Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Passionella and Other Stories by Jules Feiffer

Every "collected works" has one: the inevitable "and other works" volume, the one with the stories (or essays, or painting sequences, or libretti, or whatever) that aren't long enough to fill up their own volumes, and don't actually have all that much to do with each other. You know. That one.

Passionella and Other Stories was the fourth volume in Fantagraphic's "Collected Works" of Jules Feiffer, back in 2006, following three identically-formatted album-sized paperbacks that each reprinted a single work (Clifford, Munro, and Sick, Sick, Sick). As if to telegraph how different it is, Passionella instead is a roughly 6x9 unjacketed hardcover collecting nine separate works originally published in the late '50s and early '60s, and only notes that it's the fourth (and, so far, final) volume of the Collected Works on the title page.

Those nine works aren't even the same kind of thing -- most of them are comics in Feiffer's usual style, with captions and dialogue loosely attached to drawings, without panel borders; but Passionella also includes playscripts (or essays in that format) and a more traditionally illustrated prose story. What they do all have in common is their Feiffer-ness: they're all stories of mid-century neurosis and perceived failure, about men with stomachs that hurt and women who are either unreadable Others or just as neurotic as the men (depending on whether they're protagonists or not).

First up, after a detailed introduction by Gary Groth, is "The Cutting Edgists," a short satire-of-satirists in the form of a dialogue among five satirists, all of whom are based closely on actual satirists from the time...and it's still somewhat cutting now, even though a modern audience has to be told which satirist is which (and who many of them were).

"Excalibur and Rose," an illustrated medieval tale in the fairy-tale mode, is next, and it has the typical duality of a fairy tale: he's always frivolous and happy, and seeks seriousness, while she has never known happiness, since she's always entirely serious. Unusually for Feiffer of the time, but as required by the form, they help each other find what they both need, in the end.

"The Lonely Machine" and "Harold Swerg" are more typical: each is a long narrative told in comics form about one man and his collisions with the wider world. Walter Fay is battered and defeated by the world, so he makes a machine that he can always dominate (in a very unsubtle metaphor for a marriage), which then leads him to confidence and success. Swerg, on the other hand, is already happy and content, but he's a potentially world-dominating athlete content to be a file clerk -- as usual with Feiffer, his characters can only be happy if they're already perfect, and don't change in the course of the story. "George's Moon," later in the book, is another variation on the "Lonely Machine" theme, with a young man living on the moon and concerned about both his depression and possible invaders.

One of Feiffer's main points throughout his career has been that every man, no matter how seemingly confident, is a mass of neuroses inside, and "Superman" is one of his clearest explications of that theme; it's another dialogue, in which just meeting a woman utterly demolishes the heroic career of the title character. "Crawling Arnold" is the most play-like of the playscripts here, and has been produced, though it's somewhat dated, both in its very '50s Freudian psychology and its doom-laden bunker setting.

And last is the title story, "Passionella," about a frumpy woman who wishes to be a beautiful, glamorous movie star, but has to deal with a insufficiently powerful "friendly neighborhood godmother." It has a tone not unlike "Excalibur and Rose," as if it's bringing a bit of the fairy tale into modern life, and Passionella has a happier ending than Superman, Arnold, Walter Fay, or any of the satirists do.

But Feiffer wasn't about happy endings -- he wasn't really about endings at all. His work, particularly in these early days, was more concerned with raising questions and poking into aspects of modern life that were more usually ignored by the glossy media of his day. These Feiffer stories don't have heroes, because heroes have to be perfect in ways that just don't exist. (Even Harold Swerg isn't Superman -- Feiffer implies that the only reason he can be that good is because he doesn't care about it.) What's left is ordinary men and women, gnawed by anxiety and unhappiness, lashing out at each other -- our world, in other words. Feiffer was one of the first to sketch the reality of modern life, and one of the best as well.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Teaching the Wrong Lessons

I try not to complain about other people's parenting styles, but this woman is beyond the pale.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/28

When you read this, I will be back at work after a lovely week of vacation, spent almost equally catching up on posts for this blog and wasting time with my family. (Sadly, I haven't yet figured out a way to generate a revenue stream from "writing about books on a personal blog," no matter how much I think about Web 15.0 or social sharing or other currently-hot buzzwords. Must be a failure of imagination on my part.)

