Monday, January 17, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of 1/17/02

As usual: on Monday, if I have new books, I write about them here. If I don't, I pick a random year in my reading notebook and try to remember the books I read this time that year. (How much do any of us remember about things we did ten or twenty years ago? It is an odd exercise, I admit.)

This time, our number is 2002:

Julianne Balmain, Office Kama Sutra (1/10)

Before I look it up, I'm going to assume that I read it because of that title, and also that I found out about it through work. I have a sneaky suspicion that QPB offered it: it's got their kind of title.

And...it is exactly what you'd expect from the title: a tongue-in-cheek guide, written in faux-Orientalia, about pursuing nooky in the office. I suspect 2002 is awfully late for a book like that; it would not fly now, even written by a woman (and illustrated by another: Thorina Rose). It looks amusing, but, these days, it would be a race between being condemned for cultural appropriation and being condemned for making light of workplace sexual harassment.

Michael I. Meyerson, Political Numeracy (bound galleys, 1/11)

I was still a Good Republican in 2002, though I was wavering. So this may well be a "why lefty economics never adds up" book, though I hope not. Let me check.

Nope: looks like this was more of a follower in the school of Freakonomics: applying scientific rigor, at least in theory, to some thorny policy questions to find Provable Right Answers. A lot of people thought that was possible, in that technocratic time, but that thread in American discourse seems to have mostly disappeared: right-wingers aren't interested in objective facts or science to begin with, and left-wingers are coming from a different direction.

It looks like Meyerson was either using political issues to explain mathematical concepts, or using mathematical concepts to show how political issues could be solved in a roughly utilitarian way, and I don't think anyone took the hint.

Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf & Cub, Vol. 16: Gateway Into Winter (1/13)

This was just past the half-way point of the samurai epic, which was collected in twenty-eight volumes. Even if I read dug out the descriptive copy for this book, I don't think I could say anything coherent about this specific piece of the larger story. I did think the whole series was excellent, and I'd read it again if I hadn't lost all of those books in my 2011 flood. (Buying twenty-eight books for a re-read is more than I feel up to at the moment. Maybe someday.)

Doron Swade, The Difference Engine (1/15)

I had to look it up, because my mind kept going to the Gibson/Sterling book of ten years earlier. This is a non-fiction work about Charles Babbage and his machines, and, knowing that, I can vaguely remember reading a book about that at some point. (This one, presumably: unless I've read multiple books on Babbage without keeping track, which is unlikely but not impossible.)

Swade was assistant director of the Science Museum in London, and led the team that built the first working Difference Engine in 1991. (So I'm pretty sure this is the book I'm remembering.) As I vaguely remember now, it's Babbage's story, not Swade's -- there might be an intro or something about his team's work, but the book itself is a conventional this-one-interesting-thing-in-history kind of book.

Calvin Trillin, Tepper Isn't Going Out (1/16)

This book I actually do remember! Trillin has only written a few novels - Barnett Fummer Is an Unbloomed Flower, a very hippie-inspired book from the late '60s, Floater, a very newspaper-inspired novel from 1980, and this one, a very New York-inspired book that was new at the time.

Trillin is a great writer, funny in a wry way no matter what he's writing, and I remember this as one of his best books. It is deeply frivolous - as I recall, he referred to it as a the only novel ever written about parking. Tepper is a guy who likes to read the newspaper in his car, and inevitably, people ask him if he's leaving that spot. He isn't. I believe he becomes local-famous for this, and the plot escalates from there: silly, parochial, and specific, all things Trillin is good at.

Richard Stark, The Score (1/17)

This is the fifth of the Parker novels; I may have been trying to read through them at the time. A decade later, in 2013, I read and reviewed the entire series in the puckishly titled blog series "Starktober." (No points for guessing what month it took place in.) So let me just link to my more detailed post on The Score.


Immediately before that, I finished Jorge Luis Borges's Selected Poems (no memory at all). And right afterward I had some reading for work: a two-book Star Trek: Stargazer series by Michael Jan Friedman (I don't remember what Stargazer was; my guess is a book-only series with some new characters) and then R.A. Salvatore's novel Transcendence (I'm sure it was part of some series; but I'd have to look it up.).

