Friday, December 09, 2016

How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

Really smart writers are the ones who can take worn out metaphors, the kind that have become cliches through overuse, and make them vital again. And really smart artists similarly transform the stories they tell, making words into pictures that tell more than the original words ever could.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties was originally a short story -- by Neil Gaiman, obviously. Two young men: one boisterous and outgoing, the other quiet and unsure (our narrator) are in London, in the author's own youth, looking for a party where they think there will be girls. They really want there to be girls at the party -- maybe one specific one, but they're not in a position to be that picky yet -- but our narrator is also afraid, or worried.

The trouble with girls at that age -- it may be the trouble with boys as well, but that was never the way I was focusing my attention, so I have no expertise there -- is that they seem really strange and different, as if they've suddenly transformed.

As if they were from a different planet entirely.

Gaiman turned that idea, that metaphor, into a great short story, entirely dependent on that one idea and the voice of the narrator -- who, like a lot of Gaiman narrators from Violent Cases to The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is not exactly Neil Gaiman. He looks a bit like Gaiman, he acts a bit like Gaiman, he's doing many of the same things Gaiman did at the same age...and, like here, if he has a name (Enn), it doesn't seem like his real name. All stories are autobiographical; all stories are lies.

Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba -- call them the Brazilian wonder twins, because all three of those words are true -- took that story and adapted it into sixty-two pages of comics, now available as a book. It's the short story in a different form: more visual, perhaps, and slightly more obvious because of that. But it's not simplified or changed, just translated into a different medium.

It doesn't replace the story -- nothing replaces a story, not a movie or the fact that it comes true or the fact that it can now never come true -- but it's a beautiful, wonderful version of that story, with pictures as good as Gaiman's original words. Maybe read the story first, though. Some sneaky things need to come into your head as words first.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Miracleman: The Golden Age by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham

I was going to say that Marvel must have been thrilled to have the travails of Miracleman behind them -- wrangling over rights, trying to figure out how to promote a book whose writer insists that his name never appear in conjunction with it -- to settle into this run by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham, two not just excellent creators but very professional men still active in the industry. It must have seemed like a Golden Age of its own.

But in starting to write here I wondered when the next book -- The Silver Age, half-completed by Gaiman and Buckingham twenty-plus years ago as Eclipse Comics went onto the rocks -- was going to come out. And I find from a quick Google that those legal issues -- or maybe different ones; one can never assume with Miracleman -- have reared up again, and the next storyline is on hold until the lawyers finish up their work.

So perhaps Miracleman is cursed, after all, as I suggested when I looked at the first volume of Alan Moore's stories a few years ago. (See also my notes on the second and third Moore volumes -- I feel like I'm shouting his name and Miracleman repeatedly into a mirror, to see if he manifests and tries to murder me.) Something in this world does not want you to read Miracleman stories, and each one must be snatched from the claws of that something and dragged out into the wider world.

The most recent batch of things snatched from those claws is Miracleman: The Golden Age, written by Gaiman and drawn by Buckingham. It was planned, all those years ago, to be the first of three ages that this team would create for Miracleman before handing it over (possibly) to some other team to keep going forward. The Silver Age was half-done when it all went to hell in the early '90s, and The Dark Age apparently just a few pages of notes. Maybe they'll exist in full someday -- you never can tell with Miracleman.

These stories did make it out: they tell of the utopia that Miracleman and his superpowered compatriots created after the destruction of London. It's told as a series of mostly independent short stories, from the points of view of ordinary people in that world -- Miracleman and his pantheon are gods at this point (though both benevolent and active, not usual for most pantheons). The world is full of wonders and plenty, but life goes on -- couples find each other and break up, kids explore the boundaries of who they want to be, and ordinary people tell each other of their encounters with the gods. Some of those gods are their own children -- Miracleman's daughter Winter was only the first, and now, a few years later, there are hundreds of superpowered, super-intelligent, super-advanced creatures that look like small human children.

There's a lot of sadness in this Utopia, much of it from memories of the destruction in Olympus, the climactic Moore storyline. But there's a deeper melancholy as well: the Miraclepeople and the new children are not really human, and their parents can no more understand them than those parents could go frolic in the heart of a star. (But the children can do both, and a million other things besides.) The old humans get plenty and new fancy technological toys and the freedom to do and live anything...but none of it really means anything when there are gods flying around ruling the world.

