Thursday, December 01, 2011

Read in November

Another year is hurtling -- much faster than I'm comfortable with -- towards its end, and another month of that year is now toast. And so it's time for the monthly list of the books I managed to read, the shortness of which I won't bother to complain about this time. On the bright side, very close readers of Antick Musings might have noted a lack of actual book reviews over the past few weeks, so this round-up is longer than usual as I run to catch up, and thus (I hope) more entertaining to read.

Anyway, here's what I read before and after my big family vacation this year (we had WiFi in our hotel, so I read pretty much nothing but RSS feeds during the vacation, which I'm coming to think is not the most restful and vacationeriffic choice):
  • Jason Shiga, Empire State (11/1)
    Shiga is one of the mad geniuses of comics; his Meanwhile (see my review) is one of the most mind-blowing explorations of causality and connection around, in a format that only comics could facilitate. (It's also recently become an app, which I haven't tried yet.) And his Bookhunter (also see my review) is nearly as awesome, a CSI-ish tongue-in-cheek adventure story of library cops and the fiends they pursue.

    Empire State is a smaller, more personal story than either of those; it's based loosely on Shiga's own life, and follows Jimmy, a quiet, stagnating guy in his mid-twenties, living in his native Oakland with his mother. His best friend, Sara -- whom he transparently pines for, though she either ignores or doesn't notice it -- has just moved to Brooklyn. So Jimmy writes her a romantic-comedy letter and jumps on a bus to go visit her there, hoping for the Hollywood happy ending. What follows is more like a gentler Adrian Tomine story; Sara has moved on, but is still a good friend to Jimmy. And, maybe, this is what Jimmy needed to finally move out of his comfort zone and get going with his life.

    Shiga tells his story quietly, alternating between red-hued chapters for the past and blue-tinted ones for "now," building a slow picture of Jimmy's happy but limited life and implying all of the things that he wants, since Jimmy can't say most of those things. It's not as flashy as Meanwhile or Bookhunter, but it's smarter about people than either of those books, showing an intriguing new depth to Shiga's work, and it's a lovely not-a-love-story.
  • Fodor's Walt Disney World 2011 (11/1)
    Once again, I poked through many guidebooks before the big vacation, not so much to plan anything but to wallow in the idea of a big vacation and to remind myself of all the possibilities down in the Land of Orlando. This was another one of them; I got it from the library, in part because Fodor's is the great local competition to my employer's Frommer's series of travel guides (there's also Lonely Planet and DK and so forth, but Fodor's and Frommer's are very similar and look like direct competition most of the time). Last year, since I was doing Book-A-Day, I went through an extensive compare-and-contrast on the guidebooks of central Florida, which I won't repeat here; only a tiny handful of people would care anyway. But this was certainly professional and useful.
  • Jonathan Case, Dear Creature (11/2)
    Baroque barely begins to cover it: in a milieu inspired by '60s beach movies, a Shakespearean-inflected sea mutant named Grue -- accompanied by his earthier-voiced crab chorus -- tries to stop killing teenagers, though he's addicted to their hormones, when he falls in love with Giulietta, the agoraphobic (and Shakespeare-crazed) maiden aunt of an odd family that lives on a dry-docked boat. (And that doesn't even mention Giulietta's sister, the blowsy, deluded, Gypsy-ish Zola, her teenage son, or the tough lawman Craw who's caught up in their family troubles.) Oh, and it's all comics, too -- Case's first full-length graphic novel.

    It all works astonishingly well; Case has an eye for deep, evocative blacks and an ear for quirky, thoughtful dialogue, and it all comes together into the least likely love story I've read in several years. Really -- Dear Creature is amazingly fun and unexpectedly moving, with a tonal range worthy of Shakespeare himself. Case might be a newcomer, but nothing in this book shows it.
  • Gahan Wilson, Nuts (11/3)
    Even if the cover is a bit overreaching -- it claims that this work is "a graphic novel," when it's not that, at all, by any of the competing definitions -- it is thrilling to see such a vital, and nearly forgotten, work of comics coming back into print, cleaned up and reorganized and ready to surprise a new generation of former kids.

