Saturday, November 26, 2022

Quote of the Week: The Great Unknown

There is, it must be said, no more - and no less - tangible proof for this scenario as for any other. No hiker, rafter, or patrolling park ranger at that Grand Canyon has ever found a pile of bones, a few scraps of black clothing, or a crumbling white skull with a bullet hole in the temple to indicate the author's final resting place. As Bierce himself promised, his bones have never been found. It is entirely possible that, as he told reporters in El Paso, he simply crawled off into the mountains of Mexico to die, or that, as others have suggested, he sickened with fever or asthma or heart disease and lay down unrecognized in some adobe hut to cough away his life among dark-skinned strangers. In the end, as he intended, his fate is unknown. And yet, if one were to make an educated guess, the notion that Bierce killed himself, purposely and with malice aforethought, is hard to resist. Experienced homicide detectives, when faced with a seemingly insoluble case, typically go back to the simplest explanation,. Given the utter lack of eyewitnesses and the eternally missing body, logic argues that Bierce died alone, as he would have wanted, and unobserved, as he apparently took great pains to ensure. That being the case, he probably did not die in Mexico. More than that, no one can say.

 - Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, p.263

Friday, November 25, 2022

Back to Basics, Vol. 3: The Great World by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

I like to think I'm flexible and adaptable - that I can figure out new things, incorporate them into my thinking, and move forward without a hitch. I'm probably wrong, though. We're never the people we want to be or think we are.

Over the past few months, I've been reading more French comics by writer/artist teams - previously I'd mostly either read massive assemblages like Donjon (which list in detail what each person does, since there are a lot of them) or single-creator works. And it's taken me a surprisingly long time to internalize that the standard French (maybe Euro in general) credit sequence is artist-writer, the opposite of the US standard. (Colorists, on both continents, are named lower and lesser. Letterers and other folks, where they're separate jobs, are even more variable.)

Which is to say, when the second volume of the Back to Basics series had a series of jokes based on the opposite of the actual credits of the book, I shrugged - either going along with the joke or mixed-up enough to think it was plausible - and presented it straight. (Or maybe I'm mixed up now. But I don't think so.)

Anyway, this is a light-hearted bande dessinee series, written by Manu Larcenet - should I mention that all comics creators in the book have slightly altered, "funny" versions of their names? - and drawn by Jean-Yves Ferri, all about Larcenet's move from Paris to the rural enclave of Ravenelles and his subsequent life there with his partner Mariette and the various colorful rural folk already living there. See my posts on the first and second books.

That brings us up to Back to Basics, Vol. 3: The Great World, in which the first Back to Basics book is finalized and published, in which Larcenet (or should I say "Larssinet;" see above) goes to a major comics show and wins "the Golden Eraser," and in which Mariette is pregnant with their first child. (The baby is born right at the end, of course - Larcenet knows how to structure a book.)

As before, it's all told in half-page comics, mostly six-panel grids, which tend to cluster to tell sequences. As I've said in the previous posts, it's a lot like a daily comic in its rhythms and style of humor; as far as I know they weren't serialized anywhere but they easily could have been.

This is amusing and fun, even if I seem to mostly write about which one of them does what job on the book. (That's a silly side issue, but when you write about light humor, you grab onto anything specific and quirky to make it your shtick. Come to think of it, that's not a bad summation of how Back to Basics works in the first place.)

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Good Asian, Vol. 2 by Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi

I did not plan this book's post to land today; I'm working about seven weeks ahead at the moment, and this is the day I'm up to, typing right now on October 7. And I could probably spin out some story about how racism and corruption and the corrosive charms of power and money are the real core values of America, so it's actually appropriate that I have this book today.

But I don't feel up to any of that right now. So I don't have a big conspiracy to wrap it all up in: just the book itself, and what it says. I'll gesture at the wider context - {waves idly at the previous paragraph} - and leave it to you to fill in whatever it means.

This is the back half of a noir detective story in comics form, set in 1936 San Francisco. As you might guess from the title, much of the cast is Chinese, and the rest of the cast is "American" - that was a clear distinction at the time, as similar distinctions are still clear in the minds of horrible people.

