Monday, March 30, 2009

Reading 'till My Eyes Fall Out

The big Eisner-judging weekend is now over -- though I'm sworn to secrecy about the details until everything has been cross-checked and verified, so don't ask -- and I'm back at home. We tested the physical limits of just how much a small group of people can read in a short amount of time -- we five judges (and the administrator) were together just about every waking moment from Thursday evening to Sunday night, and if we weren't reading comics/graphic novels/manga, we were talking about them. (On Sunday, as we got into crunch time, we all actually brought comics to lunch to read, which was a glorious moment.)

Since I keep track of these things, here are my totals. But I should also point out that I didn't count dozens of "floppies" -- periodical comics -- nor the innumerable other books that I read parts of. It also doesn't count webcomics, which we were also reading. These are only the book-like objects that I read from beginning to end.
  • Thursday: 7 books
  • Friday: 8 books
  • Saturday: 13 books
  • Sunday: 11 books
  • Today: just one book, and it wasn't a comic, either (now that the judging is over)
Grand total for the trip: 40 books in 5 days.

I think I'm ready to read some words that don't have pictures attached to them for a couple of days....

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Harlan Ellison's Introductions

I'm off judging the Eisner awards this weekend, which means I'm spending every waking moment either reading comics or talking about them. So I need to dig into the archives -- which are nearly depleted at the moment -- for something I wrote somewhere else.

The posthuman construct generally called endy9 had been reading
Again, Dangerous Visions and was struck at how abrasive and self-serving his supposedly nice introductions could be. So that entity asked rec.arts.sf.written readers what those writers really thought about Ellison. I responded:

Harlan had gotten into a number of really nasty feuds even by the point of ADV -- I think his battle with Charles Platt extends back about that far.

Harlan was always divisive, but he was also one of the field's best short-story writers, a major luminary of the American New Wave (part of the reason he was divisive), and an editor buying stories that wouldn't be published otherwise.

His introduction to the first Dangerous Visions reads like pure bombast now, but it was more than half-true then: those stories really couldn't have been published anywhere else before that book, and things changed across the field afterward.

So the answer is a big "it's complicated" -- some people (particularly older writers and those associated with John W. Campbell and Analog) loathed Harlan and all that he stood for; some people fell out with him, one way or another (and Harlan in those days was not one to patch over differences, even small ones); and a lot of people either honestly liked him or tolerated his more bombastic qualities because of all of the great work he did.

He also only attacked people that he thought deserved it -- he teased his friends, but he attacked his enemies. (Harlan's teasing may seem rough, if you're used to sweeter writers, but you won't mistake it for his attacks once you've seen both.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Comics Round-Up #6

I'm typing this post quickly on the night before I fly out to the weekend of judging, so this will probably be the last round-up post; the things I read on the airplane and at the secret undisclosed judging location will likely get mentioned only in my month-end list, if at all. But here's some more books from 2008 that I was reading as part of my duties as an Eisner judge...

Water Baby by Ross Campbell (Minx/DC Comics, July 2008, $9.99)

Another one of the shards of DC's ill-fated attempt to make digest-size comics for teenage girls, Water Baby is a little too aimless, in the end, to be completely successful, but it does channel a strong line in authentic teenage aimlessness, and Campbell's art is strong. (He seems to linger on the curves of his female characters -- and also keeps them in short & tight clothes, which, I have to admit, are appropriate to their locations and personalities most of the time -- a little more than I'd expect in a book for girls. But there's a good-looking buff boy as well...though there's not nearly as much of him shirtless as there is of the girls in their bikinis.

Brody's the girl on the cover; she's the viewpoint character, the one whose leg gets bitten off by a shark while she's surfing on the eighth story page. The story seems like it should be about her coming to terms with the loss of her leg -- and it is, but mostly on the level of subtext. The story up front is primarily a road trip, as Brody and her best friend Louisa drive the aforementioned buff dude Jake back north (from Florida, where Brody and Lou live) to get rid of him. Water Baby has the rhythm of a road story, with stretches of boredom alternating with more interesting moment.

The end doesn't quite click as it should -- it aims for a literary or indy-movie style, with an important moment, but a lot of the story is left in the air at that point, so there's a feeling that the book should have some more pages. Still, Brody is a fine heroine -- grumpy, obnoxious, and twitchy as only a late-teenager can be -- and Campbell lets her story unfold. (He also gets in some quite good dream sequences along the way.)

Nana, Vol. 1 by Ai Yazawa (Shojo Beat/Viz, November 2005, $8.99)

One of my overly-optimistic plans was to read the first volume of a bunch of critically-acclaimed manga series, so that I'll be better able to judge whatever volumes of them came out this year. Nice idea, but there's no chance that I'll get to anything else in that line before I fly out.

There are these two nineteen-year-old Japanese girls named Nana, who are completely different -- one is a quiet art student who's finally trying to grow up and not fall in love with every boy she sees, and the other is a punk musician with a live-in boyfriend who's about to abandon her (and their band) for stardom in Tokyo. (The one thing they do have in common is that they both live in a provincial city -- I don't think Yazawa ever says which one, in either case.)

So this volume has two independent stories, each about one of the Nanas. I presume the later volumes see them both head to Tokyo, where they each want to go, and probably meet. At this point, it's a solid shojo relationship story, with more nuance than most and a drawing style that's not too flowery. I can see that several things that I've read are probably influenced by Nana -- or both were influenced by a third, older work, but Nana is better at working with those materials.