Friday, January 14, 2022

Quote of the Week: Always Someone Else's Shout

I've had to explain some of the peculiarities of British English swearing to my North American colleagues on several occasions. Those most often eliciting a degree of bafflement are tosser, wanker, and twat, so for the sake of North Americans reading this, here's my handy guide.

[description of buying rounds in a pub excised: the important bit is that you're supposed to buy at least one round for the whole group, on pain of social opprobrium]

So, with this in mind, let's meet Adam, Barry, and Chris.

  • Adam has forgotten his wallet tonight. He has to borrow some money so he can get a round in. Adam is a tosser.
  • Barry has forgotten his wallet but makes no attempt to borrow money. He drinks but doesn't buy a round. Barry is a wanker.
  • Chris always "forgets" his wallet, accepts a drink at every round and then tries to cadge some money for a kebab on the way home. Chris is a twat.

 - Emma Bryne, Swearing Is Good for You, pp.19-20

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Asadora!, Vol. 2 by Naoki Urasawa

Middle volumes are tough to write about, particularly for a series that the reader expects will run for a while. For the fairly early books: how do you tell what will be really important in the end, and what's just scene-setting? For the books deep into the series: how do you even describe what's happening among characters with hundreds of pages of backstory?

Asadora!, Vol. 2 is a middle volume - the first middle volume of this series, he said puckishly. Like the first book, it's by Naoki Urasawa, a highly respected manga-ka whose work I'm only vaguely familiar with. My post on the first book is scheduled to go live in three days as I write this, so I am hoping I remember to turn some of the words in this sentence into a link. (If I didn't, I apologize. Use the search function.)

The series centers on Asa: she was about nine in the first book, set in 1959 during a massive typhoon. From some narration in that book, I believe the series will follow her up to something like the present day, likely hitting just a few major events years apart. And I think "events" will mostly be disasters. There's a Godzilla-sized monster that has not yet been clearly seen, lurking around the fringes of the story - it's a good bet to assume that will cause some more disasters.

In the aftermath of that typhoon, Asa teamed up with her kidnapper - it was a pretty weird mentor/mentee meet-cute, I guess, but Urasawa made it plausible - to semi-commandeer a small airplane to airdrop food parcels to people stuck in floodwaters. Urasawa depicted the authorities, at least the local cops, as either completely incompetent or just entirely overwhelmed, completely unable to cope with the size of the disaster. But one girl and one critically-injured thief, supported by a street of rice-ball-making shopkeepers, could feed a huge swath of Nagoya.

This second volume picks up in the middle of that rescue effort: it's a few moments later, on the same day, as the end of the first book. Asa and Kasuga (the kidnapper) are still air-dropping rice-balls to survivors, but other dramatic events interfere with that as the book goes on.

Well, actually, there's a chapter before we pick back up - a team of scientists are in a jungle somewhere, looking for something, and arguing fiercely about whether they should keep going or turn back. (It is a bit cliched, I have to admit.) And then they see a tree with a gigantic claw-mark - dun dun DUNNNNNN!

This book ends the 1959 episode, with Asa finding some survivors important to her and getting something that will be major in her life. That takes about three-quarters of the book; the rest begins a new episode, set in 1964. (The year of the Tokyo Olympics, in case we have forgotten.) Asa is now a teenager, and has somewhat different problems. Kaguya is still around, and his past is causing complications.

Oh, and the Godzilla-sized-thing is still out there: a few more scraps of evidence pop up just before the end of this volume, and there's a connection back to that squabbling-scientists first chapter.

At some point, Asa will be flying a plane around or above that monster, probably dropping something on it. But that has not happened yet. Maybe next volume it will attack the Tokyo Olympics!

This is zippy and fun, but it's not clear where it's going or how long getting there will take. Are we going to get ~350 pages for each episode, and will those episodes be set about five years apart up to the present day? If so, that would imply Asadora! could be as much as 7000 pages and thirty-five volumes. But those are massive assumptions; it could be a lot shorter. (It could, I suppose, actually be longer, too - manga is a format that is not afraid of multi-thousand-page stories.)