It's The Good Asian, Vol. 2 - written by Pornsak Pichetshote and drawn by Alexandre Tefenkgi. I read the first book not long ago, and was impressed. I'm still impressed, this time, but it's a twisty mystery with a lot of details, so I don't know how much plot I can or should get into here.

Our main character is Edison Hark. Back home in Hawaii he's a police detective; I gather mostly respected and considered an equal human man at least a lot of the time. But he's in San Francisco visiting his adopted family, and they and their rich white world have entirely different opinions of the Chinese who have kept so much of their city running for fifty years or more. (Isn't that always the way? The oppressors have to hate the oppressed, or else they'll realize what they're doing.) [1]

His foster father, Mason Carroway, is ill, in a very noir, convenient way: lying in bed, uncommunicative, unable to affect the action of the story until (maybe, sometime) he wakes up. The old man has two children, daughter Victoria and son Frankie - the first volume of The Good Asian largely showed up what Edison's relationship was like with Frankie, both growing up and now that they meet again as adults. And so this one is largely about Victoria.

There will be deep secrets, of course. That's the point of noir. There are a lot of flashbacks - at first back to their youth, and then, toward the end of the book, in more baroque fashion.

Edison is trying to find Lily Chen, who was the old man's cleaning woman and had a very close relationship with him. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Years before, Edison's mother was also his cleaning woman, and the old man went out of his way to help her and her son...take that as you will. Lily has run away, for some reason, and Edison is trying both to find her to bring her back and to untangle why she left.

It's big and complicated, since this is a mystery story, and there will be partial, not-quite-correct explanations along the way, before we get to the end. There will be violence and danger and a lot of racism (and probably just as much sexism, which Pichetshote doesn't specifically call out but I hope he realizes). There are unbalanced people making unhinged speeches in dramatic situations, there are shoot-outs, there are chases and police cordons and people in hiding. At the end we're told Edison will be back, of course.

I personally think it might be a bit too overstuffed, with one too many shocking reversals and a large cast that I lost my way in several times. But every page is fun and exciting and every line of dialogue is true, and it's a hell of a ride the whole way. And, if you're not careful, you just might learn something.

[1] Note that the first time I thought he grew up in SF, but this book makes it clear that the Carroway family lived in Hawaii when Edison was young, and that Edison specifically did not move with them to SF in his early teens rather than moving away at that age. I'm willing to take that as my mistake, not the book changing its mind a few issues in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris, Jr.

Ambrose Bierce was an opinionated man: he spent his life mostly as a journalist in a time and place (San Francisco, mostly, in the latter third of the 19th century) where that job meant "having very strong opinions, in public, and occasionally backing them up with a pistol when people came to the newspaper office to complain." He was also one of the best American short-story writers of the 19th century and the first important writer to have both directly participated in a major war (the American Civil War, for him) and then write about it in a modern way.

But what most people know about him, if they know anything, is either the way he died - he disappeared at the age of seventy-one in 1913, after loudly and repeatedly proclaiming that he was going to witness and/or join the revolution in Mexico, and that no one should be surprised if he got shot dead while there [1] - or for his book of definitions, The Devil's Dictionary.

I thought I'd read Devil's Dictionary sometime this century, but I guess not: I haven't posted about it here. I did read a posthumous collection of Bierce's essays (probably adapted from his journalism) over a decade ago, and I can also point you to some things I said about Bierce while covering Carlos Fuentes's The Old Gringo. The biggest thing I wrote about Bierce was my college thesis, equally about him, Poe and Lovecraft, but that's not available online and I doubt I would want to link to it even if I could. But I am a Biercian, at least in a minor way, and I'd wanted to read this book, the current standard biography, for quite some time.

And so I did: only twenty-five years late, I got to Roy Morris Jr.'s Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, a compact but complete life of the writer published by Oxford in 1995. It was published a few years too late to influence my thesis - I think I read the Carey McWilliams bio from the '20s back then, but I was mostly focusing on primary sources - but I've had this copy on my shelves for a while (maybe even before the 2011 flood?) and I feel like I was looking for it for a while before I found it.