My great benefactor, the Package Fairy, has possibly also been on vacation (or slumming) this past week, because he brought me only two things. But I'm quite happy to see both of them, so don't get the idea that I'm complaining. As usual, I haven't read either of these books yet, so what I'm about to tell you may be slightly incorrect. If so, you can obtain a full refund of your purchase price of Antick Musings by appearing in person at our Customer Service kiosk in the heart of the Plateau of Leng.

Carrie Vaughn is back with Kitty Steals the Show, the eleventh book (but only tenth novel) in the "Kitty Norville" series, a contemporary fantasy about a werewolf that actually seems to believe in the rule of law most of the time. (That's shocking for most urban fantasy, which tend to have a default morality of "whatever the protagonist does is inherently right" and a huffy attitude towards mundane police and other folks who might want to oversee Little Miz Vampire-killer's felonious activities -- come to think of it, most urban fantasy heroines have the same attitude towards government as investment bankers do: it's fine as long as it stays in its place and doesn't attempt to stop them.) I read the first half-dozen books in this series (and reviewed two of them), but I'm now four novels and a short-story collection behind, which I need to fix at some point. Kitty Steals the Show is a mass-market paperback, publishing tomorrow.

The other book I have is the new novel for younger readers by Catherine Fisher, Darkwater. I haven't read Fisher myself, but my younger son (Thing 2), who has been on a YA fantasy tear this last year, really liked Fisher's novels Incarceron and Sapphique, so I might give this one to him and let him tell me how good it is. (I'm not sure how I'd translate that to the blog, but I'll figure out something.) Darkwater is a deal-with-a-demon novel (Azrael, the deal-maker in question, doesn't seem to be the devil) centered on a boy and a girl a century apart and a building known as Darkwater Hall. Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin for younger readers, will publish this in November.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Write More Good by The Bureau Chiefs

Being snarky and sarcastic is one of the great joys of life -- well, if you ask me, it is -- and "The Bureau Chiefs," a ragtag band of reporters, editors, and others, revel in that joy on a daily basis on Twitter as @FakeAPStylebook and at http://thebureauchiefs.com (which looks to have had a huge flurry of activity in mid-2010, but to have settled down some since then). Since every popular Twitter feed must spawn a book (as websites did before them, and standup comedy routines before them, and so on back to early radio), those Bureau Chiefs came together to create Write More Good, a guide to writing for newspapers (or whatever we're going to call the folks who bring us news stories in the form of text) that is deeply, deeply sarcastic and whose advice should only be followed by those who are unconcerned with the consequences.

Write More Good is structured like a real style guide, giving tips on writing about celebrities, politics, sex, science, technology, sports, and other topics. As a real style guide would, it also has notes on usage, glossaries of important terms, and other stylistic points of deep importance to reporting news. It also has great standalone rules like this one:
"World War" should be used for conflicts involving countries on at least three continents. For large-scale battles against clones, killer tomatoes, or a fifty-foot woman, use "attack" instead.
Let me make this simple for you. If you write news, you need this book (to laugh at what your job has become). If you read news, you need this book (so you know what's going on, the better to laugh at it). If you are news, you definitely need this book. It's funny in the same way that Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary is funny: it holds up what we should do in front of what we actually do, and lets us laugh at the difference. It's actually more serious and pointed than you'd expect for a book of joke style tips based on a Twitter feed, but don't let that frighten you off: this is exactly the book you need to understand the news today.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Simple, Heartfelt Messages

Tom Gauld provides some advice on how to cope in these tough times.