So far, there's a whole lot of mystery, a whole lot of spunky-girl stuff, and very few answers. That's fine for a beginning, but the balance will need to tip at some point: I hope sooner than seven thousand pages from now.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for "Le Petit Vingtieme, in the Land of the Soviets by Herge

OK. Going from the mature peak of any art form back to the earliest examples is going to be a big surprise. And if it's all by the same creator, it's not fair to compare the early stuff to the really good stuff.

But, boy howdy did Herge get better over his career.

I finally dropped all the way back to the beginning of the Tintin series, the inimitably titled The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for "Le Petit Vingtieme," in the Land of the Soviets, originally serialized in the newspaper advertising itself in the title during 1929 and 1930. And it is....not nearly as well-done, in every possible way, than even Tintin in America, which came just a few years later.

On the positive side, Tintin does actually seem to be a a reporter in this book, though that's mostly an excuse for his travels: he does spend one night frantically writing something that he never manages to file. (And never does anything else reporter-ish, like talking to people and taking notes, or even having a dispassionate view of anything he encounters.)

Soviets is a really weird model for the rest of the series: it's nearly three times as long as the others (138 story pages) and reads like a run-on sequence of very slapstick newspaper adventure comics from ten or twenty years earlier. There's no depth of characterization, none of the verbal wit Herge developed later, and the art is quicker and sketchier, possibly because of the newspaper publication.

Instead, we get agitprop. Did you know the Soviet Union was bad? It's bad. Really bad. Tintin is sent on an assignment to Soviet Russia to report on something, or maybe everything - this isn't particularly clear, maybe since it was just a thin excuse to send him in that direction. Immediately (on page 2) a scruffy commie tries to murder Tintin, since - we will hear this over and over - the USSR is one big Potemkin village, where everything is horrible in every way, and if right-thinking Belgians (well, maybe other people elsewhere too, but who cares about them?) knew the truth they would be shocked and appalled, which would lead to something unclear.

The plot follows that initial impetus: Tintin is traveling, first to get into Russia and then to get out of it, while various dirty commies try, sometimes with massive military force and sometimes with sneaky sabotage, to murder him. Several times, for variety, they capture him, tie him up, and threaten to murder him slightly later.

None of this is successful, obviously, since he went on to star in twenty-three more books over the next fifty years or so. This is partially because the narrative is so clearly on Tintin's side that nothing can harm him, and partially because this (twelve-year-old? I guess?) little blonde kid can beat up absolutely anyone and everyone he comes across, probably because his heart is true and they're all dirty commies.

This is not good. It is amusing for anyone who can avoid taking it seriously. It moves very quickly, with that Perils of Pauline-style one-damn-thing-after-another plotting, and a reader will not be bored. (Annoyed, maybe. Baffled, possibly. Bemused, if they're lucky.) It is primarily of interest for people who know the mature Herge and want to do a compare-and-contrast, and possibly for fans of social history who want to see a master-class in fear-mongering.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Bill and Ted Are Doomed by Evan Dorkin and Roger Langridge

This is another one of those cases where I'm a fan of the other thing in the mix, and so will probably not be that good at reviewing how good the final product is at achieving its end. Just a warning up front.

What I mean is: I've been following Evan Dorkin (especially the comics he both wrote and drew, which are rare this last decade or two) and, to a an only slightly lesser extent, Roger Langridge, for years and years. They're both comics creators whose work I'll try to read almost no matter what it is.

Even if it's a sharecropped story deliberately constructed to fit in between two movies that I have never seen, for example.

Bill and Ted Are Doomed was a four-issue miniseries, collected into a single book a little later - that's how I read it - designed to help bridge the gap between the 1991 movie Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and Bill & Ted Face the Music, which came out last year in some way. (Movie releases were a bit disjointed and weird in 2020, like so much else in the world.)

Now, I did see the first movie, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, so I'm not completely unaware of the thing. But that was a long time ago, and is filed in my brain more under "'80s surfer stereotypes" than "the Bill & Ted universe."

