Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bad Machinery, Vol. 7: The Case of the Forked Road by John Allison

The Mystery Tweens are solidly becoming Mystery Teens in The Case of the Forked Road, which means the boys have all seemingly lost 50 IQ points and keep punching each other for no reason. [1] So any mystery solving will be left to the girls, this time out.

Since this is a volume seven, before I go any further, there are two notes. First is that you don't need to know anything going into this book. Well, OK: these are kids in a secondary school in Tackleford, the oddest town in England. You can pick that up from the book, and it's all you need to know. Also, this is a collection of a webcomic, so you can always read as much of it as you want online.

But, if you do want to know more, let me direct you to my posts about Bad Machinery books one, two, three, four, five, and six. You may also be interested in the pre-Bad Machinery comic Scary Go Round, also set in Tackleford, which led to the comic-book format Giant Days, of which there have been several collections so far: one two three four.

The book version of The Case of the Forked Road, as usual, is slightly expanded from the webcomics version, with some pages redrawn a bit and others added to aid the flow. It also begins with a new page introducing the main characters and ends with several related old Scary Go Round pages -- both of those introduced and narrated by Charlotte Grote, Allison's current troublemaking smart-girl character (following a string of such in the past).

As usual, Allison is great at capturing speech patterns and the half-fascinated, half-oblivious attitude of teens -- the girls discover a mystery this time, in the suspicious activities of a elderly lab assistant they call "Grumpaw." But they have no idea what this guy's name is, and have to go through convolutions just to get their investigation started.

They do, of course, and eventually find a fantastical explanation to the question of Grumpaw and the mysterious and strangely ignorant schoolboy Calvin. And the dangers they have to deal with this time out are directly related to the stupid violence of some male classmates. (Though the cover shows that it's not the boy Mystery Teens; they stay offstage most of the time, and are useless when they're on it.)

Allison writes smart stories that wander interestingly through his story-space and gives his characters very funny, real dialogue to say on every page. And I think his stories are best when he draws them himself: his line is just as puckish and true as his writing. That makes the Bad Machinery cases the very best Allison books coming out now.

One last point: if you've complained that previous Bad Machinery volumes -- wide oblong shapes to show off the webcomic strips -- were physically problematic, then you are in luck. The Case of the Forked Road is laid out like normal comic-book-style pages, just as these strips appeared online. So you no longer have that excuse, and must, by law, buy Forked Road immediately.

[1] If you think this is some kind of sexist nonsense, my currently sixteen-year-old son can tell you a story of some of his fellow students on his recent trip to Germany and Italy. These young men got into trouble because they were throwing some "hot rocks" around -- as you do when you discover some rocks that are warmed by the sun, in a nice hotel in a foreign county -- until, inevitably, windows got broken. There are boys who avoid the Enstupiding and Masculinizing Ray of Puberty, but they are few and beleaguered, and the general effects of the ray hugely debilitating.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

I don't know about anyone else, but I very rarely read a book for just one reason. (It feels like I rarely do anything for just one reason.) Nothing is unmixed.

So I've been interested in Temple Grandin, the most famous and accomplished person with autism, for a while, because of what she accomplished and because of what she overcame. And, as the father of a son on the autism spectrum -- I think the current DSM collapsed all of the previous niche categories to "autism spectrum disorder" with explanations in individual cases -- I'm worried and interested and thrilled and confused by what that disorder means. (And I know that every person is a bit different, particularly in this area: the current medical category of "autism" covers a vast territory from "not great at personal interaction" to "completely non-verbal.")

Thinking in Pictures was Grandin's third book and her second to wrestle with the "who I am and how I got to where I am" question, after her first book Emergence: Labeled Autistic. And I believe this is generally seen as the Grandin book to read or start with -- unless you're engaging with her on a professional level, obviously, in which case you'd look at her technical publications -- so it was the one I picked up.

It's something like an autobiography and something like a book about how her mind works differently than those of neurotypical people and something like a book about how to understand and deal with people with autism. Grandin organized the book into eleven thematic chapters, each more-or-less about how autism affects one aspect of her life -- and the lives of others, informed by research. Grandin is a scholar, so she has citations of the kind suitable for a mass-audience book -- you could follow them, if you really wanted to. Since the book is twenty years old, and the study of autism still a young field, I expect the landscape has changed quite a bit since then, though.

Grandin follows connections between topics within those chapters, and those connections may not be the ones neurotypical people will expect. I'd call that a feature rather than a bug: the point of Thinking in Pictures is to give us a view of how Grandin thinks through things, and it also gives us a glimpse of what it might be like for an autistic person to live in a world with people who think neurotypically.