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

Pop history is a tricky thing: a writer needs to find a subject that a wide readership will think it knows something about, but still knows little enough to be interested in reading a whole book on the subject. I'm sure fascinating books could be written on the life of Charles the Bald or the wars of the Iroquois Federation, or the mercantile traditions of the African empires of the Dark Ages, but they're not likely to be widely acclaimed or read. (On the other hand, who ever thought, ten year ago, that the "this one thing explains the whole world" book, like Cod, would be popular?)

Tony Horwitz is a journalist turned non-fiction book writer -- before this book, he wrote Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad Without a Map -- and so he needs to write books that people (chief among them, I expect, his editor) will buy and read and like. (But don't we all have to provide some value to other people, whatever it is we do for a living?) A Voyage Long and Strangeis aimed at a strong American audience: it's a book that asks what the early exploration of America was really like, and then proceeds to investigate that, from the Vikings to the Spanish, from Roanoke to Cibola.

In the great dichotomy between desk-bound researchers and knock-on-doors reporters, Horwitz is firmly on the side of the reporters; each chapter of Voyage mostly tells the story of what he learned on one research trip, with details of the places he went, the people he saw, and the experiences he had there. That isn't to say that Horwitz didn't do his research ahead of time, since he clearly did -- Voyage has a twelve-page bibliography -- but that the things he saw and experienced are more important here than the things he read about; that's how he contextualizes it and explains it to his readers.

So Horwitz does tell us about how the Vikings came to "Vinland," and what they did there -- but it's more important that he went to Newfoundland, and crawled into a longhouse, and reported back on what it must have been like. Similarly, Horwitz walks us through a dozen more chapters, detailing how Europeans met (and mostly slaughtered or enslaved, whenever they had the chance) locals in Santo Domingo, the Gulf coast, the desert Southwest, the Plains, across De Soto's march through the South, Florida, Roanoke, Jamestown, and, finally -- ending where, as he puts it, most Americans think history begins -- in Plymouth.

Horwitz is master of his research and in control of his material: he gives an excellent overview of the "discovery" and "exploration" of America -- and those quotes are as much his as mine; he's writing explicitly about how one people came to a land and declared it unpopulated (according to their own lights) in order to seize it for themselves. It can be a depressing story, but Horwitz tries to keep it light wherever possible. This is a story Americans should know more about, and A Voyage Long and Strange will go a long way towards telling many of us more about the past of our nation than we previously knew.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Incoming Books: July 26th

I don't know if I'm typical in this, but I sometimes wait until I've got a bunch of things I vaguely want before placing an order with one of those big Internet outlets. For example, about a week ago, I finally decided to get a CD holder for the visor of my car [1], a six-pack of pint glasses (real Imperial pints, mind you, since that's what pint glasses are supposed to be), and these two books:

The Apocalypse Codex, the fourth book in the "Laundry" series by Charles Stross. I love this series to death -- to my mind, it fits Stross's strengths and concerns perfectly, and probably my own more than I care to admit -- so I'm thrilled to see the fourth one. Lovecraft, bureaucracy, apocalypse, paperwork: what's not to love?

Dungeon: Parade, Vol. 1: A Dungeon Too Many, written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim with art by Manu Larcenet. I actually reviewed this book once -- back near the beginning of the 2010-2011 Book-a-Day run -- but now it was the last book in the Dungeon saga that I didn't have. Now that I have them all, I might indulge in a reading project: there are exactly fourteen volumes in the US edition, which would make a nice fortnight of Dungeon. (I can't promise when I'll get to that, since I do want to be caught up on other reviews when I dive into it.)

[1] And then I spent too much time this last week -- when I was on vacation -- planning and burning a dozen CDs to have just the right songs. You see, this is the Permanent Car Collection, since I already have a 12-CD wallet that goes back and forth, usually carrying a bunch of new CDs I haven't listened to much yet. The PCC, on the other hand, was designed, as much as possible, to have good driving music for as many possible moods and situations as possible.

