Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Dumb by Georgia Webber

Sometimes you don't realize the confines of a genre until you read a book that busts them.

The modern comics memoir has been focused on the "this bad/interesting thing happened to me" for around a generation, from Maus through Satrapi and Bechdel to the flood of our current century. To get in the door, a creator has to be able to articulate one major thing that makes them different - in the most pure case, a bad thing that happened in their childhood. From there, the story can open out, but it's all seen through the lens of the One Thing, and probably (these days) with the goal of helping other people understand and deal with the One Thing. (The One Thing is less likely to be "my father survived the Holocaust" nowadays and more likely to be along the lines of "I was a colorblind twelve-year-old" or "I came to This Country as a refugee from war-torn Ruritania," so the lessons are simpler and more obvious.)

Georgia Webber has no lessons to impart. And she's not all that invested in making her story clean and pretty and linear for the reader, either. Oh, sure, her memoir is about the One Thing that happened to her - she injured her vocal chords, and had to basically stop speaking at all for several months - but it's not a thing that's going to happen to a lot of people, and she isn't here to tell you how to live your life anyway.

Instead, Dumb is purely her story, starting from the point where the pain started. We see a little of her busy, loud life ahead of time, as a twentysomething with a lot of social activity and a few different jobs, circles, and volunteer gigs in Montreal, but just enough to know that the vocal pain is affecting that life. We don't get a real baseline; we don't see what it was like for her when she was fully healthy.

Webber has a style that blends crisp mostly single-weight lines with a more impressionistic, fat-lined scribble. In Dumb she tends to use the crisp style to tell the story - showing herself, other people, and dialogue - while the impressionistic style layers over that in a medium red, sometimes overwhelming the everyday events, sometimes taking over from it, and sometimes just sitting on top of it. It's not quite a metaphor for her loss of voice - Webber doesn't seem to want the red to represent One Thing; I get the sense she's not big on One Thing thinking - but it's a visual way of showing what's going on in her head and life.

So Dumb is not as linear as you might expect. It does mostly run forward through time, starting out with the pain, leading to a diagnosis, and then the long central section as Webber struggles to live her life, or recreate her speaking life as a silent person, but the last quarter is more like a montage. Maybe she doesn't have a single moment for an ending, maybe this was still ongoing - lives are not stories, and they don't end neatly. Whatever the reason, Dumb does not tie everything up neatly in a bow and present the Secrets for Living With This One Thing.

It's more about how to get through, what it feels like, how people react and how to navigate a life that changes radically in an odd, unexpected and surprisingly difficult way. And that does feel different and radical in the context of the "this bad thing happened to me" comics memoir. Which is all good and necessary: genres need to be broken open regularly. I'm glad Webber was there to do it, and I hope she's doing other stories now and that her voice is back to "normal." (Dumb is from 2018, which, given the time comics take to create, means the events in it probably happened nearly a decade ago.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Portugal by Pedrosa

I don't know if Cyril Pedrosa - who mostly goes by just his last name on his comics, in the European manner - really just does one big book every few years. That's been my experience of his career: Three Shadows over a decade ago, Equinoxes a few years back, and now Portugal (from 2017).

And it seems to be the life of his main character here, a Portuguese-French cartoonist named Simon Muchat: Simon had a reasonably successful career making "books," as his agent and girlfriend call them, but is in a slump as Portugal opens. He's teaching art in schools, doing some advertising freelance work, but feels completely unmotivated. About anything at all.

And that leads to the obligatory question of how much of Pedrosa is in Simon. The question is obligatory; the answer, though, is unknowable to any of us on this side of the paper. Pedrosa's grandfather immigrated from Portugal to France in the 1930s and stayed; so did Simon's. Portugal is largely the story of that family history - or, rather, how a chance trip to Portugal started Simon to re-engage with life, and led him to start trying to track back that family history. The focus is on Simon, and Pedrosa never drops into flashback to tell the stories of earlier generations: we see everyone and everything through Simon's eyes in the present day.