Superman: Kryptonite by Darwin Cooke and Tim Sale (DC Comics, September 2008, $24.99)

And here's yet another retro superhero story; if I still cared about these empty costumes, I'd find it deeply ironic that the best talents -- the creators who actually have individual styles, thoughts, and ideas -- only touch superheroes these days with prestige out-of-continuity stories like these or big ugly pay-the-mortgage crossovers, which no one ever expects to be good or to have a lasting effect. Luckily, I didn't read superhero comics much as a kid -- I read random Dell/Western titles more than anything else, and not much of those; only coming to comics really at the age of seventeen at college -- so I have no burning love in my heart for any of these silly characters.

This is quite good for a retro superhero story, though the plot machinations in the second half are very Silver Age-y -- and I don't mean that in a good way. It's set early in Superman's career, and depicts the first time he was confronted with kryptonite. That very pulpy material doesn't sit well with the semi-realistic, melodramatic background of the minor villain -- Lex Luthor is the major one, as of course he always is in any retro Superman comic -- and the time-period of the story is equally fuzzy. All of the characters look and dress like they're in the late '30s, but carry cellphones; I guess that's to have the best of both worlds.

Sale, as always, draws men with jaws the size of billboards and women with legs that stretch into next week. He's not quite a caricature of himself, but he does seem to be getting more and more stylized as he goes along. Cooke's story is fine for what it is; he scrambles up pieces of the Superman mythos that he particularly likes and pieces them together into a mosaic. It's a good-enough Superman story, and I guess there's always a market for those.

COWA! by Akira Toriyama (Shonen Jump/Viz, July 2008, $8.99)

This is one of the few Eisner-nominated items that I had at hand but hadn't read; I borrowed my older son's copy of it. (He's a huge Dr. Slump fan, and I keep thinking I need to take the time to read that series through -- maybe after I get tired of Naruto.)

COWA! is late Toriyama; it came out in Japan in 1997, a couple of years after the ending of the Dragon Ball saga. And it's also clearly for kids in a way that Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump weren't -- it's filled with kid characters, and even the martial-arts-filled fight scenes are shorter and less violent than Toriyama's norm.

I have no idea what the title means, if anything, the main character is Paifu, the little guy on the cover. He's a half-vampire, half-werekoala who lives in a community of monsters at Batwing Ridge. But when monster flu strikes -- it killed half the town the last time it hit -- Paifu and a few others have to make their way to Horned-Owl Mountain, to get medicine to cure everyone. (The one token adult is a human ex-sumo wrestler, Mako Maruyama, who handles most of the fights along the way.)

And the result is both very much a Toriyama book -- funny asides, semi-bombastic fight scenes, and entertaining bickering -- while still being appropriate for most grade-schoolers. And now I really do want to read Dr. Slump, as soon as I have time.

Mesmo Delivery by Rafael Grampa (AdHouse Books, November 2008, $12.50)

Grampa is a Brazilian comics creator who comes from the same circle as Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (whom I've heard great things about, though I don't think I've actually read a page that either of them have touched), and this is his first full-length graphic novel. It's not all that long -- just fifty-two story pages -- and his detailed art (of often ugly and unappealing subjects) is reminiscent of a more decadent and looser Geoff Darrow.

This is a story about violence -- it exists purely to showcase the violence, and the plot is a loose rope to hang the various violent scenes on. It starts out slowly, with a trucker and his minder coming into a stop, but the fighting begins soon after that, don't you worry.

So the pictures are very well done -- as is the coloring (by Marcus Penna) in an entirely earth-toned pallet. But the story is nihilistic at best and pointless at worst -- so I hope we see more work from Grampa in the future, but that we also see more ambition from him as well.

Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope (DC Comics/Vertigo, March 2001/October 2008, $29.95/$39.95)

I read the paperback edition, since that's what my local library had, but it's the hardcover that's actually eligible, since it was published in 2008. But I hadn't read any Pope since some issues of THB, more years ago than I care to remember.

In the mid-2070s, a young man called only S -- for "the Stooge," which is what the villains call him -- has stolen a quantity of the title substance from some New York criminals (with the help of one dead character and one live character who don't really affect the story). Heavy Liquid is very rare and very expensive, but only S and his friends seem to have actually found a way to use it as a drug -- otherwise it's apparently valuable purely because it is so rare.

There's a fair bit of goons chasing S, but the main story here starts when "the Collector" -- I gather there can be only one -- hires him to find Rodan, a brilliant young woman sculptor who disappeared a few years ago...and who is also S's ex-lover. Of course he finds her, and of course other forces find him, and of course his increasing Heavy Liquid use becomes very important -- though not in the way the reader expects.

Heavy Liquid is a stylishly told adventure story, complemented by Pope's carefully muddied, slightly off-true pen lines. I'm not sure the end is as transcendent or special as I suspect Pope wanted it to be, but it all comes off pretty well.

Amelia Rules! Volume 4: When The Past Is A Present by Jimmy Gownley (Renaissance Press, 2008, $11.99)

I've avoided this series in the past, because it looked just too twee and heartwarming for my taste -- the title of this volume is a great example. But it's actually pitched at a higher level than I expected, and is remarkably clear-sighted on the subject of childhood. Amelia herself -- the blonde girl on the cover -- is ten years old, the daughter of divorced parents, and, I gather, moved to a small Pennsylvania town with her mother in the first book after the divorce. By this point, there's a good-sized cast of mostly kid supporting characters, and nearly all of them come across as real people. (I except the kid called Pajamaman, who stays in the background.)

Amelia Rules! is sweet and mostly positive and life-affirming...but it's pretty good despite that, and despite having very wordy captions. Amelia herself is a complex, interesting character, with most of the confusions and complications of a girl her age. (There's even something like a date for her in the middle of this book, and it's handled well.)

Gownley also is a fine letterer, with a strong Dave Sim influence -- he uses similarly long stretches of dialogue and narrative captions, and pulls out a variety of tricks with size and emphasis to capture the movement of the voice.

