Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 56 (3/31) -- Pearls Sells Out by Stephan Pastis

Pearls Sells Out was the fourth treasury-sized collection of Stephan Pastis's syndicated newspaper strip Pearls Before Swine, collecting the strips from 8/7/06 through 2/16/08, and I somehow missed it when it was published last August. (I'm still coming to realize how much of my Book Early Warning mechanisms were formed by sixteen years at the book clubs, and it's still occasionally a surprise to remember that I'm not keeping obsessive track of upcoming books as part of my job any more.) But I found Pearls Sell Out on a shelf in a bookstore a few weeks ago, and just finished it recently.

(The last treasury-sized Pearls collection was The Crass Menagerie, which I reviewed at the end of this miscellaneous post.)

As in the previous treasuries, there's commentary from Pastis on a lot of the strips included here -- a sentence or three on about three-quarters of the strips, much of it funny or self-deprecating or both -- and a short section at the end of "Stuff You Ain't Never Seen Before." Otherwise, this book reprints strips from the dates above, which were also in the smaller (and entirely black-and-white) collections Macho Macho Animals and The Saturday Evening Pearls.

I still like this strip a lot: it's dark in interesting ways, while staying funny, and Pastis is good at working around his relatively limited cartooning skills. And his treasury editions have a lot of extra material, making them the obvious choice for Pearls fans. I just hope he doesn't realize that, and start adding commentary and extra features to the smaller books, so we all feel compelled to buy them as well!

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Long Blondes - Too Clever By Half
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Movie Log: The Auteur

The Auteur is a moderately funny movie that exemplifies the advantages and drawbacks of the aggressively indy low-budget scene. On the one hand, it's a movie about Arturo Domingo (Melik Malkasian), the world's greatest living porn director, full of jokes and references and scenes of the kind that must find their way into dozens of Hollywood scripts but always wind up on the cutting-room floor (even in these days of R-rated raunchfests). On the other, there are dramatic scenes where it's clear that director James Westby just didn't have enough coverage of the actors actually talking to each other, and so the movie drops into shots of two people looking intently at each other as their voices continue over.

Malkasian is fine for the comedy, but he doesn't quite hit the right moments for the dramatic parts of the movie -- or, perhaps, his character is such a caricature (such a comedy piece) that it can't stretch that way. The rest of the cast is equally amiable -- nobody stinks up the place, or is incredibly good, but they all get through their scenes professionally.

The Auteur is funny, though, particularly in its porn parodies -- from Five Easy Nieces to the apocalyptic Full Metal Jackoff -- and it tries hard in its dramatic moments. As far as recent comedies go, you could do vastly worse than this -- and you're very likely to be the first person in your circle to see it!
Listening to: Okkervil River - Another Radio Song
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 55 (3/30) -- Cat Paradise, Vol. 2 by Yuji Iwahara

It's probably about time to reiterate the ground rules of this Book-A-Day scheme: this time, I'm writing a review of a book every single day...though, three times so far, I've written more than one review in a day. (So I'm now running three days ahead -- but I'm still playing fair, writing the review and setting it to post and then not looking at it again until it does post.) I don't necessarily read a book every single day, though I am running at 6-7 books a week, and had a backlog of 21 books when I started. And, yes, a lot of them are graphic novels-- it doesn't take any less time to review them, though reading them does generally go quicker. But I haven't particularly changed the books I'm reading since starting Book-A-Day; I'm just making myself get to write about them faster.

That's all preface to note that I'm writing this review late on a Saturday evening after a very busy day, so I'm picking out something that I don't expect have a whole lot to say about, in hopes that I'll be done faster....

I reviewed the first volume of Cat Paradise -- a manga series about a special high school that not only allows each student to have one cat as a pet on campus, but is secretly the home of a superpowered student council that protects the earth from the resurgence of ancient demons -- for ComicMix about six months ago, and this volume is more of the same kind of thing. It is one of those quintessentially Japanese series, suitable for anyone hoping to better their Manga Bingo scores (cats, high school, theme high school, cute animals, transformations, demons, demon-fighting, and several more show up here), that will strike the uninitiated as a flurry of oddities that seem almost random.

But Iwahara has a scratchier, more expressive art style than is standard for this kind of story, and his monster designs are impressively creepy. There's nothing particularly original or new in Cat Paradise, but it's a solid example of the demon-fighters-in-school story, and so I can recommend it to anyone who likes that kind of thing. (It's not as twee and ooh-what-a-darling-pussy-cat as the cover might lend you to believe.)

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the guy on the cover has his hand in his pocket and isn't copping a feel of the ass of the girl behind him. But this is manga, so I can't be 100% sure.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Bat For Lashes - Trophy
via FoxyTunes

Monday, March 29, 2010

Incoming Books: Weekend of 3/26-28

I got out to the comics shop on Friday (after a trip to the eye doctor, which made seeing the books I was buying mildly problematical) and then used a particularly good Borders coupon on Sunday afternoon to buy one book (I'd prefer they not go out of business, so I'm going out of my way to buy from them these days).