I do think things have changed, in treatment options and definitely in categorization, since Grandin wrote Thinking in Pictures. So those sections and references may be less useful these days, particularly to families dealing with an initial diagnosis of autism for a child. (Autism is defined as a developmental disorder: it has to be diagnosed in childhood, and usually, these days, is identified before school age.) But her life is still what it was, and her insights and ability to describe how she thinks are as useful and illuminating as ever.

I tend to think we all think more differently from each other than we generally admit -- that "the spectrum" (as in autism) is part of a much wider spectrum, extending out multi-dimensionally. So the fact that any one of us is not diagnosed with autism doesn't mean we're "normal" -- it just means we think in ways that haven't caused this particular kind of problem yet, or that our differences are less diagnose-able, or just that we're functional enough that it's not worth the resources to investigate us. But understanding, in any ways we can, how other people think can only be helpful. And Thinking in Pictures is a marvelous look into one particular way of thinking, by one very accomplished and introspective woman.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 26 by Charles M. Schulz

This time, it definitely is the end. The previous volume finished up reprinting the fifty-year [1] run of Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts in twenty-five volumes, two years in each book. (See my posts on nearly all of those books: 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, the flashback to 1950-1952, 1995-1996, 1997-1998, and finally 1999-2000.)

Vol. 26 does something slightly different: it collects related works. It has comic book pages and advertising art and gift-sized books (some of which could be called "graphic novels," with only a tiny bit of squinting) and similar things -- all featuring the Peanuts characters, all written and drawn by Schulz. Obviously, this was culled from a far larger mass of related Peanuts stuff -- dozens of hours of TV specials, to begin with, plus major ad campaigns for many products over most of those fifty years, among other things -- but Schulz managed and supervised and oversaw (or just licensed and approved) the vast majority of those.

This book has just the art and words that can be attributed cleanly to Schulz personally. Not all of it -- there's plenty of other spot illustrations, and a number of other small cash-grab gift books, that Fantagraphics could have included if they wanted to be comprehensive, but they didn't. Instead, this is a book about the size of the others, that will sit next to them on a shelf and complement them.

Annoyingly, this very miscellaneous book avoids a table of contents -- possibly because the previous books didn't need one? -- so you discover things one by one as you read it. It starts off with seventeen gag cartoons that Schulz sold to the Saturday Evening Post in the late '40s, featuring kid characters much like the ones in L'il Folks and so somewhere in the parentage of Peanuts. Next up is seven comic-book format stories from the late '50s that Jim Sasseville (from Schulz's studio at the time) has identified as all-Schulz (among a much, much larger body of comic-book stories that I think were mostly by Sasseville). These are interesting, because they show Schulz with a larger palette (both physically and story-wise) than a four-panel comic strip -- he still mostly keeps to a rigid grid, but there's more energy in his layouts and he has room for better back-and-forth dialogue in multi-page stories.

Then there's a section of advertising art, which begins with five pages of camera-themed strips that appeared in 1955's The Brownie Book of Picture-Taking from Kodak but quickly turns into obvious ads for the Ford Falcon and Interstate Bakeries. The latter two groups are intermittently amusing, but mostly show that Peanuts characters were actively shilling for stuff a few decade before most of us realized it.

The book moves back into story-telling with three Christmas stories, which all originally appeared in women's magazines from 1958 through 1968 (at precisely five-year intervals -- what stopped the inevitable 1973 story?). The first one is two Sunday-comics-size pages; the others are a straight series of individual captioned pictures in order. After that comes four of the little gift books -- two about Snoopy and the Red Baron, two about Snoopy and his literary career -- which adapt and expand on gags and sequences from the main strip. (I recently tracked down and read the one about Snoopy's magnum opus, which I still have a lot of fondness for.)

Two more little gift books follow, these more obviously cash-grabs: Things I Learned After It Was Too Late and it's follow-up, from the early '80s. These were cute-sayings books, with pseudo-profound thoughts each placed carefully on a small page with an appropriate drawing. Schulz's pseudo-profound thoughts are as good as anyone's, I suppose.

Last from Sparky are a series of drawings and gags about golf and tennis, the two sports most obviously important to him -- we already knew that from the strip itself. The golf stuff is very much for players of the game, and possibly even more so for players of the game in the '60s and '70s, but at least some of the gags will hit for non-golfers several decades later. The tennis material is slightly newer, and slightly less insider-y, and so it has dated a little less.