Portugal is loosely organized into three large sections, after a short prologue with Simon in the mid-70s, a young boy on his only previous trip to Portugal. Each of the three is named after a man in the family: first  "According to Simon" himself, then his father, then his grandfather. But that's not "according to" as in that's who is telling us the story, it's more of a sense of how far back in time Simon has gotten at that point.

That all makes it sound very deliberate: it's not. Simon is aimless when Portugal begins, and only slowly gathers any aim as the book goes on. He's still drifting until very deep into the book, still just going along with whatever happens, and only shows some interest in family stories and the details of life in Portugal. So this is the story of a reawakening, in a way: one connected to history and heritage in a very personal way.

Pedrosa tells this story at a distance, though small talk and background voices, with gorgeous watercolor panels that lend a slow, deliberate rhythm to this fairly long book. It took Simon a long time to climb out of his ennui; we'll see it happen slowly, and learn with him. This is a lovely book, with a quiet personal story told quietly and well - it may not be for all readers but those who can engage with it will find a lot to love.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 10/18/06

This time out, I'm looking at the books I read this week in 2006, as determined by the RNG built into Google. (And if we can't trust a piece of immediately-accessible software built by a shadowy global megacorporation, what can we trust?) Let's see if I know anything interesting about any of them.

Note: after starting this list, and typing out the titles, I realized I was doing a Book-a-Day stretch during that time, so I probably have old posts for all of these books. I'm going to still see what I remember about them, and link to the old posts, too. (Partially in horror, since I was pretty sketchy and dismissive as a writer-about-books back then.)

Cash Peters, Gullible's Travels (10/12)

My memory is that it was some variety of travel book, by a tiny press - I'm pretty sure I picked it up at work, from the fabled discard shelf - and that I enjoyed it and have never seen anything else by the author.

My old post confirms the travel book aspect: it was the culmination of Peters' career as "The Bad Taste Tourist" on public radio, in which he went to strange tourist attractions and reported on how strange they were. And the book itself was from 2003 (so maybe not immediately from the discard shelf in 2006, but maybe so) and Amazon throws up its hands and calls the publisher UNKNO. If you see this book - you probably won't; it's pretty obscure, he said in his best hipster voice - grab it, because it is a fun slice of American, heavy on the cheese, served with a great sarcastic voice.

Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club (bound galleys, 10/13)

For this one, I remember the cover - dark and evocative - and have a vague sense that it was a riff on Hamlet. I thought it was really good at the time, though I don't think I've read anything else by Haig since then. Note also that the title does not have an apostrophe: this is a club made up of multiple fathers, who are all dead.

According to my old post, I read it for work, and I can't recall if the SFBC ended up doing it. (ISFDB does list an edition as "Viking/SFBC," which is not how any of this works, though I think I know what they mean.) I see I was really impressed with it at the time, though the book-club crew did not agree with the original publisher about whether the book was funny or not - my guess is that it's all pretty dark, which can be funny. I'd probably find it funnier now.

Anyway, it is a riff on Hamlet, with an eleven-year-old hero whose father has just died under mysterious circumstances and whose family business (a pub; this is England) is falling under the shadow of a suspicious uncle. And I also see that Haig has written a bunch of books since, many of which sound just like my kind of thing.

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls, Book 1 (10/14)

This is obviously the first third of the big pornographic comic series about Alice (of Wonderland), Dorothy (of Oz), and Wendy (of Neverland) and the things their genitals and those of some others get up to in some big hotel in...Switzerland, I want to say? probably in the teens? I had a copy of the original three-volume edition, which I had to hide - it was very pornographic, and I had young boys in the house - but it was destroyed in the flood. I think I now have the one-volume edition, quietly hiding in the graphic novel shelves upstairs. (I learned the better way to hide things from boys is to stick them on shelves in their rooms; they'll never look there!)

My old post is short, since I was saving up the larger thoughts for the third book. But we all know what Lost Girls is, don't we?

