Thursday, May 30, 2013

More Graphic Novels I Read Three Months Ago

I've still got a stack of prose books (mostly novels) after this, and they might get the same treatment tomorrow, if BEA doesn't completely exhaust me. I don't know why it surprises me every time I get behind, since it happens over and over again....

I'm not going to be able to do justice to Matt Kindt's Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes here -- it's a gnarly, twisted crime story, told from several points of view that loop around and presented in a style derived from both classic newspaper comics and noir illustrations -- so maybe I should just say that it's another incredibly smart, engrossing story from the creator of Revolver, 3 Story, 2 Sisters, and Super Spy. Of course, even saying that is misrepresenting Red Handed -- it's not really a "crime story" in the way that phrase is usually meant, since most of the "crimes" in Red Handed are bizarre and random -- stymieing the previously-perfect (and very specifically named) Detective Gould in the quite distinct city of Red Wheelbarrow. It's a fascinating, precisely constructed and deeply felt mediation on responsibility and control. And it's also just been published, so I'm, for once, in time to recommend it when that might do some good.

Grandville Bete Noire by Bryan Talbot is the third in the steampunk anthropmorphic adventure series (after Grandville and Grandville Mon Amour), and it runs closely following the pattern established by the first two books: big, world-shaking plots from sinister villains in high places, foiled at the last minute by the calmly competent and unshakably heroic Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard. The fact that a world with such a bewildering array of equally-sized and equally intelligent animals seems to have no concept of an interracial relationship is still odd, but it's Talbot's world, so he's allowed his quirks. I don't think swashbuckling needs to be explained or excused -- though I wrote quite a bit about the first two books; see the links above if you want more details -- so I'll just point at this, say it's jolly good fun in the old style, and move on.

The Battle of Blood and Ink is a steampunky book set in a flying city, written by Jared Axelrod and drawn by Steve Walker, which is as adventury and swashbuckling as Bete Noire but not quite as successful. The world is equally thought-through -- it is even sillier, but that really doesn't matter for that kind of story -- but the art looks to be drawn for color but presented in black and white, and the cliches are all presented straight, without the knowing nod that a more mature cartoonist like Talbot provides to the Grandville world. So Blood and Ink features a crusading journalist -- a young woman whose boundless enthusiasms are tiring rather than enthralling -- going up against the much-too-evil-to-be-believed masters of her city, to learn the shocking secret of everything, through lots and lots of bad-movie dialogue.

The Shark King is a newish book for younger readers by R. Kikuo Johnson, whose previous book was the adult graphic novel Night Fisher. This is clearly for young readers -- it's a levelled reader, actually, with a vocabulary pitched at the level of a 2nd or 3rd grader -- and it has little of the nuance and deep insighht of Night Fisher. Instead, it retells a Hawaiian legend, about a young woman who falls in love with a mysterious man and has a mysterious son by him. Johnson's art is bright and direct, with stark black outlines, like a mid-century picture book, and it's the art that gives Shark King its energy and forward momentum.

Level Up is, I suppose, Gene Luen Yang's major follow-up to American Born Chinese, if you count Prime Baby as an interesting side-piece. But he's just the writer here; he's gotten Thien Pham (who comes from a similar cultural background -- important for this particular story. Level Up is another immigrant's story, another story about the conflict between the pull of ancestral culture (and its demands for self-sacrifice) on the one hand and the seductive modern world, focused on individual happiness on the other. This time, Dennis Ouyang's father insists that he become a doctor -- that he spend his every waking moment working towards becoming a doctor -- but his own talents and desires are to play video games. And then four cherubic figures show up to push him to fulfill his father's wishes -- which isn't the first sign that Dennis is teetering on the edge of a psychotic break, actually -- and things get even weirder. Level Up has a moral, which is usually not good for a book, and it doesn't take its imaginative elements seriously, but uses them entirely on the level of metaphor and plot device. It's pleasant and tells a nice story, but it ends up being much too much of a Aesop's Fable for my taste.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Pile of Manga I Should Have Reviewed Three Months Ago

I read all of these books in mid-February, expecting to dive back into regularly reviewing my review copies -- if any publicists are lurking out there, it annoys me nearly as much as it does you how little of that I've done recently -- but we all know where good intentions lead.

