Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #119: The Bojeffries Saga by Alan Moore & Steve Parkhouse

The hallmark of a robust, healthy ecosystem for a particular medium is that the best works in that medium keep coming back. There's one writer who jokes on his blog that new video technologies exist only to make him keep buying new copies of Goldfinger. Shakespeare's plays are in dozens of editions -- illustrated, limited, cheap, expensive, electronic, free, and probably engraved on plates of gold. And it's not a Broadway season without at least two or three big-name revivals.

Even comics is mature enough these days that the same rule applies -- Scott McCloud's Zot! comes back, after a decade away, in a big black-and-white collection. "Artist's Editions" present beloved works in new ways -- or, rather, exactly the way the original creators saw them on the drawing board. And even the quirky, oddball works of major creators come back into print, like a comet taking a long tack back into the public eye.

So The Bojeffries Saga came back last year -- it's previous edition was in 1994, from Atomeka, if you can remember them -- bringing possibly Alan Moore's silliest and least characteristic work [1] back for a new generation (or for those of us from the old generation who need to replace their copies). The Bojeffries stories -- drawn by Steve Parkhouse, who I'm afraid I know from this and nothing else, though he seems to have had a long comics career -- are fragmented and individual, each telling one story about one supernaturally strange British family.

The Bojeffries may have been Moore's attempt to do a British answer to Charles Addams and his famous family, or just a parallel idea -- but it's in that space: the weirdos who comment on the normal people by their existence and their very different takes on modern life. There's Jobremus, the father, who's as normal as the Bojeffries family comes -- though his teenage son, Reth, doesn't look all that bizarre in the stories we've seen so far. But one uncle, Festus, is a vampire, and the other, Raoul, is a werewolf -- and both of them speak in thick accents -- entirely different thick accents, of course, with varying typography to match -- and Reth's sister Ginda is not just a super-genius, but has the strength of Atlas, the sex-drive of Aphrodite, the aesthetic appeal of ten miles of bad road, and the temperament of a particularly nasty Cyclopes. That's not even to mention the baby -- kept in the cellar, and radioactive enough to power the entire country -- or Grandpa Podlasp, a churning mass of Lovecraftian protoplasm residing in the back greenhouse and mostly avoiding tampering with the atomic structure of the things around him.

This particular collection of Bojeffries material includes all of the original stories from Warrior and other outlets in the '80s -- as far as I can tell; there's no listing of contents or of prior publications, which is incredibly annoying in a book -- but not the linking material from the Atomeka edition. But it does have a new 24-page story about the Bojeffries clan in the modern day, where things have changed for all of them -- culminating in their collective presence on a reality show. (This is funny, but I've always thought much of the appeal and the point of the Bojeffrieses is their very timelessness -- the rent collector of the first story arc heavily implies that they've been the same for about a century, so it's unsettling to see them change so much in a mere decade or so.)

Anyway, that's what we have here: weird British family, supernatural in all of the usual ways but immediately doing the un-obvious things. Moore in his quirky, funny mode. Excellent art -- the classic-period stuff always looked a bit Hunt Emerson-y to me -- to boot. Why not?

[1] Though it's also probably the most British of his books, which may be why it seems odd to Americans like me. Perhaps Brits find it rather more sedate and homey?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Amusing Myself

I'm working on the list of books to send to a conference at work, which is a bit tedious but the kind of work I like: nitpicky, looking over a big spreadsheet and making changes, doing something big and useful and concrete.

And, of course, I'm finding titles that shouldn't be there, titles that are missing, and other errors -- that's the point of the exercise.

Why, just now, I saw that one book is on the list but has no copies listed, so it won't be sent until I specify a quantity.

That book, amusingly, is Accounting for Managers -- because we all know... there is no accounting for managers!

(And even after seven years I'm still not tired of that joke.)

Hope your current working days are at least this pleasant.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #118: Young Lovecraft, Vol. 1 by Jose Oliver and Bartolo Torres

Howard Philips Lovecraft is endlessly fascinating to the SFF world: half because of his creepy, adjective-stuffed work, with its dark vision of the universe and man's place in it, and half because of the man himself, nearly incapable of living in the real world, alienated and alone and neurotic and hating everything that isn't him only slightly more than he hates himself. Even though he was clearly a racist and anti-Semite and misogynist -- even for his era, which is worth noting a century later -- his work retains energy and power eight decades after his death, and his life remains of interest even while his personal views make modern readers squeamish.