C.J. Cherryh, Deliverer (10/15)

This was a book in the series about the atevi and the humans living on their planet. I think I read ten or so of these, and that they were all organized in trilogies. Oh, and the main human character - Bren Cameron? - was always in over his head, and often injured, so he ran around frantically while aliens did things alienly and there was eventually a mostly happy ending. I remember liking these, but, in retrospect, they seem oddly formulaic.

My old post is no help: it notes that it's the finale of the third trilogy (so book 9) but says no more than that. I do see there are now twenty-one (!) of these books now.

Richard Scarry, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (read twice to my younger son, 10/16)

I'm not sure why I listed this in the reading notebook: I was reading a lot of picture books to my younger son at the time, usually 3-6 a night, from the couple of hundred we had in the house and another dozen or so out from the library at any given time. Picture books are fun! I miss that part of my life; being connected to the picture-book world is wonderful.

Anyway, Richard Scarry is one of the greats of the 20th century - his stuff may be dating now, but I hope not, since he side-stepped potential racial issues by making all of his characters random animals, so it would mostly be the Sexism Fairy that could potentially wallop his stuff - and this is one of the big books from his life. (Scarry became a brand, so readers need to look out for the books that he actually did, and avoid the ones based on TV shows based on his ideas based on books.)

My old post is actually pretty long and detailed, saying some of what I just typed above in a different way. If you have young children interested in the world, Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? is still awesome. And the kind of kids who like noisy machinery - typically boys, but not always - will love this book as well.

Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh" (10/17)

I think this was a book of quotes: probably specifically about debunking misquotes. The title is from Casey Stengel, I think, and he didn't say "last" because there were seven teams in the division at that point, and he was more specific than "last." Let's see if I remember right....

(Well, before I get to my old post, I put in the Amazon link, and the subtitle is "False phrases, spurious sayings, and familiar misquotations," so one point for me.)

My old post shows that I did remember it right: this book is the kind of thing that Quote Investigator does regularly these days, and that most people take no notice of.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (10/18)

Well, this is mildly famous, by a guy who I think won the Nobel (if not, it was mostly because he died first; he had that level of fame and acclaim). As I recall, it was a short first-person book by an old ugly man, and it focused mostly on one particular woman, who was, of course, much younger than the narrator. I have a vague sense it was squicky, and even if it wasn't to me then, it probably would be to a large number of people now.

My old post shows me that I found it squicky then, and that it was vastly more squickly than I remembered: the old guy is 90, the girl is a specially-procured virgin of 14, and he arrives to watch her sleep repeatedly. I suppose it's meant to be uplifting that he never actually wakes her up to fuck her, or fucks her in her sleep, or...I'm sorry, my eyes will bug out of my head if I try to complete this sentence.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Quote of the Week: Eurydice Says Hi

The present is a rope stretched over the past. The secret to walking it is, you never look down. Not for anyone, not even family. The secret is to pretend you can't hear the voices of the people who have fallen down there in the dark.

 - Sean Stewart, Perfect Circle, p.18

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

I have a cynical opinion: for most of us, no matter how good we are, careers last about ten years. It applies to the artists we love and the lives we live equally. That band will probably break up after a decade; that writer will put out novels dependably until the second digit of the year changes. And your job will be happy with you right up to the point where they aren't, and at that point the industry will have changed enough that you have to leap into something else.

Maybe fifteen. I'll give you fifteen.

Of course, the superstars are the exceptions, as they are in everything else. They're the ones who make it seem like doing the same thing well for a lifetime is not just possible, but normal. But it's only normal for them, and we're not them. (Or maybe you are. Are you a superstar?) They're big and well-known and seem central, so it can be hard to realize how few of them there are, and how their path isn't open to the rest of us.

I think about that a lot when I realize a great writer hasn't had a solo novel since 2004, and that his first novel was in 1992. And maybe I think that he basically invented the "artificial-reality game" genre around 2001, and I haven't heard much about that for years, either. So I wonder what his current career is, how it's treating him, and I hope he's enjoying it.

In this specific case, the writer is Sean Stewart, and the book is Perfect Circle. (He did write other things afterward: lots of things for games and other interactive experiences, and he co-wrote a YA trilogy that was published in book form but apparently also had ludic elements.)