So this book, which has their robot duplicates - who were evil in the second movie, I thought, but aren't evil here - and some little hairy naked inventor-types who only say "Station!" and I presume are also from that movie, because it would be really weird otherwise,...anyway, this book has a lot of stuff that I assume is fan-service for the actual fans, but I am not really one of them, so it's just weird details.

This is also handicapped by its mid-quel nature: it was seemingly designed to show Bill & Ted (and their families) roughly halfway between the youthful slackers of Bogus and the middle-aged losers of Music. And it can't solve the problem the later movie will, which is the core problem of the series (such as it is): Bill & Ted will, eventually, write the one song that brings the world together in peace and harmony and forms a global utopia.

Which is a fun conceit, but if they actually do it, all of the stories are over. So, unless they do in Music (I hope they do), they haven't done it yet.

Doomed is thus a book of failure. Bill & Ted are nearly broke, their band is forgotten, and they spend all their time trying to write the One Song and getting nowhere. Everyone around them is more sensible and normal than they are - that would pretty much have to be the case, honestly - so the band (Bill, Ted, their wives, and Death on bass) set off on a tour to refill their bank accounts.

And if you've ever seen any story about a band setting off on tour, you know it will not go well.

It does not.

There's a band that hates Bill & Ted for mostly inexplicable reasons - they're not metal enough, which is fair since Wyld Stallyns never stuck me as particularly metal, but I may be biased - and that of course leads to a disastrous festival somewhere frozen in Scandinavia where Our Heroes are once again in danger of dying.

It all does end, somewhat mutedly, since they can't actually write The Song or change their slacker/loser future or resolve their money problems. Again, this is a story set between two already-defined points, and exists mostly as a line extension to shake more money out of fans' pockets. It's a fun entertaining story, with the loose-limbed appeal of the other Bill & Ted stories, so it's almost certainly worth the few dollars it does shake out. But that doesn't change the pointlessness of it all.

Then again, I'm generally of the opinion that all sharecropped stories are deeply pointless, so you may not want to listen to me. This one is harmless at worst, goofy fun at best.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Reading Into the Past: 1/10/98

On a Monday morning here, you get one of two kinds of posts. If I got new books - no matter how I got them - I'll list them. If I don't get new books, I pick "that week" in a random past year of my reading notebook, list the books I was reading then, and try to remember anything about them.

That's "Reading Into the Past." Think of it as the opposite of review of new books: an examination of what, if anything, remains in memory of books read long before.

This time, the RNG gave me 1998, so here's what I was reading at this time that year:

James Blish, Earthman Come Home (in Cities in Flight, 1/3)

I read the first two books of Cities in Flight on the first of the year. And the fourth one the next day, so I think I'll put any thoughts about the series together below.

James Blish, The Triumph of Time (in Cities in Flight, 1/4)

This was the first and only time I read Cities in Flight: I do not remember being particularly impressed. (I don't remember being impressed by anything of Blish's; in my memory, he's a dour and dull writer, plodding in the small and depressing in the big. Oh, the two magical-apocalypse books are OK because their pyrotechnics are bigger, but, in my memory, they're all the same kind of neo-Calvinist thing.) As I remember, the four novels are all quite separate - by many years in both writing and internal chronology, I think - and only a few characters even appear in multiple books. Plus the whole point of the series is another one of those Atom Age parables that nothing ever gets better and everyone is horrible and cruelty is the iron law of the universe. I do not regret letting them slip out of my mind: let me put it that way.

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris (1/5)

I remember liking this, and, before I look it up, let me say that I think it was a small collection of essays about books that she particularly liked. (Maybe originally appearing somewhere like The Atlantic? Something classy and literary, I think.) Probably also some element of "what I read while young, to mold me into the classy literary intellectual I am today," he said with more cynicism than is probably warranted.

After looking it up: Fadiman is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman (if you remember that name, congratulations! you are at least as old & stepped in random publishing history as I am), and this is her memoir of growing up in a world steeped in (drawl it out for maximum impact) high literature and how she occasionally slummed in things that are not quite as highbrow. I still have pleasant memories of it, but I think it could come across as awfully precious to readers who don't at least like some of the Great Classics, since she is a big-time Great Classics type.