The book is rounded out by a long afterword by Schulz's widow, Jean Schulz. It provides a personal perspective, but takes up a lot of space and mostly serves to show that Jean loved and respected her husband. That's entirely a positive thing, but I'm not 100% convinced it required twenty-four pages of type in a book of comics and drawings.

Vol. 26 is a book for those of us who bought the first twenty-five; no one is going to start here. And, for us, it's a great collection of miscellaneous stuff. Some of us will like some of it better than others, but every Peanuts fan will find some things in here to really enjoy.

[1] OK, a few months shy of actually fifty years -- it started in October 1950 and ended in February 2000. But that's close enough for most purposes.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/22

You know, quite frankly I'm often surprised I get any books in the mail these days. It's no longer 2011, and I was never very big as a blogger to begin with. (And I tend to ignore publicists when they try to contact me, which is not the way to ingratiate yourself to them -- I can tell you that much for free.)

So this weekly post has been getting shorter and less frequent for years now, in a long withdrawing Dover Beach stylee.

That's my excuse for this week, at least -- I have no books to tell you about this time, and this is the stake in the ground I'm carefully placing to tell you why. I'll be back next week, possibly with a different excuse. (Collect them all!)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Lost and Found: 1969-2003 by Bill Griffith

If you keep going long enough in a creative field, eventually someone will collect your stuff. If you're reasonably successful, they'll even collect the oddball stuff -- the one-offs and blind alleys and test-beds and experiments that you made as you were working towards (or in between) the works that you were better known for.

Yes, you too can be the proud creator of an odds and sods collection, if you live long enough and work hard enough and get lucky enough. If your name is Bill Griffith, congratulations! That book was published by Fantagraphics in 2011 as Lost and Found: 1969-2003.

Griffith has spent most of his career aiming his Zippy the Pinhead character, and associated folks, at whatever Griffith's current obsessions were. It's a good model for a cartoonist, actually: if you have a malleable character that you own, and a flexible, large cast around him, you can keep producing work that gives your audience continuity while telling the stories and working with the ideas you really want to in that moment. It's not coincidental that the major outlet for Zippy stories for the last three or four decades has been a syndicated comic strip: that's been the model for a huge number of successful comics creators for over a century, a way to reach a large audience with work that can, for the right person, be personal and idiosyncratic.

But that's what's not in this book. It has one sequence from the Zippy strip, but it's mostly comic-book-formatted pages, and it's mostly from anthologies and magazines and other people's comics -- the stuff he was doing when he wasn't making Zippy strips and purely Zippy comic-books.

Zippy's in a lot, though. Griffith developed his cast early, and has used them across all of his cartooning formats. But he's definitely not as central here as he is in most of Griffith's work. Lost and Found is heavily weighted towards the early part of Griffith's career -- the 1970s is by far the largest section -- and so this is a book in large part showing how that cast first appeared and developed.

Mr. Toad was the original central character in Griffith's stories, starting off as an Everyman type but quickly becoming the raging id (loosely modeled on Griffith's father, as he acknowledges later in this book) he was meant to be. So he's the first main character the reader meets, soon accompanied by some one-off folks from Young Lust (the sex-filled parody of romance comics that Griffith co-edited).

Frankly, the early comics are very "underground" -- rambling and navel-gazing in turn, clearly drawn by someone who is still learning his craft and doesn't have any strong models or guidelines for what he's doing. To be more pointed, they're not very good. They're interesting for people who like the mature Zippy stuff -- you can trace the development of Claude Funston pretty clearly, and obviously The Toad -- but the first hundred pages of Lost and Found is a bit of a slog for anyone not already seeped in '60s counterculture.

(As they say, if you can remember the '60s, you weren't there. I don't remember them, but I wasn't there, either.)

The back half of Lost and Found is more impressive, with one-off stories set in the Zippy universe that appeared various places during the '80s and '90s, including an extensive color section. This is the part of Lost and Found that most readers will be looking for: I almost recommend that folks start here, and only dip back into the '70s section randomly  as they have the inclination. (I don't actually recommend that, because I'm a fiend for doing things in the right order.)

But, again: this is an odds and sods collection. There will always be sods. It's the nature of the beast. You gotta take them with the odds. And some of this is quite odd.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1 by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi

Wanna know a secret? I really don't give a shit about mountain climbing. Very few people do. Very few people give a shit about any random pastime you could name -- shuffleboard, mate-swapping, parasailing, Yahtzee, building boats in bottles -- either as a participant or a spectator.

But sometimes we can be made to care, through the power of art.

