Thursday, May 06, 2021

Wicked Things by John Allison, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar

I have to assume the plan - or maybe the hope - was that this would replicate Giant Days's success, and turn into a long-running comics series. And maybe it still will: I get the sense that the days when a publisher could say, mid-run, "hey, the numbers are great, and we're just going to keep on going with this book!" are now over, and were even basically over in 2013 when Giant Days started. So there could be another Wicked Things series: we're still in early days, since this paperback came out (checks planned posting day) last month.

Anyway, Wicked Things. It collects a six-issue series from 2020 about Charlotte "Lotty" Grote, the biggest character from writer John Allison's Bad Machinery webcomic, who also made a few appearances in his popular Giant Days comics series. He's joined here by the core end-Giant Days crew, with Max Sarin on art and Whitney Cogar on colors.

(I pause here to mention that I've seen reviews of Wicked Things issues that refer to Lotty as a fan-favorite who first appeared in Giant Days and thus afterward appeared in Bad Machinery, which betrays an essential lack of understanding that time is a thing that goes forward.)

Anyway (once again), Lotty has spent the few years since Bad Machinery ended still solving odd crimes in Tackleford, even if the rest of the Mystery Tweens gave up and went on to more normal teen lives. As this book opens, she's on her way to the gala Solver Awards in London, where's she's nominated in the Teen Detective of the Year (16-18) category. She is also accompanied by Little Claire, the only other character old fans will recognize.

And, as the reader settles in, expecting a biting satire of comics awards and related stuff, the whole story shifts: Lotty wins her award, but isn't there, because she's being framed for a murder.

Well, attempted murder. Luckily for her, the victim is alive. Unluckily for her, the victim is also in a coma, and unable to report that Lotty is not the (attempted) murderess. And one of the top coppers on the case is convinced enough by her protests of innocence - no one else is; it's a very good frame - to put her on a kind of work-release to "assist the police with their inquiries."

In this case, that means spending her nights in a kind of halfway house, locked in with a few other possibly-reformed criminals and monitored by ankle bracelet, and spending her days at the cop shop making tea and being ignored by the actual police as she spins crazy but generally-correct theories about the crimes those cops are investigating. She does remarkably little investigating of the actual murder she's accused of, possibly because Claire is digging into that (not well) and possibly because she's more excited by the other crimes the cops around her are working on.

It does all come together in the end, more or less. (The moment where Lotty is cleared of the attempted murder seemed less than definitive to me.) Lotty's crime-fighting instincts are nearly always correct, but nearly always unheeded, which is amusing but would need to be adjusted if Wicked Things turns into an ongoing series.

And it reminded me that Allison keeps doing big action stuff - Scarygoround was full of it, and Bad Machinery measured it out more carefully in bursts at the end of each case - but not always successfully in an American floppy-comics context. (It's one of the things that I thought made his By Night, which also tries not-entirely-successfully to translate his essential Britishness to a middle-American setting, not as strong as it could have been: he's just not the guy for the big fight scene.) It works reasonably well here, but Wicked Things, if it returns, would be less slice-of-life and "bigger" than Giant Days was, so I do wonder if his current audience would be as interested.

I would love myself more Lotty Grote, especially on a regular basis, so I hope they would as well. Globe-trotting teenage detectives - or even mid-England-trotting - would be a lot of fun. Let's hope Allison, Sarin and Cogar get to do more.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Stuff Brits Like by Fraser McAlpine

I have to wonder if other countries have anything similar to the Anglophile Empire of the USA. Is there a thriving industry in France about "Understanding your German cousins?" Do the Thai spend a lot of time working out the intricacies of Filipino life? Do Venezuelans take courses in traditional Brazilian-style meals and have little afternoon parties to celebrate?

I tend to doubt it. It feels like a bizarre post-colonist thing, the kind that only emerges long post-colonialism, after the new nation considers itself not just independent, but equal or even better than its founding nation. And few countries have hit that point, or have anything like the boundless (and often groundless) self-confidence of Americans, to even think a platonic love affair with the old motherland would be a good thing.

But it does exist in the USA. It's a big deal. There are a sizable number of actual Brits - expats and even people still living in the old country - gainfully employed at packaging the details of British life for American consumption. The two countries are close enough, with enough important differences, to make those cultural products interesting and zippy, but the same thing could be said of, for example, comparisons between Australia and the USA (which might actually be more interesting), and those are much rarer.

