Friday, March 05, 2021

Icky

Just because the word "icky" came up in conversation earlier this week, this song has been stuck in my head for days.

So now I'll inflict it on you as well:

Quote of the Week: Exactly This

 "You are wondering how I can possible know not only the one word, but, by implication, every word in every book in my office."

"Yes"

"I am old, child, old, and I have spent my life in the service of the Law -- writing laws, enforcing laws, interpreting laws, inventing ways to circumvent laws.... Also, I am cursed with a perfect memory -- that is a tale I may well inflict upon you another time -- and consequently there is very little that can surprise me anymore."

"But if you know every word in these books -- why keep them?"

"For the same reason a young woman such as yourself might know every inch of her lover's skin, and yet want nevertheless to touch it, taste it, luxuriate in its smell."

 - Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon's Mother, pp.126-127

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Time Pieces by John Banville

We read books for odd and idiosyncratic reasons, so we shouldn't be surprised that they get written the same way.

I came to Time Pieces, a miscellaneous memoir of novelist John Banville's life in the city of Dublin, because I've read a few of Banville's novels - not as many as I'd like, and not in a while - and middle-aged men like me find it easier to get through short books and non-fiction.

Why did Banville write it? My guess is that he had a couple of slightly overlapping requests for essays: parts of Time Pieces originally appeared in books called City Parks and Sons + Fathers. Working writers follow their heads, and look for ways to turn what they've already written into books: I think he did something like that.

So he realized he was writing multiple pieces about Dublin, and leaned into it. Time Pieces has seven chapters, or essays - they're all pretty separate. They're all about Dublin; some about his memories of the place and the later ones about wandering about it, in recent years, with a man he calls Cicero and might actually be named that. They're all discursive; they're all short; they're all as much about memory as about the thing remembered. Banville was about seventy when he wrote these pieces; there's a lot of looking back at that age.

Time Pieces is a short book: even shorter than it looks, since fifty-three of its two-hundred-odd pages are taken up by quiet classy photographs by Paul Joyce rather than Banville's words. The photographs were, as far as I can tell, mostly chosen to accompany the words, but not taken because of the words. There are a few photos of the back of Banville's head, such as the cover, but most of them are landscapes and still lifes. It's possible that Joyce wandered around Dublin after reading the manuscript and snapped pictures of all the appropriate things, but it seems more that Banville wanted Joyce for a mood, and the mood was already present in his past work.

Banville was not a Dublin boy: he makes that clear at the outset. He was born and grew up in Wexford; Dublin was the big city he got to occasionally as a boy and escaped to when he grew up. (And, before long, escaped on to other places, which he is never clear about here.) This is not a memoir in any conventional sense. Each essay is about an element of Dublin, a place or a time or a concern, and Banville brings in some personal details while waxing rhapsodic about those things, but he's writing about Dublin here, not himself.

And he's writing, I think mostly, for people who know the city decently well: this is an insider's reminiscences. He's a fine writer, and Joyce's photos are pretty if awfully minor-feeling. Time Pieces is a small thing at its core, the kind of book that sells best at a history centre in the place it celebrates. It's really just for huge fans of Dublin or Banville or, preferably, both.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Clifford the Big Red Dog: The Movie Graphic Novel by Georgia Ball and Chi Ngo

No media property is "real" until it becomes as big as it possibly can be, until it becomes a movie. Every novel, every comics series, every TV show, every webseries, every nonfiction book, every song, every TikTok sea shanty aspires to turn into a big budget motion-picture that will dilute and adulterate what was special about the original thing while making vast amounts of money for the same few global multimedia conglomerates and making the newly shiny, market-tested and subtly stupider thing vastly better known among people who would never bother to pay attention to the original thing.

This is yet another sign that our world is inherently flawed, and that, if there are any gods, they hate us.

Norman Bridwell wrote and illustrated over fifty books about Clifford the Big Red Dog, using first his own imagination, his wife's stories of her childhood imaginary playmate, and his daughter's name (Emily Elizabeth). As the years went on, those books were influenced by the generations of kids that grew up with Clifford between the original book in 1963 and Bridwell's death in 2014.