Frankly, it's heartbreaking that this was his final novel of fantastika. It is a short but essentially perfect book: emotionally resonant, intensely told, thoroughly felt, and deeply human. In a better world, it would have broken Stewart out to a wider audience and launched him onto bestseller lists. But the whole point of Perfect Circle is that this is not a better world - it's only as good as we make it, and we have to share it with people making it worse.

Some of them don't even stop after they die.

This is a novel about ghosts: both the literal and the metaphorical kind. Will "Dead" Kennedy is a slacker who made it to his early thirties without accomplishing much: he has a broken marriage with Josie and a tween daughter Megan, he has a lousy apartment and a succession of basic jobs, he has a love for punky, alternative music and not much energy for anything else. He can also see ghosts, and maybe that's the reason for some of his other issues, or vice versa.

He resents his ex-wife's second husband Don, an ex-Marine who has a good job with a future and provides Will's daughter with the life Will can't. He's resigned to the complicated lives of his big Houston-based family, but mostly skims around the edges of things. He's lost the one great love of his life and can't move on, a decade later - though he might be confused as to who that was. He's settled into a groove in his life and, just maybe, is starting to look around and realize he's not in his twenties anymore and that groove is turning into a trench.

Or maybe not. Maybe he doesn't realize anything, or want to change.

Will is our first person narrator: he has an engaging, open voice, one instantly familiar to any Gen X man (and probably most men and women from other generations). He's our main character: he's going to tell us what happens. He's going to explain what he sees, and tell us about the ghosts in his world: his own, most of all, but the others as well.

I won't say he's our hero. Will is haunted, in ways that he doesn't understand and can't directly tell us. This is a novel about how he's haunted, and what haunts him, and how, as always in fiction, things get worse before the end. Perfect Circle is a novel of events, but it does not have a deep plot: it's all driven by Will, and the things he does and choices he makes and ghosts that influence him. And he will get much deeper before the end.

Stewart's conception of ghosts here has some elements in common with Tim Powers, though Stewart's ghosts have more agency. They're dead, and possibly trapped, but they seem to still be themselves. Some of them can talk to the living, some of them have good or bad intentions, some of them can communicate in other ways, but many of them seem to be caught up in whatever killed them - there aren't obvious rules, but they feel realistic and real.

Again, this is a great, resonant, thoughtful, deep book. In a just world, it would have been nominated for and won awards, as several of Stewart's earlier books were. But ours, like Will's, is a world of ghosts, a world where bad things happen because people do bad things, where careers and people die.

And maybe Stewart's novel career is definitively over, or maybe this is just a hiatus. But the thing about novels, and about art in general, is that they exist once they're made. They don't stop. You can read a novel today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now. It will still be there.

Just like a ghost.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation by Natalie Nourigat

The ecosystem of graphic novels is still proliferating - it might not have quite as many niches as pure-prose books do, but it's getting there. We may see a day where any kind of book that exists in prose also exists in graphic form.

I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation is a great example: I don't think a book like this would have existed twenty years ago, and definitely not thirty. The title explains it perfectly: Natalie Nourigat [1] was a freelance artist and cartoonist in Portland (Oregon), and wanted a more stable career that used her art skills. So she researched the animation world, set her sights on a story artist job, eventually got one in LA, and created this book a few years later to describe the whole deal - job, move, career, LA, industry.

Books like that have been around in prose for a hundred years or more - some are personal, like Nourigat's, and some are more general (How You Can Get a Job in Insurance in Hartford!). Nourigat is writing about an art career and speaking to other artists, though, so the graphic form works very well: she can convey not just the facts, but how she feels about LA and the animation industry through the body language and expressions of her avatar in the book, and her audience can see her examples of what storyboards look like and how they differ from comics.

This is a fairly dense book: it's just under a hundred pages, but Nourigat uses a heavily captioned style to get in a lot of details and explanations. She has an upbeat, positive tone throughout, though she does also talk honestly about the downsides of LA life (heat, car culture, expense, a spread-out landscape that makes it more difficult to connect with people). The book mixes her personal story with more general information, though it's almost all based in her personal experience - she did interview a group of other artists, though, and includes their thoughts, each as a separate three-page section, at the end.