So if you stayed away from Amelia Rules! as I did, thinking that it was too twee for you, you may want to take a closer look. It's a slightly cartoony (in several senses) look at childhood, but it's very clear-eyed most of the time.

Magic Pickle: The Full Color Graphic Novel! by Scott Morse (Scholastic, May 2008, $9.99)

I reviewed two of Morse's graphic novels for ComicMix last year, but I didn't see his work for kids before today -- and I wish I had, because Magic Pickle is a hoot.

You see, fifty years ago, a scientist's experiment went awry, and gave life, intelligence, and superpowers to an ordinary pickle, who was quickly codenamed Weapon Kosher and stuck into coldsleep. He's woken up when his arch-enemies, the Brotherhood of Evil Produce, reforms to do the usual nefarious deeds, and has to deal with the girl whose bedroom is above his secret lab home.

So this is the story of a flying superpowered dill that fights carrots, lettuce, and so forth -- the tone is serious (in a pitch-perfect near-parody of late superhero posturing), but the matter is very, very funny.

Morse's art is energetic and cartoony in all the right ways; he gives a flying pickle with two glowing eyes and no other human features a personality and a goofy energy that are infectious.

Quote of the Week

"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best."
- Woody Allen

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Books for Kids

I read most of these for Eisner consideration, and hope to discuss them briefly -- though I always hope that, and usually fail.

Otto's Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch (Raw Junior/Little Lit Library, April 2008, $12.95)

A little orange-loving cat-boy gets a genie in a box from his Aunt Sally Lee, and decides to wish that everything in the world were orange. In best Midas fashion, he soon learns that sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much. The usual Three Wishes complications set in, until the status quo is restored.

My own younger son (Thing 2, as I usually call him here) is a big fan of the color orange, but, sadly, he's aged out of picture books and into chapter books recently, so I didn't really get to share this with him. (Instead we've been reading a succession of "Junie B. Jones" books, which I'm enjoying almost as much as he is, though probably for slightly different reasons.)

The art is nice, but this really is a book for little kids, simple, obvious moral and all. If my own young 'uns were still in preschool, I bet we'd love it, but, as it is, I've aged out of books like this.

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes (Raw Junior/Little Lit Library, April 2008, $12.95)

Another book from the same series; a sequel, The Big No-No, is coming along in May. The two title characters are mice children, brother and sister, and the older Benny wants to play pirate without his kid sister. And she wants to tag along. The vocabulary is on a beginning-reader level; a lot of kindergartners will be able to read (or help a parent through) this book.

The art is particularly attractive in this one, but, again, it's a story for little kids and the people who read to them. It's a cute story, but even seven-year-olds are likely to find it "babyish."

Jack and the Box by art spiegelman (Raw Junior/Little Lit Library, October 2008, $12.95)

Yet more from the Little Lit empire, which is determined to conquer the world of children's books for comics. This one is by the husband of Little Lit's Editorial Director, Francoise Mouly. (And, yes, Spiegelman is definitely more famous in his own right as the author of Maus, but he can still get introduced as "Mr. Mouly" now and then.)

A boy named Jack gets a new toy -- which is, of course, a Jack-in-the-Box. (Although this one claims its name is Zack.) They play hide-and-seek, the only game the toy knows, and everyone says "silly toy" a lot. In a Cat-in-the-Hat-ish turn, some damage to Jack's room is done by a proliferating stream of creatures from the box, which Zack then fixes up as good as new.

Again, it's an early reader with a simple vocabulary and an obvious moral. Spiegelman is obviously having a lot of fun with it, and that's infectious -- I enjoyed this best of all of the "Little Lit" books that I've seen.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman: by Marc Tyler Nobleman; Illustrated by Ross MacDonald (Random House, August 2008, $16.99)

This is a more typical lap book -- or, actually, since it's more likely to be read by kids boys on their own, it's destined to be read by a lot of first- and second-graders, particularly those looking for a quick book-report subject.

Nobleman focuses on the nerdishness of the young Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel as he tells the story of how they created Superman as kids in Cleveland. (The story that every comics fan, no matter how peripherally connected, can recite from memory.) There's an afterword that explains how they signed away all rights to that creation, and were cheated in the bargain, but the main story is entirely peppy.

MacDonald -- and I still do a double-take every time I see his name, even though he's gotten a lot of work as a children's book illustrator these past few years -- has a nostalgic, '30s style which works well with the material. His work is the best part of the book; the story has been told so many times that the events almost have crease marks in them.

The Composer Is Dead: by Lemony Snicket; Illustrated by Carson Ellis; Music by Nathaniel Stookey (HarperCollins, March 2009, $17.99)

This, of course, isn't eligible for last year's Eisners -- it's neither a comic nor published in 2008 -- but it is the new Lemony Snicket book, so I wanted to read it.

And now I have. It's a minor work, another in the long line of books meant to introduce young people to classical music in a "fun" way. In this case, an Inspector is questioning the various instruments of the orchestra -- or, presumably, the people playing those instruments, but it doesn't make much difference -- to see who killed the composer.

Each section lives up to its own stereotype, which is amusing, but not much more. The art is solid, but the story was done in a much more amusing fashion thirty years ago by Monty Python as the song "Decomposing Composers."

There's also a CD of music composed by Nathaniel Stookey and played by the San Francisco Symphony (with some kind of narration by Snicket), but I didn't listen to that. This isn't quite spinach, but it's definitely in the family of leafy green vegetables; there's very little of the sly subversion of "Snicket's" novels for young readers.

I wish Daniel Handler would either retire the Snicket name or make the jump into a new work of similar heft to "A Series of Unfortunate Events." (Even a single YA novel would be good at this point.) The three books that have appeared since the end of that series have all been very frivolous, in various ways, and disappointing to boot.