Those books still exist, and are the real Clifford. Nothing else will ever replace or tarnish them. (Though plenty of them are pretty minor: ABCs and other unexciting series entries. If there's fifty of anything, not all of them will be gems.) Since then, there's been a couple of animated TV shows, with either the usual gigantic Clifford or the equally canonical tiny puppy Clifford.

And, of course, people tried to make a movie at various times. Over the past two years, they finally succeeded: a live-action movie with a CGI Clifford was released this past November. Since line extensions are a thing, there was eventually a book of the movie of the books, Clifford the Big Red Dog: The Movie Graphic Novel, adapted by Georgia Ball from the screenplay and story, and drawn by Chi Ngo. It featured a more cartoony Clifford and a modern comics-rounded versions of the movie actors, rather than trying to be photo-accurate.

(I like cartoony, and think cartoons should be cartoony. So I'm inclined to like this better than the movie anyway.) 

I don't quite see why the movie exists in the first place, but I like what Ball and Ngo have turned it into here. There's a movie-level story here, as there must be, and they have to roll that out. But they have a light touch with character and Ngo in particular has a knack for open, expressive faces. So this is pleasant even as it hits all of the same kid-movie story beats that all of us will see coming from miles away.

In this story, there is a girl named Emily. Her middle name is Elizabeth, but she doesn't use it on a daily basis. She lives in New York City: her mother is a harried paralegal and her father is mostly out of the picture, forgetful and divorced and away. We're a far way from the nuclear suburban family of 1963; Emily is also mildly bullied at her fancy school, since she's the scholarship kid and clearly not rich like the others. And she's going to be in the care of her Uncle Casey for her birthday, as mom has to jet off to Chicago for a big case.

And, elsewhere in the city, there's a little red puppy looking for a home, and a mysterious man named Bridwell who helps and cares for animals. That latter is a very nice touch: I can forgive a lot of the generic plot of this story because it clearly has its heart in the right place.

I regret to inform you that there is also a rapacious corporation that wants to profit from big-red-dogness, since a Big Movie must have a Big Movie Villain, and this one is no exception. From the graphic novel, it looks like this element is handled about as well as one could hope, given that it exists at all.

This is the book of a movie for kids, so of course there is a happy ending. Everything must come out for the best in the best cinematical worlds. And I am deeply cynical, but this is a nice story that a lot of kids, I hope, will enjoy. Whether they need or want the story in graphic-novel form rather than the movie, I can't say: I have no interest in seeing what this story would look like with John Cleese as Bridwell (!!!!??? which I discovered while typing this), but I am not ten and have not been for a long time.

So: this is a thing. It exists. It is derivative of the movie, which is probably somewhat derivative of the John Ritter TV show, which was clearly derivative of the Bridwell books. But it's pretty nice, for all that. You could definitely do worse.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Maria M. by Gilbert Hernandez

If you are me, you will have noticed that this post is not tagged "I Love (And Rockets) Mondays," and that it is not appearing on a Monday. If you are not me, you did not notice and do not care.

But that tiny, silly issue of nomenclature is at very central to this book -- Gilbert Hernandez's full-length graphic novel Maria M. is not a "Love and Rockets" story. But it is a meta-Love and Rockets story, a comics version of a movie from his L&R world, like his previous stories Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows. (And then there's Speak of the Devil, which is really weird -- supposedly the "true story" of the events that inspired a movie of the same name within the L&R world, so the true fictional version of something that we previously half-saw a fictionalized fictional version of.)

So this is a version of the story we've already seen part of in Poison River - but Hernandez is specifically telling us it is a packaged story, designed for a purpose, turned into fiction and cleaned up for a particular audience. I think it's meant to be a '90s movie set mostly in the '60s, something from the Goodfellas era, in a world where that gangster era was more Latin than Italiano.

And, of course, all of Hernandez's graphic novels are fictions. But the level of fiction in them is clearly important to him: that some are the "real" story and some are the sensationalized movie version. This one is a movie version, but Maria M. looks to be a relatively big-budget, moderately prestigious picture - probably not made with serious expectations of Oscars, but one that would be reviewed well and remembered fondly, that was a strong stepping-stone for its cast and crew and a sturdy, dependable, engrossing piece of entertainment for its era.

