Friday, December 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 331 (12/31) -- Spectrum 17 edited by Cathy & Arnie Fenner

There are people who can write coherently for long stretches about art, making intriguing comparisons and speaking knowledgeably about techniques and influences, but I'm not one of them. When I used to have to talk about art regularly, back in my book-club days, I often resorted to waving my hands about wildly, a small store of stock phrases, and, most dependably, pointing at things in the indispensable Spectrum series of art annuals.

So that leads to two points: first, that I'll try to be brief here, so I don't stray out of my depth entirely. And second, that this series is wonderful if you want to know about the fantastic art field for any reason (professional or personal). The current volume is Spectrum 17, collecting great art created in 2009. (I've burbled about this series here for the past few years: 13, 14, 15, 16 -- so you can take everything I said in those places as read about this book as well, since it follows excellently in their footsteps.)

Once again, the "Unpublished" section is the largest, and the most likely to confuse me, but I've come to believe that the Spectrum process allows submitters to decide on the final category for a work, without changes from the judges, and so I just shrug. (Similarly, I saw illustrations from under both "Editorial" and "Institutional" sections -- even relatively simple definitions can have edge cases.) But, once again, the real point is that there are about 260 pages of great art here: chosen carefully by a panel of excellent artists and designers, organized and labeled by the Fenners, and presented in a fine book on good paper.

(The "Unpublished" section used to occasionally vex me, since it was not unknown at my old job to troll that section for works that might be suitable for upcoming projects -- though it always seemed to turn out than any specific "unpublished" work had found a real home by the time we asked about it.)

If you work in any of the fields strongly connected to fantasy art -- comics, books, games, or related areas -- you really should be paying attention to the Spectrum books. And if you just really like any of those areas, you'll probably find a lot to love here as well.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: With Teeth

"I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven't got the guts to bite people themselves."
- August Strindberg

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 330 (12/30) -- Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman, Volume One by David Boswell

Sometimes it's just not possible to be dispassionate about a work of art. At those times, the honest critic must disclose his true feelings up front, to come clean entirely to his audience. And so I have to admit: I love David Boswell's Reid Fleming stories on a level with only a very few other comics (Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot, the best Giffen/Fleming/Oskner Ambush Bug stories, The Cowboy Wally Show, some of Evan Dorkin's work), as one of the pinnacles that the form is capable of.

So I was thrilled to see Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman, Volume One appear from IDW last week; this big, bright volume reprints the original 1980 Reid Fleming one-shot (later reprinted as a special from Eclipse and the first issue of the 1990s Deep Sea run), the subsequent five-issue story "Rogue to Riches" (originally published by Eclipse, reprinted in issue form and then as a trade paperback by Deep Sea), and the sidebar one-shot Heartbreak Comics (out of print for decades, though I still have my copy, deep in the files). Nothing in this book has been widely available for a decade, which is a damn shame: Reid Fleming is a great comic creation (in both senses of the word "comic"), and Boswell's stories combine laugh-out-loud moments with lovingly precise drawings of mayhem and rascality.

The title explains the premise perfectly: Reid Fleming is the world's toughest milkman, a hard-drinking, improbably womanizing, scruffy, ridiculously strong, aggressive-to-a-fault man, a man with a milk truck under his feet, a bottle of rye in his hands, a trail of slapstick destruction behind him, and a street full of Caspar Milquetoasts (of both sexes) ahead of him to be terrorized. He has the cruel, obnoxious boss we've all had at least once in Mr. Crabbe, and the scattered, ineffectual over-boss we all equally recognize in the dairy's president, Mr. O'Clock. Boswell perfectly negotiates the rough edges of Reid's personality; in other hands, Reid Fleming would be a villain, or a bore, or a crank. But Boswell keeps the reader always on Reid's side -- he's living the life we wish we could, calling out the fools and morons and idiots in life and doing just what he wants at all times.

Boswell's art is scratchy and organic in the one-shot; one part classic adventure strip and one part '70s undergrounds. But he was rapidly gaining in detail and maturity; Heartbreak Comics sees his precise crosshatching and dots in all their glory, and the later Reid issues show him loosen that style up a bit to suit the more anarchic proceedings of a Reid Fleming story -- the lines are still as precise and perfect as they were in Heartbreak, but the panels are often larger and the scene-setting is stronger as Boswell focuses on exactly the elements he needs to tell his story right.

Reid Fleming's stories are full of both the energy of youth and the anger of middle age; they take place in a world that's as like today or the suburbs of thirty years ago as it is like a silent comedy. They're damn good comics, and having them back in print is something to celebrate. And the "Volume One" in the title of this book gives hope that more will be forthcoming in less than another decade, which would be even more to celebrate.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 329 (12/29) -- Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

Family stories get short shrift these days, both from the high art side -- which usually sees them in the form of "women's fiction," as if half the human race was a minor specialty audience -- and from fans of genre works, who prefer to concentrate on zippier and more exciting materials. But families are one of the few things we all have in common -- no matter who we are, or where we came from, someone cared for us when we were small, or we wouldn't still be alive. (Any wolf-boys who want to dispute that can speak up in comments.) And family stories, since they tend to sprawl and drag in all kinds of social and personal concerns, have the scope to really show how people really live and what they care about.