The misanthropic HPL makes an unlikely candidate for a webcomic, even one using him as a creepy little boy: sure, the broad outlines fit, but the real HPL was practically an invalid in his childhood and actually less tolerant than he became in his later years. One would expect that webcomic to just use HPL's name and head off rapidly into generic neo-Burton dark whimsy. But that's not at all what Jose Oliver and Bartolo Torres' Young Lovecraft, Vol. 1 does: it takes something very much like the real HPL, hating others and being hated in turn, grumpy and alone and seeking bigger things, and sets him against an more whimsical, but still creepy, version of his own mythos.

Of course, this is a comedy, so the ghoul he meets ends up masquerading as his dog, Glenn. And there's the inevitable perky goth girl, Siouxie, to act as his foil and complement -- the uncaring bullies and laughers of his school can only go so far, since they don't understand or appreciate anything little Howie does.

So, in the strips collected here, HPL creates a golem, conjures various body parts of the dread Rammenoth, dresses up as Harun al-Raschid for Halloween, rewrites various classic books to add more Cthulhu, travels via byakee to visit Poe (and discovers that Baudelaire and Rimbaud are already visiting, for an impromptu drinking-and-poetry party), and saves his garden from Glenn's explosive attempt at setting up a barbecue. It's all a bit more adult and serious than you might expect -- there's even some implied sex in the background (not involving the kids, but part of the world, as it is part of a world).

Given Lovecraft's racism, it's amusing to speculate what he'd think of this book -- particularly since it's written and drawn by two Spaniards, one of the many ethnic groups he didn't like. And it's interesting to trace the history: Lovecraft's work was translated into Spanish so Oliver and Torres could encounter it (though, from Oliver's introduction, heavy metal music in English might have been an even more important vector), then they created their version of his youth, which was eventually translated into HPL's own tongue, English. But even if Lovecraft wouldn't have approved -- and we have to remember that there was very little in the world that he did approve of -- we can appreciate and love Young Lovecraft, which takes his work and makes it more global, dragging it into the modern world in a different guise and shape but with some essential Lovecraftianism intact and still as compelling as ever.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #117: Drawn Together by Aline and R. Crumb

Aline Kominsky-Crumb and R. Crumb bill themselves as "the world's only cartooning couple." By this, they don't mean that they're the only couple that both work in comics, because there's dozens of those. They don't even mean that the two of them are the only couple that work together on the same projects, because that's not uncommon -- for example Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover, or Frank Miller & Lynn Varley.

No, the Crumbs mean cartooning in a much more restrictive and stark sense: that they draw themselves on the same page, each working in final inks next to the other. They may mean their definition to be wider than autobiographical comics, of the kind they do together, but that's not clear -- but, by claiming to be the only ones who do what they do, they are forcing that thing to be defined very tightly. (It's an interesting, probably unique thing, admittedly -- but saying that you're the only ones who do a sub-genre that you invented is not quite as impressive as it might seem.)

Drawn Together collects over thirty years of those comics, originally published in pamphlet form in Dirty Laundry Comics and Self-Loathing Comics and in other places -- this book doesn't include any information on prior publication, which is a huge and horrible oversight in any retrospective. Without that publication history, all of Drawn Together runs together -- the reader finds himself searching for the copyright notices, just to have a sense of what year a particular piece was created or printed.

Luckily, while the trappings of the Crumbs' lives change a bit over that period -- their daughter Sophie is born and grows up (mostly on the edges of panels), and they move to rural Southern France about a decade in -- what their cartoons are about is their relationship, their complementary neuroticisms, the cartooning life, and, above all, trying to show the outside world what it's like to live inside their skins. They are '60s cartoonists par excellance, always mining their own psyches and throwing the pieces they find against each other, always simultaneously trying to understand and better themselves and at the same time wallowing in the fervent belief that they will and can never change.