There's a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales Retold by Zoe B. Alley, with pictures by R.W. Alley (Roaring Brook Press, October 2008, $19.95)

Five fairy tales, all featuring the Big Bad Wolf, are retold in a very unthreatening style, with all danger carefully drained from them. It's the same wolf throughout, so he goes from one failure to the next, and that's mildly amusing.

(There's a Wolf aims at mildly funny for kids throughout, and hits that mark pretty consistently. These are very much tamed fairy tales, in which not even the Wolf gets hurt. There's no need for a woodsman in the Little Red Riding Hood story, or for a stewpot under the chimney for the Three Little Pigs.)

It's quite wordy, and most of the words -- all of the captions, and most of the dialogue -- is set in an obvious type rather than hand-lettered (or set to look like hand lettering). So it doesn't look as pleasing as it could, and it takes longer to read than one would expect. But the art has a fuzzy, cross-hatched sweetness, and I expect little kids will like these versions of the stories much better than those with more bite.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Favorite Line from a Song at This Precise Moment

"I've got a pair of socks I like better than you."
- Hollowblue, "First Avenue"

Today's Top News

This is a blind item, because you need to see it cold. It involves one artistically-inclined British young man, a photograph that's probably safe for work unless your boss is a stick figure, and a Berkshire mansion.

Did You Know?

A quick lesson in copyright, from "Lady Sybilla" --
Copyright laws protect writers from unauthorized reproductions of their work, but such reproductions only include verbatim copying. Characters are only copyrightable if their creator draws them or hires an artist to draw them.
If your reaction was to snort a beverage through your nostrils, congratulations! You know something about copyright.

If your reaction was to nod sagely and tap your lips with your finger, then I'm afraid you have a little studying to do. (Preferably before the Hachette/Summit lawyers come calling.)

[via Nick Mamatas, and already at least a day late]

Three Comics Biographies

Yet more Eisner reading; I hope to squeeze my thoughts on these books down to a tighter word-count than I did for The Ten-Cent Plague, but time has been tight lately, and we all know it takes more time to write concisely. (Cue the Pascal quote here.) So I make no promises:

Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert by Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics Books, October 2008, $19.99)

Schelly's book-length study of Kubert encapsulates, in a nearly-Platonic manner, the strengths and weaknesses of the fan biography. On the one hand, Schelly is tirelessly enthusiastic for Kubert's work and has tracked down what must be every mention of Kubert in the fan press and on the Internet from the past fifty years -- plus engaging in what seem to be extensive interviews with Kubert, his family, collaborators and other comics creators.

But, on the other side, Schelly hasn't got the slightest bit of critical distance on Kubert: Man of Rock is something close to a one-man festschrift, and, according to the story Schelly tells here, nothing Kubert ever did in his life was even the slightest bit less than wonderful. Kubert was a tireless worker who always made his deadlines, a fearlessly inventive artist who left his stamp irrevocably on every genre and property he touched, and the sage of Dover, passing on the cartooning wisdom of the ages to a generation or two of younger creators. (And, on top of that, he's still doing incredibly vital work even now, in his eighth decade!)

Man of Rock is structured as a critical biography -- minus the actual criticism, unfortunately -- and it is tremendously useful, and quite entertaining to read. I personally don't think a true critical appraisal of any artist can be done while he's still alive and working, so I'd consider it premature, but it does collect a lot of primary and secondary sources, in case twenty years from now someone with more critical distance wants to look at Kubert's life.

Kubert's career starts out fairly typical for his generation of creators -- bouncing around from publisher to publisher as his work rose to its level in the late '30s and war years, trying and failing to launch a newspaper strip, trying out different genres in the '50s -- but then it took a turn to the particular, as Kubert settled down with one publisher (DC) and, more or less, one property (Sgt. Rock) for a couple of decades. Kubert is a popular, highly respected artist who worked during the years when superheroes were driving out every other kind of comic -- and yet did only minor and scattered superhero work. Schelly doesn't really delve into that tension; he doesn't show any sign of wanting to criticize the comics industry, either. But he does sketch out the space where such an analysis could go; again, we may have to wait for next generation's Kubert biography.

As a fan work, Man of Rock is of primary interest to those already converted; if the reader doesn't agree that Kubert is one of our finest cartoonists, working on some of the greatest stories in the history of the artform, all of Schelly's Panglossian fervor falls quite flat. Kubert's art, as reprinted here in crisp black-and-white, does mark him as a very inventive and distinctive craftsman in the field, though the writing in those same panels -- sometimes by Kubert but more often not -- only very rarely holds up its end of the equation.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books, July 2008, $39.99)

Schelly's main asset and liability may have been his own enthusiasm for Kubert's work, but at least he had an approachable, relatively public figure to explicate; Blake Bell, by contrast, attempts here to create a critical study of a man who has violently shunned all publicity for forty years and created work of radically different levels of creative success, to put it mildly.

To be more specific: Steve Ditko last appeared at a comics event in 1964, has kept his family from speaking to Bell or any other writers, and spent the last three decades sinking his personal work deeper and deeper into libertarian crank-dom, sacrificing nearly all of what once made his art memorable and dynamic along the way. There's a hell of a story to be told here, but it's not the story Ditko believes, and he has done all he could to keep that story from being fully told.

So Strange and Stranger, despite a few stabs at being a biography of Ditko -- such as an unfocused opening chapter that begins with the 1889 Johnstown flood purely because Ditko's family moved into that town thirty-some years later, and then leaps giddily through a few scattered facts about his boyhood days -- is really a booklength critical study of Ditko's comics work. Bell shows every sign of wanting to both be fair and to have Ditko believe that Bell is on his side -- the evidence is that Ditko long ago fell into a "with me or against me" mindset -- and those two desires don't work well together. Bell does praise and damn Ditko's work according to its merits as he sees them, though, and that's all any of us (except Ditko) could reasonably ask.