This was always planned to be a transitional storyline, moving from Moore's budding Utopia at the end of Olympus to the peak of that happiness and showing the seeds of the unhappiness that would follow. It's not meant to be an ending. And, I hope, before long it won't be, and we'll finally be able to read the full Silver Age. But, for now, we have this ambiguous Utopia, with the cracks showing, and the wonder of what will happen to it.

(Note: the book I have features a cover very similar but not identical to the one above. As is too common these days, Marvel has infested the market with far too many covers for this book and its component single issues, and created a thriving market for lots of things that are internally the same but look different from the outside. There's a metaphor there, I think.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist

Self-publishing is tough. Single-panel gag cartoons are tough. Self-publishing a book of single-panel gag cartoons while you have two kids under the age of five plus a newborn is so tough I can barely conceive of it. But that's how Kyle Baker, Cartoonist happened, a little over a decade ago.

Baker doesn't fit neatly into any of the boxes of the comics world -- well, I bet a lot of creators feel that way, but Baker's been aggressively charging into all directions of the landscape since he nearly-simultaneously drew the movie tie-in miniseries of Howard the Duck for Marvel and created his first solo graphic novel, the still totally awesome Cowboy Wally Show. So he's exactly the kind of creator that you'd expect would eventually self-publish -- probably the big project he'd been working on in the background for years. You know: that kind of interesting writer/artist, who drops in and out of work-for-hire stuff while looping back to the projects he creates from scratch.

And he did: his Nat Turner series came out from his homebrew publishing company in 2005...but only after he did some books of gag cartoons about his family. That's what I mean about not fitting into boxes: even when he zags instead of zigging, he zags somewhere else first.

This book, I think, was the inaugural publication of Kyle Baker Publishing -- again, right after the birth of his third child, for maximum difficulty -- and it offers about a hundred and twenty pages of funny. Lots of it are single-panel cartoons, though there's no indication that Baker did or tried to get them published anywhere else first. But there are also lots of longer sequences: four panels, three pages, with dialogue or without. The first half is full of random cartoons, about people and animals and a few of the usual cliches (I saw at least one desert-island gag).

The second half looks towards the next couple of Kyle Baker Publishing projects: it's all about his family. Little kids are funny when looked at the right way: they do silly things nearly every day that just need to be fine-tuned into jokes. (Note: this is not as easy as I'm making it sound. Also, people with little kids tend to be sleep-deprived and not up to heavy joke-construction in most cases.)

Baker's generally working in my favorite of his art styles here: crisp, cartoony hand-drawn lines with grey washes for depth. He does have a lot of set-in-type balloons -- Baker uses non-standard comics fonts a lot, for reasons I don't know, and they tend to look odd to my eye -- but there's many more wordless comics or captioned panels, and those are great, not doing anything to set off my nitpicky complaint engine.

Anyway: this book is ten years old, and I bet these kids would like you to forget when they were young and adorable. (I know mine do.) But Baker is pretty darn good at this funny-cartooning thing, as seen in Cowboy Wally and his run on Plastic Man and a lot of other stuff. If you come across a Baker-being-funny book, give it a close look: you'll probably really like it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Bucko by Jeff Parker and Erika Moen

I could have sworn that I read this book before. But most of the events in it were completely new. So either there's some other book inexplicably really close to the premise of Bucko (which would be really unlikely), or I read just the first few pages some time long ago, or I'm hallucinating again.

In any case: Bucko. Originally a webcomic, then turned into print. Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Erika Moen. Longer and denser than it looks, with commentary by the creators on the bottom of most pages and about twenty pages of extra stuff at the end.

It's the story of a threesome.

Well, a failed threesome. It opens with our title character -- his name is Rich, but he gets saddled with "Bucko" here, and it sticks -- waking up on a couch in the apartment of Gyp, the girl he met the night before. Her quickly learns they all got too drunk -- him, Gyp, and Gyp's mostly-lesbian roommate Dell -- for the three-way Gyp had hinted at the night before. But Bucko has no time for romance: he's already late for a job interview, so he rushes out...and walks into a dead body at the office where he interviews.

That's all in the first five pages of a 120-page story; I'm not going to get into that much detail for the rest of it, or we'd be here all day. Suffice it to say that Bucko is a very plotty book, full of colorful characters and weird situations and bizarre moments and quirky dialogue. Did I forget to mention that this is all set in Portland (Oregon), where the hipsters and goofballs roam free? Well, take that as read now.