Moved to LA is broken up into many shorter chapters on different aspects of her story and life in LA: perks, the moving itself, the job hunt, pros and cons of LA life, tips on getting a job, general questions - and she has running titles on her pages (I don't think I've ever seen in this in a graphic novel before) to show which section you're in, so it's useful to leaf through and find specific advice.

I, personally, can't draw. I'm also one of the Olds, deeply into a second non-art career, and firmly stuck on the other side of the country. So I can take no advice from this book myself - but I did enjoy Nourigat's look at what her journey was like, and what it could be like for others who want to do something similar. It's exciting to see that kind of energy and enthusiasm, especially when it's aimed at making good stories and art.

So I recommend this primarily to people who might want to work in animation and/or move to LA. And maybe secondarily to people in other art-related fields, as a reality check about how their industries and locations work and compare.


[1] She does not present any credentials for her expertise other than the obvious "I got a job doing this, and I have kept that job and love it" one. She does talk about the differences between movie and TV animation (and that she's on the movie side), but never says what studios she does or has worked for. But I see from her website that she's not just an individual-contributor storyboard artist, but currently Head of Story on an upcoming movie and her whole career to date has been at Walt Disney Features Animation - which is kind of a big deal, and a major "take this person seriously" credential.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 by Herge

This is the end. Well, sort of: there's an unfinished last book called Tintin and Alph-Art, which is available in what I think is the form Herge left it (rather than completed by other hands). But this is definitely the last Tintin stories actually completed and published.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 collects books that cover almost two decades: The Castafiore Emerald (serialized 1961-62), Flight 714 to Sydney (66-67) and Tintin and the Picaros (75-76). Herge was clearly not devoting as much time to writing and drawing new albums in his fifties and sixties as he was as a younger man, but I suspect he was doing just as much "Tintin stuff," only related to running a business empire: approving toy designs, meeting with movie people, arranging sublicenses, and all of the other things that are definitely work but don't deliver any new material from a creative person.

Anyway, the three books are quite separate here, as you might guess from that sixteen-year span. So I guess I should treat them separately.

The Castafiore Emerald stands out as different from the rest of the series: it's entirely set at Marlinspike, Captain Haddock's ancestral pile, and it's a mystery/farce rather than the series' more usual adventure plot. I found the humor was not quite as juvenile as Herge sometimes gets - it's still most based on how horrible Bianca Castafiore is and how much Haddock can't stand her (and, secondarily, on how much of a blustery klutz he is), but that's the story here, rather than random interjections. The story sees Haddock injure his foot, so he's stuck in a wheelchair, right as Castafiore invites herself (and the inevitable accompanying media frenzy) to Marlinspike, leading first to worries about theft and then what seems to be an actual theft. It's also got some good don't-judge-people material, suitable for its young audience, though that thread is mostly background.

Flight 714 to Sydney is a more typical adventure story: Tintin and Haddock and Calculus are off to some international aviation symposium in Australia, get sidetracked by an eccentric rich guy, and then a villain strikes. There's a lot of running around with guns after that, mostly serious, and a weird fantastic element that struck me as outside the usual style of the series and that largely serves to set up a deus ex machina ending in a book that didn't need one. That one element aside, though, the adventure stuff is strong, and the comic relief mostly well-integrated into the actual story.

And then the last finished Tintin book, the one I could have read as a child of the appropriate age if Tintin was a thing in the USA in the mid-70s (it wasn't), is Tintin and the Picaros, something of a greatest-hits compilation of the series. The fictional Latin American country of San Theodoros from The Broken Ear provides a venue and a big chunk of cast, one secondary villain returns from The Calculus Affair, and of course there's the usual suspects of Tintin, Haddock, Castafiore, and the Thom(p)son twins. It has an odd anti-violence message from Tintin as part of his revolutionary plot, and that plot is fairly thin and mostly on rails.