Unfortunately, Bell is not a smooth writer, and his attempts to force Ditko's life and career -- or what he could trace of it from the outside -- into a coherent narrative often leaves gaps and unanswered questions -- unasked questions, most of the time. Bell doesn't mention Ditko's personal life as an adult at all -- we learn nothing of Ditko besides his work -- and even his insights on Ditko's work must be based on his own judgment or on popular wisdom; Ditko wouldn't be interviewed and apparently there was no one else who could speak to Bell, either.

Bell reprints a lot of Ditko's art, and that's where Strange and Stranger is at its strongest: in the explication of specific artistic styles, and, later, Ayn Randian themes in Ditko's comics stories. The panels aren't always placed to best effect -- the book could have used a stronger hand on design, to make all of the art work better on the pages -- but there is a lot of art here, including at least a score of full story pages, and it makes Bell's case even when his words aren't quite adequate.

Ditko's story is a sad, frustrating one: the reader wants to shake Ditko in 1968 or so and force him not to squander his talents on such inferior, haranguing work. Bell knows well that frustration, and he's good at exploring all sides of both early Ditko (to find the seeds of the later decadence) and late Ditko (to dig out the moments when his old facility for story-telling is allowed to shine through). Strange and Stranger is frustrating itself on top of Ditko's story, but even getting this much organized and published was a great feat; expecting Bell to have done more than this may be a ridiculous thing. And yet I do wish Bell had worried less about offending Ditko and more about what would have made this book truly incisive and definitive.

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front by Todd DePastino (W.W. Norton, February 2008, $27.95)

Bill Mauldin had at least three major careers -- as the quintessential chronicler of WW II's footsoldiers, the "dogfaces;" as the meteorically popular young man of the end of that war and the years immediately following, when everything he did turned to big piles of money almost immediately; and as one of the country's best and most fearless editorial cartoonists for a quarter of a century. The most famous, and most iconic career, of course, is that first one, and it's the one DePastino concentrates on in this compelling and definitive biography.

A Life Up Front is an excellent illustration of the maxim I noted above: that the real biography of any artist can only be written after he's dead. Only when the entire arc of a career -- or of however many careers as that artist eventually had -- is complete and can be seen clearly can the biographer work out how to correctly structure his book. DePastino knew this, and his book is a bell curve -- the middle of the book (nearly half of the total length) covers the war years, with a single chapter devoted to Mauldin's hardscrabble New Mexico childhood and the rest of the book covering the following sixty years of his life in chapters that each cover a longer and longer period. It's not that Mauldin's editorial cartooning career wasn't important, or a vital part of its time -- it was -- but that Up Front, Willie & Joe, and the rest of Mauldin's wartime cartooning career was so much more important and vital, to Mauldin and to America, that it needed to be the center and pivot of the book.

Bill Mauldin tells a great American story, one of the ones that became a cliche long ago -- the boy who goes off to war and becomes a man. But, even more than that, Mauldin became an artist, and a shrewd observer of the world, while at war in Italy. DePastino tells Mauldin's story with great verve and energy, making this first biography of Mauldin the definitive one for generations to come. He also makes copious use of Mauldin's own cartoons in telling the story, to great effect. This is what the biography of a cartoonist should be like: carefully researched, written with an abiding concern for and sympathy with its subject, casually profane when it needs to be, willing to examine even the least savory parts of a man's life, and compelling readable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A New Publishing Term

Well, it was new to me. I doubt it was freshly coined.

The term: "rip & tip".

The context: a Production meeting.

The comparison: It's not a strip & rebind.

Are five people about to comment and say "Oh, that's as common as dirt! I can't believe you didn't know that!"?

Comics Round-Up #5

And here's another batch of books laid out in panels that I've read recently:

Atomic Robo, Volume 2: Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War: words by Brian Clevinger; art by Scott Wegener (Red 5 Comics, February 2009, $19.95)

It would be cruel and dismissive to say that Atomic Robo is nothing but a Hellboy rip-off -- "nothing" is so expansive a term. And there is the possibility, however slight, that Clevinger and Wegener were not influenced by Mignola in creating their own large, nearly indestructible, wisecracking adventure-fiction character who runs into various weird menaces at different points during the 20th century. It could all be a coincidence, right?

I also have to say that I haven't read the first Atomic Robo series, but I do know that he was built by Nicola Tesla, which tends to strengthen my point. AR is a lovable lug, though he doesn't really have a whole lot of personality besides "wisecracking robot that hits things really hard."

This volume collects the second AR miniseries, in which he fights at various points in WWII -- the invasion of Sicily, an assassination in Croatia, and a battle to take out another Nazi superweapon on Guernsey -- though those are three discrete stories rather than a larger arc. He's more or less indestructible, though he does get separated from his legs at one point, and there's some sort of electrical gun that conveniently shuts him down for a short time -- it never kills him, it just allows the stories to have some tension. The slugfests are choreographed well, and the banter is above average. But, really, this is just yet another decent comic about a tough guy hitting things until he saves the day, without anything particularly new and exciting about it. It's fine for what it is, but there's a lot of what it is out there.

MOME, Vol. 11: Summer 2008: edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books, March 2008, $14.99)

I'm coming to realize that my avoidance of short fiction extends farther than I thought. I knew that I wasn't reading as many SFF stories as I used to -- in the days when I'd generally read two or three "Best of the Year" collections, plus some SFBC originals, plus some other scattered reprint and original anthologies from other houses -- but I hadn't really thought that I was similarly avoiding comics anthologies as well.