It is is that: Hernandez is good at making fictions that resemble other fictions. (Though, this time out, he isn't deliberately trying to ape wide-screen images with his panels, the way he mostly did with the earlier movie-books; Maria M. is laid out like a "normal" Hernandez comic, with standard panel progressions and lots of variations in size.)

And the story itself? We are somewhere unclear. From Poison River, we know it's an unnamed Latin American country, but here it's left entirely unspecified. It's probably that same country; it's probably not the US. We begin in the late '50s; Maria is a voluptuous eighteen and has no daughters. Unlike Hernandez's Palomar and Luba stories, Maria M. is not about family - not about that kind of family, not about Maria's family. It is about family in the way that all gangster stories are.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, she weaves in and out of the lives of a group of pornographers and gangsters, many of whom become obsessed with her. She never accomplishes much, never gets rich and famous the way she wants to be, never really gets out. But she does come to be happy with what she gets, as far as we see, which is not nothing.

The later parts of the story are largely about her relationship with the fictional version of Gorgo - I won't spoil any of that, but I mean "relationship" in an expansive sense that is not at all equivalent to sitting-around-talking-about-our-feelings. This is a Hernandez book about gangsters, and a crime movie presented on the page: there will be gunplay and ambushes and torture and various horrors along the way. But Hernandez means this to be a movie, and he knows how movies are supposed to be structured: he knows how audiences want movies to end.

Maria M. is the most successful of the Hernandez movie-books, which is unsurprising. It was designed to be the capstone of them to begin with: the book that was actually based on a good, successful movie, with the biggest dramatic sweep and the strongest story. We should not be surprised that Gilbert Hernandez can make a strong, crowd-pleasing story when he sets out to do it; we should remember that he usually sets out to do different things each time.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/27/21

This week, a few books arrived from the library -- I'd ordered another big batch because my shelf of graphic novels to read has dwindled to practically nothing. (Literally: there's barely half a shelf right now, including several books that are "comics" by courtesy and are mostly text.) So these were the first round of stuff that the mighty SirsiDynix was able to provide me:

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh -- I can't remember where I first heard of this, so it's probably a good example of that old saw, that you don't read a book until you've heard about it ten times. I do know Leyh's work from Lumberjanes (which I think I have stopped reading at this point, since it kept feeling like it really was Not For Me and I always felt like I was intruding on something). It's a YA story about a girl and an old woman -- at least one of whom is a witch -- and seems to be one of those stories in which stuff now has to untangle a whole lot of events from the past.

Cannabis by Box Brown is subtitled "The Illegalization of Weed in America," and take another look to make sure you didn't miss the IL there. It's a nonfiction graphic novel roughly tracing the history of what I want to call marihuana in the best old-timey manner, starting off with some prehistoric fellow on a beach and jumping to the ancient Hindus pretty quickly. From the subtitle, I imagine it settles down to the New World not too much later. Brown has made a bunch of nonfiction books like this before: I've seen Tetris and Andre the Giant, and his career, I think, is roughly in that space: pop-culture stuff of interest to people around my generation and his.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh -- You may have heard of this one; Brosh is kind of a big deal. Her first collection, Hyperbole and a Half, was a major bestseller and critical success nearly a decade ago; this book has been announced several times since then and finally came out this past September. Brosh's work is often painfully personal: pseudo-comics essays about how she interacts with the world (or, far too often, avoids doing so). I think a lot of us are worried about her, in a low-key way: she's good enough at making her stories that we almost understand her pain and that makes us want to be able to fix it. Of course, there are millions of other people we should be worrying about at least as much, who haven't written bestsellers. I don't have a good solution for that problem. But caring more, for whoever, is a good start. Anyway, Brosh's work is deep and resonant and powerful in its quirky MS Paint way, and makes you think about important things even before you read it.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut that you may have heard of; Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics and Squirrel Girl) adapted it into a graphic novel drawn by Albert Monteys. I re-read the novel about a year and a half ago, and keep thinking I should re-read more Vonnegut -- but this is here and this is short and I remember this story well, so I can compare it in my head and write possibly interesting stuff here. And it's one of the most important novels of the 20th century, in my mind, so new versions of it for new audiences are a good thing. There are a lot of people who haven't read Slaughterhouse-Five even once yet.