One of the emanations of that urge was Fraser McAlpine's 2015 book Stuff Brits Like, which has an admirably concise and on-the-nose explanation of its appeal for a title. (Phrased in an American way, of course.) I read it because this kind of stuff is fascinating to me, because it looked breezy and fun, because I got it cheap, and because, inevitably, I'm a consumer of the vast Anglophile Empire myself.

McAlpine is Cornish - he makes a point about this several times, so that even dim Americans are not likely to miss it - which gives him a somewhat different viewpoint into the multiple nations that make up the so-called United Kingdom. (The Home Counties English, the usual producers of cultural products like this, will always give lip service to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and usually to Wales as well, but are less likely to mention Cornwall and Northumberland and the other pockets of pseudo-nationalism bubbling deep in the British stew.) Related to that, his book is more modern and multicultural than the similar book of a generation ago would have been: being British here doesn't mean "a pale person whose ancestors have lived on this patch of land since the bloody Jutes came through" the way it might have in the past. The actual cultural products, though, are the same, because they're all British (the people and the cultural artifacts): it's just that the darker-skinned Brits also watch Downton Abbey and the pale people, as we all know, love to murder a curry.

So McAlpine provides more than a hundred short chapters - there's no table of contents, and I'm not about to count them, but each one is three or four pages long and the book has 360 pages, so you do the math - about those things that, as he says, British people in general mostly like. First, though, is Pedantry, which lets him get in early with the point that British people love to argue about things and love to be performatively unhappy about things, and so pre-emptively cover a whole range of objections to any or all of his choices.

I am not British. None of the audience of this book is British. My cynical side wonders if McAlpine was editorially guided to focus as much as possible on British cultural and social products that Americans have actually heard of, but it's pretty big and full of odd things, so, even if so, it was not a strong guiding hand. And my guess is that this is pretty much the book McAlpine wanted to write: semi-random, wandering, celebratory but in a tasteful, quiet British way.

McAlpine is a witty, amusing writer: he has the dry wit that a Brit writing for Americans about the British is expected to deliver. I dog-eared half a dozen pages while reading this for quotes to post here; they might not actually work that well out of context, actually, but I hope the impulse says good things about the book.

If you, too, spend much of your time living in the Anglophile Empire, you will enjoy this book. If you hate all things British for whatever reason, you should stay far away.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Bad Doings & Big Ideas by Bill Willingham and various artists

The odds-and-soda collection has a long and glorious history, which I'm not going to get deeply into here. But I will say that in comics, and especially DC Comics, it's a way to squeeze another piece of product out of a current top performer, since that top performer probably did a bunch of random shorter stuff that can be slapped profitably between two covers.

(Previous examples of the form: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner, DC Universe by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days and The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman. No, I don't know why Gaiman gets the definite article when creating the DC Universe, and Moore does not.)

In 2011, Bill Willingham was the biggest creator DC's Vertigo imprint had, smack in the middle of the hugely popular Fables series and spinning off sidebars mostly co-written with others (Jack of Fables, Fairest, Cinderella). But no corporation is ever happy with what it has: it always wants more.

And so, somewhere, in some office high above Manhattan, the idea of a Willingham odds-and-sods collection was born. It turned out he had a lot of DC odds, mostly related to the Neil Gaiman Sandman-verse, the previous heavyweight Vertigo champion. And it was the era of big bug-crushing omnibi, so DC was presumably happy to see they had enough to slaughter several beetles at once.

Bad Doings & Big Ideas came out at the end of 2011, collecting basically the Venn diagram of "by Bill Willingham," "from Vertigo," and "not Fables." It has over five hundred pages of comics from roughly the decade 1999-2009, including three graphic-novel length stories (of six, four, and four issues each), three more full-issue stories, and eight more shorter pieces. It has both a general (though short) introduction by Willingham and notes on each story, along with detailed who-did-what credits for every story and a detailed table of contents. And it was all wrapped up in a new James Bennett cover, which is good and eye-catching and yet makes me wonder if Willingham offered to make a cover himself and was let down gently. (On the other hand, I don't think Willingham has ever been a painter, and a book like this just looks classier with a fully-painted cover rather than a drawn-and-colored one. So maybe it was even his idea.)