These are wordy cartoons, filled with word balloons -- both Crumbs are talkers, and they talk even more when they can draw their arguments and take time to fix the wording. The art is deliberately a mish-mosh, with Crumb's detailed, controlled lines ramming into Aline's more impressionistic, looser drawings in nearly every panel. (Each of them sometimes takes over for a few panels at a time, and their are some guest stars late in the book who also draw a bit -- Sophie Crumb, art spiegelman, Charles Burns, and Peter Poplaski.)

Aline and Robert can be annoying on their own, but they tend to force each other to be more accessible -- and their rhetorical styles are so different that merely shoving them together makes the final product more energetic and expressive. Admittedly, a reader has to like the underground comics aesthetic -- all confession all the time, autobiography as cheap therapy -- to get anything out of this book, but that reader should know that about the Crumbs by this point.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/26

I've got two books to mention this week, and luckily they're about as different as books can be. But first, in case this exercise in unclear: since I review books, publishers send me books -- sometimes because I ask for them specifically but more often just because I'm out there. I don't read all of those books, but I do want to let you folks know they exist (and, I hope, not slander them along the way, though I fail in that fairly often). And so these are the two books that showed up this week -- I haven't read them yet, but I'm pretty sure these things are true:

Good Advice from Bad People is a high-concept non-fiction book edited by Zac Bissonnette -- his name's vaguely familiar to me, maybe because he's written other books before and maybe because he's a regular writer for magazines and newspapers -- in which Bissonnette collects quotes from people famous for doing very bad things. The quotes, as I understand it, are all advices, and I suspect most of it is hypocritical or at the very least deeply ironic in retrospect. Irony is fun, so I expect to enjoy this -- it's a small trade paperback from Penguin's business-focused Portfolio imprint, and it's already available.

Tom Doyle's American Craftsmen, on the other hand, is entirely fiction: a new amalgam of urban fantasy and the secret-society thriller, focusing on the secret families of "craftsmen" -- magicians allowed to live as long as they use their powers entirely for the benefit of the USA -- and their battles in the shadows against the similar forces of other nations. It's a Tor hardcover coming May 6th, and it comes with praise from some expected sources (Larry Correia, Jerry Pournelle, Eric Flint) and some less-expected ones (Jacqueline Carey, Mindy Klasky, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #116: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Recipe for a literary novel: take one obscure, allusive title -- it doesn't need to mean anything. Stir together three plot strands set in separate time periods -- but be careful not to over-egg the mixture by having much happen in any of those plots. Blend in a main character with a carefully quirky name -- Tooly Zylberberg, for example -- while keeping her emotions muted, her desires obscure, and her appeal mysterious. Sift until every important moment and detail is concentrated in the last fifty pages. Top in advance-reader form with a fawning letter from an executive invested in the success of the book and garland with quotes for the author's previous book.

Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists, was a marvel: the story of a mediocre European-based English-language newspaper, through the voices of a dozen staffers and hangers-on, covering decades and containing many meaningful revelations large and small. It was rightfully hailed as one of the best books of 2010. Four years later, Rachman is back with The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, which I'm sorry to say validates all of the cliches about second novels: it takes the things that were good about Imperfectionists and presents them in smaller, attenuated form, while straining hard in the direction of generic literary weight and importance.

The core problem with Great Powers comes from Rachman's decision -- presumably when planning the novel -- to focus his plot (such as it is) on the details of Tooly's history and to keep those details deliberately obscure until the end of the book. This wouldn't be so bad, if he told the story of a present-day Tooly trying to find out those secrets. But, instead, he presents a Tooly who already knows most of them -- which she and Rachman are very careful to never mention -- in a 2011 plotline, while doubling down by presenting events around those secrets in parallel plotlines in 1988 and 1999. This all takes very careful planning from Rachman to not actually explain such simple things like who Tooly's parents are and how she got to particular cities. Tooly does learn things at the end, but they are things most readers will have seen coming for a long time -- and her reaction to them, as it is to everything else, is dull and muted and undramatic. Rachman's attempted powerful scenes at the end mostly shows us things we've guessed and figured out, and, in his careful, literary way, Rachman avoids dramatizing them or making them emotionally resonant.