And those CDs comprised personally-picked "best ofs" for Bruce Springsteen, Josh Ritter, Rilo Kiley, R.E.M., Okkervil River, Oingo Boingo, the Mountain Goats, the Mendoza Line, Elvis Costello, and the Builders & the Butchers. The last two CDs, called "Driving the '70s" and "Driving the '80s," are made of of mostly one-hit wonders (or at least bands I only have a couple of songs by, and am happy that way) that would sound good to a middle-aged man driving his car.

Look, I haven't done a widget in a while, so here's the "Driving the '80s" playlist, so you can point and laugh at my musical tastes:
Missing from the widget -- because there will never be a marketplace with all of anything -- are these two songs:
#1: The Monroes, "What Do All the People Know?"
#17: Underworld, "Underneath the Radar"

Quote of the Week: The Novel and the New

I haven't had one of these in a while, have I? Well, I won't promise anything I can't guarantee, but perhaps more will follow.

"She should have studied science, not spent all of her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on."
 - Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, p.42

Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman

Blechman has possibly the shakiest, most expressive and casual-seeming line of any cartoonist of the last century, which has followed him through an impressively varied career: an early graphic novel, 1953's The Juggler of Our Lady, long careers in advertising and animation, books for younger readers, editorial cartoons, and, almost as an afterthought, occasional other stories in comics form. Talking Lines collects most of those stories -- it doesn't include Juggler of Our Lady, and doesn't have a bibliography or curriculum vitae so that we can be sure it has everything else, but it seems pretty comprehensive.

Talking Lines is thus mostly a collection of occasional pieces, originally done for specific publications over the course of fifty years, from single-pagers for Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug in the late '50s to a two-pager about croissants and bagels for The New York Times in 2009. Those are all more or less good, and more or less dated -- Blechman in particular cartooned against the Vietnam War several times, which is nice to know now but not particularly enduring art -- since they're all short, and all caught up in telling their specific stories. Blechman organizes them in a way that seems chronological -- dates move forward for a while, but then drop back and then start to move forward again -- but clearly also has an element of thematic connection, or the order he rediscovered these pieces, or some other principle that Blechman never makes clear.

Eventually, after not quite two hundred pages (which goes very quickly; each piece has a two-page introductory spread, with a single-page illustration from the piece and a short introductory note on the facing page; and Blechman's work tends to have just a few small panels on the big white page to begin with), the previously published material runs out. There's a short unpublished piece to end the book, but, before that, comes "Georgie," which I have to assume was originally planned as a standalone book. (It's just over a hundred pages long, and I could easily see it as a small-format hardcover nestled by the cash register of a thousand stores, since it's about a man and his dog.)

"George," like most of Blechman's work here, is poignant with an underlying sweetness, but more concerned with an immediate emotional reaction than anything deeper or more thoughtful -- much like his Vietnam-era stories have the faint whiff of the protest march about them. Blechman has dabbled in sequential art over the years without spending a lot of time in that realm, so his work shows a lot of influences (Feiffer, Mad, various New Yorker cartoonists, perhaps especially Edward Koren) that haven't entirely coalesced into something purely Blechman, and that may be why "Georgie" never did turn into a book of its own; it stops more than it ends, and its focus is a little muddled -- it feels like a story that should have a moral, but doesn't.

Talking Lines is a well-designed and attractive collection of the work of someone who has never been a major print cartoonist, though his artwork has been more important in other areas. I expect the readers who will get the most out of it will be artists, budding or established, who want to study that wonderfully expressive, bumpy line of Blechman's, since this book presents his line in fine detail, reproduced well on mostly white pages.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Love Among the Chickens by P.G. Wodehouse

Into every life some frivolity must come, or else we would slit our wrists at the sheer horror of it all. When I find myself in need of frivolity, I've turned to various writers, but none have proved as reliably frivolous as Wodehouse. One particularly excellent feature of Wodehouse's work is the sheer depth of its sublime triviality: I've read my way through his two main series -- those featuring, on the one hand, that young nincompoop Bertie Wooster and his all-wise gentleman's gentleman Jeeves, and, on the other, those centered around Blandings Castle and its human and porcine inhabitants -- and there are still a dozen or two standalone humorous novels, or books in shorter series, that I still haven't got to. (In that context, I could also mention Psmith, that unflappable young gentleman, and the equally unflappable but much less young Uncle Fred.)