The first big story is Proposition Player, a comics series drawn mostly by Paul Guinan (it started off as an all-Willingham joint, which lasted not quite halfway through the first issue) about a professional poker player who gets mixed up with the supernatural in a very Vertigo way. It was intended to be an ongoing series, but the market did not agree, so it got just the initial six issues to set up the premise and has sat dormant ever since. It's a decent set-up, with that core Willingham cruelty baked in around the edges, but, in retrospect, might not have given as much scope for additional stories that Fables did, just three years later.

The second and third big stories are the two "Thessaly" miniseries, about an ancient witch who showed up in Sandman and walked out of that series still alive and mostly untouched, which was rare. Shawn McManus, who also worked on Sandman, illustrated those two stories, which are a little bit too tight and plotty for their own good: Willingham throws out hooks for things he doesn't have space to reel in, but the stories themselves are solid in that neo-horror Sandman style.

And then the rest is partly comedy (a one-shot about Merv Pumpkinhead as a "spy" in the real world) partly horror (several of the shorter pieces), partly already odds-and-sods (a one-short with multiple artists called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Dreams But Were Afraid to Ask), and then partly more-or-less just adventure stories ("The Further Adventures of Danny Nod, Heroic Library Assistant," from the miscellaneous book The Dreaming). Some of the short pieces I didn't call out specifically fit into multiple of those categories, or not clearly into any -- there's a short series of backups from House of Mystery that seem to be mostly "Willingham gets to work with artists he loves and has never collaborated with before."

It is miscellaneous; that's the point. And it's very much for the audience of people who found Willingham through the Fables door and want more kinda like that. (People who found Willingham through the Elementals door are older, crabbier, and still waiting for our collection.) Whether that's much of an audience a decade later, I can't say: I was vaguely looking for this for several years, finally found it cheap, and then it sat on the shelf for a while after that. I am happy I finally found and then read it, though: I'd missed Proposition Player at the time (pretty much everyone did) and didn't even know about most of the short stuff.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/1/21

One book this week: I bought it, and actually even pre-ordered it, which is vanishingly rare for me. (I was ordering other stuff, saw this was coming out in about a week, and figured I might as well order it then rather than forgetting about it. But I still generally don't think of myself as a person who would ever pre-order things: I used to get stuff well ahead of publication, he said, shaking his fist at a cloud, so I'm not going to turn into that kind of uber-consumer if I have any say in the matter.)

The book is Martha Wells' Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth book about Murderbot. It's novella-length, matching all of the books aside from the immediately previous one, Network Affect, which is mildly surprising. (Usually, when a series makes the jump to novel, it doesn't typically jump back.) From the card page, it may be that the novellas are "The Murderbot Diaries" and the novel is its own separate thing, which would be deeply weird...but so is book publishing in general.

In any case: new book about Murderbot, about 190 pages long, hit stores earlier this week. The cool kids probably read it Tuesday and posted quick takes on Insta, but I'm a lot slower than that these days. (He said, starting to wax poetic about the days he used to hang an onion from his belt, and reminiscing about how he used to get a manuscript in the mail in the morning, read it that night, and write the reader's report first thing in the office the next morning.) I do expect to start it this weekend, which is the past weekend as you're reading this. So I may actually already have read it, though I doubt I have managed to finish it. (And now I'm starting to dive into time-travel tenses, which is a sign to end this post.)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Books Read: April 2021

Here's what I got through this past month, listed here mostly for my own reference in Latter Days:

George R.R. Martin and Raya Golden, Starport (4/3)

James Gleick, Time Travel, (4/3)

Bob Eckstein, editor, The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons (4/4)

Herge, Land of Black Gold (in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, 4/10)

Herge, Destination Moon (in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, 4/11)

Herge, Explorers on the Moon (in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, 4/10)

Bill Willingham and Shawn McManus, The Thessaliad (in Bad Doings & Big Ideas, 4/18)

Bill Willingham and Shawn McManus, Thessaly: Witch for Hire (in Bad Doings & Big Ideas, 4/23)

Fraser McAlpine, Stuff Brits Like (4/23)

John Allison, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar, Wicked Things (4/24)

K.J. Parker, Prosper's Demon (4/25)

Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett, Hewligan's Haircut (4/25)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Quote of the Week: Literary Forefathers

Gernsback was an extraordinary person: a self-made inventor, an entrepreneur, and what people of a later time would term a bullshit artist. Around town he wore expensively tailored suits, used a monocle to examine the wine lists of expensive restaurants, and ran nimbly from creditors. When one of his magazines failed, two more would rise up.