I still think these omnibuses are a rotten way to present the Tintin books: they're too physically small to read easily and the books are long and dense enough that they'd work better as individual albums. I expect the next big repackaging of Tintin will be back to the album format; every series gets packaged into omnibuses for a while and then broken back out again. If you have the inclination to read this series, I'd either wait for that switch or look for actual albums. (If you're reading in a language other than English, the latter should be easier.)

As for me, I'm happy I read the series: it was a big hole in my comics cultural literacy. I didn't love the Tintin books, but I didn't expect to: they were made for European boys starting several decades before I was born, and I didn't read them until I was middle-aged. But I can appreciate what they do well - I don't think I've even mentioned Herge's lovely line in any of these posts (maybe because of the horrible small size of these omnibuses, which does not display his art well at all) - and indulge the things they do to keep that young audience happy and engaged. I still don't think I'd agree with the Tintin maximalists, but this is pretty good stuff. (See my posts on the earlier books for more.)

Monday, October 11, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/9/21

Five books this week, all from the library - I was trying to get things in to read for this weekend and next, and it worked out perfectly.

That means, of course, that something else is about to go horribly wrong....

Making Friends: Third Time's the Charm is the (unsurprisingly) third book in Kristen Gudsnuk's "Making Friends" series, about a middle-schooler who inherited a magical sketchbook from her great-aunt and has used it to create ever-more complications in her life. (See my posts on books one and two for more details.) This one seems to follow immediately from the ending of the second book and sees  our heroine Dany's life transformed, along with elements of the whole world, in ways I suspect have something to do with other bequests from that deceased great-aunt. (I had a note about that in my post about the second book; Gudsnuk's books look wacky and like they're just hurtling at high speed, but she's a deeply sneaky writer, which I hugely appreciate.) I don't know if this series will keep going on, since it seems to be getting bigger, wackier, and more transformative with each book, but I'm up for it if it does.

Switching gears entirely (though still sticking to the big middle-grade graphic-novel world), I also have When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, a National Book Award Finalist and a Big Serious Book about a Big Serious Thing. (Kids get a lot of them foisted on them, always out of good intentions, but sometimes it means millions of fourteen-year-olds have to waste dozens of hours on Ethan Frome.) Mohammed was a child refugee in Kenya, and this is the story of a child refugee in Kenya named Omar and his younger brother Hassan - the LCC code on the copyright page puts it in a non-fiction bucket, so I believe this is essentially a memoir in comics form. (Jamieson is the artist, and probably also helped scripting this - she's done two graphic novels for younger readers before this one.)

Wendy, Master of Art is a graphic novel for adults by Walter Scott (no, not that one; this guy hasn't been knighted...yet?). The main character is an artist: my sense is that the book collects a bunch of stories (or maybe just one long story; I'm not sure if it appeared anywhere else first) that cover a big chunk of her career and/or life. And she's Wendy, obviously. I've seen good notices of it...waves randomly...somewhere, and I'm always up for reading graphic stuff by creators new to me.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 12: To All the Squirrels I've Loved Before is the end of the series, by the usual creators: Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi. And, I guess, that means that Marvel's scheduling system was what finally beat Doreen Green: no comic can run forever these days.

Last is Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part II by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Rich Tomaso. But, Andy! you might say, I thought you hate those books! Well, "hate" is a strong word. I'm definitely finding a lot of things to criticize and complain about in these books, absolutely - but I was an editor; pulling apart books is what I do. It's one of my core skills. So getting such great material to work from is wonderful, and I'm not unentertained by the series to date, even as I do see it as hugely flawed in ways that reflect badly on superheroes in general and the modern comics scene in particular.

(Note: you might not say that, since I realize my post on Age of Doom, Part I has not posted yet. But you will say that once it does. Or you might, I dunno, I don't want to put words in your mouth.)

Friday, October 08, 2021

Quote of the Week: Hot and in a Pocket

A restless nation will always want to eat on the run, and this creates opportunities for utilitarian cuisine. The kind of meal you can throw down your neck in between finishing doing a thing and starting something else without having to pause to wash up any plastic tubs or spend the day with a fork in your pocket.