So this is what I got:

The Complete Peanuts 1969-1970 by Charles M. Schulz. Somehow I missed this one -- maybe I'm just getting blase about this great Fantagraphics reprint series at this point? -- but I realized that I did, and went out of my way to correct that. Schulz was one of the great cartoonists of the late 20th century, and his work is full of joys (and sad realizations) both large and small.

The Troublemakers by Gilbert Hernandez. This is a metafiction, a comics adaptation of a movie that exists only in the fictional world Hernandez usually chronicles, starring one of his central characters. (The back flap goes into more detail about this project, which is even more complicated and odd than that description -- one of his recent projects, Speak of the Devil, is a comics adaptation of the "real" events, in that fictional world, which were turned into a movie that his character then starred that fictional world. If you think too much about it, your head will start to hurt.)

Hellboy Vol. 9: The Wild Hunt by Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo. Hey, it's a new Hellboy collection! Nuff said.

Grendel: Behold The Devil by Matt Wagner. I do think Wagner is getting diminishing story returns as he goes back to the Hunter Rose well over and over and over again -- though these stories do reliably reinvigorate his art -- and the more he writes about this guy, the more his original story Devil by the Deed is reduced. I'd much rather see Wagner get to work on the third Mage series, or something new and original. But I suspect that opinion is not widespread among comics readers, and that Wagner's current work is better suited to keeping a roof over his head and bread on the table. Still, he's done this before, and it really is time to move on.

Animal Crackers by Gene Luen Yang. This collects his two first comics series, and Yang's an interesting enough cartoonist that I want to read all of his stuff.

And last is Spectrum 16: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art (Spectrum (Underwood Books)), edited as always by Cathy and Arnie Fenner. It's the essential book for anyone interested in fantastic illustration (comics, books, movie concept art, etc.), as it has been for the past decade and a half.

Listening to: The Mountain Goats - How To Embrace A Swamp Creature
via FoxyTunes

Movie Log: Dangerous Beauty

The Wife and I are running through a period of seeing vaguely "sexy" period movies -- many of them set in Venice, which apparently is the Official European City of Smut for the entire early modern period -- and so we saw Dangerous Beauty a couple of weeks back.

It's the story of a young courtesan in 16th century Venice (Catherine McCormack as Veronica Franco), who turns to that life -- strongly urged by her ex-courtesan mother -- when she realizes the chance of marrying her love (Rufus Sewell as Marco Venier) are nil. Veronica becomes renowned at her arts, the lover of many of Venice's most powerful and rich men as well as an accomplished poet and court wit.

Eventually, of course, the Inquisition comes to town (after a battle with the Turks and subsequent outbreak of plague), and Veronica is put on trial. This leads to what seems to be the most obviously "Hollywood" moment of the movie -- but, according to some sources I've seen (which the reference the source of the movie, Margeret Rosenthal's biography The Honest Courtesan), it's what actually happened.

Dangerous Beauty is a lightly feminist romance, dedicated to the proposition that a woman should have say in her own life and scope to be good at the things she does. It's only mildly smutty, in that sophisticated Merchant-Ivory style, but that's enough. And both McCormack and Sewell are quite attractive in this, which is the whole point of romantic historical movies. It's not a lost classic of cinema, but it's more historically true and interesting than Casanova (which we also saw recently).
Listening to: Gram Rabbit - American Hookers
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 54 (3/29) -- The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack by Nicholas Gurewitch

The Perry Bible Fellowship is one of the rare examples of a successful, popular strip that simply disappeared -- sure, newspaper strips like Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side deliberately ended after long runs, but PBF just vanished the way only an unattended website can. (Its former home is now a generic linkfarm page, showing that Gurewitch hasn't even bothered to keep up the hosting fees for the old strips. All of the published strips are still available through another host, but many of the links on that page, particularly for merchandise, dead-end at the missing site.)

PBF's creator, Nicholas Gurewitch, has disappeared nearly as completely; since the last PBF strip in the summer of 2008, a few short strips (mostly in the same style) have appeared, such as in Marvel's indy-creator showcase Strange Tales, but there's been no word of a larger Gurewitch project. He may turn out to be one of the rare creators, like Bill Watterson, who can just walk away from his comics career to do something else -- I hope not, though, since I'd certainly hate to have seen the last new Gurewitch cartoon.

This collection is the second PBF book, after The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories, but it also seems to be a complete collection of the entire strip. I can't be sure without going through the online archives and comparing it to the book one cartoon at a time -- which would be enjoyable, but also too tedious and time-consuming to seriously consider -- but a quick glance through those archives didn't reveal anything that was obviously omitted from the book. (If definitely has the first few strips, and the last few strips, and all of the ones in the middle that I looked at.)