 - James Gleick, Time Travel, p.65

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 5 by Herge

I am still not your Tintin expert - I'm in the middle of my first reading of this series, seventy years or so after it was published and a good forty years after I was in the target demographic - but I did just read The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, the first major post-war chunk of the adventures of the Belgian boy reporter (ha!), so I can, I hope, tell you a few things.

I've previously gotten through the earlier omnibuses: one, and two, and three, and four. I have not yet found the first two, semi-forgotten books Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, which are generally considered to be racist and/or dull and/or not up to Herge's later level; I may get to them eventually, though the library copies I originally expected to read seem to have been quietly removed from circulation since I first thought about reading Tintin.

This volume starts off with Land of Black Gold, the story interrupted by WWII - Herge started it in 1939, was interrupted in 1940 by a small Nazi invasion of Belgium, and did six other books before getting back to this in 1948. [1] I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia a few minutes ago, so major props to Herge and/or his estate for smoothing that transition out. Then it dives into what I see is the last two-book story in Tintin's history: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, in which a pre-teen Belgian boy, his sea-captain buddy, and their absent-minded professor accomplice become the world's first astronauts in a program run by a random Eastern European country, because comics, that's why.

Black Gold does feel pre-war, with some vaguely escalating tensions in the background - mostly seen commercially, in oil prices - but the focus of the plot, as I think was always the case with Tintin, is on individual evil people rather than The Land of the Evil People or SMERSH or anything like that. Oh, the evil people are organized, and come from somewhere, but it's not the named, re-used Land of the Evil People, it's just a place where these particular Evil People came from. This one is also deeply colonialist, obviously - how could it be otherwise?

And then Professor Calculus has been recruited by Syldavia to run their space program, because a small Balkan monarchy of course has a space program in 1948. (Admittedly, everyone wanted a space program in 1948, at least on the V2 level, and fictioneers are not obliged to let reality impinge too heavily on their worlds.) A rival country - unnamed but probably Borduria, unless I missed something - attempts skullduggery both before the launch (in Destination) and during the trip to the moon (in Explorers), but, as always in Tintin, is foiled by the forces of good and right and spiky-haired Belgianness.

This series is still the same kind of thing: everything I said about the earlier books still applies. They are very wordy for adventure stories, which makes this small-format omnibus a less than ideal presentation. These pages should be large, to be savored and to let the word balloons be somewhat less overwhelming. The comic relief is deeply slapstick, entirely silly, and mostly successful. The plots aren't complex, per se, but they are complicated, full of additional wrinkles and problems as Herge rumbles through his stories and makes sure he has sixty-some pages of stuff for Tintin to overcome each time.

I expect I'll finish up the series, and maybe even find the old suppressed books if I can, because I am a completest. But if you didn't grow up with these, they're just OK. Solid adventure fiction for boys, yes. Deathless classics of any kind, no.

[1] It's all much more complicated than that, and I say "books" when I mean "serialized stories in a series of different magazines, which were then collected into books not always in the same sequence and then re-edited and revised multiple times over the next few decades, including but not limited to during different rounds of translation into English." But they're books now.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons edited by Bob Eckstein

Some books just have perfect titles: this is one.

Oh, sure, we could quibble about that "ultimate." But we have to allow some puffery, don't we? (And I mean that absolutely literally: "puffery" is a legal term of art, one of the many random things I've learned from my current odd career.)

Anyway, this is The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons, edited by cartoonist Bob Eckstein, who does indeed take the opportunity to include seven of his own cartoons in the book.

That seven is matched by Nick Downes and Bruce Eric Kaplan and Robert Leighton and P.C. Vey, exceeded by Edward Koren and Mick Stevens and Jack Ziegler, and nearly doubled by Sam Gross, by the way. Work from twenty-four other cartoonists is also included, with big names like Marissa Acocella, George Booth, Pat Byrnes, Roz Chast, and Liza Donnelly before I even get off the first page of contributor bios.

