Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #150: Daytripper by Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba

Stop me if you've heard this one before: there's this regular guy, working at something that's almost the work he wants to do, falling in love, building a family, when tragedy strikes and he dies suddenly -- in his thirties, or twenties, or forties, right after an important moment in his life, or right before that moment, or instead of that moment. And then it happens again, at a different point in his life. And again.

He's Bras de Olivia Domingos, the only son of a very famous Brazilian novelist -- and a noted novelist in his own right, when he lives long enough. And his stories -- all of those lives cut short, and the one that wasn't -- make up Daytripper, a luminous and deep graphic novel by the most talented twins in comics, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba.

Daytripper was originally published as a series of ten individual comics, and it makes great use of that structure: each issue tells the story of one of Bras's lives, starting with the one where he dies at the age of thirty-two. Each chapter tells the story of one time in his life, one moment -- and then perhaps the worst way that time could end. It's a story of small moment, of finding the meaning of life both in the small moments and in working for your big dreams: the right partner, the right work, children.

A book structured like Daytripper could easily fall into a hedonistic or nihilistic message -- that nothing really matters because death can strike at any moment. But Moon and Ba have a more subtle point to make: that life is sweet, and it's that much sweeter because we know it will end. And so they make Bras into an Everyman and the flow of his life -- of all of his lives, short and long, broken and mended -- into a joyous celebration of all life.

It doesn't hurt that their collective art is gorgeous and evocative, of course: Moon and Ba draw a world we want to fall into, to inhabit with their characters, no matter what the risk.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, May 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2104 #149: The Irredeemable Ant-Man by Kirkman, Hester, and Parks

Eric O'Grady makes a very unlikely superhero: he's obsessed with sex (in a very schoolboyish, voyeuristic way, so as to be more general-comics appropriate), better at lying than at any useful pursuit, shallow, vain, not particularly smart, unmotivated, and a coward. He's a SHIELD agent for pretty much the reason young men in our world are in the military: it was a way out of his podunk town, and it sounds more impressive than the desk-jockey surveillance-officer reality.

But he is the central character of The Irredeemable Ant-Man -- "hero" really isn't the word for him -- and he's wearing a supersuit most of the time and living in the Marvel Universe with Nick Fury, the Hulk, and Wolverine. And -- not to give the ending away, or anything -- but the ending of this collection of his adventures sees him teary-eyed as he pledges to give up his wastrel ways, grow up, and be a Real Superhero Just Like The Ones He Loves! So perhaps this book is not so much "world's worst superhero," as it's usually billed, but more like "world's longest origin story," as if Spider-Man's wrestling career and self-satisfied pursuit of money was drawn out for a dozen issues before being clobbered by the hairy thumb of Stan Lee's plot.

(After this point, young Eric bounced around minor teams on the superhero/villain border, before unsuccessfully dying -- one of the requirements of a modern superhero is at least one death -- and completing his long heel-face turn.)

But we can enjoy Eric is his fully irredeemable state in the stories collected here -- all written by Robert Kirkman and pencilled by Phil Hester, though the cover claims the second artist is Cory Walker and the interior insists that it's Ande Parks -- as he takes the supersuit from his dead friend's body (admittedly, while their flying headquarters was crashing during an attack), goes on the run with the suit, and engages in mostly antisocial behavior. The SHIELD agent sent to retrieve the suit is of course someone we readers can hate, and Kirkman puts his own hairy thumb on the scales late in this book to make Eric look somewhat better than the alternative.

It's decent superhero stuff, smart enough not to take itself too seriously and willing to mildly ding the assumptions of the genre (though not too far, of course: got to remember who's buying this!). And it's definitely amusing to see such a classic anti-hero stuck into this situation.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #148: Dogs and Water by Anders Nilsen

I have the profoundly uneasy sense that I may be cheating with today's selection: is it really a "book?" Sure, it's the size and rough shape of a book, and was a one-off publication in 2004. (And it carries a book-like price tag of $9.99.) But the thing is bound by staples, which, in my youth, was the infallible sign of a periodical. And it's comics, too, so it was originally ordered and sold out of a monthly distributor catalog along with tens of thousands of other stapled objects of various sizes, none of which would usually be considered a book.

On the other other hand, though, I just read it and I'm going to write about it here -- so, under that very narrow definition, it is definitely a book.

The item in question is Anders Nilsen's Dogs and Water, a standalone publication that is similar to but essentially separate from his decade-long series (and eventual single book) Big Questions. I've had it on my shelf for some time -- I think it was part of my care package after the flood, when some friends gave me a bunch of comics after I lost all of mine. (I've probably never thanked them enough: it was an incredibly nice gesture at a time when that was very welcome.)

