for their future adventures. So knowing that the end of the series is looming isn't a bad thing -- and, after all, there are around eight hundred more pages of Fables to go from this point.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Incoming Books: Week of 9/20

I was in the mood to buy books a week ago, and I wanted to start filling out my reading projects shelf with some ideas I've had, so I went to ABEbooks and ended up ordering a whole bunch of books from a store in Reno (of all places). They're R&R Books, and they had a lot of stuff for a dollar -- I wasn't sure what they'd look like, but I was happily surprised by the condition of everything I got from them. (Nearly all of this stuff was just a buck, plus reasonable shipping costs.)

For my Vintage Contemporaries project:
  • Love Always by Anne Beattie
  • The Wrong Case by James Crumley -- which I'm really looking forward to re-reading; his first two or three mysteries were great
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney -- to launch the whole project, and the next major book in my hopper now
For other reading projects:
  • The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald -- I may decide to change focus and collect all of the newish Black Lizard editions before my re-read, but, even so: this was only a buck
  • Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg
  • The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg -- the plan here is to do a Starktober-style re-read of all of Silverberg's classic-period novels (roughly 1967-75) over the course of one month, one a day
  • Watch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake
And then some other books, just because:

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker: I had a copy of this before the flood, left unread partially so I could still have some Baker to look forward to. I may read it this time around, or leave it again, since she's not going to give us any new novels now.

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser: I'm not sure if I'm rebuying these for a big re-read, or just on general principle. I guess I'll see once I have them all, won't I?

Dating Your Mom by Ian Frazier: The other major old collection of funny short works by the author of Coyote V. Acme, a nice short book of really funny stuff -- it will definitely get a re-read.

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux: Another book I had before the flood, but I don't feel so bad -- this one was cheap, and there's every chance I would have replaced my original hardcover with a trade paperback like this before reading it anyway. (I prefer to read in bound galleys or trade paperback, generally.)

Changeling by Roger Zelazny: I'm probably going to try to re-build my Zelazny shelf eventually. But I should have checked: I already had this in trade paperback, so a book club hardcover wasn't much of an upgrade.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #262: Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" by John Stanley & Tony Tallarico

The world of American comics has been tilted in favor of artists for decades now, for obvious reasons. It's a visual medium, dominated by the appeal to the eye, and the history of comics is almost entirely the history of artists -- even such well-known writers as Alan Moore and Brian Michael Bendis started off drawing their own stories, and writers who never drew, such as Bill Finger, are exceptionally rare. (Artists who write -- or vice versa, if you want to think of it the other way; what I think of as pure cartoonists -- aren't rare at all; in strip cartoons, they're the overwhelming majority.)

I'm a words guy; I come from the lands of words-on-paper, and I tend to look at comics in terms of story rather than art. So I've got a definite bias in favor of the writer, and I tend to be happy with projects that focus on comics writers. But sometimes even that can go too far.

Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" is part of Drawn & Quarterly's "John Stanley Library," a multi-year project to collect the comics written by Stanley (and sometimes drawn by him) across various humor genres and licensed characters from the 1940s through the 1960s. This book collects the first nine issues of the title series, towards the end of Stanley's comics career, as Dell was trying to get in on some of the Archie business with their own teen comic. And only buried deeply in the appreciative introduction by the cartoonist Seth (also the book's designer) will you discover that the first two issues here were actually drawn by Tony Tallarico -- the focus is entirely on Stanley as a writer, and the fact that he drew the next seven issues is similarly not given much attention.

Now, Stanley's own art is vastly better for this series than Tallarico was: anyone looking at these pages can see that. Stanley's work is loose, energetic, just a hair to the cartoony side to sell the physical comedy and full of closely examined and slightly exaggerated body language. Tallarico was, instead, a little too precise and a little too specific: his characters looked thirteen in a way Stanley's didn't. So Stanley's work is definitely the best in the book, and the bulk of the book -- but that doesn't excuse almost completely ignoring Tallarico's work.