Paying the Land is the new book by Joe Sacco. As usual for him, it's reportage in comics form, but he's been slowly moving away from warzones over the last decade or so. He's still concerned with the downtrodden, with ethnic groups displaced and disenfranchised, and with systemic inequities, of course: he is still Joe Sacco. But he's less often writing about places where bullets are currently or recently flying. This time out, he's looking at the Dene people of Canada's Mackenzie River Valley, and how well their traditions and lives are holding up in a land that was always cold and dangerous and now is deeply appealing to quick-buck resource-extraction operations who would be happy to ruin mountains and meadows and rivers just to yank out a few tons of valuable minerals. I suspect the answer is "not all that well."

Friday, February 26, 2021

Quote of the Week: All I Want Is What's Coming to Me. All I Want Is My Fair Share.

"...You're not a fugitive anymore, but mighty among the Powers of Faerie. There are forty thousand individuals in this world who are above the law, and you are very nearly at the top of the pyramid. Everything you did is now as legal as the April rain. I do not pretend it's a fair system. But its unfairness if now weighted in your favor." With a rascally wink, he added, "So I believe I have well earned my fee today."

 - Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon's Mother, p.348

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

The thing to remember about young readers is that they're young. Maybe not everything in the world is new to them ("Wow! Breakfast is oatmeal! I've never seen that before!"), but they're seeing and experiencing new ideas and concepts and situations all the time.

It can be hard for those of us who haven't hit that concentrated dose of newness for years to remember what that was like, but the best stories for young people embody that sense: they're stories for people who are living newness all the time, building their selves day by day and figuring out what they think and feel about lots of things all the time.

So I try to keep that in mind with books for that audience: to think they way they would, and not the way I do. I'm probably not as good at it as I think I am, of course. But you always have to try.

Allergic is a graphic novel for young people. If you're dismissive, you could call it an "issue book." But everything's an issue book if it resonates with something in your life: an issue is just a thing that actually touches you. And this is a book that will touch a lot of people -- there are a lot of kids who suddenly realize they're allergic to something, when that something comes into their lives for the first time.

It could be peanuts or pollen or penicillin or a bee sting. It could be life-threatening, or annoying, or barely noticeable, or anywhere on that spectrum. It could be obvious, or sneaky and hard to track down. It could be something that kid loves, or something that kid wasn't that interested in anyway. 

So it's a big "issue," that a lot of people need to worry about on a daily basis.

Writer Megan Wagner Lloyd and artist Michelle Mee Nutter have taken those facts, and an understanding of that young audience, and built them into a story about one girl -- because we all respond better to good stories, we all want to see someone else working through things to understand how we could do it ourselves.

Maggie is young -- just turning ten as the book opens. She's wanted a puppy for a while: she's planning to be a vet when she grows up; she loves animals, though entirely from afar up to now. And you can guess that it doesn't go the way she wants. She has a strong allergic reaction to pet dander. After a few tests, it turns out she reacts badly -- rashes, swelling, itching -- to just about any animal with fur.

So she goes through all the usual stages: anger (at her parents, at the world), denial (which doesn't last long; her skin gives her away if she's near a furry animal), bargaining (as she runs through a list of non-furry animals and finds them all wanting), and finally acceptance. She meets other young people, at her school and elsewhere, who are allergic, to other things and in other ways. She learns what we all learn: you need to find the ways your life can go around the roadblocks and detours every life throws up, to make the life that's the combination of what you want and what you can get.

Maggie's in a good position; she should have a good life. She has a loving family, good medical support, a new understanding of this annoying way her body works. And her story will resonate with a lot of other young people, struggling with allergies or other issues -- Lloyd and Nutter tell her story well, and tell a wider story than I'm focusing on. Maggie has twin younger brothers and her mother has a new baby on the way; she has friends at school and other activities. She has a life, and Allergic is about her life, not just this annoying skin reaction she has.