Bucko is arrested for the murder, but doesn't stay in jail long. But finding the real murderer -- and, much more importantly, getting a job and achieving that three-way -- will take much longer (four long acts worth), and involve:
  • a Pixies cover band that performs on bicycles
  • the Queen of the Suicide Girls
  • a Maker's Fair
  • another dead body in a bathroom, found by you-know-who
  • Gyp's roommate Dell doing strip karaoke
  • a fight with Juggalettes, who in best comic-book fashion then team up with our heroes
  • a sinister bike-theft ring
  • weaponized farts
  • a wiki devoted to the search for the missing Bucko
  • a hobo jungle constructed entirely of books
Bucko is a goofy book -- Parker admits that he wrote it one page at a time, to see how Moen would adapt each idea, and then wrote the next page based on what she did. So this is a loose, shaggy story, that wanders around Portland over the course of a few weeks and brings in every cliche or actual element of Portland that either of them could think of over the course of the year that they made this comic. You do need to have a relatively high tolerance for goofiness and hipsters to enjoy it. But who doesn't like seeing jokes about hipsters?

Bucko provides a rollicking good time, and promises that failed threesome -- expanded into a foursome, since everything in Bucko is bigger and odder than you expect -- will take place just a few minutes after the last page. What more could you want?

Monday, December 05, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/3

This is one of those weeks when the wonderful folks at Yen Press (Hi, Ellen!) have sent me boxes and boxes of manga goodies, and so I have a long list of books to get through. So I'll try to do it quickly, since I need to run off with the family to get a Christmas tree in just over an hour. (It's 8:09 AM on Sunday as I type this.)

As always:
  • these books came in my mail, somewhat unexpectedly
  • I haven't read them
  • I hope you will find something to love
  • And so here's what seems interesting
I'll start off, as usual, with the non-Yen books -- first up is a new novella from Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia. Chairman Bruce hasn't been as active in fiction this last decade -- with The Caryatids in 2009, something I never heard of before named Love Is Strange in 2012, and now this book -- but I hope this signals that he's back; we could use the old Sterling from the '80s and '90s to make sense of our new world. Pirate Utopia comes to us from Tachyon, and is some kind of oddball historical SF, possibly steampunk -- it's set right after WW I, in the new futurist-dominated nation of Carnaro (which I keep reading as "Camaro"), and seems to be about their power struggles as they try to build a new nation with the aid of American visitors H.P. Lovecraft and Houdini.

And from Pyr in trade paperback: Judgment at Verdant Court, the third in the "World of Prime" epic fantasy series by M.C. Planck. (Insert joke about length of this book being the "Planck distance" here.) This series is about a mechanical engineer turned into priest of a war god -- I think he's a local engineer, rather than the more typical contemporary-guy-who-walked-around-the-horses. And I gather by this point in the series, he has a truly impressive prophet-of-God beard, looking at the cover.

Everything else if from Yen Press, as previously mentioned, and is rolling out to stores and electron-vending establishments this month. I'll present them in basically alphabetical order by format.

I cannot say definitively that Akame ga KILL! Zero, Vol. 4 is full of fan-service, does come sealed in plastic and features a limber young woman doing the standing splits on the cover. So I can take a guess. This come to us from Takahiro and Kei Toru, and continues the prequel series to the main Akame ga KILL! storyline.

Aoharu Machinegun, Vol. 2 is by an entity credited as NAOE [1]. It's about a team in some kind of firearms-based competition -- it seems to be real-world rather than virtual, and regular semi-auto guns rather than the highly-engineered single-shot competition rifles I'd expect, which may mean they're shooting at each other. But the back cover is vague, and there's no list of characters, so all I can say is: competition with guns. And we're still in the training-montage portion of the story.

Starting a new series from Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa: Bungo Stray Dogs, Vol. 1. Our hero is a boy kicked out of an orphanage for no obvious reason -- something about budget cutbacks, or maybe they just don't like him -- and is about to starve to death on the streets when he runs into one of the agents of a fabled "armed detective agency" that takes on supernatural cases that no one else can handle. So of course he's dragged into their next case.