I have to admit that I haven't been on the Stanley bandwagon up to this point: I read two volumes of his Melvin Monster (another '60s series, this time as Dell tried to jump on the Addams Family/Munsters bandwagon) and found them thin, and looked at the first collection of his Nancy comic books and found it couldn't compare, in my mind, to Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller's strip work. So I came into this book pretty skeptical.

Seth's introduction claims a lot for Stanley and this series -- he calls it "surely Stanley's last comic book masterpiece,"and goes on to analyze a lot of the elements of the stories here. He notes that it starts a bit shakily -- not just the mismatch of Tallarico's art, but a sense that Stanley was writing his way into these characters -- and he's absolutely right. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say "masterpiece," but once Thirteen establishes its characters and gets going, it's a manic, hilarious collection of wonderfully told stories about a bunch of teen oddballs, with great dialogue and quirkily interesting situations.

It's both conventional and oddball: focusing on the friendship of two teen girls, but making them individual and spiky. Val is the conventionally pretty one, an overly dramatic blonde who's crazy about boys and has a complicated relationship -- half brotherly, half fallback boyfriend --with the kid next door, Billy. Judy, her best friend, is grumpy, mean, gossipy, and vindictive -- and she also starts off the series seriously overweight, and even after she unexplainedly slims down she remains less attractive as a person than Val, stuck with the equally oddball Wilbur as her default boyfriend.

Smart comedy knows that flawed characters are funnier, and Stanley is a very smart comedian with this series: every character is a collection of bad behaviors, unrealistic expectations, and strange quirks, and he bounces them off each other again and again, almost like an experimenter carefully varying his initial conditions in a study. Thirteen gets wickedly funny once Stanley starts drawing his own scripts: it's full of the humor of upset assumptions, foiled plans, and manic energy.

If you haven't clicked with Stanley before, this would be a good book to try: it worked for me in ways other Stanley works haven't. (I also hear good things about his Little Lulu stories, which are the bulk of his career: I had a few collections of those before the flood, but they got destroyed before they got read.) This is a series about two teenage girls, and tightly focused on a few people and a few stock situations, yes -- but tight focus can be great for comedy, and that proves true here. Thirteen is only of interest in people who have ever been in love, have ever had friends and siblings, ever had to deal with other people with different ideas -- it's only about all of us, and only wickedly, amazingly, wonderfully funny.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #261: Let Us Be Perfectly Clear by Paul Hornschmeier

Paul Hornschmeier's art style is always soft and rounded, even when it doesn't seem like it should be -- even his robots and stone-faced midgets look squishy and cuddly, the unlikely soft toys from some much odder world than ours. That goes a long way to wear down the sharp edges of his existentially dark stories, but even more puts the two parts of comics, words and art, into a quivering tension.

His full-length graphic novels -- I've so far read Mother, Come Home and Life With Mr. Dangerous -- tend to push that tension down below the surface of relatively mundane stories about regular people and their travails. But his short stories revel in strangeness and quirk, which brings us to his collection Let Us Be Perfectly Clear.

Let Us Be Perfectly Clear is a flip book -- Let Us Be on one side, Perfectly Clear on the other, meeting in the middle with "About the Author" pages upside down to each other. And I learn from a certain online book store's description, well after I read the book itself, that Perfectly Clear contains comedic stories and Let Us Be morose ones. That's plausible afterwards, though during the reading, it seemed more like Perfectly had the short, strange stories and Perfectly Clear had the long, ominous ones. Perhaps I'm just describing what "comedic" and "morose" meant to the young Hornschmeier -- these stories were originally published a decade or more ago, and collected in 2006.

These stories are Hornschmeier at his most philosophical, his most enigmatic, his most odd, his most ironic, his most arch, and his most weird -- and it's difficult to describe them any more than that without talking about specific stories, like the one that wanders through several plots almost aimlessly (possibly as an analog to changing TV channels) or the one where two men meet to watch "videos"whose subject is very carefully not quite explained. And then the funny side of the book is primarily single-pagers -- and explaining those would be very close to spoiling the jokes, assuming any of us consider them jokes.