This is obviously mostly for young people: that's what it's for, that's what it does well. But if you have the care of a young person with an allergy, or any medical/personal issue that could be similar, you might want to take a look at it for yourself, and for that young person.


Note: I'm actually ahead of publication on a review, for the first time in a long time. Allergic officially goes on sale this coming Tuesday, March 2nd. If you order it right now, your bookstore will probably be able to have a copy for you that morning. (Or you can use my link and have a exploitative hegemonic megacorporation deliver it directly to your home: your choice.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Peter Bagge's Other Stuff

Peter Bagge is a world-class grump, and I have to respect that. I tend to connect that to his libertarianism, but the direction of influence is unclear and it's not as if comics isn't full of grumpy loners outside of libertarians, either. But Bagge has had a long career both making comics about fictional grumpy, obnoxious people and making comics about how he is libertarian and so entitled to be grumpy personally about such-and-such, so he's been leaning into it for some time now.

Although, come to think of it, the last decade of his work, focusing mostly on biographies of strong-willed but not necessarily libertarian people of the past, might show him starting to walk down a path of slightly less grumpiness -- and I emphasize slightly.

But here I am looking at Classic Bagge, the man who spent more than a decade making a comic book called Hate and meant it the whole time. So expect every page to be pickled in bile, to mix my metaphors.

Peter Bagge's Other Stuff is the odds-and-sods collection from the Hate era, gathering stories he did with other creators (mostly as the writer) or for other purposes, most but not all of which appeared, first or eventually, in the quarterly or annual Hate comics of the '90s and '00s. It is absolutely chock-full of grumps and cranks and losers and weirdos of all types: you would be hard-put to find a single functional human being on any page of this book.

So this may be a book best read in bits rather than straight through. Bile and spleen can be fun, but too much will curdle. And there's enough here to curdle the strategic federal cheese reserve.

What you will find in Other Stuff:

  • four stories about young hipster Lovey and her horrible friends
  • the Musical Urban Legends series, and a couple of related rock 'n' roll stories
  • a large section of collaborations, with work by both Hernandez brothers, Alice Cooper (writing), Adrian Tomine, Alan Moore (writing), Daniel Clowes, Johnny Ryan, Danny Hellman, R. Crumb, Rick Altergott, and a few others
  • six single-page biographies of scientists
  • several other assorted "true" stories, some of them vaguely reportage
  • a dozen-and-a-half strips of "The Shut-Ins," early-Internet super-adopters and shunners of the outside world, created to appear on a website promoting Adobe products
  • and a couple of even weirder things
This is very varied and odd; the section with collaborative work is possibly even weirder than the stuff I gave more attention to above (a R. Crumb Cathy parody! Ack! Dilbert as a Muslim terrorist, offensive in so many ways I can't even catalog them!). Bagge is a creator seemingly unafraid of letting out every idea he has ever had, which is good for the breadth and depth of his work but also can result in some what-the-hell?! moments. This book has more than a few of them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Michael Moorcock's Elric: The Balance Lost, Vols. 2 & 3 by Chris Roberson & Francesco Biagini

There are trends in Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories. He started them out mostly separate, as different epic-fantasy protagonists in different worlds battling evil (or Chaos, or Law, or both in turn), starting in the 1960s. They started to meet in the '70s: I think The Sailor on the Seas of Fate was the first big crossover, and the one that solidified that they all were the same guy in different avatars. [1] That era saw Moorcock attempt ever-more-baroque endings for the whole super-series, none of which took - the point of an Eternal Champion is that there's never going to be the final ending. Then Moorcock mostly wandered off into other things, and had smaller, more hermetic stories - like the Elric tales of the '90s -- for a while. He seems to have turned back to the big crossover with the new millennium, though this time around he seems to be happy enough to let other people dig through his back catalog and assemble the crossovers for him.