One of those minor series centers on Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, one of those men whose self-confidence is always much higher than warranted by circumstances or than similar confidence is extended to him by any other human being. Ukridge, who mostly appears in short stories, is a font of get-rich schemes and new angles to make his life smoother and richer, every one of which scheme or angle leaves him at least as bad off as before -- but never, ever, daunted in the slightest.

The one novel about Ukridge is Love Among The Chickens, in which that ever-cheerful character decides that starting a business farming chickens on the Dorset coast is the royal road to riches -- why, you can get the chickens and feed on account, and then sell back the eggs (dozens every day!) to your creditors and local conveyors of comestibles, quickly building a quick and easy stream of ever-increasing income without any outlay or hard work! -- and drags his boyhood friend Jeremy Garnet into the scheme. Of course it doesn't work as Ukridge expects, since nothing ever could, and of course there's a love plot for Jeremy, plus angry creditors, rural policemen, and wise but unheeded blue-collar types, since this is a Wodehouse novel.

The whole isn't quite as sublime as Wodehouse at his prime -- this is a very early novel, from 1906, and he was still working out the details that worked best for him -- but it is sublime, and silly, and frothy, and deeply, deeply frivolous in the very best way. I recommend it, and three or four dozen other Wodehouse books (choose one to taste), for whenever the press of non-frivolous life becomes too strong.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, Vol. 2 by William Messner-Loebs

Journey Volume 2 collects the second half of the story of one of the most interesting indy-comics runs of the '80s black-and-white boom, about a frontiersman in the early 1800s -- back when the frontier was in Michigan. I reviewed the first volume a few years back, so see that link for a more detailed look at the series.

The eleven issues collected here are just as strong as the sixteen in the first volume, perhaps more so: this book forms more of a single long story than the first collection did, as MacAlistaire travels the wilderness with a foppish Boston poet and they find their way to a small settlement with dark secrets and complicated mysteries, during the harsh winter of 1808-09. As in the first volume, Messner-Loebs's real subject is mankind in all of its variations, thrown into relief by the dangers and privations of that frontier, and the battles both between individuals and nations, as settlers push into the land held by Indian tribes. MacAlistaire is the central character, but Messner-Loebs has sympathy for all of his people: the smart and the dim, the crafty and the single-minded, the crackpots and the educated, the ex-Hessian soldiers as much as the sheltered teenage daughters as much as the grizzled frontiersmen as much as the pressured and uneasy Indians.

Messner-Loebs's art is still Esineresque, particularly in his faces -- many of his people seem to have jumped directly out of one of Eisner's tenement stories of the late '70s -- but his backgrounds in these stories revel in the possibilities of white and black, as they move from the deep woods after a major ice storm to the dim, smoky cabins of a new settlement. These stories are always about people, even as they're dwarfed by the wilderness or obscured by the darkness in their own homes, and Messner-Loebs's art shows them as the center, in all of their flawed glory.

Messner-Loebs is an deeply unappreciated comics creator, particularly for his great, deeply resonant takes on historical fiction -- not only this series, but his Epicurus the Sage stories with Sam Kieth -- where he has shown a vastly greater appreciation and knowledge of what we have done and thought than all but a tiny handful of his fellow creators. In a just world, he'd be one of the most lauded tellers of stories about how we used to be and how we always have been -- but, sadly, we live in this world, and so we need to treasure the Messner-Loebs stories we do have.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Things You Remember

The Wife sells things on eBay -- less than she used to, since she's basically been winding down the business for the last year or so -- and, occasionally, she needs to print labels on my computer, since this is the only printer working at the moment.