The great writers of the past knew that -- from Dickens to Tolstoy, from Balzac to Zola, from Eisner to Spiegelman. And so did Osamu Tezuka, Japan's "godfather of manga," the man who almost singlehandedly created the idiom for an artform for an entire country, and then managed to run ahead of that artform for another forty years. Tezuka created many stories, in many styles, but for a decade or so, starting in the late '60s, he made a sequence of tough, adult, long graphic novels with subject matter that's groundbreaking even now, and must have been startling then. And alongside such stories of that era as MW (my review), Apollo's Song (my review), and Ode to Kirihito (my review) stands Ayako, the saga of a twisted, tormented family originally serialized in 1972-73 but only now translated for an English-speaking audience.

Ayako is the story of the Tenge family, major landowners in rural Yodoyama, beginning at the moment when their power and influence has started to wane -- inevitably, unstoppably, completely. In early 1949, second son Jiro returns home from a POW camp to find his older brother Ichiro married and utterly settled to succeed their father, Sakuemon, in the ownership of the family estates. (Though land reform has peeled away much of their land over the last several years, granting it to their former tenant farmers, and that loss might not be completed.) Jiro returns to find that his younger siblings -- teenage sister Naoko and grade-school brother Shiro -- have been joined by a little girl named Ayako, who was born while he was off at war. Ayako is clearly doted on by Sakuemon, but she's equally obviously not the daughter of his wife Iba. Jiro soon learns the sordid secret of Ayako's parentage, and how it's caught up in the inheritance of the Tenge lands.

But he has his own secrets: he became a collaborator for the Americans while in that POW camp, and is still active as an agent of the occupying army's General Staff Office Section 2. And those are only the beginning of the secrets, lies, and crimes that the Tenge family inflicts -- mostly on each other -- over the next quarter-century. Ayako is at the center of all of it, the still, innocent center -- keeper of some secrets, subject of others, and, before long, a gigantic, completely hidden secret herself. They lie and commit crimes for money and for power, but primarily to save face -- primarily to hide the horrible things that they've already done.

Ayako is the closest thing to an innocent this story has, but she's warped by her very unusual upbringing -- she had very little chance to begin with, and the Tenge family made sure that she didn't even get that chance. By the end of the story that bears her name, she's nearly thirty and utterly alone, despite her burning need for (and sad lack of understanding about) for connection and love. Ayako isn't quite a tragedy, though all of the Tenges are eventually destroyed by their own flaws -- or, if it is a tragedy, it's the Tragedy of Clan Tenge, the fall of a once-proud (and presumably honest and upright) family.

Tezuka uses something close to his most realistic style for most of Ayako; there are none of his sometimes distracting cartoony urchins and comic relief. The entire story maintains a unified tone and approach; there's no respite from the grime of post-war Japan, the rise of gangsters and war profiteers, and the nastiness of the Tenge family, which gives Ayako a growing power and force as it sweeps across twenty-five years of history. This is the work of a master of comics working at the height of his powers: the story of one girl, destroyed by her family, that can also be read (slyly) as a metaphor for Japan itself in those years.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 328 (12/28) -- The Muppet Show Comic Book: Family Reunion by Langridge and Mebberson

Roger Langridge's Muppet Show comics -- there have been three previous volumes, all of which are very good -- showed that there really aren't any art forms that can't be mashed into each other, given the right creator and enough energy. Because, let's face it: turning a half-hour musical TV show starring a bunch of puppets into a comic book doesn't really make a lot of sense on its face. But Langridge deeply understands the old-vaudeville, "let's put on a show!" sensibility of the old Muppet TV show, and even has the very unlikely ability to pull off songs on the comics page.

The fourth book, Family Reunion, collects the first storyline completely illustrated by someone other than Langridge; he only provided the covers this time out. (Though one of the issues collected in the third collection was by a different artist.) Amy Mebberson draws a fine Muppet -- she's probably closer to the model sheets than Langridge -- but her work isn't quite as expressive and idiosyncratic as Langridge's. She's a perfectly acceptable Muppet artist, but Langridge was something better -- he drew the Muppets as if he'd just invented them and all of their adventures.

So this series is fun and deeply entertaining...but slightly less so than the previous, all-Langridge, stories. The entire crew is back in their rebuilt theater after the escapades of The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson and On the Road, and things presumably would be expected to settle back to normal. But there's no "normal" when it comes to the Muppet Show, and so a procession of minor characters return -- Scooter's twin Skeeter, Miss Piggy's dim nephews Randy and Andy, Fozzie's mother, and Kermit's nephew Robin (who supposedly works in the theater with everyone else, though we only see him during his story) -- to complicate things.

(There's also a not-entirely-explained framing story, in which a godlike Statler and Waldorf play a bizarre hybrid board game with the Muppets for pieces, but it stays a frame story, and is only the slightest excuse for a explanation of the events.)

Langridge has recently announced that he's nearing the end of his Muppets work -- though that announcement also mentions that the story he's working on currently, his last Muppets work for now, is one he's drawing as well -- which might lead some readers to examine this story closely for signs of fatigue. It's not as zany as the last couple of storylines, true, but this is the "back to normal" story to begin with, so that's what it's supposed to be. Aside from preferring Langridge's art (which may be a personal quirk), these issues are just as fun and Muppety as all of his previous work on the series, so I wouldn't say there was any reason not to want him to keep telling Muppet stories as long as he wanted to. (And, if he doesn't want to, that just means that I need to dig out some non-licensed Langridge work as soon as possible.)