These are weird, artsy comics, drawn in a bright, cheery style but with daggers lurking at every turn in the narrative. If you like weird, artsy short comics, this is a wonderful collection of them, and you should have a great time. If your idea of comics is more conventionally American, you'll want to stay far away from the section of the store with Hornschmeier books.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #260: The Shadow Master Series, Vol. 1 by Helfer & Sienkiewicz

It's art that dates mainstream comics, most of the time -- those blocky, bland Silver Age Supermen, the gritty guys with too many pouches and straps in the '90s. Some artists, though, are so much themselves that they stand outside their time -- too specific to be leaders of a style, too particular to be anything but themselves.

Bill Sienkiewicz was the unique artist of the late '80s, his style slowly mutating from a typical Neal Adams-esque superhero look of the day on Moon Knight through his eye-catching run on New Mutants. His scratchy, expressionistic drawings -- shifting effortlessly from realistic faces to spiky things, embedded primitivist sound effects, and raw explosions of image -- were like no one else, not just at the time but in comics at all. And right after possibly his most high-profile book, the sublime and demented Elektra: Assassin (scripted by Frank Miller), Bill Sienkiewicz drew the first six issues of the relaunched Shadow comic for DC -- yes, the pulp hero with the big hat and the power to cloud men's minds.

It was possibly an odd choice, but Sienkiewicz thrived on odd choices -- though his oddest work, Stray Toasters, was still ahead of him at that point. The Shadow had never been particularly popular in comics, though companies and creators kept trying to make him big -- and, in the late '80s of the Punisher, Watchmen, and Dark Knight, maybe he was the grim, gritty hero whose time in comics had finally come.

That first six-issue story arc -- scripted by the hugely underrated Andrew Helfer, who did that whole run of Shadow comics, sparking ever greater demented heights from Sienkiewicz and then Kyle Baker -- has been collected, for what I think is the first time, as Shadow Master Series, Vol. 1. Helfer and Sienkiewicz's work is perfectly matched by Richmond Lewis, who laid down great slabs of color, making the most of the limited '80s palette and adding even more energy to Sienkiewicz's vibrant pages.

The story followed out of Howard Chaykin's just-prior miniseries (Blood & Judgment; also recently reprinted), which brought the Shadow into the late '80s as a still young and vital man and surrounded him with a new gang of assistants and operatives, including his two twentysomething sons. Helfer brewed up a complicated stew of story for this first arc, weaving plotlines of three villains together in a Claremontian way but also definitively ending the story in these six issues. It wasn't yet "writing for the trade," but Helfer was telling a multi-issue story, with definite beginnings and ends, and doing it with great style and wit.

So this volume sees the return of one of the Shadow's deadliest foes, Shiwan Khan, in a surprising new role. And a mysterious television evangelist known only as The Light. And plenty of action and blazing guns and that menacing, creepy laugh. If you're going to read any Shadow story in comics at all, you'd better check out this one.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #259: Is That a Fact? by Dr. Joe Schwarcz

Joe Schwarcz -- "Dr. Joe," of course, since he's a media figure -- is something like the Carl Sagan of Canada, a working scientist who is also a tireless science popularizer, equally adept at explaining new actual science and debunking pseudo-scientific frauds. (He's even an amateur magician -- maybe he's actually the James Randi of Canada -- which has a great help for many debunkers.)

His most recent book is Is That a Fact?, which collects a hundred or so of what seem to be individual articles or columns. (The book itself doesn't explain their origin, though, and it's possible that he wrote this book straight out in this info-nugget form.) It's organized by plausibility, or quackery, starting with a "black" section about out-and-out frauds and misrepresentations of science, moving on to a "gray" section where there could be some doubt, and then ends up in "white" writing about gee-whiz stories of science and technology.