Besides collecting what might well be the complete published PBF, Almanack also includes a section in the back with thirty "lost strips" -- previously unpublished PBF strips that Gurewitch or his editors spiked for one reason or another over the years. After that comes four pages of Gurewitch sketches, two miscellaneous images, and a long interview of Gurewitch by fellow webcartoonist David (Wondermark) Malki. So this is the full and definitive PBF package.

The strip itself is as it always was: a blackly humorous, almost completely continuity-free sequence of mordant jokes about sex and death -- and occasionally other things as well, for a change of pace. But "sex and death" covers a good three-quarters of this book, particularly if one is expansive and includes grievous bodily harm under death. (There's a bit of blasphemy as well, for spice, though that sometimes overlaps with sex and/or death.) Gurewitch's art is protean, ranging from closely-modeled parodies of Shel Silverstein, Bil Keane, and Edward Gorey through his dough-limbed blank-faced Everymen through to a dramatic realistic style, with many stops and sidetrips along the way to other styles and looks. Perry Bible Fellowship was one of the least consistent-looking strips ever devised, with each installment designed and drawn in a style particular to that specific joke. While it was running, it was easily the best webcomic, just from that huge (and generally successful) ambition. This book is a great monument to PBF, and we can only hope that we haven't seen the last of Nicholas Gurewitch.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Holmes - Not a Political Song

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/27

The last full week of the month is usually the busiest one for my mailbox, for whatever reason -- maybe publicists for the houses that send me stuff tend to get their books around the 15th? -- so I've got a full dozen books to write about this week.

As always, I'll remind readers that these are books that just arrived for review, but that I haven't actually read any of them yet. But below is what I can tell you about them without actually having read all of the words that they contain:

NBM has been doing some fun graphic novels lately -- books like Vatican Hustle by Greg Houston, Jesse Lonergan's Joe & Azat, and Shane White's Things Undone -- and Brooke A. Allen's debut, A Home for Mr. Easter, look to continue that string. Allen's still a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in their comic art program, so she's brand-new to the field. Mr. Easter is the story of a rather large teenage girl, Tesana, who finds a rabbit that lays colored eggs -- and then she has to keep that rabbit safe from a whole lot of people who suddenly want it for various reasons. The art looks very expressive and detailed, with some particularly good faces -- so I'm looking forward to reading this one. NBM is publishing it in June as a trade paperback.

Next up are a couple of things that I've seen once before (and still haven't read, which I suppose could make me a bad reviewer...if I had any pretense of being able to read all of this stuff in the first place) --
  • Hater is a thriller/horror novel by David Moody, coming out in trade paperback from St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books on April 13th; I saw it originally when it was published by SMP in hardcover. (And I'm sure someone has already made the obvious joke about "this Moody guy" being "a Hater," so I'll avoid it.)
  • And Warriors is a gigantic new anthology of original stories about warriors of various kinds, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, with stories from obvious names (Naomi Novik, Robin Hobb, Carrie Vaughn), less expected fantasy writers (Peter S. Beagle, Diana Gabaldon, Howard Waldrop), and some left-field choices (Lawrence Block, David Morrell, David Weber). I saw it in it's pre-publication bound-galley form a few months back, and now I get to replace that copy with this one, and try again to find it a home in the reading rotation. Warriors was published by Tor on March 23rd, so you should be able to find it everywhere.
I also got a largish package from Yen Press this week, with the following manga volumes -- all publishing in April -- in it:

Yotsuba&!, Vol. 8, by Kiyohiko Azuma -- I've admitted before that I don't entirely get this series about an oddball little green-haired girl's everyday life, but my older son has glommed onto it recently and has already started asking for this book -- so it's clearly working well for him. I have the feeling that I was severely over-thinking this series: it looks like it's just meant to be cute/funny slice-of-life stories about a girl who's enthusiastic about everything.

Cirque Du Freak: The Manga, Vol. 5: Trials of Death, credited as usual to "Darren Shan" (the main character) with art by Takahiro Arai -- this continues the adaptation of the popular vampire series for young readers; I saw the first one and decided it wasn't really for me, but I'm a cynic about vampires to begin with! So don't let me stop you from taking a look at it, if you happen to be interested in vampiric young men. (Not in the Twilight sense, though -- our Darren is notably younger than that.)

Spice and Wolf, Vol. 1 is a new series with the kind of complicated credits -- story by Isuna Hasekura, art by Keito Koume, and Character Design by Jyuu Ayakura -- that usually implies that it's adapting a story from another medium. (And, in fact, this does adapt the light-novel series by Hasekura.) It's seems to be a vaguely medieval story, with a young itinerant merchant befriending a wolf-girl harvest goddess (as, of course, we all do in the usual course of our lives) and then traveling together for combined purposes. This is also rated "M" for Mature and comes wrapped in plastic -- which I haven't yet removed, for no particular reason -- so I expect there's some sex in here as well, if that's a bonus or a negative.

Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning hits an 11th volume, as always written by Kyo Shirodaira and illustrated by Eita Mizuno. I reviewed a couple of the earlier volumes for ComicMix, and found them interesting intellectual puzzle-stories with a heavy overlay of woe-is-me and other Manga-Bingo-style drama.

And here's the 4th volume of Pig Bride, by KookHwa Huh and SuJin Kim, the Korean fairy-tale-inspired pretty-boy romance series set in a private school. (Since I was just talking about Manga Bingo -- though, as this is Korean, it should rightfully be played on the slightly different Manwha Bingo board.) This is another one that I've reviewed in the past, though I haven't kept up with it.

A series I am keeping up with -- and one that both I and my older son have been enjoying -- is Svetlana Chmakova's Nightschool: The Weirn Books, which hits its third volume here. (I've reviewed the first two, for your reference.) It's a robust and well-imagined contemporary fantasy series that draws its genre tropes from various sources, and that clearly has a wide scope: there are several loosely related plotlines running, which have crossed but not completely merged yet. Nightschool is just good urban fantasy in comics form, and I do recommend it.

And last from Yen is the tenth volume of One Thousand and One Nights, by Han SeungHee and Jeon JinSeok, which I'm afraid I've never really read. I believe it's a historical fantasy -- possibly with yaoi undertones -- that draws equally from Persian and Chinese mythology...but I could easily be wrong.

Moving on to graphic novels from people on the North American continent, City of Spies is a WWII homefront adventure (in young-reader-friendly Tintin-esque clean line style) co-written by playwright/TV writer Susan Kim and mystery novelist Laurence Klavan, with art from newcomer Pascal Dizin. Evelyn is a tween girl in 1942 New York, who spends her time making comics about herself as the sidekick to dashing superhero Zirconium Man -- until she stumbles into a possible real Nazi spy plot. City of Spies will be published in May by First Second Books.

And last for this week is another graphic novel from First Second in May: Resistance, Book 1 by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis. It's another WWII story suitable for younger readers -- as most books from First Second are -- but set in Vichy France and focusing on a few French schoolchildren who try to hide a Jewish friend and find themselves part of the Resistance.
Listening to: KaiserCartel - Dog Stars (Live)
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie Log: Kenny

Kenny looks like a high concept movie at first glance: an Australian mockumentary about the travails of a man who works for a company that provides temporary toilets for "corporate functions." (Yes, those kind of toilets -- the ones that are housed in large plastic enclosures, come on the back of a truck, and need to be pumped out daily.) But Kenny is vastly more honest and real than I expected; it is a comedy -- and a very funny one, though I recommend non-Australians turn on the closed captions so as not to miss half the dialogue and all of the humor -- but it's the kind of comedy based on reality rather than contrived situations.

It's got a clear-eyed but not entirely serious view of life that I tend to credit as a particularly Australian attitude; when you live on a desert continent that has a thousand ways to kill you (from spiders to snakes to sharks to just the weather), you tend not to take yourself too seriously. Whatever the reason for it -- I'm sure there are stuck-up, self-important Australians out there, even if I'd prefer to avoid learning about them -- Kenny is full of that great Aussie this-is-what-you've-gotta-do attitude, starting with Shane Jacobson in the title role. (And that's good, because this is shot documentary-style; so Jacobson is at the center of nearly every shot, and close to half of the movie is him talking directly to the camera as he goes about his life.)

I can't remember all of the great things Kenny says -- some of which are standard Aussie slang, some of which are the jargon of his trade, and some of which are surely specific to this character -- but Kenny is funny several times a minute...unless you're the kind of stuck-up pisser who can't take a potty joke, in which case you'll want to go back to Masterpiece Theatre. But if you, like me, take joy in the fact that Kenny calls those little napkin-like separate bit of toilet paper "poo tickets," then you'll definitely enjoy this movie. The Wife and I both loved it.
Listening to: The Long Blondes - Too Clever By Half
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 53 (3/28) -- Copper by Kazu Kibuishi

Copper is not all one thing -- it's a series of strips, mostly single-pagers, over the course of which Kibuishi wrote and drew his way into this milieu and the two characters that live in it -- but it's a sweet and lovable collection, one of the few comics that can be compared to Calvin & Hobbes without being in any derivative of that strip.