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam (1/6)

I'm several books behind on McEwan now, and started having trouble keeping track of which was which long before that - so many short novels, all well-written, all realistic, all about middle-class British people, will tend to blur in the mind. So I have to admit I have no memory at all of which one this was.

According to sources, this is his Booker-winner, which makes me sad I can't remember it independently. It's the one where two old lovers of the same woman meet at her funeral - I think he jumps into flashbacks from there, with some kind of revelation at the end. McEwan is always an excellent writer and creates great characters, but he has the prolific novelist's problem: there's so much that's all pretty good or better that they all get forgotten in the general mass.

Damien Broderick, compiler, Not the Only Planet (1/7)

I'm going to guess this was a book of quotes and try to look it up. It is not ringing any bells.

Oh! The cover is familiar: it's actually a book of short stories about SFnal travel, published by the Lonely Planet people in one of their occasional frenzies of line-extension. I'm not sure why Broderick was credited as "compiler" rather than "editor" - sure, reprint collections are assembled and their "editors" typically don't touch a word of the text, but that is the standard credit. Maybe Broderick was persnickety about it; it's the kind of thing I could see me being persnickety about. (Speaking as someone who compiled a number of single-author collections in my own day, and who doesn't entirely remember what credit I gave myself.)

ISFDB has a TOC, which is pretty impressive: "Let's Go to Golgotha!" and "Trips," "Tourists" and "Seven American Nights," among others. Probably a fun book to read, even now, if you can find it.

Connie Willis, editor, Nebula Awards 33 (bound galleys. 1/10)

Let me try to remember how it worked in that era: this would have been a book published in 1998 reprinting stories that won the Nebula in 1997 by ending their eligibility period in 1996 and mostly being published in 1995. I used to complain that the Nebula books should be billed as "The best stories of two years ago!" and people would just glare at me. I believe the rules have changed since, and Nebulas are no longer trailing indicators as they used to be - no idea if anthologies of the winners are still a thing, though.

Again, I'll grab a TOC from the indispensable ISFBD and also link to the official list of winners on the Nebula site. I do remember some of those stories - Swanwick's The Dead" in particular on the positive side, though I do not think I was a big fan of "Abandon in Place." No particular memory of this specific assemblage that Connie put together, though it does have a ghastly cover that I'm sure we can't blame on her. (It was the late '90s! Everything was "cyber"!)


Friday, January 07, 2022

Quote of the Week: Leg Before Wicket

Sport, as any cultural critic will happily confirm, is a metaphor. Most commonly it's a metaphor for a conflict of some sort and a useful way to lance the boil of tension between rival communities. But while football is a metaphor for a great big punch-up in a pub car park, and rugby is a metaphor for a great big punch-up in a pub car park while holding an ostrich egg, cricket is a metaphor for a more medieval, chivalrous kind of battle entirely.
 - Fraser McAlpine, Stuff Brits Like, p. 113

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Wild's End, Vol. 1: First Light by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard

Sometimes a high concept can be unfairly dismissive. I could describe Wild's End as a "X meets Y" story - I will, later - but that would minimize it, and make it sound vastly more derivative than it really is.

(On the other hand, this is a book from 2015, so it's entirely possible everyone reading this already has a good idea what X and Y are. And the cover gives some really strong hints, too. But I'll go with it for now.)

There have been other Wild's End stories since this; I don't know if the series is final, or if more will be coming. But this one was the beginning, and it stands by itself: it does have a "and what's next?" ending, but a lot of stories that never get sequels have endings like that, too.

So there was a miniseries, called just Wild's End I think. The collection got named Wild's End, Vol. 1: First Light slightly later, once there was a glimmer of a Vol. 2 in the works. This story was written by the British novelist and comics writer Dan Abnett, with art by I.N.J. Culbard, who I know best for his Lovecraft adaptations. (See my post on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.)

And what's it about?

There's a small English village - Lower Crowchurch, somewhere unspecified but far from metropolises, next to a river. It's somewhere in the early 20th century, between the wars. The Great War is still relatively recent, so I'd think more '20s than '30s, but somewhere in that era. Clive Slipaway, a former Navy man, has recently moved to that village, perhaps as retirement, and is invited to help with planning for the annual fete.