Another new series, from Pandora Hearts creator Jun Mochizuki: The Case Study of Vanitas, Vol. 1. The title character is a semi-crazy vampire doctor in Paris -- both a doctor and a vampire, unlike Doctor Worm -- who is trying to save the peace between humans and vampires from some upheaval or other. There's also a young man caught up in his schemes, since every manga needs the average guy to act as a viewpoint.

Diving into the oddball long titles category, there's a new volume in Wataru Watri (original story), Naomichi Io (art) and Ponkan➇'s (character design) series, My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected, Vol. 3. This is another one of those normal-buy-forced-to-be-in-a-weird-club-at-school stories, which the Japanese have turned into a solid subgenre for their own reasons.

And then there's the manga adaptation Overlord, Vol. 3, which comes from Kugane Maruyama's original light novel and has been turned into comics by Hugin Miyama. This is a I'm-trapped-in-this-videogame story, but our hero is trapped as a super-powerful Dark Lord type for added spice. It looks like this is mostly a story about fighting, in which the characters loudly announce each move as they do it.

From here on it's still Yen, but mostly light novels -- be warned! You may have to read more words!

Accel World, Vol. 8: The Binary Stars of Destiny is by the prolific Reki Kawahara, with illustrations by Hima. This is about people who aren't trapped in a big online game, but spend most of their time there anyway, just like many of us in the real world. Apparently, though, you can be permanently polluted by evil online -- I think Jimmy Swaggart warned us of that -- and our hero is fighting to save his friend from that in this volume.

Yuu Miyazaki brings us The Asterisk War, Vol. 2: Awakening of Silver Beauty, with illustrations by okiura. This one is about a school that trains people to duel, because of all of the jobs in the duel sector available to graduates.

Then there's Ryohgo Narita's Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express, Vol. 3, which has an extra colon in its subtitle for no obvious reason. (Unless there will be a Baccano!: The 1931 Grand Punk Railroad: Local coming along later, to be followed by Baccano!: The 1931 Grand Disco Railroad: Express and Baccano!: The 1932 Grand Punk Railroad: Express for maximum variety.) This is a story of '30s gangsters on a strain in America, with possibly less emphasis on historical realism and plausibility then you would think could be possible.

More secret societies protecting the world from mysterious hidden threats! Shiden Kanzaki (and illustrator Saki Ukai) are back with Black Bullet, Vol. 5: Rentaro Satomi, Fugitive. No points for guessing the main character's name, or the major plot event that happens to him in this book.

And we're back to manga briefly with the 4-koma series from Satoko Kiyuduki, Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Vol. 7, usually just referred to as "GA" unless you're trying to google the darn thing. The group of girls at an art college are coming up to graduation, but there's room for another hundred or so pages of jokes first.

Satoshi Wagahara's light novel series continues with The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, Vol. 6, with illustrations by the creature designated 029 (oniku). The devil is still working in a not-McDonald's in Tokyo, but it has now opened a coffee shop upstairs, which he sees as his stepping-stone to management and then TOTAL POWER!!!!!!! (I may be slightly exaggerating. Or maybe not.)

Natsuki Takaya's popular manga series in being reprinted in handsome double-sized volumes, and the latest is Fruits Basket Collector's Edition, Vol. 8. As I recall, this is one of those series with a family of supernatural folks who transform when various things happen in their vicinity -- the see butter, or trip over a rug, or sneeze, or maybe experience existential ennui.

Another light novel about kids at magic school, because we all know how popular that idea is: Tsutomu Sato's The Irregular at Magic High School. Vol. 3: Nine School Competition Arc 1 (with illustrations by Kama Ishida). I believe there is a competition here among nine schools, and that it's not done in this book. (You're welcome!)

Fatter than most light novels: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, Vol. 7, by Fujino Omori with illustrations by Suzuhito Yasuda. In this volume, our hero Bell comes out of the Dungeon and to the city of Oratorio's pleasure quarter, presumably to spend some of his hard-earned loot enjoying himself. (Why he has to go there when the entire rest of the cast seems to be attractive women who love him is a question I cannot answer here.) Sadly, it seems the pleasure quarter just gives him intrigue rather than reasonably-priced love.

And here's a new 4-koma manga series, Yui Hara's Kiniro Mosaic, Vol. 1. It seems to be about a girl who loves Japan so much, she moves there from England to go to high school. Which is...a thing that actually happens in the world? Maybe, I guess. Certainly a decent set-up for jokes.