Copper is that boy on the cover; he's a bit impetuous and always optimistic. His dog is Fred, and of course Fred is often Copper's opposite: fearful, worried, overwhelmed by his own thoughts. (Except for the ways in which he's just a dog, as when he chases his tail; Kibuishi isn't trying to make them iconic or archetypic here -- they're just characters, and they have different moods and reactions.) Their world starts out very mundane, with intrusions from Copper's imagination, but, before too long, Kibuishi has quietly untethered them from our world and placed them in a fantastical landscape, full of casually unexplained SF and fantasy details.

So Copper's world becomes the kind of world he deserves and loves: full of places where he can find adventure and excitement -- but not too much of either, never more than he can handle. Copper is appropriate for a somewhat younger audience than his graphic novel series Amulet; I can see older grade-schoolers enjoying these stories (though most teenagers would find them too childish; they can come back when they get old enough to appreciate childlike things again). Again, this is mostly made up of single-page stories -- mood pieces, really -- with a few longer stories from various Flight books, but they're all lovely and full of boyish enthusiasm and energy.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Le Reno Amps - Once You Know
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 52 (3/27) -- The Boys, Vol. 1 by Ennis and Robertson

The Boys is a foul, unpleasant and deeply derivative comic that masquerades as a foul, unpleasant and ground-breaking comic, which only makes it that much more tedious and dull. This volume -- which I read primarily because I discovered my country library system had a copy of it, and I can't resist a free look at a car-wreck -- collects the first six issues of the series, written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson, under the volume title The Name of the Game.

That "game" is superheroism, of course, which Ennis affects a deep disdain of. The heroes of this faux-nihilistic paean to justified ultra-violence hate superheroes -- flamboyant, corrupt, casually destructive self-aggrandizing creeps that they are -- and make it their mission to "keep an eye on" (i.e., engage in spying on behalf of the CIA) and "keep in line" (i.e., threaten, cajole, and occasionally assassinate) those superheroes. Their CIA leash is so long as to be nonexistent, and their relationship to the CIA proper is so unbelievable that it can only be justified by repeatedly remarking that The Boys is a comic book. Ennis clearly wanted to write a story about bad superheroes and the people who keep them in line, but, at every step of the way and in every tiny detail of his world, he falls back on the dullest, most obvious tropes and presses a meaty thumb heavily on the largest, stupidest, and most over-used buttons imaginable.

For example, this team of five -- you can see them all posing ominously, in the manner of the poster to some particularly empty-headed summer action movie, on the cover to the left -- includes not one but two generic ultra-violent sociopaths, both oh-so-ironically slight and seemingly harmless -- Ennis must know how derivative and cliched he's being here, since he names them merely The Frenchman and The Female -- who turn into whirling dervishes of death and destruction whenever threatened or Ennis thinks it would be blackly comic. A third is the obligatory Smart Black Guy In Sunglasses Who Plays By The Rules (and Has To Be Convinced To Come Back In Once He's Gotten Out), whose name of "Mother's Milk" would be intriguing if there were any reason to care about him or any other member of the cast. Then there's the hyper-verbal team leader, Billy Butcher, who explains the stupidities of the plot in ways that are meant to be amusing and has a purely-sexual relationship with his female CIA "boss" that appears to have been taken directly out of the fevered fantasies of a particularly dim and unimaginative virgin boy of thirteen.

Last and least of the five is our viewpoint character, Wee Hughie, a regular Scottish guy who was dragged into this world when a superhero-fight accident (compounded by arrogance and a lackadaisical attitude on the part of the superhero) killed his girlfriend. He's reluctant at first, but -- once he learns of the true depravity of superheroes -- he agrees to fight the good fight.

That true depravity, at least as we see it here, is just as dull and unimaginative as every other aspect of The Boys. Superheroes...have sex! With each other, and with...with...with common whores! Some of them even have deviant homosexual sex! They engage in sexual harassment and the demanding of sexual favors! Oh, I'm having an attack of the vapors just thinking of it! Ennis has Butcher's dialogue feint in the direction of political considerations of superhero powers, but the only unsavory acts he actually wrote into the script revolve entirely around sex -- and those are all essentially consensual. One begins to wonder if the real issue "The Boys" have with superheroes is just that the latter are getting more action than the former.

Now, it's time for a quiz. What would you call a small group of people who battle what they see as evil secretly, using their superhuman abilities to do so? Would they be, perhaps, a superhero team? That's precisely what "the Boys" are, since, in a plot twist of surprising ineptitude and tone-deafness, Ennis makes his heroes superpowered. Superpowers, we learn halfway through this book, are the result of a simple drug, and of course "the Boys" get that drug -- which in the potent version they receive, only requires one dose to power them up for the rest of their lives -- so that they can engage in punchfests with the gaudily-dressed crowd as necessary.