(Of course, that's probably overstating the case. I might "avoid" War for Civilized Identities or Crisis of the Mutant Skrulls, because they're high-profile enough to need to be avoided, but comics anthologies are small-scale things, off in their own corner of the field, and are easily overlooked by most of us.)

But, when I'm shoved into it, I find I like the short stuff pretty well. Mome has been running, semi-annually, for most of this decade, and I've been vaguely aware of it, but I never made an effort to read it. There were always other books -- longer books, ones all by the same author -- to get to first.

There are thirteen pieces here that are relatively complete stories, plus a text piece, an interview, parts of two serials, and a handful of full-page drawings that aren't quite comics. (Working from a definition of comics as images in a sequence, one image -- particularly a captionless one -- can be some other kind of art, but it's not comics. Not that this is a dismissal; an opera isn't a ballet, either.) And they're pretty much all on the literary end, from the cold camera eye of Al Columbia's "5:45 AM" to the one-day-closer-to-death ambiance of Paul Hornschmeier's "Life with Mr. Dangerous." Nothing here really lept out and walloped me, though I do keep coming back to Killoffer's wordless "Einmal Ist Kleinmal." But it's a solid, interesting anthology, filled with the world of a lot of people I hadn't been aware of before.

Judenhass by Dave Sim (Aardvark-Vanaheim, May 2008, $4.00)

As others have noted snarkily, Dave Sim is now solidly against the hatred of Jews -- not that anyone ever suspected him of believing otherwise -- but he's still on the other side of the question when it comes to women. Though he would certainly deny the parallel, and vehemently. It's dangerous to try to discern the motives of someone so intensely self-motivated and hermetic as Dave Sim, but I've had the feeling that Judenhass was, in part, his attempt to do something positive for the comics field, and perhaps to write his way back into it.

Judenhass -- the title means "Jew Hatred" -- is Sim's book about the Holocaust, the Shoah. Except it really isn't; in typical late-Sim fashion, it's an incredibly overthought book, with nearly photo-realistic tracings of horrible images (repeated, over and over, as if Sim were some Warhol of torture) under a collection of quotes by famous people saying vile things about the Jews as a race.

They're nasty quotes, yes. And the pictures are horrifying -- though Sim's drawings are not as horrifying as the real pictures are, since they're just that bit distanced. But Sim doesn't do anything but juxtapose the two; he doesn't link particular quotes to earlier pogroms and expulsions (of which there were many). All he does is poke the reader, saying, "See! See! The Nazis hated Jews! And other people did, too!" Which is true, and should not be forgotten -- but we haven't forgotten it, and we've been reminded of it in a thousand better ways.

Judenhass means well, but it bears the essentially Simian stamp of the autodidact: Sim dives into every new line of thought as if he was the first one ever to discover it. I'm glad that Sim thinks that hatred of Jews is bad, but I still wonder if he would extend that theory to cover hatred of any group of humans.

Janes in Love by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg (DC Comics/Minx, August 2008, $9.99)

Janes in Love is the sequel to The Plain Janes, Minx's launch title, which I reviewed for ComicMix about a year and a half ago. (It is very close to being Minx's final title, so there's something of a bookend effect going on here.) And I'm afraid that the new book is more of the same, only more so.

The four Janes talk less realistically, but more obviously in "character." They're all in love, and talk about how they're in love, in stilted language, incessantly.

The Janes' art attacks are still as po-mo as ever, and I still have the lurking suspicion that it's because none of them has any artistic skill at all: they're more interested in the idea of being artists -- how transgressive! -- than with actually learning to paint, draw, sculpt, or, most importantly, see.

And the authorities, embodied by the requisite fat, white, crewcut meanie with a pencil-thin mustache, are still utterly unbelievable and oppressive. We even get scenes of parents talking about dangerous it is to do things like paint a fence with blackboard paint.

Janes in Love is obvious, and heavy-handed, and terribly condescending towards its assumed audience. But I'm not a teenage girl, so what do I know?

MOME, Vol. 12: Fall 2008: edited by Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books, September 2008, $14.99)

Would it be a cheat if I just said: "see above"? Because #12 is not terribly different from #11, and I doubt anyone expects it would be. This time there are thirteen contributors -- I think I counted correctly; Sophie Crumb has work at the beginning and end and Tom Kaczynski has four sound-related strips scattered throughout, but I don't think anyone else appears more than once.

As with the previous volume, there are some stories that work for me and some that don't -- luckily, the longest piece here, David B.'s "The Drum Who Fell in Love" (an epic thirty-five pages), is one that I liked and enjoyed, and that pushed the whole anthology into the win column. Some of the other stories I found inexplicable, and some fell flat. But, again, it's a big anthology of a lot of different people, and I expect anybody who likes "alternative" cartooning at all will find something to enjoy here.

Funeral of the Heart by Leah Hayes (Fantagraphics Books, April 2008, $14.95)

This book didn't work for me at all, and I'm not even sure I'd call it comics -- Hayes has scratchboard images, mostly full-page-size, with long text passages. It's organized much more like an illustrated book -- the images don't stand on their own, or tell the story directly, but the narrative does. (That's not why it didn't work for me; illustrated books can be excellent, even though I didn't think this one was.)

Hayes's narrative voice is almost like that of a young child: event follows event in a linear strand without consequences or a larger universe; her stories tell a world in which "and" is the only link and inexplicable things can't be questioned, since there's no context to judge them. Her prose affects a quick staccato style, with short declarative sentences following each other but not necessarily building on each other.

Her faces have the flat eyes and glum cheeks of Chris Ware, and being executed in scratchboard makes them more technically accomplished without adding much in the way of life or energy. There's the air of a gallery show hovering over Funeral of the Heart -- I could see the scratchboard pictures hanging on a wall, with the text next to them.