To this end, all manner of meals have been encased in pastry, nature's own Tupperware, and sold for the express delight of busy Brits on the move.

 - Fraser McAlpine, Stuff Brits Like, p.50

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

We all live in the worlds we build for ourselves. For most of us, that's deeply metaphorical. For people who tell stories for a living, well, it can be more complicated.

Take the Bronte family: the three sisters who lived into adulthood (Charlotte, Emily, Anne) all wrote novels, important books that are still read and studied today. Their brother, Branwell, was supposed to be the great genius of the family but never produced anything substantial - I've never studied the matter but I always got the sense that the expectations for Branwell were entirely because of his gender, and not due to any specific ability. But all four of them wrote, and they wrote together, or maybe just in and around each other's stories, when they were children. They invented worlds, and peopled them, and squabbled over the people in those worlds, causing schisms and an inevitable split, with two of the four packing up their stories and heading off to a separate continent.

All this while they actually lived in that famous remote parsonage in Haworth: the four children, their parson father, a housekeeper. Probably seeing people from the village all the time, but the story of isolation avoids mentioning that. Definitely remote, definitely separated, definitely just with each other almost all the time.

So they lived in their invented world as much as the real one: it was as important - more important.

Isabel Greenberg's third graphic novel Glass Town - her first to be set in the real world, not her invented Early Earth - tells that story, in a fictionalized form. Charlotte is at the center, and she usually is in tellings like this: she was the one who survived the longest, after all. (She died at the age of 38: in most contexts, that wouldn't count as very long at all.)

It opens with Charlotte in a field in 1849: she's the last of the four left alive. And she's met by one of her own characters, to tell her what has become of Glass Town, the city the four of them made, and of Angria, the country Glass Town sits in. (And to say nothing is known of Gondal, the land Emily and Anne created without the other two.) This is our frame story: he asks her to tell him the story they both know. And of course she does.

Greenberg says up front that this is a fictionalization - well, we know that as soon as a fictional character appears on the moors to talk to Charlotte - but that also means that any specific detail may be invented, or altered, or just never recorded in real history. So much of this could be true, or false, or somewhere in between. That's not important, though: the story is important.

The story is mostly about the Glass Town characters, and their complicated grand-opera affairs: the dashing rogue Zamorna, his colorless wife and her scheming evil father, Zamorna's real brother the gossip-merchant and foster brother the Black true king of this colonized land, and a few others. They're all tied up in a knot, and their story is bound to end with violent conflict and death.

I don't know if any of the Brontes ever wrote that ending. I don't know if they wrote competing endings, but I suspect they at least talked about it. I don't know if any of those potential endings exist. All I know is what Greenberg tells me here, in this version of their lives - how they battled over how the stories should go, with Charlotte and Branwell more warlike and Emily and Anne more domestic. That led to the split, as Greenberg tells it. But we now know basically nothing of Gondal, because none of those writings, except a few scraps of poetry, survived. So all we have is Glass Town, and the men maneuvering to kill each other over it.

It's difficult to tell a completely happy story about someone who died young a hundred and fifty years ago - not when you're covering a lot of her life, anyway. Glass Town is a book about creation and destruction, about living in the real world vs. living in invented ones...but it tends to come down on the side of destruction and invented worlds, as one should probably expect from a creator of fiction.

As in her previous books, Greenberg has an almost faux-naif art style, full of stiff figures with simple features, just expressive enough for her purpose. (If they look a bit like cutout dolls, or perhaps more specifically lead soldiers, that's not an accident.) It's a style that may be off-putting to people who read a lot of traditional comics - superhero, manga or YA - since it comes from a more deliberate artistic tradition, one that is not aiming to render things the way they look to the viewer.

Glass Town, because of that hundred and fifty years, because of Greenberg's art style and other choices, and because of the nature of Glass Town itself, is a bit chilly and detached - it's not a warm, welcoming story, and never would have been. Any reader will need to be aware of that, before they make the trip: the people of Glass Town have their own concerns, and will have little time for you.