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 327 (12/27) -- How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

Memoirs and reportage don't need to be opposites, but they often are: a memoir privileges what the writer feels, while reportage always requires getting out and seeing something. A good memoirist, of course, must have some real experiences to draw on, and there are lousy reporters who stint on the shoe leather -- but, still, a memoir is primarily about interior experience, and reportage is about exteriors.

But, then, what about a memoir designed from the beginning to be about a specific time? If the focus stays on interior life -- what the memoirist thought and felt and cared about -- rather than the details of the experience, does that move the work entirely over into memoir, or is it some hybrid form?

That's the question raised by Sarah Glidden's first book-length comic, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less [1], the record of a birthright trip she took to Israel in March of 2007, at a time when, according to her own account, she was drawn by her politics to condemn Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and by her heritage to love it unconditionally. She went to Israel prepared for a wave of pro-Israeli propaganda, but not as ready for the normal human effect of wanting to be friendly with friendly people she met. And she clearly went with the intention of writing and drawing a book about the experience: this book.

Book-length manuscripts don't come together quickly, and even less so when they have to be drawn and watercolored (as How to Understand is). So the book comes more than three years after the experience it records -- even given the lead-times of publishing, Glidden must have been working on these two hundred pages for the better part of two years. But it doesn't feel labored or delayed; however Glidden created her script and worked it out, the book has the clarity and immediacy of a mirror.

The birthright tours are free for young Jewish people from around the world: paid for by private donations, run by various charter companies, but all overseen by the Israeli government, which mandates a few stops, at Masada and Vad Yashem. Glidden's tour is relatively serious and evenhanded, but there clearly are lots of these groups, of all types, chugging around Israel all the time -- Glidden's group comes across a group of standoffish Russians and a more outdoorsy American tour as well. (And, given the setup and the few required stops, Glidden is obviously right to expect propaganda; the entire point is to inculcate a sense of worldwide Israeli/Jewish identity and replenish the pool of goodwill for the Israeli state in the major countries of the world.) Glidden is vastly more "prepared" than the rest of the tour -- including her friend Melissa, whom Glidden has nearly dragged along, to have a sounding board and a sympathetic ear -- having spent the last few months reading exhaustively about the "situation."

How to Understand Israel recounts the events of that trip, but always from a perspective deep in Sarah Glidden's skull -- she fully intellectualized the experience both before and during the trip, so the book is as much about how she struggles with wanting to like Israel and the Israelis as it is about the events of the trip itself. Every event and aspect of the trip -- from the attitude of Gil, the guide, to the minutia of the itinerary, to the reactions of her fellow tourists, to her own feelings to all of the above and more -- is examined as she tries to see if her opinions are changing, or being changed.

It could be wearying, but it isn't: Sarah Glidden is entirely open and honest throughout, and that honesty is invigorating, even thrilling. If the unexamined life isn't worth living, Sarah Glidden's life is vastly more worth living than most of us. Her art quietly adds to the effect: she draws simple but clearly recognizable faces and works with mostly soft, bright colors (perhaps to show the penetrating desert/Mediterranean sun) to keep the reader tied to this new place that she's visiting. In the end, of course, Glidden understands Israel in the way any of us understand any place: as the pieces of it that we've seen and comprehended, inevitably biased and partial...but with the full knowledge of what she does understand and know, which is all anyone can ask for.

[1] The ex-editor in me itches to correct this to "...or Fewer."

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/25

Every week, I write a bit here about the books that came in my mail the previous week -- though I generally haven't read them yet. As you can see from the post title, last week ended on a major North American holiday, which somewhat curtailed the usual sending-books-to-bloggers process. In fact, I only got one (1) book delivered this past week:
The Scar-Crow Men is the second book in an Elizabethan fantasy secret-history series by Mark Chadbourn; the first book was The Silver Skull and the series title is "Swords of Albion." Will Swyfte is a spy, among his other unsavory pursuits, and one of the few who defend England from the creatures of the Unseelie Court -- but now the Black Death is savaging London, and a more specific, personal death is stalking Will. Pyr publishes Scar-Crow Men as a trade paperback in February.

And that was it for the mail. Luckily, Thing 2 and I popped into the city yesterday (to see an interesting show, Momentum, at the New Victory, to run through the Ripley's museum-esque thing across the street, and, possibly most importantly, to have lunch and deep-fried candy bars at A Salt and Battery down in the Village), and I convinced him to make a quick side trip to a comics shop, where I got myself:

The Muppet Show Comic Book: Family Reunion, the fourth collection of the main series from Roger Langridge (which is excellent). Langridge is only writing by this point, which is too bad -- his art is excellent for the Muppets; it's very slightly off-model and zany in just the right ways -- but I'm more than willing to give Amy Mebberson's art a chance, when she's illustrating a Langridge script.

Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. I've been less impressed by the recent sequence of stories in Ex Machina than I was at the beginning -- I still think it's taking far too long to tell what's a very timely story -- but I'm still here for the big finish.

Motel Art Improvement Service, Jason Little's second graphic novel (after Shutterbug Follies, which I read so long ago that there's no mention of it on this blog anywhere).

And the big book of the month, the #1 Kahuna -- Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman, Volume 1 by the inimitable David Boswell. I own all of these issues (this reprints the one shot, Heartbreak Comics, and the five issues of "Rogue to Riches") as well as the trade paperback collection of "Rogue to Riches" from a decade ago, but I'm always up to do whatever I can to encourage Boswell to come back to putting out Reid Fleming comics at least as regularly as he did in the '80s. With any luck, this book will lead to a Volume Two, with a finally-completed "Another Dawn," in only another year or three.