    Nuts was a half-page strip Wilson created for the National Lampoon in the 1970s -- running regularly from '72 through '81, and on-and-off for a half-decade after that -- which quickly became one of the brightest spots in an excellent comics section that's been, again, mostly forgotten now. (The other great highlight of the '70s NatLamp comics, to me, was Shary Flenniken's "Trots and Bonnie," which taught many of the first and most important things I learned about girls.) There were occasional short clumps of strips in Nuts, but very little overall continuity: each strip was a separate event in the life of The Kid. Wilson's protagonist was always nameless -- clearly a version of himself, growing up in a time somewhat earlier than the '70s -- an Every-Kid navigating the daily outrages and horrors of a child's life.

    Wilson was asked by the Lampoon to do a horror strip, but he headed in a direction they didn't expect: what's more horrible, he thought, than to be small, nearly helpless, usually confused and always subject to the whims of a race of beings massively larger and stronger? Being a kid is a frightening and uneasy thing, a lot of the time, and the mythologizers of childhood consistently forget and ignore that. So Wilson put that all back in -- the fascination with movies that are too scary, the irrational fears, the first brushes with death, the creepy adults, the other kids that you hardly understand and the parents you can't understand at all. And, even more than that, the way that kids will keep trying new things -- magic tricks and horror movies, in the case of this particular Kid -- to see if that's what clicks, as they feel their ways forward to the adults they will become eventually.

    Some of these strips do build -- there's a strong sequence set at the typically appalling summer camp Tall Lone Tree, and The Kid has a best friend (equally nameless, as far as I can tell), the only person he's able to completely communicate with -- but most of them are individual moments, as Wilson points out one particular thing that was infuriating or sad or just puzzling about being a kid.

    Wilson's art is always grotesque, in the best sense, but Nuts mostly avoids his trademark monsters and creatures for regular people and their surroundings -- though all drawn in that uneasy Wilson style. He also crammed his panels full -- even when the dialogue didn't threaten to overwhelm the drawing (this was a word-heavy strip, full of talk and of The Kid's thoughts), his figures were a bit larger and dominating than the viewer would expect, as if Wilson's camera-eye was too close and seeing too much.

    Nuts is one of the best works, and one of the few single book-length works, by one of our time's best and most idiosyncratic cartoonists -- it may not quite be for "everyone who was ever a child," as the fatuous ad slogan sometimes puts it, but it is for everyone who really remembers how terrible and lonely and infuriating it can be to be a child.
  • Eve Zibert, Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World For Grown-Ups (Unofficial Guides) (11/3)
    See above -- and see my burst of Book-A-Day posts from last year -- for far more explanation of why I read a pile of guidebooks every year for a place I've been to repeatedly. (Short answer: it's both soothing and remarkably like already being on vacation.)

    This particular book -- which I read as a several-editions old library copy -- is devoted to what folks without rug-rats can do when visiting the mouse, and it's a bit stereotypical in that the main choices are spas, shopping, and golf. (There's a bit on nightlife, but that was out of date, since the book I read predated Disney's shutting down of Pleasure Island a few years back.) If you're looking for a short guide to The Mouse that almost completely ignores theme-park rides, this is precisely the book you want. Otherwise, it's best for people who have been there before, and want to be aimed at the things they'd never get a chance to see when chasing around a seven-year-old.
  • Seth, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (11/4)
    Nobody can be serious all of the time; not even a Canadian. The cartoonist known only as "Seth" -- his real name is Gregory Gallant, and I'd have a pen-name, too -- is best-known for the deep, serious stories, mostly serialized in his irregular comic Palookaville. Although, since serious, detailed comics take quite a while to create, that means that his major '90s story was collected as the book It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, and that his major '00s work is the not-yet finished serial "Clyde Fans."

    But, as a break from "Clyde Fans," Seth quickly made the light graphic novel Wimbledon Green in 2005, about the world's greatest comic-book collector, in a simpler, quicker style he called sketchbook. And -- possibly partly because of the strong response to that book, and possibly partly because "Clyde Fans" has been taking so long to be finished -- he came back six years later with another light-hearted sketchbook story with an inside-comics slant.