Tonight, she came down to print a label for Massapequa, New York.

And I said, "Massapequa! Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Amityville, Lindenhurst, Copaigue, and Babylon! Transfer at Babylon for Oyster Bay!"

(If you don't live on Long Island, or didn't spend years taking a train to Garden City -- actually, the oh-so-bucolic-sounding station Country Life Press -- for meetings at your erstwhile employer, this is probably meaningless to you. But it's something that Doubleday taught me, and something I'll probably never quite forget, as hard as I try.)

Belated Review Files: April

What I have here are two novels that I read three months ago -- I liked them both at the time (though I'm pretty sure I had some reservations and criticisms), but, at this point, what I can say about them will be pretty vague and general. So I'm slamming the two of them together into one post in hopes that two mediocre reviews will be nearly as good as one focused one. Arguments, complaints, counter-examples, and any other commentary is always welcome; the comments are open.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

This is the first of what unexpectedly turned into a series of detective novels; Atkinson had previously written three standalone novels (one of which, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, had won the Whitbread Award) and a collection of short fiction, and so Case Histories looked, when it was published, like a literary novel with elements of mystery in it rather than "a mystery novel."

And the storytelling in Case Histories is very much on the literary side -- the first three chapters set up three parallel stories in 1970, 1994, and 1979, each titled "Case History" (Numbers 1, 2, and 3), before getting to our detective, Jackson Brodie, with the fourth chapter, and then rotate among several viewpoints from those three cases until all of the mysteries are revealed  and solved (not really by Brodie) in the end. Brodie is a private detective (ex-police, ex-soldier), hired to solve problems, but, of course, the cliche in detective novels is that the PI isn't supposed to solve murders but does anyway. Atkinson doesn't follow the cliche; one of Brodie's cases is looking into a death, but he's nothing like the standard mystery-novel PI.

I'm not sure why the mystery audience has taken Atkinson so much to heart -- I was introduced to Case Histories by my then-colleague, who edited The Mystery Guild book club, and the subsequent three novels have all been picked up by mystery readers, so this is clearly happening -- from the evidence of Case Histories; it really does take a literary novel's stance on murder and death, that they happen and are often inexplicable, and that they can't be "solved" or explained in the way that most mystery books try to do. Still, I'm not about to tell other people what they like best about their own genre: Case Histories is an incisive novel that is very smart about people and what they do to one another, and clearly Brodie is a deeply appealing main character. (Though he's not as central to this book, either as the focus of action or as a Ross Macdonald-esque focus of attention, as one might expect.)

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

You're reading this on the Internet, so I presume that you recognize the title's reference: if you can think of it, someone else has already made porn about it. Stross's novel Rule 34 is not about porn directly, but it is about the Internet, about the connections and appropriations made there, and about -- as Bruce Sterling once put it, the uses that the street finds for other people's things. Rule 34 is a near-future thriller -- more of a detective novel than Case Histories is, actually, with a deep attention to what policing may look like very soon -- and a loose sequel to Stross's 2007 novel Halting State (which I reviewed here, glancingly, at the time).

It's also a surprisingly wearying novel, one that works hard to prove to its audience that it's as up-to-the-minute as it can be, with its three-stranded second-person narration, its plethora of extrapolated detail about day-to-day life two or three tech generations down the line, and its fears about what computers, computer-aided technology and the society they're embedded in might allow before too long. As usual with Stross, Rule 34 will fill the reader up to her eyeballs with ideas and concepts, but, unlike Stross's best books, I felt filled up by Rule 34. There's a kind of SF that feels driven by the need to be utterly up-to-date, to be the new model everything, and Rule 34 gives off that aura: this is SF as cutting-edge as Stross can make it, about everything that he can think of or crowd-source, about the Way We Will Live in a decade or so in all its terror and wonder.