Much like Big Questions, it's set in a bleak landscape, with characters that don't explain themselves and are not explained to us. A young man is walking for a long way in one direction, for reasons he doesn't say. His only companion is the teddy bear strapped to his backpack, but he meets others -- dogs, humans, deer -- along the way. Dogs and Water is the episodic story of part of that journey: it's well after the young man set off, and he hasn't arrived anywhere when the book ends. Interspersed are dream sequences, drawn in blue, in which the same young man is in a boat, in water equally lost and trackless, with situations equally difficult and dangerous.

It's more evocative than explained, and Nilsen's art is as spare and stark as his situations -- if you've seen Big Questions, you know the kind of thing he does. If not, Dogs and Water is smaller and more compact; it's a great introduction to Nilsen.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #147: Welcome to the Dahl House by Ken Dahl

If Fox News wanted to create a caricature of the left-wing "alternative" cartoonist, they'd be hard-pressed to beat the way Ken Dahl presents himself (and his alter-ego Gordon Smalls) in this 2008 collection. I'm not exactly criticizing: Dahl is who he is, and he can present himself however he wants. But it was amusing to read through this book and tick off all of the boxes: self-identified punk, getting too old to skateboard, drifting and working at dead-end jobs, obsessed with the correct style for a minor self-indulgent artform (zines), anti-military, anti-war, anti-war-hysteria, teetering between anger that cute girls won't give him the time of day and a semi-feminist realization that mindset is profoundly creepy, and huffy about how badly he was treated after actually stealing something. (He's even from Hawaii, like the President they hate!)

Welcome to the Dahl House collects strips from the decade leading up to 2007, but more than half of the strips here are from the 2005-2007 period: the darkest Bush years, with two foreign wars of choice raging and terror hysteria at its highest shriek. So it's easy to see how an aging underemployed guy -- working as a short-order cook, I think, at barely minimum wage -- could despair about the world and rage at all of the things he hates. And Dahl -- as I understand it, he also is or was or sometimes still is Gabby Schulz, though I don't really get the distinction -- is honest and clear in his comics, combining an expressive '90s alt-cartoonist look (a little Bob Fingerman here, a little Peter Bagge there, a clump of Dan Clowes over yonder) with wordy but incisive ideas about the things he clearly really cares about.

The Gordon Smalls stories are the best pieces here, since they get Dahl to separate his story from himself -- they operate a bit like Kevin Huizenga's Glenn Ganges character, in that Gordon is clearly an aspect of Dahl, or a person who feels and cares the way Dahl does himself. (This is my assumption: Smalls may actually be based on someone else, or a purely fictional character. But he feels connected to the same concerns and fears as the "Dahl" character and voice in the other stories, so I feel confident in that assumption.)

Welcome to the Dahl House is not explicitly political (except for one story about flying on 9/11/2002), but it is the collected stories of a man who was angry and disgusted at the world around him (and, somewhat, himself) for these years. It's also something of a time capsule, for all that it's not quite a decade old: that particular variety of jingoistic hysteria burned itself out (and most of America seems to want to pretend it never happened, or that they weren't part of it), and even Dahl's obsession with zines is clearly from the time when the Internet hadn't quite conquered everything. It does encapsulate what this one guy -- as representative as you want to make him -- cared enough to cartoon about for ten rocky years in American history.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #146: Zoot Suite by Andrew & Roger Langridge

About a dozen days ago, I looked at the first major collaboration between the antipodean brothers Langridge, Art d'Ecco, as Day 133. It was an odd but bizarre series of stories about a small group of characters who almost seemed to be the Langridge Brothers equivalent of the commedia del'arte figures: never meant to be taken as real humans, but representative of types or humors or other broad categories of humanity. It hovered at the edge of understandability: clearly the product of a very individual imagination, but with a few points of congruence with prior works and consensus reality to ground it.

Zoot Suite, which collects an early-90s four-comic series, feels like purer Andrew Langridge, and is even less explicable or understandable. Most of the length of this book is taken up by an episodic story called The Journey Halfway, in which an unnamed man's car is taken away -- he assumes towed by his municipality, ahead of the actual no-parking deadline -- and that causes him to spiral through a series of odder and less-likely events, accompanied by a small friend and by a series of strange and demonstrative others. It's driven equally by surrealism and dream-logic -- each event seems to follow naturally from the ones before it, even when the narrative wanders completely out into no-man's-land.

Zoot Suite also has a number of shorter strips, some of which are also episodic. They tend to be quicker, simpler jokes -- though "simpler" is a relative thing with Andrew Langridge -- but they're jokes "about" aspects of the human condition, or modern life, or (maybe more than anything) about the words themselves. Andrew Langridge is a word-besotted writer: he loves the sound of words as much as their meaning, and loves even more mixing up the two and frothing up all of the words at his disposal into a souffle of witticisms and the slightest bit of matter.