    The G.N.B. Double C, as its cover calls it, is more diffuse and less successful than Wimbledon, which focused on a single character and his adventures. This new book instead is a leisurely guided tour of the headquarters of the title organization in Seth's fictional Ontario city of Dominion, and, along the way, of a mostly alternate history of 20th century Canadian cartooning. Seth does include some real comics, like Doug Wright's Nipper, but most of the details here are invented -- though, clearly, Seth intends them to parallel and comment on the real history of Canadian cartooning.

    And that's part of the problem, for most readers, of Great Northern Brotherhood -- it's a book that was written as a love letter to something we're probably not all that familiar with. The ideal reader for this book -- the one who will get the most enjoyment out of it -- is Seth himself, and probably only a few dozen other Canadians will come close. (Those of us from other nations have even less chance of catching all of his references.)

    That said, though, Great Northern Brotherhood is a fun little book, engrossing the way a collection of almost true stories always are, and Seth's "sketchbook" art is evocative and energetic, with a grey wash adding strongly to the elegiac feel. It might not be the romp that Wimbledon Green was, but it's a quirky, sweet plea on behalf of the importance of both the art of cartooning and the nation of Canada, from a creator who clearly closely identifies with both.
  • Harry Connolly, Circle of Enemies (11/16)
  • Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant (11/17)
    I've been pointing at Kate Beaton's awesome comics -- usually about historical/literary topics, often with unexpected contemporary topical references, always with a smart, feminist sense of humor -- for a few years now, but I don't think I've actually written about her at length here. (So some of you might have missed her work; if so, it's no shame -- but go check out her website immediately, where you can read dozens of her awesome webcomics.)

    This is the second book of her work, after the self-published Never Learn Anything from History last year, but it's much larger (168pp vs 68pp), contains a bunch of notes on the comics from Beaton, and is vastly more widely available, so Hark! A Vagrant is definitely the book-length Kate Beaton object of choice.

    (If you're confused about the title of the book; it's also the title of her website, and derives from one of her early comics. That still doesn't make a lot of sense -- it's not obviously something to raise up as the centerpiece of a webcomic -- but randomness and serendipity is always important in both humor and comics.)

    You should read Kate Beaton comics -- and buy this book -- because she's smart and witty and deeply knowledgeable about a lot of random literary/historical stuff, and she's wonderful at combining those three things in unexpected and entertaining ways. And because her loose, expressive drawings are nearly as much fun as her jokes. And because she's one-third of the brain trust behind Strong Female Characters. And because, if this book is a success, we should see her do more with her other kinds of comics -- the slice-of-life strips with her family, the bizarre MS Paint strips, the sullen Mystery Solving Teens,  and especially the rare, sweet strips about talking to her younger self.
  • Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, & Larry Mahlstedt, Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga (11/19)
    This is the fancy new hardcover edition, which includes the "Great Darkness Saga" proper -- a five-issue storyline (epic at the time, and still pretty impressive for talky superhero comics) from the 1982 portion of Paul Levitz's acclaimed long run on Legion -- plus just over two hundred pages of comics (six regular issues and an annual) that came before it and one issue afterwards, along with some sketches and script pages stuck into the back to make it look more "archival" and "authoritative."

    I used to have the original paperback reprinting of the GDS -- which was about half the length of this book, but still included extra stuff before and after -- and I was a Legion fan for many years, some time ago. (I quit a couple of reboots ago -- I think just after they were de-aged about a decade back.) This is definitely still '70s-style comics: the characters talk and think incessantly about what they're doing, their feelings, what they're not telling each other, and so forth. (Levitz emphasized that these were teenagers more than most writers did.) So it's all overdramatic and stylized -- but, then, so is opera, and intelligent people can appreciate that non-ironically.