Yet more light novels about gaming! Yuu Kamiya's No Game No Life, Vol. 5 is, I think, not about people trapped in a specific online game, but is about regular Earth-people transported to another world where everyone is obsessed by games. So entirely different. (And, yes, this is what the publisher's website has up right now for a book that I have in my hand. Oopsie.)

Back to people trapped in games with Reki Kawahara's Sword Art Online, Vol. 9: Alicization Beginning. In this one, the series hero wakes up amnesiac -- presumably in yet another game -- and starts to pursue the just-recovered memory of his childhood friend Alice. (I would not bet against this being yet another Japanese retelling of Alice in Wonderland.)

And last is a big fat manga volume with a particularly unpleasant-looking character on the cover: Wataru Watanake's Yowamuchi Pedal, Vol. 4. Our hero dreams of being a great cycling legend, but can he stand the training montages and backstabbing from supposed allies? (Well, he's the hero, so obviously he can.)

[1] Nanotech Assembly Organized for Extermination, perhaps?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

5,000 km per second by Manuele Fior

I wish I could just hand this book to you so you could go into it as ignorant as I was. I knew I'd read a good review or two of Manuele Fior's 5,000 km per second somewhere, and I knew it was translated. (I thought it was French, but it's actually from the Italian.) But that was about it. I'd picked it up a couple of times and poked through it before eventually buying it: what that mostly meant was I was impressed by the moody, color-coded art and thought it was some kind of domestic story.

If you want, you can stop there. This is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year -- maybe for much longer than that; I have to think about it -- and you don't need to know any more than that. It's a story about people in the real world, and their interactions through time. A love story, maybe. A people story, definitely. And the world needs more emotionally smart people stories like this: there are never enough.

If you want more, here's what I can tell you: we begin in Italy. A teenage girl, Lucia, is moving into an apartment with her mother, after the father went away. Two local boys, maybe a year or two older, are lurking around, and catch sight of her --they're Nicola and Piero. That scene is mostly yellows and greens. A few pages later, there's another scene, in blues, set in Norway, and one of those three is now studying there, a few years later.

5,000 km per second continues on like that, jumping into different scenes in different times, circling around the lives of Piero and Lucia and Nicola, with a palette suitable for each time and place and mood. Each moment is true, every character is real.

This isn't a story about easy answers or romantic gestures or big emotional moments: if your idea of a love story is a Hollywood movie, you will be hugely disappointed by Fior's much truer, much more mixed story. But he tells this story beautifully and lovingly, through body language and dialogue -- even more of the former than the latter; just look at the cover to get a sense of that -- and it's a stunning, deep experience. This is another book to put on the short shelf of comics to hand to people who think comics are junk: it's deep, and meaningful, and lovely, and bittersweet in the best way.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Garden of the Flesh by Gilbert Hernandez

OK. Even for a creator who does weird comics practically every year, Garden of the Flesh is particularly weird. Here Gilbert Hernandez retells a big chunk of the first book of the Christian Bible as a series of fuck-fest vignettes starting with Adam and Eve naked and humping in that 'ol garden called Eden. And he does it in a relentless two wide panels for each of his small-format pages, with (deliberately?) stiffly posed figures and lots of unrealistically spurting fluids.

Yes, Biblical sex comics in a deliberately crude style. Was Hernandez inspired by Crumb's The Book of Genesis, Illustrated from a few years ago, or did this Adam-and-Eve stroke book come from some other wellspring? Is this some kind of reverse Jack Chick tract? Hernandez has always come across in his interviews as more instinctual than calculating, so there may not be any single reason why, no matter how much we search for one.

More importantly: is the fact the the sex here is all very bland and hetero some kind of clue? Is Hernandez mellowing in his middle age from the pan-sexual Birdland of his youth, or is Garden of the Flesh's relentless focus on sex as one-man, one-woman, two or three acceptable positions and some gratuitous oral a commentary on Biblical literalists? (Or on fundamentalists?)

It has to be said that Garden of the Flesh is a not particularly sexy sex comic, and I have to assume that Hernandez knows this. He's done sex comics before; he can move the bodies around to make them more appealing. So, if he doesn't do so here, it must be on purpose.

I find it hard to recommend Garden of the Flesh. Compared to most of Hernandez's work, it's stiff and mannered and dull and flat, and I can't give you an coherent reason why it is. I think this one is just for completists: either of Hernandez or sex comics.