This is an unfortunate structure, for this reader at least, since it places all of the most interesting and fun material up front. I'm sure the story of Sir Humphry Davies is very historically significant, but the last third of this book is primarily made up of Schwarcz being really enthusiastic -- he's a popularizer; it's part of the job -- about things that aren't actually all that interesting or out of the ordinary.

Schwarcz's training is in chemistry, which is particularly good when he writes about food-based quackery, which is a large portion of the beginning of the book. (A lot of your first-generation debunkers had physics or astronomy training, so they focused on perpetual motion machines, UFOs, and free energy cranks; Schwarcz has a relatively open field of stupidity in front of him.) But recent breakthroughs in chemistry are few, which also tends to make the end of this book somewhat more dull -- he doesn't have string theory or new exoplanets to fall back on like the physics guys do.

Still, it's a well-written book by a smart guy that carefully explains why a lot of things many people believe -- our old friend homeopathy, colon cleansing, food "toxins," quacky cancer cures -- are complete bunkum, and discusses in a friendly and lively manner actual science. It will have an entirely positive affect on the world, no matter where it lands or who reads it, and you can't say that of many books.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #258: Bigfoot by Pascal Girard

It's easier to become famous now than it ever has been in history -- easier for a life to be completely transformed by a sudden audience, for good or bad. There have been plenty of stories about the fantasy side of that story -- the ingenue discovered at the soda fountain, the kid who goes out there in the chorus and comes back a star, the singer who gets on that big TV show -- but not much from the more realistic side. And fame is fractal now: someone can be intensely famous, suddenly, in a small area.

Teenager Jimmy is that kind of famous. A video of him dancing -- as the aphorism says, like nobody was watching -- was uploaded to YouTube by his best friend Simon. It was a small joke, but now everyone in their small Canadian town has seen the video -- and everyone knows "Disco Jimmy," and isn't shy about calling out to him whenever he's out in public.

That would be bad enough, but Jimmy's Uncle Pierre films his own video soon afterward: he thinks he's seen Bigfoot. Jimmy tries to convince him not to post it, but the lure of fame is too strong. And soon Pierre is being mocked as well, even more so because he's related to Disco Jimmy.

But that's all really background in Pascal Girard's naturalistic and affecting graphic novel Bigfoot; this is really the story of a couple of love triangles that intersect with Jimmy. In big fake entertainment, the hero has always been in love with someone, pining from afar, and gets together with her after the big corny showboat maneuver in the third act. Bigfoot is more like real life: Jimmy likes, or loves, or has a crush on Jolene, a girl he's known all his life. But he can't tell her, maybe because he's not sure what to say, or what he really feels -- but he wants to be near her. So he signs up for a drawing class at the local cultural center, because he's overheard that Jolene is in the class.

But teenagers are restless and unsure, so Jimmy also gets roped into a double date with Simon, with two girls from the local religious school. And so he spends time with Jessica, walks her home, kisses her on her doorstep. In a Hollywood movie, this would be a huge betrayal; in life, it's just what happens when you're not sure what to do. And it all comes together, or apart, when Simon and Jimmy and Jolene all spend a weekend in Pierre's remote cabin -- Simon wants a shot at his own Bigfoot video, Jolene is along to see what happens, and Jimmy is hoping to spark something with Jolene.

None of it works out that way, especially for Jimmy. Girard never breaks the flow of his story with narration, but Jimmy's negativity and grumpiness -- even if we readers know exactly why, and what he's feeling -- drive events exactly the way he doesn't want. It's honest, and sad, and utterly true -- I was reminded a lot of the great movie Gregory's Girl; Girard has a similar sense of the aimless lack of focus of young men and the places that can lead.