Hayes's stories strenuously avoid any emotional connections -- between characters, or to the reader -- which I have to see as a problem. And their disjointed style of telling turns them away from the usual story qualities into unmotivated sequences of events. So I can't call this book particularly successful -- though, saying that, I will admit that I doubt I'm particularly sympathetic to what Hayes is trying to do here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Shout-Out To All My Librarians!

The Eisner process of judging is very unlike anything I've done before -- I might get into the odder aspects of it in the future, once the tumult has died down -- and, because of that, I've been scrambling to get copies of as many nominated works as I could before flying out there on Thursday. (The countdown has begun.)

I couldn't have done any of it without the help of my local library system, which I've been using extensively to gather these books. And, so, by way of tribute, I'm going to list all of the individual libraries that have books in my house right at this moment. (The fact that I like to make lists might also have something to do with this.)
  • Passaic County Community College
  • Paterson Free Public Library
  • Clifton Public Library
  • Wayne Public Library
  • Ringwood Public Library
  • West Milford Township Library
  • Little Falls Public Library
  • Pompton Lakes Public Library
  • Alfred Baumann Library, West Paterson
  • Julius Forstmann Library/Passaic Public Library
I've also had books from the Cedar Grove and Caldwell libraries at times, though not at the moment. That's over half of the system, though my competitive side wants to aim to get books from all of the eighteen libraries before I'm done!

Reviewing The Mail: Week of 3/21

Last week I was rambling about the ebb and flow of review copies, and this week helps to prove my point: it's almost entirely comics/manga, led by the big monthly box from Yen Press.

As usual, I post these lists on Monday mornings because I know I won't manage to review every book I see, but I do want to at least note every one of these books -- usually at least mildly approvingly -- and look at them as they go out into the world to find their audiences.

Other Earths is DAW's paperback original anthology for the month of April, but it's a little different than the usual book filling that slot: it's edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake (with only the copyright page betraying the hand of Martin Greenberg's Tekno Books) and contains stories by such heavy-hitters as Jeff VanderMeer, Gene Wolfe, Robert Charles Wilson, Stephen Baxter, Lucius Shepard, and Alastair Reynolds. (Not to mention five other authors equally impressive, or nearly so.) The theme is also a bit looser than usual for a DAW anthology; Other Worlds contains alternate history stories -- not ones in which famous military leaders were cat-people, or ones where Alien Space Bats interfered at particular changepoints, or ones concerning the differences imaginable if Napoleon had been half-elf; but stories that just had to be alternate-historical, with no other prerequisites. Given the pedigree, this will probably be one of the major anthologies of the year -- and it's only $7.99.

Also from DAW in April is the second omnibus reprinting a near-future humorous detective series by John Zakour and Lawrence Ganem, Ballistic Babes. (I don't know if the series has an official title, but -- since all of the titles are about the hair color of a pneumatic, dangerous female -- it would be something like "Hairy Babes"...and that might explain why there isn't a series title.) This one reprints the third and fourth novels in the series, The Radioactive Redhead and The Frost-Haired Vixen. I haven't read these books, but I did use to do business with Ganem, many years ago -- he was a great guy and a skilled negotiator, if that's any recommendation for his books.

And then we jump into manga, first with some books coming from Del Rey on March 24th. (Which would be tomorrow, so they're probably out in stores already.) Negima!? Neo, Vol. 1 is the beginning of a series based on the popular anime series Negima!...and I haven't worked out yet why the manga version gets a "? Neo" tacked onto the end of the title. (The subtitle, "Magister Negi Magi," is easier to figure out: it refers to the main character, ten-year-old Negi Springfield -- who is not, in any way, at all reminiscent of Harry Potter, even in a bizarrely twisted Japanese way, so put that right out of your head, Warner Brothers -- the super-magician from England who has to run an all-girls magic school in Japan because every Japanese story will find itself set in an all-girls school if not prevented by heavy artillery.) Negima!? Neo was written by Negima! creator Ken Akmatsu, with art by Takuya Fujima. It's rated "OT" (for older teens), so I expect a lot of fanservice, panty shots, and young women "accidentally" surprised in the hot springs. Hmmm...I may just have to read this one!

Also from Del Rey and rated OT -- but actually shrink-wrapped, which makes me wonder if it's the manga equivalent of a "Hard R" -- is the first volume of Gakuen Prince, by Jun Yuzuki. It's set in an all-girls school -- see! see!!! -- that very recently started allowing boys to attend as well. It's also one of those super-elite schools that -- at least in manga -- students only can get into and stay in through grueling exams, and which are heavily stratified and clique-ridden. From the back cover copy, it seems to be about the battle among the girls to "get" the boys. But, from a quick peek inside, it seems to be more focused on one particular girl. And, as one could have guessed, she's a quiet, mousy "A" student who frantically thinks such terribly Japanese things as "Everyone will notice me! I don't want to stand out! No way!" on the third page. So I'm pretty sure she ends up with the tallest, cutest, smartest boy -- who also has a closet-full of secrets. (I may have been reading too much of this stuff lately...)

And also from Del Rey is the first book of Samurai 7, credited as "Manga by Mizutaka Suhou, Original Story by Akira Kurosawa." I suspect this is a very, very loose adaptation of The Seven Samurai, translated into its current science-fictional garb only after Kurosawa died -- he lived until 1998 and this was published in 2004, which suggests to cynical me an estate looking to license whatever it could to establish new income streams. It's set in the solar system in the medium future, and the heroes are people who fight giant robots with swords. (And win, most of the time.)

