Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #108: Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 by Fraction & Zdarsky

Comics, more than any other medium -- yes, even the movies -- are great at the One Big Idea story. And the more visual and striking the idea the better. One man dresses as a bat to fight crime. Another draws his family's history and the darkest part of the 20th century as an allegory with animal heads. A kid's stuffed tiger comes alive to have adventures with him -- but only when they're alone. If you can think it, it can be a comic -- the only special effects needed are paper, ink, color, and imagination.

Those ideas can be pretty baroque, these days, after around a century of men in tights and domestic squabbles and teenage hijinks and cute kids -- the baseline has been set, and creators can bounce off from it in any direction. That's my theory about Sex Criminals, at least, which is somewhere in the loose territory defined by superheroes, crime stories, romance, and wild talents.

Suzie has a surprising ability: time stops all around her when she orgasms. Until the first time she had sex, she wasn't 100% sure that was weird -- who doesn't assume that her experiences are normal? But it is weird, and she came to get used to The Quiet, as she called it, as she grew up and got a job as a librarian.

Until she met Jon, who can do the very same thing. Luckily, their first encounter led to simultaneous orgasms -- or maybe this ability is a bit more elastic than that, but it looks pretty simultaneous -- and they each realized what they'd found. Doubly luckily, they like each other even aside from sharing that power, and they start to tell each other their stories and experiment with their abilities.

So much for Sex. The Criminals part is more complicated, and gets into the ways the worldbuilding isn't quite as solid. Suzy is a librarian, but that library is going to be knocked down and taken over by a bank. Oddly, the library doesn't seem to be a government function, but some private business, a rogue branch of Mudie's that fell through a timeslip. It doesn't have the problems of a government branch: lack of funding, opposition from politicians, bad leadership. And it can't solve its problems the way a government library could -- you don't see local banks evicting libraries very often, or their few librarians squirreling away the books in their apartments to save them.

All that is to say: Suzie needs a lot of money to save the library. Jon works at the big bank in town -- an unnamed, probably medium-sized town, situated nowhere in particular -- and already has anger issues, so he determines that they should steal the money from the bank that they need to pay back. It's elegant, certainly, but it ignores a lot of issues -- firstly, wouldn't the bank be surprised and suspicious when the nearly-insolvent library suddenly pays off its building loan?

Anyway, they start robbing banks, And they start attracting attention. And they have never considered that they discovered each other serendipitously -- in what seems to be their early twenties -- which implies that they're not alone. And that's how they become Sex Criminals.

Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick collects the first five issues of this ongoing series, written by current hot Marvel writer Matt Fraction and drawn by Chip Zdarsky. The story is not complete here, not by a long shot. But it's a good beginning, and Suzie is an engaging, wonderful character -- and Fraction was very smart to focus on her, since that makes this more the story of a woman's wants and needs and loves, when it could so easily have gotten silly or self-parodic or squickily male-fantasy-fulfillment. (See the movie Cashback for a related idea that skates much closer to the black hole of creepiness.) 

Sex Criminals has gotten a lot of attention, because it is smart and funny and feels deeply true about this one young woman's voice and life and desire. Zdarsky's art has a solid indy look to it, full of figures with realistic proportions and regular body language. (Which is exceedingly rare these days, in any comic book about people who can do strange things.) And Fraction tells this story in a compellingly gnarly way, having Suzie address the reader directly and moving among levels of flashback seamlessly to merge Suzie's childhood, teen years, and time with Jon. It's too early to say where the story is going, but, from the chunk we have so far, it's exciting and engaging and sexy in all of the best ways. And who doesn't want more comics about fun, happy, fulfilling sex?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, April 18, 2014

Things John Darnielle Has Taught Me

Note 1: I did this one before, for Tom Waits. It may become an irregular thing.

Note 2: I could have said "the Mountain Goats," but JD is tMG, for most purposes, so I kept it parallel.