I wrote about Reid back in the early days of this blog, in a post I called "Two Dozen or So Excellent Graphic Novels That You've Probably Never Heard Of" -- and I still stand by every book there, and might have a couple more to add to the list -- where I'll direct you for more detail of the unique flavors of Boswellian excellence. This isn't new work, of course, but I'd be shocked if more than 5% of even serious comics readers had a clue who Reid Fleming is -- so it'll be new to a whole lot of people. And I fervently hope they buy it; Reid Fleming is one of the great originals of comics, and we need a hell of a lot more of him and a hell of a lot less generic Bat- and X-crap.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 326 (12/26) -- Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld is one of those writers who doesn't need me to introduce him; if you haven't heard of him, that can only mean that you haven't been haunting the Young Adult shelves (or chatting with teen readers), since his Uglies series has been one of the big successes of the past decade. (And the wonderful thing about discovering a writer mid-career, if you are one of those lucky folks, is that there's already a good-sized pile of books to read when you find them.) His current big series is a steampunky alternate-history trilogy about a superficially similar 1914 with some very notable differences -- the first book is Leviathan, which I reviewed as Book-A-Day #107. (Those main differences: the Allied Powers, here called Darwinists, have specialized in bioengineering to creative massive war machines and everyday beasts of burden, while the erstwhile Central Powers, aka the Clankers, have developed high technology equally quickly, but along entirely metallic and steam-driven lines. [1])

The second book of that trilogy, Behemoth, continues the story right where Leviathan left off: with the two protagonists, Alex and Deryn/Dylan, along with their individual Big Secrets, aboard the massive British airship Leviathan en route to Istanbul on a diplomatic mission to keep the sultan of the Ottoman Empire from joining the growing war on the Clanker side. Alex's position on the ship, and that of his men, is more and more complicated as the evidence that he must be someone important to the Clanker powers mounts -- and the chance that he will be officially made a POW increases day by day. So Alex decides he needs to get off the Leviathan in Istanbul -- and, since the ship's officers would likely keep him from leaving, he has to do it secretly.

At the same time, Deryn's own secret is coming under stress, from her fellow airmen, from the too-smart female boffin Dr. Nora Barlow, and, eventually, from a creature called a perspicacious loris, which may be vastly more perspicacious than official Darwinist policy allows any shaped animal to be. And she's tasked with a dangerous secret mission after she proves her plucky and coolness during a battle with German battleships in the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, the Committee of Union and Progress -- which, in our world, overthrew the sultan in 1908 -- is preparing for a second attempt at revolution, one which Alex and Deryn will be in position to greatly aid, if they separately decide that it's the best course of action.

Behemoth is somewhat middle-booky; it begins in the middle, with the Leviathan on the mission it got in the first book, and ends on a similarly unsettled point, with the Leviathan setting off for the next stop on its diplomatic mission. But, since this is only a trilogy, we do know that it will all be resolved by the end of the third book. (And I was sure that book would be named Juggernaut -- particularly since the Leviathan is heading to the far East as this book ends -- but a quick glance at Westerfeld's web site indicates that the real title is much more likely to be Goliath.) And Behemoth is just as fast-paced and thrilling as the first book was, with solid characterization and two very engaging young heroes to lead us through the action.

[1] I haven't detected any specific nods to the obvious precursor, Bruce Sterling's "Mechanist/Shaper" stories, but I'm sure Westerfeld is well aware of the parallels.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 325 (12/25) -- Castle Waiting, Vol. II by Linda Medley

For Christmas's installment of Book-A-Day -- which I expect no one will read for two or three days anyway -- I have just about the sweetest graphic novel imaginable, one that will have visions of sugarplums and candycanes dancing in your head if you read it close enough to bedtime. It may even be too sweet for some, but it's a lovely, positive collection, with fine drawing and characters that are well worth spending some time with.

Of course I'm talking about Linda Medley's Castle Waiting series -- the first collection of which was Book-A-Day # 98 the first time I got on this merry-go-round, back in 2006 -- which is the marzipan of comics: lovely to look at, crafted with exquisite care out of one of the sweetest materials on earth, but perhaps slightly lacking in deeper nutritional value. In a half-ruined castle somewhere in a vaguely medieval Europe -- far from wars and strife, in a world where both giants and dwarves (they prefer to be called "hammerlings") roam, and animal-headed people are common enough not to be worth comment -- a motley group of folks live, most of them refugees from somewhere else and all of them fairy-tale characters to some degree.

Castle Waiting, Vol. II collects the most recent sequence of single issues from Fantagraphics, in a format matching the first volume. The central character, Lady Jain, is still settling into Castle Waiting, and she decides on a room in the early pages here, which means the rest of the book is mostly about moving her into her new place, with digressions for flashbacks, ninepin bowling, goat-penning, horse-shoeing, and lots and lots of conversations. Castle Waiting is a very talk-focused comic; the characters chat incessantly with each other about various things -- their work, each other, their pasts, relationships -- and those conversations are as much what Castle Waiting is about than the actual events.

In fact, Castle Waiting is one of the most feminine comics out there -- not in a frilly, silly sense, but in that it's deeply about the things that women traditionally care about more than men: domestic life, relationships, emotions, friendship. Medley shows that those concerns are what make up real day-to-day life, telling a low-key story about a wonderful place to live and showing, along the way, why it's wonderful: the people here genuinely care about each other, and work to help each other all the time. Readers who know nothing of comics but the big mainstream punchfests will be deeply confused by Castle Waiting -- all the conflict here is personal, and any violence took place before this story and off the page. (But that violence is still important, of course, and the careful reader can see how it has affected the people now at Castle Waiting.)