But now I come to google myself - which always makes me feel slightly dirty - and I see that I've noted this book once here already, in passing, and that was because I actually read it in 1996, soon after publication. So much for memory.

In any case, Bierce is not a major writer. But he's interesting and specific and led a life with things worth writing about, and then wrote things still worth reading more than a century later. Only a few people can be major; a lot of minor things can still be important and useful. Morris keeps his book under three hundred pages, before the critical apparatus, but he hits all the high points and generally make it all flow well. (In nearly every biography, there are points, usually late in the book, where the reader is dozing along and suddenly realizes a decade has passed since the top of a page - lives are often like that.)

Bierce's childhood was on an Ohio farm in the 1840s and '50s; we know almost nothing about it, as we know almost nothing about anyone's childhood that far back. So Morris covers youth pretty quickly and then dives into the Civil War, where is where Bierce's story properly starts. And I gather Morris is largely a historian of the War, which gives him a facility for writing about the battles and movements and putting Bierce's activities into proper context.

After the war, Bierce had a few oddball jobs, military and government and not, and then found himself in San Francisco in need of something new to do. He started editing a paper, and it stuck: that was the work of the rest of his adult life, with occasional breaks as he tried (and generally failed) to do other things.

Along the way, he had a private life that he seems to have screwed up by being exactly who he was and never being willing to change or bend a hair: two sons died young, and his wife was estranged long before they actually parted. (Though anyone who ever read anything Bierce wrote on the subject of marriage would not be surprised by that.)

Morris has a fine sense of the period and milieu: he's telling Bierce's story, but telling it in context, so he can talk about other battles in the war and other journalists in San Francisco to set the scene for the particular things Bierce did. I don't know if this is the best biography of Bierce, but it's a very good one, still pretty modern, and it's particularly good at describing clearly what he did, without mythologizing, particularly when it comes to that famous end. I'm happy to have read it again, even if I had forgotten that I read it before.

[1] Morris devotes extensive page-space to those very, very obvious statements, and I tend to agree with his conclusions. Bierce was obviously protesting too much. Whether it was pure myth-making or laying a deliberate false trail, I can't say a century later, but Morris lays out the facts, and they don't line up at all with any of the more famous assumptions. However Bierce died, I'm 99% sure it wasn't "shot as a gringo in Mexico." It most likely wasn't in Mexico at all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Ghost Tree by Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane

Brandt made a promise to his grandfather, when he was just a kid: come back to visit, ten years after "Oiji-Chan" dies, under a particular tree.

When you're a kid, you agree to a lot of things like that. Adults say that something is really important, and you say "OK." Maybe it is important, maybe you actually remember it decades later - maybe a lot of maybes.

Brandt did remember. Probably because it was a good excuse to run away; his marriage with Alice is crumbling, now that he's in his early thirties, and the anniversary of his grandfather's death is as good a reason as any to head back to the rural Japanese landscape where he grew up.

Ghost Tree is about what he finds there. As the title implies, it's not just a tree - this is a book in which there are real ghosts, and some people can talk to them and interact with them. Brandt's grandfather is one, but there are a lot more - that tree is a place where they gather, and ghosts, as we all know, are unquiet spirits who have something left unfinished.

Brandt isn't fazed by the supernatural; maybe he'd suspected, or maybe this is just the kind of thing he always was hoping would erupt into his life. He's happy to talk to his grandfather, happy to talk to various ghosts and try to help them work out their problems.

But his grandfather isn't sure, now, if this was a good idea. He now thinks he wasted his own life with ghosts - neglected his wife, Brandt's grandmother, who is still there in their old house, now quietly taking Brandt to task for the same flaws her late husband had - and he's worried that Brandt will do exactly the same thing, will give up the world of the living for the simpler world of the dead.

Brandt has other things drawing him to that world: not just his breaking marriage behind him, but the ghost of Arami, his teenage girlfriend, the one who got away, who died not long after he left her and Japan so many years ago. The past is always tempting, especially when it hasn't changed. Even when it's a ghost you can't touch.