"When you punish a person for dreaming his dream,
Don't expect him to thank or forgive you."
 -The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

"Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises
We're pretty sure they're all wrong."
 - No Children

(and also)

"People say friends don't destroy one another,
What do they know about friends"
 - Game Shows Touch Our Lives

"But selling acid was a bad idea
And selling it to a cop was a worse one."
 - Fall of the Star High School Running Back

"What will I do when I don't have you
When I finally get what I deserve?"
 - Oceanographer's Choice

"If we never make it back to California
I want you to know I love you
But my love is like a dark cloud full of rain
That's always right there up above you."
 - See America Right

"And it was hard but you were brave, you are splendid
And we will never be alone in this world
no matter what they say
We're gonna be okay."
 - San Bernardino

"I am going to make it through this year
If it kills me."
 - This Year

"Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Climb limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day."
 - Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1

"I can remember when we were in high school
Our dreams were like fugitive warlords
Plotting triumphant returns to the city
Keeping Tec-9's tucked under the floorboards."
 - Home Again Garden Grove

"I'm gonna get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle
Of unfair advantage
I'm gonna bribe the officials
I'm gonna kill all the judges
It's gonna take you people years
To recover from all of the damage."
 - Up the Wolves

And, more than anything else:

"I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls
On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls
And the dream went on forever, one single static frame
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name."

Book-A-Day 2014 #107: Mush! by Glenn Eichler & Joe Infurnari

A lot of comics today aspire to be summer blockbuster movies, which can get tedious. Some of them aspire to be literary novels (pretty rare) or comedy shows on minor cable networks (a smattering of indy work) or documentaries (a lot of nonfiction comics).

But Mush! is the first graphic novel I've seen that aims to be a heartwarming workplace comedy, something you'd expect in mid-season on ABC sometime in the late '90s. If nothing else, you have to grant it the courage of its convictions.

This is less surprising when you learn that its writer, Glenn Eichler is a TV comedy writer by day (creator of Daria, writer for The Colbert Report for a number of years), though he's written a graphic novel before: Stuffed!, which was drawn by Nick Bertozzi. (Since two points make a trend, it's clear our man Eichler likes his exclamation points.) This time out, Eichler is working with Joe Infurnari, part of the Act-i-vate webcomics collective and multiple Eisner nominee.

And they're telling the story of a team of sled dogs, somewhere in the frozen northlands -- Infurnari is himself Canadian, so he comes by this material honestly -- as they squabble and plot and flirt and grumble their way through a month or so of late summer or fall. (Assuming their unnamed location has more than two seasons: frozen and not-frozen.) There's also the stub of a story about the dogs' owners -- a man who loves the solitude and self-reliance and his relatively recent girlfriend who's not as sure -- but the dogs are the focus of most of the book.

Buddy is dumb and lovable and big and desperately hopes he gets to mate with Venus again. Venus would prefer not to be bred at all this year, but that's not her choice. (Eichler plays this for laughs, but it could have been body horror in the right, probably female, hands.) Guy is sneaky and plotting and wants to take the lead-dog job from Dolly. Dolly isn't sure she wants to stay lead dog, because it's a lot of responsibility and she really just likes to run. Winston is a puffed-up purebred with delusions of grandeur. And Fiddler is deep and moody and thoughtful.

And they circle those issues for a hundred and twenty pages, in nine chapters that could be the episodes of a season-long arc on a HBO or Showtime, and everything is resolved in the end. Mush! is fun -- and Infurnari's art is lovely and evocative, making his characters expressive while keeping them dogs and lovingly showing both the snowy wilderness and the homier enclosure of the dogs -- but it aims to be the NewsRadio of sled-dog stories, which is a weird and unlikely ambition. But it's successful in that aim, and I have to salute any work that decides to do something so idiosyncratic and does it well. Mush! will never be on the short list of Great American Graphic Novels, maybe, but it's got a great beat, and you can dance to it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #106: No Longer Human (3 vols.) by Usamaru Furuya

With a quick Wikipedia gloss, I could pretend to be familiar with Osamu Dazai's novel No Longer Human -- not just his most famous book, but one of the major works of Japanese 20th century fiction -- and pontificate learnedly about the manga adaptation of that novel by Usamaru Furuya, which interestingly adapts some of Dazai's pre-WW II world into the dawn of the 21st century and translates some of the devices of that novel directly into manga equivalents, even inserting Furuya into the story as a minor framing character.

But I won't do that -- at least, not exactly. I've never read Dazai's novel, and I prefer not to lie when I have a choice. What I know about, I do from investigation after reading Furuya's excellent version of the story.

But that adaptation of No Longer Human seems to be a remarkably careful translation of a major work into another artistic form, down to turning Dazai's original three-memoranda structure into three manga volumes, and using Furuya's own discovery of the "real" diary of main character Yozo Oba online as a precisely equivalent framing device to the one Dazai used in the novel. I was surprised to see that the Oba of the novel is a manga artist as well; while reading the books, I had assumed that was part of Furuya's translation into the modern world.