The folklorish origins of the series aren't as clear now as they were at the beginning -- the prologue story, "The Curse of Brambly Hedge," showed how this was Cinderella's famous sleeping castle -- to the point that I'm not at all sure if all of the characters still are minor figures from folklore anymore. And it's not clear if Medley has an overarching shape to this story -- if she'll continue to explain everyone's history, and eventually get to the mystery of the father of Jain's infant son Pindar. But, even if Castle Waiting never goes anywhere in particular, that's not to point of it anyway: this is a story about people and how they live together and support each other. That kind of story is so vanishingly rare in comics that it should be treasured when we do find it -- particularly when it's as lovely and engaging as Castle Waiting.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, December 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 324 (12/24) -- Amelia Rules! True Things (Adults Don't Want Kids To Know) by Jimmy Gownley

It's so very easy to sentimentalize childhood -- and it happens so very often -- that creative works that are moderately clear-eyed about the real emotional lives of kids often get over-praised, just to encourage them. (There's the other side of books for young readers, of course -- the books where everything is depressing and dark -- but those are much more likely to focus on adolescents, who often do believe in their own drama.)

And so I don't want to overpraise Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Rules! books -- though they are tremendously entertaining, mixing slapstick silliness with thoughtful stories about one girl growing up in small town USA. (I reviewed the first three Amelia Rules! books in a clump, after reading the fourth one during my Eisner-judging death march last spring, and just hit the most recent volume as Book-A-Day # 196.)

Amelia Rules! True Things (Adults Don't Want Kids to Know) sees its hero getting another year older -- she has an eleventh birthday in this volume, as she had her tenth a few books ago -- which is encouraging; a series like this doesn't have to show the passage of time at all. (In fact, there are entire empires of kid-lit based on characters who never age, from the Hardy Boys to Junie B. Jones.)

The fact that Gownley does want to keep Amelia growing up -- however slowly, and however far he intends to let it go -- shows that he does want to keep Amelia Rules! tied to the real world, which is entirely a good sign. He's still doling out Amelia Rules! stories in roughly comics-issue size, though: True Things consists of five stories, each in the twenty-to-thirty-five page range, and they relate to each other in much the same way that subsequent issues of a comic do -- they're not pieces of a larger story, but separate stories in a deliberate sequence that build on some events and move the characters forward. 

Amelia turns eleven in the first one, and spends much of the rest of the book wrestling with the fact that she likes a boy -- the very one, in fact, that she's been vehemently telling all of her friends that she does not like. She's also, as children of divorce do, dreaming about getting her mother and father back together -- and her father has a larger role in this book than he has in most of the previous volumes, so Gownley might be building up to something for later.

True Things has more of those soap-operatic elements than the wacky fight/chase scenes of the earlier books -- Amelia, and her friends, are growing up, and perhaps she's becoming a bit girlier in fifth grade, wearing dresses much more often and even having a major plot about tryouts for the cheerleading squad in the last volume. But Gownley's art is still full of energetic poses and layouts, which keeps the proceedings interesting. (Though Gownley's excellent lettering is so clearly in the school of Dave Sim that readers who know Sim's interesting opinions may find it occasionally distracting, for reasons unrelated to Gownley's work.)

If I had daughters instead of sons, of about the same ages, I'd be leaving the Amelia Rules! books out for them to read and hoping they liked it. As it is, I'll keep reading and enjoying it myself. Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: Out on the Dungheap

"He was an embittered atheist, the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him."
- George Orwell

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 323 (12/23) -- American Elf, Book Two by James Kochalka

I covered the big-picture stuff about James Kochalka's daily journal comic American Elf earlier this year, when I reviewed the third collection as Book-A-Day #61, so go back there if you missed it the first time around. This is the second collection of the strip, bringing together the 731 strips that Kochalka drew and posted during 2004 and 2005, and it's much the same thing as the third volume. (Only, you know, earlier.)

American Elf, Book Two starts when Kochalka already has more than five years of daily personal comics under his belt, so he's already entirely confident in his style and has a well-tested sense of which moments and thoughts will work as a four-panel strip.

As with the third volume, it's a mixture of work concerns and home life -- but Kochalka is a cartoonist and musician, so he works at home a lot of the time, so strips can be about both working on a cartoon book and watching his then-infant son Eli. (I may be more of a sucker for the Eli strips than most readers are, since I have two sons of my own -- they're a couple of years older than Eli, but I remember the rampaging-toddler days well.) Kochalka is a moody guy, and realizes it in these strips -- there's a loose sequence of days when he decides to be happy, and to stop (or to try to stop) yelling at his family for no reason, but, like most of us, he doesn't always live up to what he wants to do.

Diaries fall into two main categories: those that are interesting because the diarist did important, interesting things, or was around when important things were done, on the one hand, and those that are worth reading because the diarist can take everyday events and make them interesting. Kochalka is mostly on the second side; he does have some rock shows, and flies for book signings and pitch meetings with TV executives, but the strip isn't about how awesome those things are, but about how the shower in the place he's staying in LA makes a different noise on his skull, or how he forgot he had a concert one night. American Elf makes good reading, either day-by-day as it's posted, or in collections like this, because it's one distinctive American life -- Kochalka's only slightly odd, perhaps an elf, but one living in Burlington, Vermont, and getting up in the middle of the night (even after a rock show) because the baby's crying.