They're all manga; all interesting, to one degree or another; and all from Yen, save one book in the middle. And here's a quick look at them, in case anything turns out to be of interest to you:

Kaoru Mori: Anything and Something is the obligatory "odds and sods" collection from the popular manga-ka behind Emma, Shirley, and the current A Bride's Story, collecting just about every bit of her other art from the first decade of her career. There are a dozen short stories -- all about women, and several of them about maids, unsurprisingly -- and then a lot of more ephemeral stuff, like comics essays on aspects of Agatha Christie and corsets, signing sheets, concept drawings, and several "hey, here's the artist talking directly to the reader" pieces from the backs of collected volumes and other places. It's very, very miscellaneous, but Mori's art is precise and engaging, and several of the short stories  (especially the longest, last one, "Sumire's Flowers") are strong and striking. It's probably not the best introduction to Mori's work, but it does show a smart, hard-working creator trying different things and engaging directly with her audience.

BTOOOM!, Vol. 1 is from Junya Inoue, and it's a very shonen story: a young slacker, only good at an online multi-player combat game that uses only explosives, finds himself kidnapped to an isolated island where he has to play that game in real life! This volume is mostly set-up: we meet Ryouta Sakamoto and then see him danging from a parachute in a tree on the island, and then dive right into combat and the details of the different "BIMs." If you thought the big problem with Battle Royale was that all of the kids already knew each other, then you'll be crazy about Btooom! (And, yes, the exclamation point is part of the title, as it must be.)

Knights of Sidonia, Vol. 1 begins a melancholy giant-mecha series by Tsutomu Nihei. Mankind was nearly wiped out centuries ago by giant, hideous barely-sentient space monsters, and perhaps only one starship, Sidonia, escaped. Sidonia defends itself against those space monsters by sending out pilots in giant robots, but it's been a long time since the last battle -- so there are no veterans, only new recruits. One of those is Nagate Tanikaze, who grew up secretly in the bowels of the ship with his grandfather and knows nothing of the new post-human society, where everyone can photosynthesize, new genders are common, and the dorm matron has a bear head. But, even with all of the weirdness and culture shock, one thing must be as expected: Tanikaze turns out to be an awesome pilot. Knights is surprisingly understated and quiet for a manga -- or maybe it's just a kind of manga that doesn't make it across the Pacific all that often -- with the depth of a novel and a willingness to be obscure and indirect for as long as it takes.

Aron's Absurd Armada, Vol. 1 is something else again, a wacky 4-koma series about incompetent pirates by MiSun Kim. There's the distracted, dim captain -- from a rich family, and sent away by his scheming mother for inadequate reasons. And his minder, the devastatingly handsome and deadly family retainer, who cares only about money and has his own gaping holes where social graces should be. And there's the Royal crew chasing them, with their own tangled connections. And a young woman picked up from a shipwreck, who immediately falls in (silly, manga) love with the minder. It's all broader than the side of a barn, and written with very different cultural norms than Americans would expect, which makes parts of it funnier and parts of it just surreal. But the title says that it's Absurd, so we all should have expected that.

Blood Lad, Vol. 1 is a big, fat (360+ pages, around the length of two average manga volumes) series-beginner from Yuuki Kodama about Staz, a vampire and district boss in the demon world. Of course, Staz is also obsessed with all things from Japanese culture -- because this is a manga -- and so he does nuts when a real, live (well, at least briefly) Japanese schoolgirl appears mysteriously in his district. After a misadventure, the girl is left as a ghost, so Staz vows to return her to life (and then drink her blood) -- and that sets in motion what I expect the series will mostly be, a sequence of odd characters and events that might (or might not) add up to anything particular. So far, Blood Lad is the kind of shonen story that has more energy than sense, but it does have a lot of energy, plus amusing art and quirky characters.

And speaking of quirky, Thermae Romae, Vol. 1 takes the cake in that area; Mari Yamizaki's story follows Lucius, a Roman bath designer from Augustus's time who time-travels (through various kinds of plumbing) to modern-day Japan, to see and be amazed by their bath culture and technology. Lucius then returns to his own time -- not by his own control, but inevitably -- to incorporate what he's learned into his own designs and to become ever more popular and acclaimed. There's a whole lot of panels of Lucius making a stunned face and proclaiming (in a language the Japanese can't understand, of course) how wonderful every last detail of their lives is. Luckily, Yamizaki appears to be playing it all for laughs, because this would be difficult to take seriously. Thermae Romae is very silly, and somewhat weird for an audience that is neither ancient Romans nor modern Japanese, but it has enthusiasm in spades -- maybe too much enthusiasm on Lucius's part -- and it's definitely not a story you've ever read before.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/25

When regularly scheduled posts fall on major holidays, what is a poor blogger to do? Delay in the pursuit of eyeballs, or follow the schedule and be damned? When that blogger is me, "do the same thing the same way all the time" is pretty much the only option.