In a wink Ennis negates the tiny shred of moral superiority he's tried to build up around "the Boys." Sure, we might have thought, these guys are sociopaths who make their own rules and work entirely outside the rule of law, but at least they're regular people fighting back against powerful enemies. Well, not so much. They're actually the manifestation of the current state of the superhero art: once, costumed loonies won because they were smarter, cleverer, or just morally better than their evil counterparts, and then the trend moved on in favor of long-underwear types who were victorious because they were tougher, more resilient -- who just wouldn't give up -- until, finally, the superhero genre reached its recent nadir with the ascent of the "hero" who is just plain nastier, crueler, and more violent than anyone else. And this "the Boys" are: we see no sign that they'd have any trouble in battle with other superpowered folks in quantities lower than triple digits.

So "the Boys" are not underdogs, as we see in their battle at the end of this book. They're coldly efficient superpowered death machines, different from the brightly-colored supers they loathe only in their far-more-fashionable black leather clothes. And they're entirely capable of murdering other supers casually, which begs the question of why they don't do so more regularly.

Actually, The Boys begs a lot of questions. The background makes very little sense, particularly if one begins to ruminate about what governments are most likely to do if they have access to a foolproof make-a-superhero potion, and have had one for decades. Ennis, of course, isn't interested in plausibility or reasonability, though; he just wanted to tell a story in which guys in black leather (who are not superheroes, no no no!) beat the hell out of a bunch of costumed teenagers.

The Boys is equally shot through with unintentional irony, mostly to do with Wee Hughie. Butcher, as part of his ongoing sweet-talk to get the new guy to join the group, bemoans the lack of training of superheroes and the consequent unnecessary body count that follows them he gives Hughie superpowers and then fails to train him! Even worse, Hughie is responsible for a death in that big battle, which a writer more attuned to nuance would realize is very parallel to the death of his girlfriend back in the opening pages of The Boys. Hughie, in a very real way, has become what he wanted to stop -- but there's no sign that Ennis even realizes that, or sees any contradiction in his superpowered superhero-hunters.

I've only scratched the surface of the cliches and stupidities of The Boys -- I haven't yet mentioned Butcher's origin, which is a particularly Grand Guignol version of Women In Refrigerators with a side order of Idomenus, or the odd sense Ennis gives that only evangelical Christian superheroes are not corrupt, or the travails of the superheroine Starlight among the sexually rapacious JLA-esque The Seven -- but one can only wade through a sewer for so long until the smell just won't come off your boots again.

So there's just space to note that a world with an ever-increasing number of superpowered people that's most worried about the ones that operate in public, love positive attention, and at least pretend to do good either is remarkably lucky with its problems or was badly thought through by its creator. I know which way I'm voting.

The Boys could have been so much better, if only it hadn't been so convinced of its own badassery and coolness. It hews closely to the "realistic" school of Cinemax soft-porn shot-on-video thrillers, with the inevitable lapses of logic inherent in the form, rather than embracing either a more honest concept of normal people that try to keep superpowered people in check, or by stepping away from its cool detachment long enough to actually be funny, in the manner of something like Marshall Law. It's a damn shame; making fun of superheroes deserves to be a lot better than this.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Mendoza Line - Thirty Year Low
via FoxyTunes

Friday, March 26, 2010

Oddest Book Title of the Year Is Hyperbolic, Crocheted

The British book-trade magazine The Bookseller has announced the winner of their annual Diagram Prize, for the oddest book title of the year -- it's Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Dr Daina Taimina (A K Peters).

This is a real blow for those of us in the SF world who were wagering heavily on Ronald C. Arkin's Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, but the voters have spoken, and we can only shake our first in rage and shred our betting tickets morosely.

Ah, well -- there's always next year!

Book-A-Day 2010 # 51 (3/26) -- Rough Work by Frank Frazetta

More than a decade ago, Cathy and Arnie Fenner began a project to present all of the major works of the quintessential heroic fantasy artist, Frank Frazetta, in handsome large-format art books. After editing three gorgeous and essential books -- Icon, Legacy, and Testament -- from 1998 to 2001, they were done.

But then, another six years later, they also edited this smaller, less comprehensive book, Rough Work. As the title indicates, it's a collection of Frazetta sketches and roughs, from throughout his career (with an emphasis on the '70s, as far as I could tell), in a 6x9 book with a puffy paper-over-boards cover. (Don't ask me why it's puffy -- I haven't seen that style outside of childrens books -- but it definitely is puffy.)

The three big books also included a lot of Frazetta preliminary drawings and sketches, but Rough Work includes, mostly, pieces that aren't in any of those three books. So completists will want it -- though they likely bought it in 2007, when it was published.

There's an introduction by Arnie Fenner about Frazetta; it's more of an appreciation or a celebration than an attempt at even a capsule biography or a critical view of his work. And that's just fine; the audience for a books of Frazetta's sketches and roughs knows just fine who he is.

There are a few relatively finished pieces here, such as a short section of Frazetta's designs for an aborted mid-70s animated Dracula, and plenty of fully-developed drawings from sketchbook pages, but the color work is generally very loose and indicative rather than finished; Frazetta liked to leave himself a lot of the work (and the exploration of the image) to be done in the final art, so his roughs were always clearly roughs.