Each strip is pleasant, but, like many strips, American Elf gains strength and energy as it goes -- like a fiction strip, knowing the characters and their relationships makes it both funnier and more touching. And Kochalka is still a master at both distilling cartoon-able moments from his everyday life and drawing them in that instantly recognizable, cartoony style of his.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 322 (12/22) -- The Broadcast by Hobbs and Tuazon

I'm not a social historian, so I have to remain agnostic on the subject of panics arising from Orson Welles's famous Halloween 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast. I've seen some sources claim that panic was widespread; and others that noted that the show was barely half an hour long and broken up by commercials, so there was no time for even the dullest and most easily led crowds to work up any decent panic.

In any case, the panic makes a great story, which is what really counts when it comes to fiction -- and fiction is just what The Broadcast, a new graphic novel written by Eric Hobbs and drawn by Noel Tuazon, is. It's set on that fateful day in October 1938, in a small farming town that I believe is somewhere in southern Illinois. (The book never quite makes it clear; all we're sure is that it seems to be north of Kentucky, since one character comes from there.) In that town, on that day, there's a rich man who's too protective of his daughter, that daughter's suitor and his father, and several other tenant farmers of the rich man -- plus that Kentucky man, who arrives once things have gotten confused.

The Broadcast begins at a moment of tension, and then flashes back to the beginning of the day -- it flashes forward and backward for occasional effect later, but mostly tells its story in order. So the poor boy visits in the morning to ask the rich man for his daughter's hand, and gets permission...along with a dismissive attitude that sends him away angry. But there's another man who is even angrier, with less specific reasons, and at more than just the rich man. Then, in the evening, everyone tunes in the Mercury Theater on the Air -- and, as far as we can see, all of them tune in after it begins, so they don't hear the initial announcement that it's a dramatization of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. And, of course, there's a lightning storm passing through the area, which cuts the power near the end of the show -- before the happy ending, before the final disclaimer.

Panic hits, and violence, as the locals scramble to find a place to hide from the Martian murder-machines that they're sure are already on their way. Several characters add to the panic with lies, or misrepresentations, of their own, but no one ever doubts that the world is coming to an end. (And, after the panic is over, there's only enough space in the story left to clear up the personal stories -- not to examine, at all, anyone's reaction to the panic.) So The Broadcast is dramatic and enthralling, full of taut, important scenes, but it ramps its tension both up and down much more quickly than seems plausible in quiet retrospect.

Tuazon's art is full of slashing lines and loose outlines; it's full of energy and life, barely pinned down to the page. But it's less strong at clearly defining faces and spaces, which remain vague and sketched in. That energy and looseness fight against each other during the action scenes, which are exciting in the way a battle seen by flashes of lightning is: what we can see is thrilling, but we can only see so much.

I didn't entirely believe The Broadcast -- the panic itself, the very carefully assembled characters that carom off each other like a full-table trick shot in billiards, or that murky Tuazon art. But I did enjoy it, as it punched all of the right thriller buttons in the right sequence to tell its story, and as it knew exactly how to play fair with its premise, and work out that billiards trick shot in exacting detail.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 321 (12/21) -- Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen

I'm on record of being in favor of more sword-and-sorcery stories in the world, and I'll extend that to just more tales of derring-do and flashing swords, even without the sorcery. (Though the addition of sorcery is always preferable.) I don't require that the swords be wielded by humans, either; there's been some very good fantasy with sword-swinging rodents -- I could mention Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles. So I was happy to see David Petersen's first story of the Mouse Guard, Fall 1152 a few years back, and reviewed it here.

His doughty mouse warriors are back for a second round of adventures, as the seasons turn in their vaguely medieval world, in Mouse Guard: Winter 1152. There's still no sorcery -- this is a realistic talking-mouse story, damn it! -- but Petersen's central characters are dealing with the aftermath of the nastiness in the fall, as they trek around the mouse cities to the southwest of the Guard's HQ Lockhaven (which is not the capital of the divided mouse territories, but is the closest thing to one they do have).

So Saxon, Kenzie, Lieam, Sadie, and Celanwe trudge their wee bodies through the snow to Sprucetuck -- a city of scientists and librarians, as required in pseudo-medieval fantasy stories no matter what the species -- to ask their leaders to attend a summit in Lockhaven called by Lady Gwendolyn in the near future, to try to forge a stronger peace among the cities. (They also come begging for "elixir," some sort of cure-all that is, of course, in short supply.) On the way back to Sprucetuck, things go wrong, and the party is forced to split up.

(The Mouse Guard stories are perfectly serviceable, but they do tend to make the mind wander to gaming or other fantasy stories -- there's something vaguely generic to them, down to the fact that I have trouble telling the cute l'il characters apart.)

Winter 1152 is more quotidian than the first series -- it's about survival under harsh conditions (out unprotected in the winter, in the not-entirely-abandoned tunnels of the enemy weasels, under attack from an owl) rather than unearthing a major plot, but the dangers are as real, and as deadly here as in the Fall. I still agree that Mouse Guard get a lot of mileage -- possibly too much -- out of Petersen's detailed, heroic, precisely colored art and the still-novel idea behind it, but these are fun adventure comics that you can share with your kids, or keep for yourself. It might not be Bone -- despite some surface similarities -- but, then, what is?