So here are the books -- all both of them -- that came in last week, delivered on a day where I hope at least a large chunk of my American readers are busy doing something more pleasant than staring at a computer screen indoors. (Though this weekend hasn't been all that great for outdoor activities at my end of the country so far.)

As usual, I haven't read either of these books, but here's what I can tell you about them:

Time Trapped is the second book in Richard Ungar's young-adult SF series "Time Snatchers," after the first book that defined the series title. (Though, unlike most Book Twos, this one will be the end of the story.) The first book had a great set-up, with time-traveling teen thieves controlled by a Fagin-like mastermind in the year 2061, and this one sees the hero of that book, Caleb, yanked back from what he thought was safety and a new life back into the stealing-things-for-a-nasty-boss-in-the-future game. It's coming as a hardcover from Putnam in September -- but that first book is already out in the world, if you're intrigued by the concept.

And the other book this week is Earth Afire from Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston, the second volume of a series of unrevealed length set during the first invasion of the "Buggers" from Card's famous Ender's Game franchise. (The first volume was Earth Unaware, so I suppose the third book will be something like Earth Totally Screwed.) In this book, presumably, nasty aliens attack Earth and kill lots of people while the Plucky Heroes battle bureaucrats and incompetents to get the chance to poke those Buggers back. It's a Tor hardcover, publishing on that most auspicious day of June 4th.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Big Fantagraphics Sale for Memorial Day Weekend

How better to celebrate the long weekend that begins summer than by buying a bunch of great comics/graphic novels/juxtaposed words and pictures from Fantagraphics?

(That's a rhetorical question, smart fella. Though less so in these parts, where the weather is struggling to stay in the 50s and the rain might just let up tomorrow, if we're lucky.)

Fanta -- I call them Fanta, we're old buds like that -- has 250 pieces of swell comical art on sale at up to 75% off, so you'd be well advised to go check it out, and buy some things that appeal to you. I'd say to hurry, but it looks like they're committed to reprinting the things that go out of stock to complete orders, so just get your order in by the end of the sale on Monday night.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Even Cracked Is Noticing the Unexamined Assumptions of the Superhero Genre

One of many money quotes in David Wong's The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie:
See, because without [Captain America] to tell them, these professional law enforcement officers would have had no concept of "evacuating civilians away from where violence is occurring." These people have had no training at all for what to do in the case of, say, a terrorist attack. Why would they? They're just cops working in post-9/11 New York, while Captain America is an unfrozen science experiment from 1942.
Remember: only the special people matter. Everyone else is cannon fodder to make the special people sad, or peons to be saved by the amazing powers of the special people.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/18

I need to cover two weeks this time out -- since last week's books didn't get covered in my frenzy to get ready for my employer's massive off-site meeting, and then I spent four long days at that meeting and the last two getting home and recuperating. Luckily, the current week brought only a short stack, so it's not too much to go through this time.

First up has to be Nebula Awards Showcase 2013, in honor of the most recent Nebula Awards banquet Saturday night in San Jose. This is the latest incarnation of the annual anthology thought up by Damon Knight in the mid '60s to give SFWA a revenue stream, and, as usual, it reprints the Nebula-winning stories of two years ago (2011), along with a few also-rans, and functions something like a belated "Best of the Year." (But, one could argue, this is a crowd-sourced Year's Best, and you couldn't pick a better crowd than the assembled writers of SFWA, could you?) This year's edition is edited/compiled (since I doubt she was allowed to really edit the already award-caliber stories here) by Catherine Asaro, a two-time Nebula winner and former two-term SFWA President. Showcase 2013 is published in trade paperback by Py, and hit stores about a week ago.

I also have a large stack of manga being published by Yen Press this month, so I'll dive into them next:

The first two volumes of Kingdom Hearts Final Mix are out, which reprint Shiro Amano's comics adaptation of the popular fighting-your-way-through-Disney-world-with-a-giant-sword-that-looks-like-a-key games. I am not entirely certain how this series is connected to the earlier Kingdom Hearts manga series -- my guess is that it will reprint everything we've ever seen in the US, and possibly add more than never made it here from Japan, but the book itself doesn't explain what a "Final Mix" is.

Junya Inoue's hard-to-search for series Btooom! (three Os, one bang) is back with a second volume; I read the first one a number of weeks ago but haven't managed to write about it yet. It's a pretty violent recasting of Battle Royale with a video-game overlay; our main character is a master at a competitive online game about blowing up the other players (like a much more specific Team Fortress 2), and then finds himself kidnapped to the obligatory remote island to play a real-world version of that game for no good reason by the usual shadowy forces. If you think that fighting manga have too many guns and not enough bombs, this is exactly the series for you.