I personally find that Stross can be a bit dour and pessimistic the closer he tries to hew to realistic futures and technological extrapolation, either because the sheer scale of the effort daunts him or because the portents of that looming future are that frightening. (Oddly, his books about the imminently looming Lovecraftian apocalypse -- the novels about the secret British organization called the Laundry that begin with The Atrocity Archives -- feel brighter and less doom-laden to me, perhaps because of sheer whistling-past-the-graveyard bravado.) I respected Rule 34, and was awed by it, but I don't think I can quite say I loved it. But Stross is one of only a handful of writers even trying to seriously grapple with what daily life might look like ten or twenty years from now, and Rule 34 is perhaps his strongest attempt in that direction: it is likely to be proven right in a dozen major ways and a thousand minor ones.

The Death-Ray by Dan Clowes

There is no better example than The Death-Rayof the process by which "comics" have become "graphic novels" -- this same story, in a slightly different form, was a single issue of Clowes's comic book Eightball less than a decade ago, but now it's an oversized hardcover book, priced four times higher. Luckily for us, it's one of Clowes's best stories, harnessing his usual bleak, anatomizing stare at humanity into a story that twists SF and comics conventions into Clowes's usual territory of dumpy streets and their dumpier, conflicted, unhappy inhabitants.

Clowes tells this story using the full palette of comics, moving backwards and forwards in time, laying out each page in a distinctive style, changing sub-stories every page or two, turning each segment into a chapter that circles his ever-central concern: are people any good at all?

Death-Ray is the closest Clowes has come to telling a superhero story, though, typically for him, the superpower is an outside item -- childish, enigmatic, unexplained and inexplicable, with a single function and a single possible user. The title "death-ray" is a toy for nearly everyone in the world, but when Andy points it at something and pulls the trigger, that something disappears forever. So the gun has, as guns always do, only a single purpose: it can eliminate things, or people, from the world. And Andy's choice is to decide, first, if he's going to eliminate people forever, and then, who.

Andy discovers the death-ray's power as a teenager: young enough to still be concerned with toys, old enough to know that the world is full of phonies and horrors, just the right age to think that he could make everything better if only he had the right tool. In best comics fashion, he has a sidekick and an ailing relative, school bullies and love interests -- but Andy isn't a Big Two character, so he's not going to save the world, or become a world-famous scientist, or team-up with anyone else like him. There's no one like him; he's a Clowes character, atomized and alone, and his decisions must be his own.

Andy's nihilistic power slots right into the heart of Clowes's work: his stories are full of people who detest things, who wish they could get rid of this person, or that style, or a building or bus or book or car, to make the world better. Andy, alone among Clowes's characters, has that power: he can get rid of things, and see if that does make the world better. But if anything could make a Clowes fictional world better, it wouldn't be a Clowes world -- and that is what Andy must learn, like all of Clowes's characters: nothing ever gets better, and the world is a passage of misery and pain, full of jerks, losers, criminals, and creeps. All Andy can do is get rid of the things he finds completely intolerable -- and the reader gets to decide if we agree with Andy or not.

The presentation of The Death-Ray is more impressive than that old issue of Eightball: larger, more substantial pages to showcase Clowes's art, and to give the complicated storytelling more room to breathe. But it does say something, about both commerce and art, that a single issue of a comics periodical could turn into a "new" graphic novel with so little changed.

Hey, Dude -- Gonna Come See My Band Play?

I think I've seen this meme before, but it's been running through 4chan recently, and it's amusing enough.

So, the rules are:
And here's our new release, on Slightly Obscure Productions:

We can plainly see from this that both my image-editing software and my image-editing skills leave a lot to be desired. This may be why I get paid to work with words and numbers, instead.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/21: For Real

Well, I've wrested control of this blog back from the figment of my imagination that had momentarily commandeered it. (Don't ask: every week I try to think up some interesting way to introduce this post, and not all of my ideas are coherent or make sense.) My thanks to the enthusiastic and energetic Sr. Gonzales, who I do not expect will return to these pages. (But who knows?)