And the matter of the art is the usual for Frazetta: a little Tarzan and Conan and John Carter (not much, since most of that work was in the other books), plenty of dinosaurs and big cats and spaceships and axe-wielding Vikings and other thinly-clad barbarian types, and a whole lot of fleshy undressed Frazetta women. A lot of that art is loose, but all of it is energetic and just right; this is all art from Frazetta's mature years, so even the sketchiest pieces are the sketches of a smart, talented working artist who knew just how to see and to draw.

This book isn't nearly as essential as the big Frazetta books are, but it's a pleasant look at the minor works and pre-works of one of the best illustrators of the late 20th century, and that's good enough.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Be Your Own Pet - Bunk Trunk Skunk
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week: Utopian 1960

"If we are to begin to try and understand life as it will be in 1960, we must begin by realizing that food, clothing and shelter will cost as little as air."
- John Langdon-Davies, A Short History of the Future, 1936

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 50 (3/25) -- Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson

Box Office Poison was conceived in the mid-'90s and published from 1996 through 2000; it's now an artifact of a slightly outdated world, one where cell phones are rare, CD chains are booming, and the Internet barely merits a mention. But it's also from a different era of ambitious graphic novels, one where almost every story had a connection to comics or cartooning itself. (Comics haven't entirely stopped looking into their own navel these days, of course, but there are regularly major important works -- Bottomless Belly Button, Three Shadows, Blankets -- that aren't about comics or cartoonists or the author's thinly-veiled life in any way.)

Box Office Poison is definitely big and ambitious, a six-hundred page graphic novel with a central cast of about a half-dozen and a supporting cast three or four times as large, over the course of about a year. (Major holidays and events only come up once in the course of the book, but the main plot of the book seems to run from the late summer of 1994 through all of 1995 and into the convention season (probably the summer) of 1996.)

The cover pegs the center of Box Office Poison quite cleverly -- it's the story of two relationships, of Sherman Davies with his girlfriend Dorothy Lestrade and of Ed Velasquez with his boss Irving Flavor. Sherman and Ed are best friends just graduating from Hunter College in NYC as the story opens; Sherman has recently broken up with his college girlfriend Sally and Ed has never had a serious relationship (or made any serious effort to get out from under his extended family's thumb). On the other hand, Ed is more serious about his career -- he's created a full graphic novel at college (though it probably isn't very good) and tries to get major house Zoom to publish it, while Sherman has worked in the same bookstore as a clerk for the past several years, loathing it the whole time and being a mediocre-at-best employee.

So Sherman gets a new girlfriend, and at the same time moves into a new apartment (out in Park Slope, Brooklyn) with history professor Stephen Gaedel and his girlfriend, cartoonist Jane Pekar. The complication is that Stephen and Jane's old roommate was Dorothy, Sherman's new girlfriend, and Jane in particular doesn't like Dorothy at all.

On the other side, Ed is referred by Zoom into a semi-apprenticeship with aged comics creator Irving Flavor, who created the Batman-esque Nightstalker back during the Golden Age. As Ed works for Irving -- mostly on low-end illustration jobs, like fliers and small ads, he convinces Irving to stand up to Zoom and demand that it "do right" by him. (This is the era before the Sonny Bono copyright act, so there was no possibility of actually legally reclaiming an old property that was signed away to a big company -- only the hope of shaming a company making millions off the long-ago work of a now-old and near-destitute man into tossing that man some money.)

Box Office Poison doesn't have a conventional plot; it meanders forward through the lives of those characters -- and several others, including the head of Zoom, some comics journalists who get involved in Irving's fight, and several other friends and co-workers of Sherman's -- over the course of those months, with the progress of the Sherman-Dorothy relationship and Irving's battle against Zoom being the most central aspects. Robinson has a fine ear for dialogue -- which is reasonably common in comics -- but also has something better: a sense of how to dramatically shape everyday events and conversations into the building blocks of a larger story, and how to show character through action and dialogue.

I haven't yet read Robinson's sophomore graphic novel, Tricked (it's on the pile, with so much else) -- though I did see, and review, his 2008 book Too Cool To Be Forgotten -- so this opinion may have to be amended in the future, but, so far, it looks like Box Office Poison is his masterwork: it's long but completely integrated, containing many different stories while pulling them all into one. It has its flaws -- there's a lot of mid-period Dave Sim influence that Robinson hadn't fully digested, for example, and the comics plot gets preachy, over-the-top and derivative at times -- but it's a drawn book that depicts real lives, with all of their ups and downs, and real people, flawed and confused and contradictory as they are.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Arrogants - Hardly Perfect But Worth It
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 49 (3/24) -- Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland edited by David Rose

Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland -- subtitled More Personal Ads from the London Review of Books -- is the follow-up to 2006's They Call Me Naughty Lola (which I read last year and then buried a capsule review in a monthly round-up). As the subtitle explains, it complies a large number of odd, quirky, surprising, and grumpy personal ads from the London Review of Books.