    The big reveal of this story was spoiled long ago -- and the cover re-spoils it again -- but, basically, this was one of the first major stories to treat Big Two continuity as something to be mined for new stories: the Legion of Super-Heroes is a group of, essentially, paramilitary government agents a thousand years in the future (they're all also superpowered teenagers who wear skimpy costumes, because this is comics and it was 1982), with almost thirty years of their own history (and a huge roster of current and former members) by this point. But then a new threat looms to their mostly civilized galaxy, and it turns out to be ... ta dah! ... Jack Kirby's greatest creation, Darkseid, the closest thing the DC universe has to a god of evil. Everybody -- and I do mean everybody -- has to team up to beat him, and there are many hidden or partially hidden references for continuity fans to find and squee over. It was the kind of thing that looked like sophistication to the comics fan of the early '80s, but which, in hindsight, we can all realize led straight to endless Crises, continuity churn, and "Everything You Know Is Wrong!" fatigue.

    Still, you can't blame any story for things that happened in the future. And '80s comics have plenty of vaguely similar but much worse examples of this sort of thing -- Secret Wars, I'm looking at you! -- so "Great Darkness Saga," and Levitz's Legion run in general, have to be considered in their context. This is about as good as this kind of comics gets; it's almost entirely non-cheesy, though there's probably some dairy product lurking in the background somewhere. I have no idea if it will read well to younger readers, brought up entirely on "deconstructed" storytelling and splash panels every page, but this was pretty good superhero comics in its day, and I still think it's more honest and true than most of them today.
  • Lewis Trondheim, Little Nothings 4: My Shadow in the Distance (11/21)
    The French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim has been keeping up an online diary for most of a decade now -- you can read the last twenty or so weekly installments right now, if you like (and if you read French). It's been collected into three prior books: The Curse of the Umbrella (my review), The Prisoner Syndrome (my review), and Uneasy Happiness (my review), all of which are full of wonderful slice-of-life moments captured in Trondheim's warm watercolors.

    As you can see from the cover, Trondheim follows the precedent of the Dungeon series -- which he created with Joann Sfar -- by turning all of the real-world people in his life into various anthropomorphic animal characters. (And, also like Dungeon, quite often I'm not really sure what animal any character is supposed to be -- luckily, it doesn't seem to matter.)

    This volume has similar joys and wonders to the previous three; it's mostly made up of accounts of Trondheim's travels -- a long family trip to America, the annual visit to Angouleme for the comics festival, other trips to Prague, Canada, and Argentina. (The earlier books mixed his trips in with more day-to-day life; the year or years this volume covers clearly felt more jet-setting to Trondheim, since these are the events he decided to cartoon about.)

    Trondheim is an excellent observer of his own life, acutely attuned to the small moments -- the "Little Nothings" of the title -- that happen to him, and an expert by now at turning them into lovely little comics. Any of these four books would be a great introduction to one of the world's best cartoonists.
  • Mike Mignola, et. al, Hellboy Volume 11: The Bride of Hell and Others (11/22)
    Mike Mignola apparently got tired of Hellboy some time ago -- perhaps while working on the movies, which I vainly hoped would send him back to his creation rejuvenated and ready to tell stories entirely by himself for a while -- and the last few collections of Hellboy stories have shown it. Hellboy isn't fighting monsters to save the world anymore; Mignola is just trying to fit in little stories into holes in his continuity, using whatever world-mythological monsters and collaborators have come to hand most recently.

    (I may be overly negative here, in part because I like Mignola's more ambitious stories better, in part because I like his art, and in part because he keeps working with Richard Corben, whose people have always looked like rubbery walking corpses to me.)

    The Bride of Hell is yet another miscellaneous Hellboy collection, with stories illustrated by Corben, Scott Hampton, Kevin Nowlan, and -- wonder of wonders! -- even an eight-page story by Mignola himself. It advances Hellboy's story not one inch, but does tell entertaining slices of his history, particularly -- I'm chagrined to point out -- a '50s-set piece with Corben in which Hellboy teams up with Mexican wrestlers to fight local monsters. None of this is necessary, and it all feels like wheel-spinning, or as if Mignola has stepped too far back from his creation (co-writing all of the "B.P.R.D." stories, only writing most of these), turning himself into the producer of Hellboy's world rather than the creator of his stories. If you like Hellboy, this is more of him, but this kind of thing isn't why you like Hellboy.
And that was November. I hope some of you have read more than I have -- I've been spending the last few weeks trying to catch up on The New Yorker. (I was over four months behind, and now I'm only about two months -- I might catch up to it by Christmas at this race.)

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