In 1988, Tooly is about to turn ten, and living with a man she always calls "Paul" in Bangkok. In 1999, she's twenty and free in New York, living with the Russian emigre Humphrey Ostropoler, part of what the back cover grandly calls "a group of seductive outsiders" but which seems to the reader to be just a semi-successful band of con artists. And in 2011, Tooly is on the far side of thirty, quietly running a bookshop in a small Welsh town when the inevitable Message from Her Past drops her back into that past and mixes her back up with both those "seductive outsiders" (besides Humphrey, that includes the flamboyantly self-centered Sarah and the tediously and sophomorically philosophical Venn, both of whom I assume are meant to be mesmerizing but come off as obnoxious, grasping jerks) and her 1999 boyfriend Duncan -- then a student at NYU she chased for a Venn-inspired and fizzled scam, now a successful lawyer.

In impeccable, gloriously readable prose, nothing much happens for over three hundred pages, as Tooly's story alternates among those three points of her life -- sadly, she's not very interesting, specific, or active in any of them. Every sentence of Great Powers is enjoyable, but the characters are either dull (Tooly, Duncan, Paul, Tooly's bookshop clerk Fogg) or cliched (Humphrey) or actively annoying (Venn, Sarah), and not nearly enough happens in this book, either in the world or in Tooly's head. If this is meant to be the biggest event of her life, surely she should actually have some kind of a reaction in the end?

Rachman has done better than this before, and he will again: this is a second novel, and those are famously mediocre. If you loved The Imperfectionists, it could be worth picking this one up -- some readers may find Tooly to have more personality than I did, or Venn and Sarah to be actually appealing in some way. If you've never read The Imperfectionists, go there.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #115: Girl Crazy by Gilbert Hernandez

Girl Crazy is Gilbert Hernandez's first solo record: the first major comic he did after the "band" broke up and the first volume of Love & Rockets ended in the mid-90s. That's not a perfect metaphor -- Love & Rockets was an omnibus of unrelated stories to begin with, and so not a "band" in any reasonable way, and Hernandez continued the storylines from L&R Vol. 1 the month after Girl Crazy ended, in his next comic New Love. So: it wasn't a band, and it didn't break up.

Which is a pity, because I'd love to try to make up some reasons why the mysterious Una of Girl Crazy is the L&R equivalent of Yoko Ono. (Every band metaphor eventually turns into Yoko.) Girl Crazy is one of Hernandez's metaphorical, allusive works -- he bounces between the closely-examined everyday life of the Palomar stories and their US-based continuations, on the one hand, and his stranger, more energetic works often based on dream logic and pure imagery, on the other.

Girl Crazy is definitely in the latter category: its three heroines (jungle girl Maribel, IRS agent and Ro-Man impersonator Kitten, busty hotshot lawyer Gaby) are unbelievable if taken seriously, since they're all vastly accomplished and also just about to turn sixteen. (All on the same day, which is a Big Clue about some of the metaphors.) They live in different worlds, or eras, but they -- and maybe everyone else -- can travel freely among them. It's a big, sprawling, comic-booky universe, the kind of place where anything can happen and definitely will.

The three girls get back together -- hmm, another band metaphor! -- to break a fourth friend, Una, out of prison. There are more typically Hernandezian baroque touches along the way, but that's the spine of the story: three girls, best friends, on the run from the forces of repression and evil to save their missing piece. And it happens, though not the way you'd expect.

Hernandez's art is typically beautiful and supple: as expected, he devotes a lot of loving attention to the girls' bodies and clothing (almost equally so; and the clothing gets pretty odd). The story is somewhat simpler and more based in old adventure-comics tropes than the Hernandez of a decade or so later, but it's still chewy, interesting stuff. For a book that looks at first glance like an excuse to draw a lot of attractive young women in skimpy outfits, Girl Crazy has a lot of subtlety and nuance going for it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #114: Woman Rebel by Peter Bagge

There are two kinds of biographies: some are too long, some are too short. (No book is ever exactly the right length; then it would be perfect, and we all know there's nothing perfect in this world.) Either way can be good, as long as it's not too far in that direction: a thousand pages about Adlai Stevenson or three about the first Queen Elizabeth. But, all in all, it's better to be too short: that's the old show-biz saying of always leaving them wanting more.