And, yes, all of them are represented by single-panel cartoons, each one presented on a single one of the roughly 140 pages of this book, in the way books like this always work. Those cartoons are in their turn all about books: usually in the general sense (book stores and book authors and book publishers and reading books and blurbing books and writing books) but, in some cases, in the specific sense of Moby-Dick and Poirot and so on.

Humor is subjective: I found this quite funny, but I worked in the book mines for over twenty years and have not entirely extricated myself even now. (I now work with the 21st century version, "content," which pays vastly better and has much more job security.) You may also find this funny. You may find it horrible and tedious and dull, which would only prove you are a sad loathsome little person, so please don't tell me if that's the case -- I would prefer to believe all of my readers all stalwart and true.

And I wrote this pointless, silly little blog post purely because I'm in the habit of doing this for everything I read, and habits die hard. So thanks for reading, and have fun going about the rest of your day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Time Travel by James Gleick

Is there a fancy literary term to say "review of the literature" (in the scientific sense)? Because that's what this book is: Gleick idly wanders through the fields of physics and SF to pick out interesting theories of time, and time travel, and related concepts, stringing them together in ways that seem most pleasing to him.

That's Time Travel: Gleick starts with Wells, as he must, and ends with...well, somewhat Gibson's The Peripheral, somewhat with the Internet in general, and somewhat with we-are-all-time-travel-theorists now, which is at least true of anyone who will read this book. Along the way, he hits every 20th century physicist you've ever heard of (Einstein and Kip Thorne and John Archibald Wheeler, Feynman and Hawking and Heisenberg), several major SF writers (Dick and Ballard, Bradbury and Heinlein, even Simak and Ray Cummings), and the big media properties most appropriate for a writer in the early 2010s (Doctor Who's "Blink," the inevitable George Pal, La Jetee and Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future).

It's divided into fourteen more-or-less thematic chapters -- each one starts with a particular vision of time travel, from a physicist or SF story, and then explicates that vision as best Gleick can until looping around to return to more or less where it started. Time loops are at least two or three of the visions, actually, so the book is something of a text-based test-bed for itself.

Time Travel is full of quotes, both from physicists explaining what is possible and what isn't (with regard to something that has never happened and quite possibly never will) and from SF writers gleefully making up their own rules and breaking them even more gleefully. At times, a cynical reader could even wonder if it is a book with an existence on its own, or only an extension of the notecards Gleick took during his preparatory reading. But that would be unkind. (And pointlessly snarky: this book was a bestseller at least twice, and probably sells more copies a year even now than the average new SF book.)

This is a book for people who like the idea of time travel, who know a bit about the history of the literature of time travel and/or the physics theories that might allow time travel, and who want to spend time with a book that makes reasonable demands and leaves the reader feeling smarter than he started. It can also be a good engine to build an expanded to-read list, though Gleick makes some books sound more appealing here than I found them in reality. (Case in point: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which I was not a fan of a decade ago and still sometimes remember with grinding teeth.)

And it will make you, at least for a short time, feel smarter for having read it. But that's the point of a book published by Vintage, so maybe don't put too much weight on that.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/26/21


This week, one book that I bought came in the mail, so it will be a short post.

That book was Wicked Things, which collects a six-issue comics series of the same name by John Allison (writing), Max Sarin (drawing), and Whitney Cogar (coloring). It's set in Allison's usual shared universe, like his webcomics Scarygoround and Bad Machinery and the recently-ended comics series Giant Days, and, as usual, time keeps moving forward. (Allison has occasionally done flashback Bobbins strips online, but it doesn't seem to stick; there's something about his particular muse that always wants to tell the next story and move on with his character's lives. It's an admirable thing in a muse.)

I haven't read this yet, so the blurb could be inaccurate, but it looks like the story of a now basically grown-up Charlotte "Lotty" Grote, the terror and breakout character of Bad Machinery, getting caught up in some dangerous situations as she tries to become a real detective.

The world needs as many John Allison comics as it can get, especially those about his young, quippy, driven young women, and Lotty is the current champion of that in the Allisonverse. So I'm happy to see this, and hope there will be more soon.