There are other elements of this collection of ghosts, other issues and problems and creatures. But that's the core of it: the question of how much energy and time to give to the past and the dead, and how much to give to the living and the future.

Brandt has to make that decision, in the end. Arami has to make a different kind of decision, because this is a cosmology where ghosts aren't trapped, aren't lesser or echoes - just people, later on, in a different way.

Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane (words and art, respectively - colors are by Ian Herring with Becka Kinzie and letters by Chris Mowry) tell this story well, in a mostly quiet mode. Gane gives the world a lushness and depth, and Herrings's mostly subtle colors add to that depth. Curnow's dialogue is real and his people realistic, and he doesn't turn any of his endings facile or obvious. There are a number of excellent moments near the end, in particular: a panel that pays off the "usually one a generation" talk earlier, and a stronger ending to the Brandt-Alice story than I expected.

This is a fine graphic novel: as it says, about "love, loss, and how the past never truly stays dead."

Monday, November 21, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of November 19, 2022

I'm listing three books this week, and holding three more to list next week, so to keep all of us from collapsing from raw enthusiasm. (Or perhaps some other reason, less ridiculous.) All these books came from the library, and this time I actually walked in the door and wandered around the shelves, like in the Before Times. I even did it in the library in the Larger Town Next Door, which is both the town where I grew up and the library where my sons and I would often go to get random books on a Saturday afternoon when they were smaller and needed closer watching.

So: here's what I found.

Stranger Planet is, I think, the second collection of Nathan W. Pyle's "Strange Planet" comics. You've seen them by now: Pyle's characters are blue-skinned, big-headed aliens doing absolutely normal human things but describing them in convoluted language. It's a one-joke premise - humans are weird and do weird things - but it's a durable one, and Pyle gets a lot of mileage out of it. I've seen these strips online a lot, but they don't seem to have an online home; my guess is that Pyle posted them on social media first, used that to get a book deal, but the books are the core format of the comic, as in Olden Days.

The Incredible Nellie Bly is a nonfiction graphic novel - no points to guess its subject - by Luciana Cimino and Sergio Algozzino. As the creators' names imply, this was originally published in Italian (in Italy, because they're both Italian themselves, I mean; that's the point) in 2019 and translated into Nellie Bly's native language two years later. I've had this vaguely on my I-should-read-it list for a couple of years, so seeing it on a shelf meant it had to come away with me. I gather it's mostly a biography of the subject, but veers a bit to tell a wider story about women and journalism as well.

Ex Libris is some manner of graphic novel by Matt Madden, in a large format. The back-cover copy is aggressively post-modern, in the "you are reading the blurb of a book!" mode, and that's one of the kinds of obvious reader manipulation that I do like. I don't know much more about it than that, but I've seen Madden's translations and editing work in comics before, even if I don't think I've read any books he directly made yet.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Quote of the Week: Expectations

It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a "house blessing" which hung in a hallway of her house in West Hartford, Connecticut.

God bless the corners of this house,

And be the lintel blest--

And bless the hearth and bless the board

And bless each place of rest--

And bless the crystal windowpane that lets the starlight in

And bless each door that opens wide, to stranger as to kin.

This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of "ironic" detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found.

 - Joan Didion, "The White Album," in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, p.190

Friday, November 18, 2022

Unshelved: Library Mascot Cage Match by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum

Some comic strips are vastly more likely to be posted in specific places than others. Even decades later, Far Sides cling proudly to doors in various STEM-related departments in universities throughout the nation. Dilbert - probably mostly older ones, if we're honest - lives on fabric-covered cube walls, most often in a position where the worker can see it and passing supervisors can not.

And Unshelved is going to be posted in the sorting rooms and other "backstage" spaces of a library - I'm pretty sure of it. The strip itself ended a few years back after running for roughly the first fifteen years of this century, but that's no impediment: I expect a lot of them were printed out and taped up in the early days, and are still making new appearances, here and there.