Peter Bagge's comics-format biography of Planned Parenthood founder and contraceptive pioneer Margaret Sanger, Woman Rebel, is definitely too short: it zips through Sanger's eventful eighty-plus year life in a mere 72 pages, giving each year less than a page. It gets a bit choppy because of that brevity, actually, as Bagge piles scenes on scenes and smash-cuts between years to get all of the events he wants to cover into the book. It's rare to say so these days, but this is one book that could have used a little decompression to give it some more air and space.

Sanger was a driven, energetic, monomaniacal woman -- so far, you can easily see the appeal to Bagge, who has spent most of his career telling the fictional stories of driven seekers who want something so much they sometimes even know what it is. But Sanger was successful and sociable -- scandalously so, since she was a major proponent of free love when that was a marker of the radical left-wing in the first half of the twentieth century -- and eventually rich, none of which is at all typical for a Bagge character. (Tom Spurgeon, of the online site Comics Reporter, makes this exact point at greater length in his scene-setting introduction.) After a parade of losers, it's a treat to see Bagge work on the life of someone who had strong opinions and directly affected the world for good: Sanger saved uncounted women from endless, health-sapping pregnancies, and not a few from death along the way.

She traveled the world, founded and ran several organizations (and fell out with the leadership of a number of those as well), wrote books and pamphlets and newsletters, had affairs with more men than Bagge even tries to track, fought multiple court battles and was arrested and thrown in jail more than once, and raised and distributed millions of dollars to the causes she supported so strongly. Through it all, she was opinionated, headstrong, and demanding -- but also, clearly, friendly and endlessly sociable, particularly after her second marriage made her rich and lifted her into greater contact with America's upper classes.

Woman Rebel will leave most readers wanting more, even after its extensive notes and afterword from Bagge at the end. And that's exactly what a good biography should do.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #113: Happy! by Grant Morrison & Darick Robertson

It's difficult to know which Grant Morrison will show up to one of his miniseries. Will it be the literary, allusive laughing skull of Seaguy? The ferocious, committed, devastatingly clear-eyed surgeon of We3? Or the well-meaning, slightly clumsy fantasist of Joe the Barbarian?

(It's never the same as the chilly, all-big-moments-all-the-time Bond villain Morrison affects when he writes big superhero comics: that pose is consistent, at least.)

For last year's side project, Happy!, Morrison headed into Frank Miller territory, with a hero much too hardboiled to be taken seriously and a city so corrupt the reader wonders how a single person can be left alive in it. Morrison was canny enough to bring artist Darick Robertson along for the ride; Robertson has a solid, realistic, modern style that's equally excellent for shouty faces and bloody explosions, and that moves Happy! far away, visually, from the stylization of Miller-land.

But ex-cop (and current murderer-for-hire) Nick Sax is a hard-luck Joe right out of Sin City: we don't learn his whole story until most of the way through the four-issue miniseries collected here, but trust me that it's Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One turned up to Eleven, and without a Batman to save him. Instead, Nick has Happy, a little blue flying horse that appears to him as he's rushed in an ambulance to the hospital after a double-cross hit doesn't go quite the way he hoped.

Morrison always wants to be a realistic writer -- no matter the bizarreries in his stories, he believes in them, at least for the length of that story -- so the fact that Happy is a little girl's imaginary friend means that the horse can't affect the real world at all. He can only talk, and only Nick can see and listen to him. This immediately slices the potential tonal variation of Happy! down immensely; it's can't really be the story of these two very different characters -- gruff cynical assassin and lovey cartoony sweetheart -- when Happy has to spend most of his time explaining the plot to Nick, warning Nick about danger, and cajoling Nick to do the right thing, like a bargain basement Davey and Goliath.

We know Nick will do the right thing, because this is a comic book, and because it's written by Grant Morrison. So all of the feinting in the other direction is just a waste of time, or an exercise in noirish atmosphere. Eventually, Nick will need to run into danger, to try to save someone, because redemption is what these stories are about.