And that's how I came to The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1, the first of a five-volume series about Japanese mountain climbers written by Yumemakura Baku and drawn by Jiro Taniguchi. Well, to be more honest, I came to it because I'd read Taniguichi's two-book series A Distant Neighborhood (see my posts on books one and two), and wanted more Taniguchi. I'd neglected to read the fine print, and hadn't realized that Taniguchi was just contributing his picture-making abilities here, not his writing-stories skills.

(There are people who follow artists around comics. I've even been one of them, once in a while. But I'm mainly interested in story, and I mainly follow people who tell stories. So when a writer-artist I like starts just writing, it may be a bit sad, but I'm generally happy. If he starts just drawing, it's a huge calamity.)

Baku is a good story-teller, and he makes some interesting complex characters here. His main character is both a world-class asshole and a deeply compelling protagonist, which is a tough thing to pull off. He's also telling a long story with grace and ease -- it looks like the whole five-volume series is a single, complete story, and I like seeing people who can do that well.

But, frankly, I still don't give a shit about mountain climbing. I thought The Summit of the Gods would make me care, at least for the length of time to read the book. But, as it turned out, it didn't. The pictures are breathtaking and the people are real, but this is just not a story that I ended up caring about. It's certainly a flaw on my part, and no reflection on the book.

But I don't expect to go back for the later volumes, and I can say definitively that climbing mountains is something I will never give a shit about. As I get older, having those signposts are more and more useful, to mark off all of the things I don't have to explore any more, since they've bored me enough already. I recommend that feeling highly, whatever the things you decide you personally don't give a shit about.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 3: L.A. Woman by Fraction, Wu, Pulido, and others

Last month, I read a book called Hawkeye, Vol. 1. This month, I hit one called Vol. 3. In the annoyingly typical way of Big Two comics, the latter follows directly from the former. (One is a hardcover, which in comics-reprinting circles comes typically a year or two after the paperback and combines two paperbacks together. Yes, that's the opposite of how we old-time book-industry hands are used to seeing things happen, but it seems to work for the Wednesday Crowd.)

Anyway, at the end of Vol. 1, the two Hawkeyes split up, because comics are all about break-ups and changes and new things that can last for six issues or so. (Spider-Man No More! once again.) L.A. Woman follows the younger female Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, who drives a cool car cross country to the city of the title, where she immediately gets caught up in nefarious doings and skulduggery of her own. Presumably there's a Vol. 4 that features what Hawkguy was doing at the same time back in NYC, and that seems to be about as long as this particular set-up ran.

Kate's travails form yet another "gritty" and "realistic" superhero comic -- no powers, no flying, more-or-less the real world -- that descends from the Miller/Mazzuchelli "Born Again" run in Daredevil, the major cliche in this area. Look, comics folks, we all know it's not hard to put a bullet in someone's head. And people without superpowers who repeatedly annoy large-scale criminals without actually jailing those criminals find themselves possessors of those bullets-in-the-head sooner rather than later. So talking-killer scenes, and repeated hairsbreadth escapes in noirish colors, just lampshade how artificial your story is. Avoid them. If your villain isn't going to actually try to kill the hero like an actual criminal would in a real world, don't go down that road and pretend that the plan is to kill her. We all know that's not the case.

Speaking of which...Kate runs afoul of a supervillain carefully tailored to her abilities, one who can stymie her and cause her great pain but not blow her away instantly or hire goons to kidnap and murder her family by the snap of her fingers. So she's in L.A., and she Loses Everything.

That's OK, comics characters Lose Everything roughly once a year -- it's one of their major shticks. But she's young and a fairly new character, so this is one of her first Lose Everythings, and it has that element of novelty to it.

By the end of this book, she's Voluntarily Relinquished Everything -- the next step towards Getting Everything Back, And Even Better, Because She's The Good Guy -- and is heading off for the vengeance and catharsis that probably got sidetracked and muted by some stupid crossover or other.

These are good superhero comics, for all that they're drenched in cliches. It's not quite as good as the Clint Barton stuff in the earlier issues, maybe because he's easier to make a sad-sack in the first place. But "good superhero comics" is perilously close to damning with faint praise, along the lines of "a perfectly serviceable category Regency." I wish readers and creators could aim higher, but that's life.

If you like stories about superheroes who can't jump over buildings with a single bound, and like to pretend that such people are "realistic," you will probably enjoy the stories that Matt Fraction wrote about the various Hawkeyes. This time out, the opening story is drawn by Javier Pulido and the rest by Annie Wu, who are both good at the moderately gritty, real-people thing in their own ways. Go for it: I can't stop you.