Ads like this one (from p.87), for example:
What you gonna do with all that junk? All that junk inside your trunk? I'm gonna get a PhD in social Sciences and spend Saturday nights alone in Oxted. Desperate woman, 34, all too aware of the misery caused by poor decision-making processes but more than willing to share it with men who don't have high sexual expectations and enjoy any female companionship that isn't their mother (which, I'm guessing, pretty much covers most of the male readership of this magazine.) Box no. 8820.
LRB personals writers, especially the men, are inordinately fond of describing themselves in derogatory terms -- "rubbish mathematician (M, 37)," "Pathetic man, 49," "hopeless yachtsman (M, 64)," "belligerent old shit (M, 53)," "drooling, toothless sociopath (M, 57)," "bankrupted timeshare-buying moron (41)" -- perhaps in an attempt to lower expectations and perhaps just out of that automatic self-rubbishing tropism Brits have beaten into them with any decent education.

Many of the ads are quite short and imply more than they say -- and also don't have any obvious reason for any other person to have the thought "I'd like to have dinner with and/or rub my genitals against the genitals of this person" and thus reply:
  • I wrote this ad to prove I'm not gay. Man, 29. Not gay. Absolutely not. Box no. 7471.
  • I grazed my knee writing this advert. Accident prone F, 35. Box no. 4311.
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this personal advert puts me firmly on the map. Box no. 8541.
  • If I wear a mask, will you call me Batman? Just asking. Box no. 0558.
And some -- again, usually male -- advertisers seem to go out of their way to drive away any potential responders, such as this gentleman:
Some men can only be loved by their own mother. Not me, I've also got Mr Snuggly Panda. Male, 36, and Mr Snuggly Panda, also 36. Box no. 9912.
But, then, a large subset of the women admit to massive personal failings as well (though they tend to have a better sense of what will bring the appropriate sex to their yards) --
This advert is about as close as I come to meaningful interaction with other adults. Woman, 51. Not good at parties but tremendous breasts. Box no. 5436.
And, of course, any sequel must reference the original:
I'm the entire third chapter from that shite book they compiled from these ads. Go figure. Man, 57. Box no. 0733.
This is, however, the kind of sequel that requires no knowledge of the original -- Sexually and Naughty Lola are each the same kind of thing, and a reader could pick up either one, in either order, and enjoy them equally well.

For anyone who enjoys wry, self-deprecating intellectual British humor, Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland will provide a grin every page, a chortle every third, and a muffled snort approximately once a chapter. It's particularly fun to read aloud; I've been bouncing choice bits of it off The Wife for several weeks now. Don't try to read it straight through, and it will provide amusement -- and a deep satisfaction at one's own place in the world, lousy as that may be -- for weeks on end.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Richard Thompson - Ça Plane pour Moi [Live 2003]
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 48 (3/23) -- Empowered 4 by Adam Warren

Hey, remember what I said about Empowered 3 yesterday? (I don't have a link, because, as I'm typing right now, that post hasn't gone up yet.) Well, it applies equally to Empowered 4, today's entry in the Book-A-Day Derby.

This one starts off at a hospital for superhumans, in the aftermath of the end of last volume, and rolls on to focus on the upcoming Caped Justice ("Capey") Awards, for which Emp has been nominated. The big drama associated with that -- since of course there must be one -- is that everyone is worried that her nomination is the prelude to some Carrie-level humiliation at the ceremony. (There is a precedent for that.)

Meanwhile, the usual subplots roll on -- some that I mentioned yesterday, and some that were too tedious to go into (including the distasteful mixed sexual and anthropophagic exploits of a psychotic fire-elemental supervillain, who will turn up in the main plot someday, I suppose -- with any luck, after I've stopped reading Empowered entirely). Emp saves the day in the long last story of this volume as well, possibly showing that Warren is gently nudging her in the direction of competence. Though, again, that would destroy the entire point of the series, so I expect Warren will keep his tone wildly inconsistent and Emp's competence equally so.

I didn't really need to read this, after I'd seen #3, but it was around, and sometimes it just does seem that the easiest way to get a book out of the house is to read it first. (That may not make much sense, I realize.)

Warren is still an accomplished artist in his particular pin-up inspired style, though the endless parade of women with no noses and hugely bee-stung lips does become odd after a while. But, since the way Warren draws women is the main appeal of Empowered -- not the lips and noses, particularly, of course; other portions of their anatomy play much more central roles in the story -- presumably the target audience is still happy at the attention he lavishes on Emp's curves.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index