Happy! is a decent enough thriller: it threatens to be much bloodier and nastier than it ends up, which is pretty much exactly what the comics crowd wants. It's not one of Morrison's best works, but it's not dreck like his Batman & Robin either. And Robertson's work is entirely exemplary here: Happy seems to be an invader from another reality (or a pop-over drawn by an entirely different artist), which is exactly as it should be. If you're looking for a noir comic with a redemptive ending, you could do a lot worse than this.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #112: Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen

Grand gestures and bizarre exploits are for the young, because you're never going to get any of us older people to do any of that. So if I told you a book was about a man's two-month odyssey across the US, armed with a Greyhound Ameripass and a list of people who'd agreed to let him couch-surf, you'd immediately have an image of him: young, disheveled, toting a backpack, probably dressed mostly in black.

And if you were talking about the trip K. Thor Jensen chronicled in Red Eye, Black Eye, you would be entirely correct -- that's pretty much who Jensen was. He was young, he was rootless -- the earl pages show his losing his job, girlfriend, and apartment in rapid succession -- and September 11th filled him with a desire to get out of New York and go somewhere else.

Red Eye, Black Eye is the story of that trip, told in a six-panel grid with an appealingly loose, relaxed art style. It's inherently episodic, of course -- the whole point of the exercise was to go to a bunch of places, stay there a few days, and then move on -- but Jensen makes it even more so by breaking his graphic novel into chapters by cities, and by asking his hosts along the way to tell him stories of their lives and exploits, and presenting those within his narrative as sub-stories.

For a book that could be spun as being about the young and aimless in America, Red Eye, Black Eye is remarkably sunny and open-hearted. Jensen doesn't get into any of the fights he intermittently looks for, and finds mostly kindness wherever he goes. (From the example of the later 120 Days of Simon, about a similar odyssey in Sweden, I'd expected more sex -- but, if Jensen got lucky in any of his stops across the country, he was totally discreet about it here.)

I do have to admit that I don't know what the title means. Jensen did express a desire to get into a fight -- to get a black eye out of it -- but the "Red Eye" piece escapes me. (He doesn't take a plane at any time, let alone a late-night one.) Maybe it's a reference to crying, or irritation from the 9-11 ash. In any case, Jensen saw the country, with two eyes -- when he was still young enough to do something crazy like this -- and turned it into a fine collection of moments and stories.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #111: The Economist Book of Business Quotations edited by Bill Ridgers

Reviewing books of quotes is a mug's game, and I do not intend to be a mug. However, I am doing this Book-A-Day thing, and this here is the book that I finished today. So let me see if I can say anything coherent and/or useful about it.

That book is The Economist Book of Business Quotations, edited by Bill Ridgers, a staff writer at the eponymous pinko (in color and in nothing else) broadsheet newspaper British-based newsmagazine. It's a small-format hardcover, with a little more than two hundred pages of quotes in a moderately-sized type and similar leading, arranged alphabetically by topic and all on some aspect or other of the working and financial world. The quotes occasionally dip back to Shakespeare, and I noticed one biblical quote, but, for the most part, they start at the first Gilded Age of a century and a quarter ago and mostly cluster in the second half of the 20th century, so that they will be familiar to The Economist's readers.

Most of those quotes, as you'd expect, are along the Gordon Gecko line: they reassure Economist readers that spending all of their time in dogged pursuit of ever more money by crushing the competition and selling their wives and chattels into slavery is entirely a good thing. There are a few contrary quotes, from comedians and other media figures and some others, but there are a whole bunch of Jack Welch quotes to counterbalance those, and quotes from others who are probably equally as sociopathic as he is.

If you want to know how the ruling class thinks, this is a scattershot and incomplete but moderately comprehensive look at that. And many of the quotes are amusing or interesting in their own right, as well -- particularly if you're the kind of person who hoards quotes (as I used to be, before the flood of '11 destroyed that hoard). And if you're looking for something to put in the annual report to justify shutting down that entire division and shipping their jobs to China, well... you've already had your secretary buy this with company money, haven't you?

Update, April 23: Thanks to Anonymous for pointing out that I had completely confused The Economist with The Financial Times in my headlong flow of snark above. The two news outlets are actually completely separate tools of the oppressive global ruling class, and Antick Musings regrets the error.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #110: The Great War by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of the great explainers of our day -- one of the top two or three working in comics today, and up there with the best TV talking heads and pure-prose nonfiction writers. So it's surprising to see him turn to a project that doesn't give him any scope for explanation: one that sees him present images, starkly, without dialogue or other details.