During the meeting to plan the fete committee, another man breaks in: Fawkes, a local ne'er-do-well. He has a tale of a horrible event he witnessed the night before, something that crash-landed in a field and killed his friend Bodie. The villagers dismiss it as drunken ramblings; Slipaway finds something more compelling in it.

Fawkes and Slipaway and a few others go to investigate. And they find that Fawkes was absolutely right: a "star" did land, something did emerge, and it's killing people. Something mechanical-looking, on tentacle-like cables.

Did I mention all of the characters are anthropomorphic? You can probably figure that out from the cover.

So the high concept here is "Wind in the Willows meets War of the Worlds," more or less - there's very little of Wind in the specifics of the characters, but that's how Hollywood would log-line it. Something has landed from space in the middle of a supposedly-bucolic setting, and a mixed group of locals, more or less led by Slipaway, has to stop it before it kills all of Lower Crowchurch.

Abnett walks the reader into the premise slowly: we see his characters from the beginning, as we always must in comics, but we've seen anthropomorphics a million times before, and Culbard makes them real individual people with their own body language and gesture. When they reveal the machines for the first time - should I call them Martians? no one does in this book - it's not a surprise, but a confirmation. Even without the cover, even without reading any description, we knew it would be something like that: we knew almost exactly.

There's a lot of depth and nuance here: more than you might expect in a book about fox- and dog-headed men fighting alien machines. These are all real people in a real world, one that is very similar to our own from the era, and their problems - aside from the murderous machines - are real problems, and their ways of thinking and reactions are not action-movie moments but realistic and often unfortunate.

I'd had this book on my "find and read it" list for years; I waited far too long. If you haven't read it, add it to your list as well: it's worth it. And now I'm off to see if the next story is available the same way I read this one.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Karmela Krimm, Book 1: Ramadan Blues by Franck Biancarelli and Lewis Trondheim

I appreciate creators who get bored easily. I may not always love every last random avenue they go down - who likes everything? - but I love that impulse, and I strongly believe creators who go really different from project to project are the best, most exciting ones.

So Lewis Trondheim is low-key my favorite French comics-maker, because he's gone off in so many different directions. Light adventure comics with anthropomorphic animals? See McConey. Fantasy adventure, on a widely sliding scale from ultra-bleak to entirely silly? See Dungeon. Slice-of-life vignettes about his own life? See Little Nothings. Goofy comics for kids? See Monster Christmas. Artsy slapstick about the inevitability of death? See Mr. O.

Most of that is from the subset of comics that Trondheim draws himself; he also writes for other artists. Dungeon is probably the best-known of those; it's a long series he co-writes with Joann Sfar, with usually different artists on each volume or sub-series.

Sometime recently - and I have no idea if "recently" means five years or ten or even more, since I'm getting books at the other end of an unreliable translation pipeline - Trondheim has been writing more and drawing less. And he's also been doing crime stories set in the modern world in a realistic, dramatic style: quite different from everything else. I've already seen Maggy Garrison, which collects three albums about the title character, a young British woman who gets caught up in criminal activities but comes out well, which he wrote for the art of Stephane Oiry.

And he seems to have a new series in Karmela Krimm, drawn by the credited-first Franck Biancarelli. The first book is Ramadan Blues, which came out in French and English in late 2020; a second book is coming along, at least in French, in early 2022.

Karmela is a private investigator in Marseilles; she was a detective but left the force as the fall woman for an investigation that got messy. She did that to protect her partner. She's not so sure any of it was a good idea now, a couple of years later. This is, again, in a realistic style, so Karmela is tough and resourceful, but also smart enough to know when she's getting into too much danger to handle herself.

This story takes place during Ramadan, as the title implies. That's important in quirky ways, but not any ways you'll expect. Karmela, whatever her personal religious beliefs are, is not fasting. She doesn't seem to be particularly observant at whatever religion she might be. She definitely has Muslim family members; we can assume she was brought up in the faith. (We might be wrong, but we'd be reasonable to assume it.)