One interesting thing to note, for comics fans: as far as I can remember, avatars of the EC never fight with each other. They don't meet on opposite sides of a battle and then forge alliances: they're always on the same side from the beginning, as if cosmic forces will always line them up correctly. What side that is this time can vary - sometimes they fight for Chaos, sometimes for Law, and, more and more in the current crossover era, they fight for the Balance itself, the vague principle or physical manifestation of moderation and centrism. (Elric as Third Way Democrat: discuss!)

About a decade ago, Chris Roberson wrote and Francesco Biagini drew a particularly large EC crossover story, as a twelve-issue comics series called Michael Moorcock's Elric: The Balance Lost. (Colors were by Stephen Downer and covers by Francesco Mattina.) I posted about the first third of the series some time ago, and I'm back now that I've gotten through to the end. It's been collected as three trade paperback volumes, so if you wanted to buy them you would need one and two and three.

There are four main EC protagonists this time: there tend to be three or four in stories like this. (Only two would be a mere team-up; more is too complicated.) For whatever reason - market considerations or consumer knowledge or brand identification or Roberson's personal love or Moorcock's diktat - three of them are the Big Three: Elric and Corum and Hawkmoon, the pale prince and the maimed elf and the dull German. The fourth is a new, pseudo-reader-viewpoint character, Eric Beck, who comes from an Earth-Prime-esque world and who is fated to fight with his evil twin brother with matching Law and Chaos swords as part of the overall festivities.

As usual, it's not particularly clear why things are screwed up across the multiverse at the beginning of Balance Lost, but we can all tell it has been screwed up. Mere anarchy is loosed on the world, the falcon cannot hear the falconer - that whole deal. On some worlds, Chaos is triumphing and collapsing everything into primal soup. In others, Law is triumphing and imposing endless stultifying conformity. As usual, one of these things seems much worse, and much more outside normal sapient life, than the other, but leave that aside. It is basically that some worlds are being ruled by Big Brother, and others are being scrapped for subatomic parts.

Each of the four is pulled into that conflict in their own worlds, sometimes with devoted sidekicks as well. Each one has a whopping big chunk of metal with which to hit things, and hitting things with whopping great chunks of metal is a proven way to make things better in the Moorcock multiverse - as long as it's the right chunk of metal, and the right guy doing the whopping.

So, early in the second volume, they finally meet to join swords against whatever-it-is-this-time, after meeting in smaller groups previously. And it is a problem with the Balance itself this time: there is a gigantic physical set of scales in the center of the multiverse (not the same center where the city of Tanelorn is; this is a plot point, and infinite realms across infinite dimensions can have multiple centers if they want to) and is is actually broken, which is a thing that four guys with big swords can fix.

And that's lucky, because no one else can. When your multiverse is broken, the EC is your only option, so it's good if you have four of them spare at the time.

The four avatars make their way to various centers of the universes, battling foes old and new, gaining and losing important puissant magical artifacts, and being aided and guided by a whole lot of other Moorcock characters, to the extent that I wonder if Jess Nevins has made a concordance for this series.

They do make it to the capital-B Balance, see and learn why it is unbalanced, and the miscreants responsible for said lack of balance. They then Voltron up into the usual super-EC - several mountain-height guys pasted together at the back, so they can swing their swords in all directions at once and battle similarly statured enemies, of which there are always a plethora - to battle the baddies and make things right again.

We know that Elric survived this to die elsewhere, and so presumably know that his multiverse similarly survived. I trust that is not a spoiler; it's about the first thing anyone ever learns about Elric. And the point of an EC story is to save the multiverse, so of course that is what happens. It happens zippily and well here, with Roberson weaving in huge swaths of Moorcockian mythology and Biagini drawing endless bizarre things in ways that make them all look reasonable and realistic.

All in all, it's a good modern Eternal Champion story, of the usual multiple-EC style. It's a bit more baroque than the older versions, but a decent introduction to multiple flavors of Moorcockian adventure fantasy, and the only thing it's conceivably missing is an index to tell new readers what other books to find all of the various characters in.


[1] Aside from a few footnotes, they're still all guys. Female ECs exist, but they don't get to be part of the main action -- mostly there to die to motivate some male EC.