Anyway, back in the proudly made-in-America Antick Musings, another week has passed, and mail has accumulated. I will tell you about that mail, but before I tell you that, I have to tell you this: I have not read any of the books in front of me, and what I have to tell you about them may well turn out to be deficient in tiny or substantial ways. I apologize in advance if that turns out to be the case, but it's just what you have to deal with when you get your information from random people on the Internet.

Stephen M. Irwin, whose first novel The Dead Path won the 2010 First Fiction Award from my old compadres at the Book-of-the-Month Club, is back with The Broken Ones, a near-future horror novel set in a world where ghosts have suddenly appeared -- different apparitions for every human being, of the dead or living -- and the world is falling apart for other typical near-future reasons (unexpectedly quick global warming, switching of the magnetic poles, etc.). Irwin's protagonists are detectives, working for a squad that investigates occult explanations for violent crimes, and one seemingly normal investigation will lead them to discover "a terrifying conspiracy." Broken Ones will be a hardcover from Doubleday; it hits stores August 7th.

Dave Freer's new novel is an alternate history Young Adult book from Pyr called Cuttlefish -- named after a peculiar submarine in the novel, since Freer clearly thinks alt-hist needs more neat submarines and fewer neat airships -- about a world where ammonia synthesis wasn't discovered in Germany in the 1890s and consequently The Great War fizzled and the British Empire didn't. Cuttlefish is set in a 1953 where massive burning of coal (and a methane burst) raised oceans quickly and uncontrollably, and where a totalitarian government stomps on the rights of Our Heroes. (Because something has to be the same in all alt-hists.) Cuttlefish was published in hardcover on July 17th.

Also for younger readers -- though I believe for slightly older younger readers -- is Morgan Rhodes' first novel, Falling Kingdoms. (Rhodes looks to be a pretty open pseudonym -- the bio in the galley I have describes her as "the pen name for a popular author of urban fantasy" and appears under a photo of her. I don't recognize her, but I'm sure her real identity will be known very quickly, if it's not already public.) Falling Kingdoms is one of those fantasy books all about numbers: four young protagonists, three kingdoms, hundreds of years of peace and magic-less-ness, and an undetermined number of further books to finish up the story. Falling Kingdoms will be a hardcover from Penguin's edgy Razorbill imprint in December.

Sean McMullen's The Time Engine was originally published in 2008 in hardcover -- and, before my flood last year, I had a copy of that hardcover, which I regularly looked at and thought "I really should read this soon" -- but it's now coming out in a trade paperback edition at a lower price for those of you willing to wait four years for a deal. Time Engine is the fourth in McMullen's wonderful "Moonworlds" series, set on the inhabited moons of a Jovian planet somewhere in the universe, with humanoid but not-quite-human inhabitants who perform magic and also have frighteningly dangerous technology. (The previous novels in the series -- all standalones, though some share characters -- are Voyage of the Shadowmoon, Glass Dragons, and Voidfarer, and I bought all of them for the SFBC back in my days there and burbled about them regularly, saying things like "Sean McMullen knows how to blow up stuff real good!") McMullen is one of the hidden treasure of the spec-fic world; he writes books that manage to be both tough-minded and madcap, equally full of violence and humor, with complicated plots that spiral out of control and quirky, spiky characters that are utterly real. He deserves to be much more widely read.

And last this time out is Fred Chao's graphic novel Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hero, collecting the three issues of the 2007-2008 comic. (It was originally published in 2009 by AdHouse Books, at which time I reviewed it -- I'm not sure, from first glace, if there's any new material in this new edition or not.) Johnny is a young guy in Brooklyn, with a cute girlfriend, a job at the local restaurant, and periodic problems with monsters, samurai, or giant fish -- this is a comic that runs right down the line between slice-of-life twentysomething and high-adventure odd. I liked it the first time out, and I expect to like it this time around as well -- this new edition is a trade paperback from Tor, available now.