I am not a librarian, and my days of regularly dealing with the wild consumer were decades ago. (I was a cashier, and then a supervisor of cashiers, for a Bradlees store starting my senior year of high school. I'm never going back, but I'm glad I had that experience, and it made me think everyone should work a year or two in retail or foodservice, at least once in their lives.) But I like librarians, and I think I have enough library-adjacent experience (library patron, editor, book blogger, book-award judge, retail drone) to comment meaningfully.

And, hey, it's a comic strip that's pretty funny. That was an inducement, too. (I did read the first collection some years ago - this is probably the second, or maybe third, but it doesn't make that clear anywhere.)

So I got Library Mascot Death Match, a random Unshelved book that's the only one available in my library system. (Proof once again that librarians are the opposite of self-indulgent.) It was published in 2005, so it depicts a library that is somewhat technologically out of date - more so, I mean, even than a library today would be, since local taxpayers are not well-known for showering money on libraries to continually upgrade to the shiniest of new tech. But I think the people and concerns and issues are probably still pretty similar, though I wonder if streaming has blown a hole in libraries' role in loaning out various video formats.

The main character is a young slacker named Dewey; given the time-frame, I suspect he was originally meant to be part of my generation, but he may read as a Millennial these days. (there's always a new "those slacker kids," and there always will be). As with any workplace comedy, there is a fair-sized cast around him, and my one complaint about this book is that they are not introduced well - a comic with a big cast needs a page (web or text) to say who the people are and what their deal is.

Dewey and his co-workers deal with the public, argue about their coffee orders and other workplace food issues, and spat with teachers about whose job it is to keep kids occupied at different times of year. There's also a long comics-page-format story in the middle, in which a massively overfunded bookmobile (I think it's supposed to be a metaphor for Amazon, but it comes across as "some other level of government has a lot more funding than we do," which is weird) has to be defeated to save their local library.

It's all a little bit quaint (2005, remember) and a little bit specific (library) but more than a little bit funny. You do not need to be a librarian to find Unshelved funny; I will attest to that. And it's still being re-run online, so you can read it in the wild, as it was meant to be read, without finding this book or spending any money whatsoever.

And that's very appropriate for a strip about a library, isn't it?

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Grande Odalisque by Vives, Ruppert + Mulot

This stylish thriller of a graphic novel (or bande dessinee) was made by three people: Bastien Vives, Florent Ruppert, and Jerome Mulot. The title of this post is styled as they are credited on the book: Vives / Ruppert + Mulot. All three are writer/artists. Ruppert and Mulot are a team who typically work together on all aspects of a story. I have no idea how they broke this down: if it were an American comic, that order would imply Vives was the writer and the other two the art team, but French credits often work in the reverse fashion.

So: the three of them did this, in some combination. If we can see a movie without worrying about what, exactly, a Director of Photography does, I think we can bring a similar equanimity to The Grand Odalisque, which is very much like a big-budget classy thriller movie on the page.

It's a large-format album, appropriate for the style and the substance. I found the dialogue lettered just a bit too small and too lightly; take that into account, particularly if you intend to read this digitally.

It is a thriller, which means a lot of things: our heroines are amazingly competent, stunningly gorgeous, and massively flawed; the world is full of dangers, but not fatal ones; and hitting someone on the head or shooting them with a tranquillizer dart is a foolproof, immediate way of making that person go unconscious for exactly as long as you require, with no ill effects. Any readers who want more realism need to go elsewhere: this is Mission: Impossible-style action on the comics page.

Carole and Alex are high-level art thieves; we see them steal Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe from the Musee D'Orsay in the opening pages of the book. They squabble like an old married couple, and have been doing this for about a decade, even though they're both still quite young - Carole is a few years older, but I don't think she's hit 30 yet. Again, in a realistic world they would be killed or captured very quickly; this is not in any way a realistic world.

They are gorgeous, they are stylish, they are the best at what they do. But they can't do the next job alone - getting Ingres' La Grande Odalisque out of the Louvre. So first they enlist an arms dealer to get them guns, and then a getaway driver, Sam, who becomes the third woman of their team - presumably going forward, since there's already a second book.