But all of the elements of No Longer Human are like that: a complex mix of Dazai's original semi-autobiographical story, based on his own life in the 1930s, and the trappings of an Oba of the modern day, born in the high years of Japan's bubble 1980s and living in a world of laptops and online "ouch" diaries.

For most of the length of No Longer Human, we don't know exactly what Oba's problem is: he's a young man who feels the need to "clown," to hide his true emotions so deeply he doesn't understand them himself, to mimic others and obsessively act to make them like him. That mimicry, and his youthful good looks, make him irresistible to nearly every woman he meets -- which is all-too-common for such self-destructive young men. He could be depressive, or perhaps have some disorder that damages empathy, so something else along those lines -- I'd like to think a young man like him in most modern countries would be able to get care for his problems, but maybe not. Whatever is wrong with Oba, it leaves him radically alone and full of inner torment, which he fights off with the usual ammunition: drinking, drugs, sex. And he's the son of a rich family, so he can indulge a lot before anything bad happens.

No Longer Human is the story of Oba's complex spiral: he dips, and rises again, and falls farther, and recovers, around and around again, losing more on every drop and diving further into addiction and self-loathing. He only has one male friend -- not a good friend at all, I'm afraid -- so it's also in large part the story of the women around him, as they each are seduced (almost inadvertently, most of the time; Oba is a misanthrope who hates others almost as much as he hates himself) and dragged through his torments. Some of them make it out the other side intact; some don't make it out at all.

Every generation has the story of the tormented youngster, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to Holden Caulfield. No Longer Human is the version from Japan, nearly a hundred years ago, but the specifics of time and place only ground it, not limit it. Furuya has proven that, by pulling it eighty years into its own future. It sometimes a tough read, full of Oba's self-loathing and destructive behavior -- but it's worth it, every single page. And even the Obas of this world are human -- in all of their complex, damaged horribleness, every bit of alienation and anger and raw nerves is the connection with the rest of humanity.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #105: The Complete Peanuts, 1989 to 1990 by Charles M. Schulz

I written about Schulz here before. For Day 82, covering the previous book, I wrote about writing about Schulz. (And now, it seems, I'm writing about that, which is already one turn of the screw too far.)

Look, here's what I've said in the past: 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-1964, 1965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, and 1987-1988. I'll try not to repeat any of that in writing about The Complete Peanuts 1989-1990, other than saying that Schulz reinvented the modern gag-a-day strip, taking a medium that already had fifty-plus years of history and showing how it could be more immediately personal and psychological without losing its essential character. And then he proceeded to keep reinventing that form for the next twenty-five years. But those years of reinvention only lasted through the mid to late 1970s -- that was Peanuts's final transformation, to the world-bestriding licensing juggernaut, the strip full of whimsy and an ever-increasing number of Snoopy's brothers.

The strips in this book are from the end of the fourth decade of Peanuts, just a couple of years after Schulz geared down to three panels a day from four. There's the sense of a great old fighter marshaling his energies here -- some boxer who knows he's smarter and wiser and has better skills than the kid he's up against, as long as he doesn't over-reach or exert himself too much. So these strips are more domestic than the Peanuts of the '70s and '60s, full of simpler gags and only occasionally showing flashes of Schulz's deep insight into human behavior. The characters have simplified into types, mostly: Lucy, in particular, has lost vast depth since her anger and power of the late '60s. Charlie Brown is a jokey sad sack, with his losses comic rather than deeply felt -- it had been a long time, in 1989, since Schulz had lost in any serious way. Even Peppermint Patty, the more recent focus of sadness in Peanuts, is as much the budding feminist and dominating sports figure as she is the D-minus student.

The Peanuts of the late '80s and '90s was a good gag strip, from a consummate professional, that never failed to be funny and entertaining every day. As I've said several times before, that only sounds like faint praise if you know how much better Peanuts was before that. But it's no shame to be only as good and lovable as Peanuts was in these years.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #104: The Pro by Ennis, Conner, & Palmiotti

Superhero comics long passed the point when they could be parodied -- they turned into their own parodies some time in the early '90s, all belts and asymmetrical hairstyles and pouches and accessories larger than characters' heads. (For men: guns. For women: breasts.) But superhero writers and artists still wanted to parody that work, even if the stuff they did ostensibly straight worked well enough as parody all by itself.