And now I'll get into the big stack of Yen Press manga from April -- until I mention another publisher or date, just assume all of these are Yen April books, kay? I'll start with the new titles:

GA: Geijutsuka Art Design Class is a four-panel humorous series set in an art school, by Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro's Satoko Kiyuduki. And all of the characters are female. However, I can't prove that this school is all-girls until I actually read the book -- though I certainly have my suspicions.

Oninagi is by Akira Ishida, and is one part "Ooh! I'm a cute fifteen-year-old in my sailor suit! I love my darling senpai and I hope to get closer to him this school year!" and one part "Battling the demons as they appear in random locations." The main character -- "average schoolgirl Nanami" -- has some secret connection to the monsters that draws the attention of one of those Slayer-types, and things go on from there.

Step is by Yu Yanshu, reads left-to-right, and is in full-color -- it's Chinese rather than Japanese, and I can't tell you what variation on manga/manwha this should be officially called. This volume is also titled "Dynasty Tang," which is the name of an orphaned boy vampire who's one of the main characters. (And, to paraphrase something my brother said many times, who looks at a bloody fetus and says "Yes! I will name this child Dynasty Tang!"?) The main character, according to the back cover, is Mr. Han, who is little Tang's guardian as well as being a professional monster hunter. (You have to watch out for the amateur kind.)

Pig Bride is Korean, so it also reads left-to-right, and it launched out of Yen's Yen+ magazine (in which I read, and reviewed, the first three chapters). It's by KookHwa Huh and SuJin Kim, and is about a typical highschool boy who accidentally married -- in a very old-fashioned ceremony -- a girl in a pig mask eight years ago, while lost in the woods. (Could happen to anybody, right?) Now his "bride" is back, and things are getting complicated in a very weird way I'm sure I'd understand better if I were Korean.

Also launching out of Yen+ is Svetlana Chmakova's Nightschool: The Weirn Books, Vol. 1, which I also looked at in the above link. Chmakova is from Russian and resident in Canada, so she draws in a manga-influenced style (but left-to-right) -- and she's well-known for her series Dramacon. Nightschool is --as you might have guessed -- yet another school story, this time a secret night-time school for witches, vampires, and their ilk.

And now for the later volumes from Yen -- I might start to run out of things to say about these, particularly at this time of night.

Kyo Shirodaira and Eita Mizuno continue the story of "younger brother" and the Blade Children in Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, Vol. 7. I've reviewed many of the earlier volumes -- most recently Vol. 5 -- and that link can carry you backwards to discussions of the earlier books, if you want. I've found this series confusing and odd -- a psychological Japanese version of Saw, with complicated game-theory death-traps and lots of self-loathing. I still don't understand it, but here it is.

Croquis Pop, Vol. 4 continues KwangHyun Seo and JinHo Ko's story of a young "croquer" -- magically powerful artist, who of course has to use his powers to defeat regularly appearing "grudges" -- who is also the apprentice to a popular manwha-ga despite having essentially no drawing skills whatsoever. (To compensate, he has a self-image approaching that of a Mr. Naruto.) I've reviewed the first three volumes; click here to see Vol. 3 and go back from there.

One Thousand and One Nights, Vol. 7 is the latest in a series I haven't read at all; it was already a few volumes in by the time I saw it. It's by Han SeungHee and Jeon JinSeok and it's set in either a mythic Middle East or the modern day, or, just maybe, both.

Ume Aoki's Sunshine Sketch is a really sweet 4-panel series about four girls attending art school -- hmm; maybe it's time for a compare-and-contrast with GA, above? -- hitting its third volume this month. I reviewed the first two volumes -- go here for #2 -- but don't let the fact that this is set in a girls' school mislead you; it's gentle and cute, with no hint of panty shots.

And last from Yen this time is the second and concluding volume of Suzunari!, which I reviewed the first time around. (This one is also officially a March book, so it's already in stores now.) It's another 4-panel series, also set in a school, about a "normal girl" and her inexplicable, irrepressible catgirl double, who appeared out of nowhere at the beginning of the first book. Suzu is yet another one of those wacko oddball characters the Japanese love so much, probably for the obvious letting-off-steam reasons.

And now, on to a few last books that aren't published by Yen!

A cartoonist who bills himself as Box Brown -- again I invoke the spirit of my brother and the hypothetical bloody fetus, quizzically -- is publishing his first collection, Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing, into comics stores in June. (That means it's in the April Diamond catalog, Previews, which your shop -- assuming you do have one -- will beg etting very soon, probably this week.) Brown won a Xeric Award to help finance the publication of this book, which is a pretty big deal. He also has a website, so you can check out his work there -- though, despite the fact that he regularlly posts cartoons on the web, he insists he's not a "webcartoonist." Love is a collection of semi-autobiographical -- at least, I'm assuming they are, possibly on insufficient evidence -- stories about Ben and Ellen. It looks like fun, and I hope to review it -- after the Eisner frenzy ends, but (I hope) before the Diamond order deadline.

Andrew Fox wrote two books for Del Rey a few years back -- Fat White Vampire Blues and its sequel Bride of the Fat White Vampire -- which got admiring reviews but not (aparrently) a big surge of fan interest. But he's back with a new novel from Tachyon, The Good Humor Man, which is similar satirical, but SFnal rather than fantasy. It's set thirty years in the future, when all fatty food has been outlawed -- and it looks to be the usual tour of a bizarre, funny future. It's being published April 15th, in trade paperback.

And last this week is a book I was very happy to see: the new Dresden Files book from Jim Butcher, Turn Coat (eleventh in the series). I reviewed the previous book, Small Favor, last year, and I very much enjoy this Chandler-esque take on the modern urban fantasy series. I can't tell that this one is great until I read it, but I hope and expect it will be. Roc is publishing it in hardcover on April 7th.