Black God, by Dall-Young Lim and Sung-Woo Park, as always, finishes its run with a giant-sized nineteeth volume this month. (See my reviews of volumes two, three, four, and fifteen for a an overview.)

I keep thinking I should read more of Atsushi Ohkubo's shonen demon-fighting saga Soul Eater, which hits a fourteenth volume this month. (Both my sons love it, and have the full set -- so I could easily read them all if I wanted to.) I read and reviewed volumes one and eight, so perhaps I only look at it every seven volumes -- if so, I've only got one more to wait until it's time again.

Also hitting this month is The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, Vol. 4, the latest spin-off from the vast Haruhi Suzumiya empire, focusing on one of the minor characters of the main story. (Don't ask me more detail than that; I'm not really up on all things Haruhi.) The art is by Puyo, the story is by Haruhi creator Nagaru Tanigawa, and the original character designs are by Noizi Ito.

Yuuki Kodama's Blood Lad series reaches a third volume this month -- I read the first one, and haven't managed to write about it yet. It's broad and goofy and very stereotypically shonen, about the slacker demon ruler of a piece of Hell, his otaku love for all pieces of Japanese pop culture, and the human girl who accidentally dropped into his realm. It's the kind of book that starts to ignore its supposed premise by about the hundredth page, so it'll probably turn into something very different if it runs long enough.

And the mighty Omamori Himari, by Milan Matra, reaches its tenth volume, with presumably even more panty shots to celebrate. (The book is still in its protective wrapper as I write this, but it's rated "M" for mature, the most restrictive rating of any of the Yen books this month. So anyone hoping for some fanservice should look her first.)

Durarara!! -- always confusingly styled DRRR!! on the covers -- returns with Saika Arc, Vol. 2, from the team of Akiyo Satorigi (art), Suzhito Yasuda (character design), and Ryohgo Narita (creator). Sharp-eyed followers will note that no one is credited with actually writing this story, but who needs writers?

And there's yet another retelling of Alice in Wonderland in manga form -- this must be the fourth or fifth one I've seen, which is just weird -- in the form of Are You Alice? by Ikumi Katagir and Ai Ninomiya (credited as "original story," which looks like a slam on Lewis Carroll to me). Alice this time is a young man, entering the confusing world of Wonderland, where the Queen of Hearts is a pretty young man. (This doesn't seem to be turning into yaoi, but it's early days yet.)

I need to get a running start to get all the way through the next title, so here I go... Umineko When They Cry, Episode 2: Turn of the Golden Witch, Vol. 1. The story is by Ryukishi07, the art by Jiro Suzuki, and it continues to be based on a series of murder-mystery games, much like the vaguely related Higurashi: When They Cry series.

And last from Yen this time out is Thermae Romae, Vol. II by Mari Yamazaki, the amazing story of a time-traveling Roman bath-house designer from the age of Augustus and the modern Japanese bath technology that inspires him. It's a unique idea, and the first volume -- which, again, I read but haven't gotten around to writing about -- was a lot of fun in that very earnest Japanese way.

Returning to books with only words on their pages, The Planet Thieves is the first novel in a new series by Dan Krokos (author of the previous YA novel False Memory). Planet Thieves may be YA or middle-grade, if that distinction is of burning importance to anyone. It's coming from Tor Starscape this month, and is the SFnal story of a starship on a routine training mission full of young cadets from the Academy when it's attacked and boarded by a vicious alien race that has been at war with humanity for generations. Those cadets -- led by our hero, of course -- must take back their ship and get back to Earth to warn about this new assault.

Rhiannon Held is back with Tarnished, the sequel to her werewolf novel Silver, from Tor in hardcover this week. It's urban fantasy, obviously, but seems to come more from the old hurt/comfort strain of fanfic -- focusing on alpha wolf Andrew, who finds and saves damaged Silver, who can't shift due to torture -- rather than from the more usual "all these supernatural boys love the totally awesome female protagonist" romance-influenced style of contemporary fantasy. This time out, Andrew and Silver  are looking to take over the pack he used to belong to, because that's what werewolf novels are about. (And "that" is the outdated simplification of wolf pack hierarchy, because that's more amenable to fiction than the messier actual reality.)

Last is the new Imager novel from the dapper L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Antiagon Fire, coming as a Tor hardcover next week. (I had some Antiagon Fire once, but a quick course of over-the-counter treatments cleared it right up -- ask your pharmacist!) This is the seventh book in the series, and I have to admit that I don't know what's going on -- it's epic fantasy about armies and empire clashing, with magic and skulduggery and all the rest, but that's about as specific as I can get.