Previously, Sacco was best known for going to places -- generally war-torn, full of people vociferously arguing with each other using words as well as bullets -- and trying to get to the truth of some specific situation, sometimes taking years to distill his researches into comics. That method produced his books Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, The Fixer, Footnotes in Gaza, and the shorter pieces collected in Journalism.

But now Sacco has done something completely different: a single, twenty-four-foot long image, without words or panel borders or any of the usual accouterments of comics, telling the story of one day entirely in images run together. That thing is not quite a book, but you'll probably find it considered a book for most purposes, and it's called The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The package also comes with a booklet that includes some annotations of the panorama by Sacco and an essay about the Somme by historian Adam Hochschild.

But the center of gravity of the package is Sacco's single long picture, presenting a god's eye view of that first day of the Somme, from somewhere above and behind the British lines. Only the commander, General Haig, is identifiable: otherwise Sacco depicts the British army as a mass of interchangeable parts, a horde of men driven to the same task and indistinguishable from each other. That gives Great War a scope and sweep that Sacco hasn't aimed for in the past, though at the cost of eliminating any individuals or specific events -- this is a book about a historical moment, not the people caught up in it. Sacco's short introduction explains some of his techniques here -- he's broken the usual laws of proportion and perspective to jam his images together more strongly, in a style inspired by the Bayeaux Tapestry and similar medieval works.

Great War is detailed and fascinating, like a violent Where's Waldo? for history buffs. But, even with all of the explosions and bodies in the second half, it feels bloodless, because of the distance and detached perspective. We don't even see the Germans, on their side of no-man's land, because the shots and shells and barbed wire are in the way. But that makes this less of a battle and more of a machine for death -- perhaps that's exactly what Sacco wanted, but it all becomes cold and mechanical and fatalistic.

So this a lovely and fascinating artifact, but I don't know that it tells us anything about the Great War that we didn't already know, or gives us a usefully different perspective on that war. I found myself wondering if the style and matter wouldn't have been better served as an art project -- perhaps making the panels five times as high and wide, so they could be installed in a museum, snaking around and around to display all of the art. Sacco's art could stand that kind of magnification, I think, and that would let the viewer enter into the art and the battle in a way this book-sized version doesn't.

But, until and unless my pipe dream comes to pass, what we have is the size and shape of a book. The Great War probably won't be considered the equal of Sacco's best books; it's simpler and more straightforward than they are. But it's still motivated and informed by Sacco's analytical eye and precise hand: it's a fine snapshot of one day that was instrumental in forming the modern world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/19

The Mail Fairy [1] brought me more packages this week, which means I have something to write about here. I haven't read any of them yet, as usual. (This is because I'm stuck in the middle of a literary novel that's pleasant, but not as engaging as I'd hoped. And I know it's a literary novel because it's set in three time periods, and hardly anything is happening in any of them.) But I can still tell you some things about these books, even if I haven't read them yet. So here's what seems interesting about them:

Unwrapped Sky is the first novel by the Ditmar-winning Australian fantastist Rjurik Davidson, which nails its colors to the mast of the New Weird. (In case anyone else's thoughts run down the same channels mine did: no, he doesn't seem to have any connection to Avram. It's a common name.) Unwrapped Sky is a Tor hardcover, which hit stores on the 15th of April. It's set in the ancient city of Caeli-Amur, saved from external conquerors by minotaurs a century before and now ruled by three Houses. (I suspect the Houses are of minotaurs, and that the minotaurs are near neighbors, but the description doesn't make all of the details clear.) In any case, it's a city with an oligarchy, and of course revolutionaries are taking aim at that rulership, and Unwrapped Sky is a story of three people -- a revolutionary, a government functionary, and a philosopher-assassin -- in the middle of that struggle.

Vertical has at least a couple of manga volumes coming out this month, because I have two of them in front of me. First up is Wolfsmund, Vol. 4 by Mitsuhisa Kuji, continuing the tough, bloody retelling of the William Tell story. (I looked at the third volume for Day 44 of the current Book-A-Day run, if you're interested in more details.)