She's hired by Florence Perrini, widow of Rene, who was both a major local mobster and president of the popular soccer team. Florence has inherited the team and has a complicated relationship with the mob. Also, Rene was clearly murdered, and the police seem most interested in Florence for it. She says she had nothing to do with it, and seems sincere. She wants Karmela to investigate.

That's potentially dangerous: if Florence didn't kill Rene, one of his gang contacts or rivals certainly did. Karmela only agrees after getting her fee raised several times and getting an assistant: Tadj, Florence's personal bodyguard, a tall shaved-head Black man. Tadj is observing Ramadan, and is more than the hired muscle he appears to be.

At the same time, Manon, the tween daughter of Karmela's old partner on the police force, is spending time with Karmela on a work-study. Karmela intends to keep Manon away from the dangerous Perrini case, but...she is not as successful as she would like.

Karmela investigates the case, with the aid of Tadj and (more than she wants) Manon. Ramadan Blues is conventional enough that we learn all of the truth by the end, and enough of a series that we know Karmela will be back for more cases.

Karmela Krimm is smart, character-driven crime fiction, set in a real, lived-in world. I could see it as a classy TV series, or a movie equally well - but, instead, it's comics, so the eye can linger over page composition and re-read dialogue to try to untangle the mystery. Since I like comics better than TV or movies, that counts as win for my team.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldrich Men by Evan Dorkin, Benjamin Dewey, and Nate Piekos

I'm not sure if this is the second book in the series or not.

On the positive side, after the original Beasts of Burden - there can be no argument that's the first book - the next substantial series was called Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldrich Men, and that is definitely collected here.

On the negative side, there were four other comics-format Beasts of Burden issues (some collecting anthology stories, to make it all more complicated) published before this series, and those are collected, along with a couple of later stories, as Neighborhood Watch. And most of those stories are drawn by original series artist Jill Thompson, if that makes any difference in the what-comes-first argument.

So, in my considered opinion, Wise Dogs is Schrodinger-ly the second book of the series, along with Neighborhood Watch: if you want to argue it's clearly not, go ahead but do it somewhere else. It's two, or two-and-a-half, or possibly three. (Five is right out.)

Now, I read the first book more than a decade ago - I gather the stories slowed down after that initial rush, as Thompson got busy with other things, but they did keep appearing; there was no huge gap in the actual real world - so my memories are vague and possibly confused. (I had a sense that the non-Thompson stories would have a different cast; that does not seem to be the case.)

Anyway, here's the scoop, as I remembered and re-discovered it: animals are intelligent and can talk to each other, as in many other stories, and to a few special humans. Magic is real, with vaguely Lovecraftian implications: there are monsters that can be created or called or unsealed, and the good side of magic is one part protecting yourself and others from monsters, about three parts getting rid of monsters, and absolutely no parts doing anything else.

These stories follow a group of dogs in a rural part of Pennsylvania, centered on Burden Hill, which has an unusually high level of supernatural disturbances. These dogs fight the evil and get rid of it. All of the stories are written by Evan Dorkin; Thompson was the original artist, but Benjamin Dewey (whose first work on the series is in this book) looks to be the main artist these days. (Nate Piekos is the letterer; I don't usually list those, but my current rubric is "include everyone listed on the cover in the largest size type, unless I disagree and want to include more people" so he counts that way.)

This is actually one longer story - the first multi-issue Beasts of Burden story, I think - in which a team under Lundy (the dark Scottie who is the biggest head on the cover) travel across the local landscape to deal with a couple of problems that, inevitably, turn out to be related and bigger than they expect. As will surprise exactly no one, they do not fail and let a magical apocalypse destroy...um, what would be closest? maybe Harrisburg?

It's all pretty straightforward contemporary supernatural adventure, with all of the expected story beats done professionally and well - except for the fact that the entire cast runs around on four legs and eats out of bowls on the ground. I am not a big animal person, to put it mildly, but these are fun stories, and it's particularly interesting to see how Dorkin deals with a cast that have no hands and who would have trouble accessing anything more than four feet above ground-level.

So this is not great literature of any kind, but it's solid adventure comics that does not involve anyone wearing spandex. That's a win in my book.