Eventually, the race to be ever more "extreme" and "transgressive" led here: to The Pro, the story of the world's first hooker/superhero, written by professional rabble-rouser Garth Ennis, drawn by the game Amanda Conner, and inked by her regular collaborator Jimmy Palmiotti. And it's...a pretty standard superhero story, hitting all of the required story beats, with all sex kept discrete and jokey, all penises safely tucked off-panel. If DC or Marvel decided, in their infinite wisdom, that they wanted a whore hero, this is pretty much the way it would have gone -- same story beats, same pretty and glossy art, and probably just about the same tough dialogue. If it were "Marvel Max," they could have even kept all of the profanity in.

Ennis tries to contrast the Pro with the regular superheroes, but he never messes them up -- the worst thing he can think to say about them is that they're good-natured meatheads, Boy Scouts past their sell-by date. Marshal Law was vastly nastier than that, twenty years earlier, and there's still plenty of ways to slam Superduperman and his ilk. But Ennis doesn't: he's content here to lazily elevate the Pro as something vaguely more "authentic" -- or maybe just funnier. This is, after all, pretty short: 56 pages of main story, a medium-length album; just enough space to introduce the idea, run through the obvious jokes, and give her the big send-off every super-person needs.

The Pro is funny, and Conner's art, like always, is bright and appealing and sells the idea as well as it can possibly be sold. And if you've marinated in superhero comics, and nothing else, for thirty or forty years, it will probably look surprising and exciting and different. But that only says something about you, and your literary horizons.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #103: Aphrodite by George O'Connor

If I were creating a series of books about the Greek gods for an audience of teenagers and other young people -- and thus subject to the whims of librarians and teachers and those annoying small-winded pressure groups of parents in our more benighted states -- I would probably stay as far away from Aphrodite as possible, because all of those folks can't stand "their kids" hearing any hint of S-E-X. Luckily, George O'Connor is not me.

His excellent series of graphic novels about the Olympians -- previously: Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon -- reaches its sixth volume with Aphrodite: Goddess of Love, the story of the hottest tamale on Olympus or any other mountain of the ancient world. (Sorry, Ishtar: it's true.) As before, O'Connor manages the very tricky and difficult job of telling his story in a way that's entirely appropriate for that young audience but hinting and nodding in the direction of adult complexities that many of his readers (including more of those kids than the meddling parents' groups would credit) will understand and think about.

Aphrodite, like the earlier Hera and Poseidon, tells an origin story and then skillfully weaves in many other myths and stories -- some in as little as a glancing panel -- instead of focusing on one major story, the way Hades and Zeus and Athena did. O'Connor does get into the biggest story that Aphrodite is part of -- the Trojan War -- at the end of this book, with the famous Judgement of Paris and Eris's golden apple. But the war itself doesn't happen before the end of this book -- O'Connor ends on what I hope is a promise to tell that story in a later book. (He still has plenty of Olympians to cover: Artemis and Apollo and Hephaistos, Hermes and Ares and, I fervently hope, Dionysos. Or he could have an all-Trojan War book; either way, I'll be there.)

Greek mythology is endlessly fascinating, particularly to the smart young audience that sees a thousand cultural references start to snap into clarity and to the slightly less obsessive types that just love great stories of larger-than-life characters. And O'Connor's graphic novels could easily be the Edith Hamilton of the current middle-school generation: he's that good, that smart, that versed in the literature, and that enthusiastic about his work and sources. I expect to see battered copies of these books brought out and read to a new generation of kids around 2030, as well: this is the real deal.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/12

Every week, books are published -- probably, in these indy-friendly era, every day -- and every week, a few of them make their way to me. I don't read as fast as I used to, but I still can look quickly, and so I write a little bit about the books that just arrived in this space, in hopes they'll spark interest in someone out there.

This week I have two hardcovers, both from the SFF program at the Penguin half of the Random Penguin publishing monolith. Both are also military SF in popular series, but they have different little logos at the bottom of their spines, which is vastly more important to we folks in publishing than it is to anyone else in the world.

First up is Taylor Anderson's Deadly Shores: Destroyermen, the ninth book in the series about WWII destroyer USS Walker, which sideslipped into another universe (as you do) and found itself in the middle of a war between two sapient races on a very different world. That war is still grinding along, and the Walker is still in the middle of it, in Deadly Shores, which is coming from Roc on May 6th.

And then Jack Campbell's long-running series returns with TThe Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast, which is an Ace book on May 6th. It's the tenth book in all, and the fourth in the "Beyond the Frontier" sub-series -- although this one seems to be primarily set on this side of the frontier, starting on Earth and heading straight to Europa.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #102: The Incrementalists by Steven Brust & Skyler White

There is a secret society that controls the world. You know this story: you're immediately thinking of the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, grey aliens, the Masons, or whatever that homeless guy on the corner is screaming about this week. You expect shadowy cabals, secret meetings in shiny skyscrapers or mysterious underground headquarters, a large man in shadows stroking a Persian cat, deathrays and suppressed technology, and the one resourceful young man who discovers it all and saves the world.