Also from Vertical is Shuzo Oshimi's Flowers of Evil, Vol. 9, continuing the story of a creepy love triangle among middle schoolers. (The Japanese standard is to set a lot of these stories in middle school, since that's less academically demanding than their cramtastic three-year high school -- and many of those manga are silently turned into high school settings for American consumption, especially if there's any sexual content. Or, at least, that's how I understand it.) I've been gathering these on a shelf to read in a clump -- though I'm missing #6 for some reason -- and I expect to read and review at least a few of them this year during Book-A-Day.

The Ultra Thin Man is neither about an alcoholic detective couple or a condom, despite what the title might make you expect. It's a SF novel by Patrick Swenson -- his first novel -- and it's a Tor hardcover coming on August 12. (Swenson runs the small press Fairwood, and the fact that he's not trying to publish this himself speaks well for his intelligence and grasp of how much any one person can do in publishing.) Ultra Thin Man is a thriller set in the 22nd century, set in an interstellar polity and focusing on two detectives who, of course, discover that their case has vastly deeper and more dangerous roots than they expected.

Seanan McGuire is one of the hardest-working writers in modern SFF -- under her own name and her Hugo-nominated pseudonym Mira Grant -- and she's back on May 6th with Sparrow Hill Road, the first book in a new series about the ghosts of America. This one is about Rose Marshall, the phantom hitchhiker, who's been fleeing the man who killed her sixty years ago, and who decides now is the time to stop running. I don't know if she's a series character -- I guess we'll have to find out.

Ellen Datlow is one of the top anthologists in the business, good for an original anthology or two each year, plus usually more carefully curated reprint anthologies -- she has a knack for finding/remembering/acquiring the right stories for her themes, and an equally good knack for picking themes specific enough to tie a book together without being so specific to make the stories all the same. She's back with Lovecraft's Monsters this month from Tachyon: it's a reprint anthology, with eighteen modern stories about Lovecraftian monsters, each one with a John Coulthart illustration to introduce it. The stories are almost all from the last two decades -- except "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" by Wladrop & Utley, and two 1988 stories, from Thomas Ligotti and Kim Newman. The rest of the table of contents is a who's who of modern horror: Gaiman, Barron, Lansdale, Kiernan, Hodge.

Kristen Britain is back with the fifth book in her "Green Rider" series, Mirror Sight, a May 6th hardcover from DAW. It's been three years since the last book, but this one is nearly eight hundred pages long, which explains a lot of that. (This is also a series that's been running for sixteen years; Britain is a writer who's always had a few years between books.) I haven't read this series before, but it's secondary-world fantasy, and I think without a single overarching plot for the series and a thankful lack of the need to save the entire world every time out.

There's a new collection of Simpsons comics this month as well: Bart Simpson to the Rescue!, which collects issues 53-54 and 56-58 of Bart's solo title. (Issue 55 was an epic three-part story, "The Princess Principle," focusing on Lisa, which may be why it doesn't appear here. And, yes, Your Humble Correspondent does know everything, or at least everything a quick google can tell him.) Rescue! is from HarperDesign, and has work by John Costanza, Carol Lay, Peter Kuper, and other people you wouldn't expect. (Hey, everybody's got to eat, right?)

Melanie Rawn is definitively back, with the third book in three years of her current secondary-world series about a traveling theatrical troupe: Thornlost is a Tor hardcover, hitting stores April 29th. Glad to see that this is clicking for her, and I hope it's clicking for her fans as well: I haven't read this series yet, but I enjoyed her late-'90s aborted trilogy from DAW: The Ruins of Ambrai and The Mageborn Traitor.

And last for this week is Daryl Gregory's new novel Afterparty, set in a near-future world where designer drugs can rewire anyone's mind -- and ubiquitous data and fabrication technologies mean that practically anyone can create and use those drugs. In that world, the scientist who created Numinous -- a drug that gives its users the unshakable belief that they have communed directly with God -- breaks out of a psychiatric ward to try to fix the world she helped create. It's a Tor hardcover, coming April 22nd.

[1] I doubt the UPS guy would be happy to hear we call him that at our house, but he doesn't have to know, does he?