After some minor complications - their arms dealer is captured by Mexican bandits, and to my surprise the solution isn't "he's already dead" (again: this is not a realistic story) but "let's go, in bikinis, to slaughter the drug-lord and half-heartedly take over his operations" - it's finally time for the big caper, which is as widescreen and cinematic as could be hoped, with exciting motorcycle chases and automatic-weapons fire and both helicopters and ultralight aircraft.

And if, in the end, the reader thinks "there's no possibly way they could escape, in public, in the middle of Paris, with that level of police attention," well, what I have I sad three times already? You are not meant to take The Grand Odalisque seriously. But, if you take it on its level, with all of its tropes and assumptions, it is a lot of fun. If you read it, I recommend making every effort not to engage the critical side of your brain; it will be no help.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise by Gary Panter

This book is all about the art rather than the story. As usual with books like that, I'm not going to be a lot of help here: I can look at things like that, but I don't have the art background or vocabulary to describe or explicate it well. So I may be quick and desultory today; I apologize if so.

Also, I should give a consumer warning. Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise has a 2021 copyright date for this New York Review Comics edition, which indeed came out last year. And the 1988 Adventures in Paradise book has been out of print so long that it would be easy to forget about it. But this is that old book: the only new things here are the cover, the foreword by Ed Ruscha, and a potted life story of creator Gary Panter in the afterword by Nicole Rudick. The comics and the art are exactly the same as the 1988 version: if you have or had or read that book, you know exactly what's in here.

So this book collects pages from 1978 through 1988, collected and assembled in 1988 and put into what I will somewhat shakily call a coherent form at that point. From the Rudick afterword, it seems that most of the few story beats that are here were introduced for the 1988 collection; Jimbo was a collection of scattered moments before that. (And mostly still is, even afterward.)

Jimbo is the central character of these pages, a punk in some dystopic future - again, the Rudick afterword explains that "Dal-Tokyo" is a city on Mars a hundred years or more in the future, which Panter has used in multiple stories over the years , but the book doesn't explain or define that. It's just a name, for this place in which random things happen. Jimbo is a big, beefy guy, but he's not a warrior or anything like that - just a regular dude, trying to get by, to get a burger in an automated restaurant or go to a punk show or find a girlfriend. (Or defuse an atom bomb, towards the end, but he's no good at that, anyway.)

As I said, the pages are arranged in a sequence, but they're mostly disjoint. It's easy to tell, especially in the first half, where each installment begins and ends - there are some longer sequences (most of the better work, actually) but there's also a lot of single or two-page ideas. Panter uses wildly different art styles, often on the same page, and the early part of the book has a weird repetitive effect where the first pages of a "story" are the crudest, the most "punk," and he amps up the finish as the story goes on, usually because Jimbo is moving from his natural place into automated and mechanized spaces.

Again: stuff happens. But it doesn't mean much, and it doesn't connect. Eventually, Jimbo gets a friend, and a girlfriend (the friend's sister), and then the latter gets kidnapped, and...then there's an extended sequence of Jimbo pretending to be an "Indian" somewhere out on the Plains until he stops and gets back to what I might as well call the plot. And there's nuclear terrorism, because it was the early '80s, and the threat of nuclear death was what every creator had lurking in the back of his head. Panter ends with a long sequence that could only be described by someone with better art-describing chops than I have; there's a lot of pages with striking pictures overlaid on top of each other, aiming at an apocalyptic effect. I mostly just wanted to get through it.

I don't remember my reaction to Jimbo the first time around; I was a college student, and I don't think I expected to like everything, anyway. I had enough lurking respect or fondness in the back of my head to come back almost thirty-five years later, if that means anything.

I will say the first page of this collection - I include someone else's old scan here - is iconic, and one of the greatest expressions of late 20th century uneasiness that have ever been put to paper. There are other moments here that may strike you as strongly, too. Panter is a deep and thoughtful artist; he's just not making the kind of art that forms "stories" and "sense" and "coherent narrative."