Bigfoot is told in a tight three-by-four grid, packing twelve panels to the page and allowing for a lot more story and nuance than you'd expect from a 48-page album. (It's an interesting contract to the two other Girard books that have been translated into English: the earlier Nicolas has mostly borderless images on its small pages, and the slightly later Reunion has a looser grid, again without panel borders.) Bigfoot is an exquisite, perfectly poised story of young love and longing and jealousy, equally universal and specific.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/13

I'm back again for another week of new books -- as always, my hope is that one of these will be your favorite book of the year, or at least something you read and enjoy. All of the below items came to me through the offices of the hard-working publicists of "big publishing" -- I haven't yet read any of them, so none of this is technically a "review." But I can tell you some things about these books from looking at them and from prior knowledge, so that's just what I'll do.

Last Plane to Heaven is the final short-story collection from Jay Lake, and probably his last book; he was fighting colon cancer -- hilariously, heartbreakingly fighting it, out in public, at conventions and in his online writings -- for several years before he died this June, and cancer and the drugs that fought it stole Lake's ability to write fiction along the way. (Yet another twisted irony that the stronger Lake would have made much of: his cancer killed him by inches, stealing all of the things that mattered one by one before that final blow.) I haven't read as much Lake as I should -- I used to have a shelf of his novels waiting for me, before the flood -- but I hope to make time for this, to remember a fine writer and a great member of the SF community, an excellent man who stood up and said "fuck cancer" as loudly as he spun intricate stories and told the truth of this world as he saw it. Last Plane to Heaven is a Tor hardcover, officially going on sale tomorrow.

Nancy Kress has a new short novel, Yesterday's Kin, available now as a slim trade paperback from Tachyon -- who also published her Nebula-winner After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, two years back, in the same format. It's an alien-contact story, with a landing in near-future New York and the evolutionary biologist who's dragged into their schemes.

Jack Campbell's major military SF series is back in The Lost Stars: Imperfect Sword, the third in that series (which I think is a continuation of his previous ten-book series "The Lost Fleet"). It's an Ace hardcover coming October 7th, and it involves the liberation of something called the Midway Star System -- I suspect there may be a certain historical parallel in mind here.

Mercedes Lackey has a new Valdemar novel in Closer to Home, the first in a new subseries called "The Herald Spy." It's a DAW hardcover coming October 7th, and it centers around Mags, a popular character from Lackey's previous Valdemar subseries, "The Collegium Chronicles." I haven't read Lackey's books in a few years, but I found her '90s and '00s books always dependably entertaining and usually a lot of fun -- she was my guilty pleasure at the SFBC for a lot of years.

Terry Pratchett has mostly concentrated on novels over his long and wonderful career -- it's how he's written over fifty of them -- but I guess he has written enough nonfiction to fill a book. Because that book now exists: A Slip of the Keyboard, a Doubleday hardcover coming September 23rd. (Doubleday is in the middle of a big Pratchett burst, focusing on the odder Discworld pseudo-non-fiction books, for which I love them: if they can manage to bring the hilarious and nearly untranslatable [1] Nanny Ogg's Cookbook to American shores, they'll officially become my favorite publisher ever.) I've been a Pratchett reader for a couple of decades now, and I'm a huge lover of novelists' occasional nonfiction -- don't ask me why, but it's a form I always love -- so this was a book that raised an audible sound from me when I opened the package. (As a respectable middle-aged man, I won't characterize that sound.)

Doubleday is also bringing out an American edition of The Compleat Ankh-Morpork, a massively expanded and updated version of the map that Pratchett's UK publisher first released a decade or so ago. This version is credited to "Terry Pratchett, aided and abetted by The Discworld Emporium," which I suspect means that Pratchett organized and edited and approved all of it, but that others ferreted out all of the references from his novels and did most of the heavy lifting to put it all together. (In particular, I can't find a notice of who actually drew the map, which is a gigantic double-sided thing -- even after the substantial work of organization, just putting it onto paper was a massive undertaking.) This will be available October 28th, and is a perfect example of the kind of thing book publishing can do and electronic publishing simply can't. If you had any questions about the muckily fabulous twinned central cities of Discworld, this is the place to go for your answers.

[1] British English is not that far from American English, admittedly. But British cookery, and the details thereof, is very, very far.