But this is not that story.

This secret society is incredibly ancient: as old as modern humanity, tens of thousands of years. It's larger and more egalitarian than most: two hundred minds and memories, continuing through the deaths of numerous hosts over the millennia, changing and submerging in new personalities but with an essential continuity of experience and knowledge. And it doesn't actually rule anything: it nudges, and adjusts, and pushes, as its members argue among themselves about what to do and how to do it. They're the BASF of the conspiracy world: they don't make the world; they make it better. Or so they claim.

They are The Incrementalists, and Steven Brust and Skyler White are telling one small story about them in this recent novel, alternating viewpoints between one of the oldest current personalities, Phil, and the newest recruit, Ren. One might assume that Brust wrote the male viewpoint and White the female, but there's nothing in the book or publicity materials to say so.

It all relies on one unexamined fantasy element -- that each of these Incrementalists has an indestructible, eternal core of memory, a "stub," that always survives physical death and can be implanted in a new host. (So, perhaps, the Incrementalists are the only humans who have souls. Or, equally likely, the only ones with souls that will never move on to a better place.) They also have a shared Memory Palace, a landscape where each Incrementalist has a home and Garden containing the memories they share with each other. Brust and White never actually confront the issue that the Incrementalists would have too much memory to fit into a human skull, but the Gardens are there as the buried explanation: the unneeded memories are stuck there, to be re-experienced when necessary.

Incrementalists die, as all humans die. But, after that death, their co-conspirators search for a replacement, recruit that new member, and "spike" the "stub" into the new host. Sometimes the old personality takes over, and it's the same person in a new body. But sometimes not. The Incrementalists have a long history, including periods of outright warfare, and some of those wars were ended by letting the warring personalities stay dead long enough that they would have no chance to control their new hosts. There's no way to tell which mind will prevail, and the other one will still be part of the mix, somehow -- though none of the Incrementalists ever as much as mention the thousands of other minds they've subsumed, so presumably once a mind is buried, it stays buried forever.

Phil is looking for a replacement for Celeste, who was his lover. Both of them were/are also part of the Salt, the closest thing the Incrementalists have to a government: the five oldest personalities, considered to be in charge but not having any clear power that Brust and White ever define. Ren jumps at the opportunity to be part of this vague conspiracy, even at the risk of ceasing to exist as a personality, because she's sure she knows how to change the world.

(If you have a jaundiced view, it's pretty clear than the Incrementalists choose for self-important busybodies who know what's best for everyone. Even the nicest world-controlling secret society is pretty unpleasant when you dig down far enough.)

The bulk of The Incrementalists is about the aftermath of Ren's recruitment: Celeste's personality doesn't take over, as expected, and things get unexpected as they learn that Celeste personally picked Ren (a huge no-no) and that Celeste's personality may be active in the Garden or somewhere else, which shouldn't be possible. So the rest of the Salt quickly arrives, and The Incrementalists turns into something like a murder mystery: Celeste committed suicide, and they're working out why and what she left behind.

It's a very small, circumscribed story to tell about the society that rules the world: the action of The Incrementalists never leaves Las Vegas, and takes place mostly in a few anonymous hotel rooms and Phil's nondescript house on the outskirts. Again, this is a quiet, sedate conspiracy, and their story is equally quiet and sedate. It's probably too sedate for most readers attracted by the concept: this isn't even a story of the Incrementalists using their ability to move the world slightly to make things better, it's about them running around their personal memory palace to do some housekeeping.

As usual with Brust -- I haven't read White before, but the whole novel is enough of a piece that I can't discern who wrote what -- the dialogue is lively and engaging. And that's good, because this is a novel about people talking -- sitting and standing in those rooms, explaining vaguely how their powers work and strategizing about Celeste's remnant.

But, in the end, it's faintly disappointing: a conspiracy novel in which the conspiracy doesn't do anything. I doubt this will launch a series, so it's probably just an odd one-off: Brust has a history of writing a semi-experimental novel with a female writer (The Gypsy with Megan Lindholm and Feedom & Necessity with Emma Bull) every decade or so. There's nothing at all wrong with The Incrementalists: it does what it sets out to do, and does it well. But it does something much smaller and less inherently interesting than the expectations set up by its world, which is where that disappointment comes in.  

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index