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 320 (12/20) -- Forget Sorrow by Belle Yang

Every family has a history. For most of us, it's just at that level: the history of our family. But some are unfortunate enough to have large-scale history mixed up in their family's past -- which is never good, since history is almost exclusively the account of horrible things happening, from wars to famines to disasters. Belle Yang's family were successful, well-off farmers and landlords in Manchuria when the Japanese invaded in the early 1930s, which meant nearly twenty years of "history" for them even before the Communist takeover in 1949.

Yang herself has some history; in 1986, four years after she graduated from college, she ran back to her parents to get away from an abusive boyfriend turned stalker. (The stalker, whom the family calls Rotten Egg, shot up the office of a lawyer who tried to help her, among other unspecified violent acts.) Yang's friends abandoned her when she was stalked, and she'd lost everything she owned while getting away. And so she was stuck, living quietly with her parents, apparently waiting for Rotten Egg to give up on her and go away. (There's no sign that any direct police or legal protection for Belle was sought, or was useful.) While she was trapped at home with her parents, in between trips to China to further her art studies, Yang got her father to tell her the story of his family, through the thirties and forties, and she wrote those stories down, turning them into comics along the way.

Forget Sorrow, presumably, is that record -- the pages that Belle Yang began to create in 1989 -- but she's had a twenty-year career, writing and illustrating books for adults and children, in between those conversations and the publication of this book. (And I've never known a creative person who could put something in a drawer for years, and then pull it out and want to publish it just as it was originally made.) So I have to assume that Forget Sorrow is based on the comics pages she made at the time, and on the notes she took from "Baba's" (her father's) stories, but that most of the art, and even most of the words, were set down on paper much more recently that that.

Yang's father's family was large and fractious, with a patriarch (Baba's grandfather), his four sons (who were not unified in anything), another sister or three (this is never clear, since women were vastly less important in general and to their father's families in the China of that day), and the various grandchildren (Baba seems to be among the younger cohort; he has cousins and brothers that are married while he's still a boy). It's a complicated web of connections, and Yang never takes the time to carefully explicate the family, but instead apparently follows her father's stories as he told them. The Yang family really cries out for the power of a well-designed comics page to explain and connect -- one page of family tree, or a schematic of their Xinmin estate, would have been vastly helpful. Instead, the reader grabs on the crumbs scattered through Baba's speeches, and slowly builds a mental map of the family as they squabble through the relatively rich days of the 1930s.

Yang's telling doesn't focus closely on the passage of time, though, and never foreshadows future events, so, for those of us who are unsure how strongly WWII affected Manchuria, and when, every event of Forget Sorrow will be a surprise. But the outside world does shadow Xinmin and the Yang family, more and more -- first with the always off-page Japanese, and then with the battles of the Nationalist and Communist armies, and finally with the revolution in 1949, which shatters the family. The bulk of Forget Sorrow, though, is about the family history rather than Chinese: the diaspora of the Yang family is dealt with in the last pages, after two-hundred-plus pages of their conflicts and arguments in the fat years.

Yang's art is expressive and bold, with simplified faces and backgrounds to give a timeless feeling -- and, not secondly, to instantly identify all of those many members of the Yang family, Second Aunt and Third Brother and the rampaging bands of younger children. It helps open up Forget Sorrow to a non-Chinese audience, making this the story of one family and their conflicts, familiar to all of us from our own lives and many earlier stories in all media. But the telling of this story is still confusing, particularly in the early pages, throwing the reader into the middle of a big multi-generational family without much guidance -- and Yang's own story, as she presents it here, is entirely passive, listening to family stories until her stalker finally disappears on his own. Forget Sorrow is a story that doesn't entirely find its focus: is it about Baba's journey, or Belle's, or the parts of both that resonate with each other? But it's made of interesting, evocative parts and does give a strong sense of this particular family at a pivotal time in their country's history.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/18

This time of year, book publishing tends to slow to a crawl, partially because we all want to take some vacation time at the end of the year (and some houses actually still have the traditional break for Christmas week) and partially because we all had to get books out into the market almost two months ago if we had any hope of selling them to people before the holidays. So I'm not surprised that last week and this were light for mail -- and, since that means I have to spend less time in my basement on a Sunday morning, it's a pleasant break as well.

But I did get these two books over the past few days, which prove that not everyone in book publishing is slacking off just yet -- I haven't read either of them yet, but here's what I can tell you about them:

Mike Resnick's The Buntline Special is a steampunky western novel set in an 1881 where powerful Indian magic stopped the US's expansion cold at the Mississippi -- and so the US is sending Thomas Edison to Tombstone, Arizona to try to subvert that barrier to Manifest Destiny. Protecting Edison are Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and arrayed against them are Geronimo, the Clanton gang, and a clanky cyborg called The Thing That Was Once Johnny Ringo [1]. I gather from the description that we're meant to be rooting for Edison, and thus the wholesale destruction of the civilized nations of half the continent in the pursuit of more land and gold for Eastern plutocrats -- but I could be wrong, and steampunk does have a complicated relationship with the tough moral questions of the 19th century (to put it mildly). The Buntline Special was published by Pyr in trade paperback at the beginning of this month.

Coming up in April is Shadow Chaser, the second book in "The Chronicles of Siala" by Alexey Pehov, continuing the epic fantasy series from Russia and following up Shadow Prowler. It looks to be of the "small band against the world" subcategory -- possibly more Abercrombie than Tolkien -- and it's got a suitably dark and ominous cover. Tor will publish it in hardcover in April (as I just said), but you can pick up the first book in paperback right now to get ready for it.

[1] Presumably a different Johnny Ringo than the modern writer of "Oh John Ringo No" fame.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 319 (12/19) -- Dawn Land by Bruchac & Davis

There's a fine line between mythological and mythologizing: between stories of gods and heroes in a misty world of the past and sustained hagiography of the greatness of a particular culture. So-called "primitive" cultures -- hunters and gatherers, non-agricultural types that only lightly affect the lands they live on -- are particularly subject to this effect; the stories from the last generation or so about aboriginal Australians or Americans are incredibly prone to rhapsodize about how their subjects are so much truer and braver and more special than we poor fallen urban dwellers in modernity.

Dawn Land, I'm happy to say, is entirely free of that impulse: it may be a story set ten thousand years ago, in the lands that would eventually become New England, but the people that live there in this story are just that: people, who laugh and cry and fight and pick on each other. Some of them are very good people -- our hero, Young Hunter, is one such, as he has to be -- but his people aren't plaster saints, just the folks that lived on a particular plot of land longer ago than any human memory can remember.

This is a mythological story, and so there are mythological dangers: the Stone Giants, or Fire People, who are the Titans of this cosmology. They're older than humanity, larger, stronger, crueler, exulting in destruction and death. As the world is warming up from the last glaciation period, they're returning to the lands of men, and they will kill and eat every last human if they're not stopped. They attacked when Young Hunter was a baby, killing his parents and close family, and permanently marking his older cousin, Weasel Tail -- and they're now working their way through settlements not too far away, with some unexpected human aid.

So Young Hunter is sent, with one of his people's most secret possessions (the Long Thrower, a longbow) to confront the Fire People to save everyone he knows. He travels around the Great Lake (Lake Champlain, I expect), into the lands of a different people, with a different language and different villages. And he does, in the end, find the Fire People, learn of their plans, and use the Long Thrower against them.

Dawn Land was originally a novel -- the old-fashioned kind, with just prose -- by Joseph Bruchac, originally published in 1993, and since considered something of a major work in its genre. Animation artist Will Davis discovered Dawn Land over a decade ago, and decided it should be a graphic novel as well -- so he adapted it, and drew it. (And, equally as important, got Bruchac's agreement, and got a publisher to bring it out to a wide audience.) Davis took most of a decade to finish adapting Dawn Land into this graphic novel, but the work doesn't show it: it's a single, coherent artistic work, unified from beginning to end, with a soft pencil-and-tone look very suitable for the early days of the world. And this may be a a pretty typical hero's journey, but Young Hunter is a fine hero to follow on his journey, and his enemies are ones we entirely want to see defeated.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 318 (12/18) -- At Home by Bill Bryson

There was a time when a book by Bill Bryson fell reliably into one of two categories: either he sat in his study and wrote about words, which he already knew well (The Mother Tongue, Made in America), or he set off to wander around somewhere interesting and learn new things (Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods). However, it appears that age is catching up with Bryson -- or the thought of research in that study now is more appealing than doing so in the far corners of the world -- since his last few books have required nothing more strenuous of him than pulling heavy reference works down from the shelf.

Of course, Bryson's travel books were always informed by his reading, as well, but there is something lost when research moves out of the real world and entirely into the library. And so one can hope that Bryson will not remain At Home for the remainder of his career, but will go back out on the road at some point -- in just the English-speaking world, he still hasn't covered South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, and Canada, not to mention vast swaths of the USA...and I'm sure that there's plenty of the UK that he didn't hit in Small Island, either.

But At Home is the kind of travel book where the furthest distance traveled is to the cellar, and the most strenuous activity is a climb up into the attic, which Bryson does in the introduction. (And discovers, in traditional quirky-old-English-house style, that his only-accessible-via-ladder attic has a door that leads out to a small patio on the roof, utterly invisible from ground level.) Bryson's stated objective is to write about the history of "private life" -- how people actually lived, in their homes, with their families -- but he really, as he mentions several times, falls into writing about how the 19th century (broadly defined, with plenty of wiggle room on both ends) transformed the way ordinary Britons and Americans lived, and the origins of the standard stuff that they pretty much all have in their homes.

And so the book wanders through the rooms of Bryson's current house, a former CoE rectory somewhere in quietest Norfolk, with each space (kitchen, dining room, halls, bedroom, bathroom, and so on) giving him reason to dig into the history of linens, or electric light, or glass, or brick, or servants. The early chapters do see him writing somewhat about medieval England, but the focus on his particular house (built in 1851) keeps dragging him back to the extended 19th century -- which, admittedly, was the source of a whole lot of changes to everyday life.

It's an entertaining ramble through social and technological history, with a decidedly populist bent and a mildly progressive outlook. (But it's hard to be anti-progressive when writing about the 1800s, at this point -- who alive now is in favor of eighteen-hour days at finger-crushing machinery for seven-year-olds? Well, other than Rand Paul, of course.) Other people have done almost exactly the same book before, and others will do it afterward -- there's a widely popular book about the ordinary lives of 19th century people at least every five years; I think the last biggie was What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew -- but that doesn't mean that this year's version isn't pleasant and entirely enjoyable. I do wish that Bryson would get out and wander around the way he used to, but I've noticed that I'm getting older, so I suspect the same thing may have been happening to him.

And this book was a solid bestseller before I managed to read it, so it's clear that no one will care what I say about it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index