Roger Langridge's art is lovely as ever: precise inky lines; amazingly evocative faces, both realistic and caricatured; and a marvelously centered sense of place, all in the service of his brother's seriously silly verbal leaps.

There's no getting around it: this is a deeply odd comic. But it's more great Roger Langridge art, for those who appreciate that, and the quirky brilliance of Andrew Langridge's neo-logorrheatic wordplay will find some fans as well. (Or has already; this book is nearly twenty years old.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #145: Wolf Children Ame & Yuki by Mamoru Hosoda & Yu

Some works are just too sweet and helpless to criticize. So today's post may be pretty short.

Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki collects the manga of the same name, which adapted the 2012 animated movie Wolf Children. The manga was adapted by the manga-ka Yu from the movie script by director/writer Mamoru Hosoda, and the book credits the designs to Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, from the movie team. It is a sweet, simple story, and it's probably better told in moving pictures -- though this version is lovely.

College student Hana -- almost a parody of the Japanese young woman, smiling ever more intently no matter what happens to her and apologizing profusely when people are rude to her -- meets a strange and unnamed young man who is the last Japanese werewolf. They fall in love, and have two young children, but then the man dies in an way not clearly explained in the manga -- did he fall? was he shot? -- but is definitely Really Sad and not because he was doing something really stupid when he should be taking care of himself to watch over his family.

Anyway, Hana has to raise her two werewolf children -- girl Yuki and year-younger boy Ame -- all by herself. She soon moves them all to a remote rural house, so the kids can turn into wolf form, and the rest of the story unfolds just as episodically as the beginning. Yuki demands to go to school, and does so. She meets a new transfer-student boy, a few years later, and he eventually learns her secret. Ame skips school to learn the ways of the wild.

(You see, of course one child would follow the human path -- and that has to be the girl, because otherwise she wouldn't be neat and demure and Japanese -- and the other the wolf path -- equally required to be the boy -- because that's just how programmatic this story is.)

It ends with the children as teenagers: Yuki away at a boarding junior-high school, Ame watching over the woods because that's what apex predators do in simple-minded stories. And Hana is as much of a doormat as ever, thrilled that she's given up more than a decade of her life to children that have basically abandoned her as soon as they could. She also seems to have spent most of that time living on her savings -- probably the remnant of the money that was supposed to pay for her abandoned college education -- so she's left poor, alone, in her mid-thirties, half-educated and with no specific skills, in the middle of nowhere, with only grumpy standoffish locals around her. Yay -- happy ending!

Again, it's all very sweet, and probably even more lovely in color moving pictures. But it's very much on rails, and there's nothing at all surprising in it at all. It's probably not sexist on purpose. But you might find, as I did, that you want to poke Hana really hard -- and perhaps Yuki as well -- to get her to stand up for herself, and that you resent the very careful plotting to put her into this situation.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Incoming Books: May 23

This past Friday, there was a land-rush to get out of the office ahead of the long weekend...but I didn't have a train home for two hours. Well, that's never stopped me before: as usual, I went the opposite way, into NYC, to eventually grab a bus heading homeward.

And if I somehow found myself in the Strand along the way, well -- that's just good planning, isn't it?

The Strand is one of the world's great used bookstores -- well, it's more than that, but I treat it like a used bookstore, and don't bother with the new stuff up front -- and the great rule of a used bookstore is that you can't be looking for anything specific. Oh, certainly: come in with a list, on paper or electronically or just swirling in your head. But make sure it's a long list, and be on the lookout for other things as well. Because the point of a used bookstore, unlike one with new stuff, is that you have no idea what you'll find, and you have to be open to serendipity.

(Parenthetically, I had another realization that I'm getting older and crankier by the moment: the Strand had a major renovation a number of years ago, which made the place more open and airier and cleaner and easier to navigate, with better signage, an improved entrance and cash/wrap, and a great internal staircase. And I keep thinking that I hate it: I want the old crowded place back with massive rows of half-price hardcovers in the basement. I am self-aware enough to realize that at least half of what I want back is the pre-e-book publishing world, and much of the other half is my own youth. But, still: it is new and I don't like it.)

And here's what I found, with the graphic novels/comics first and then the straight prose afterward (since I already have them piled up according to where they'll be shelved):

Welcome to the Dahl House, which seems to be a collection of loosely related strips (though maybe it's one continuous story) by Ken Dahl, who is also the author of the graphic novel Monsters.

I'm Pretty Sure I've Got My Death-Ray in Here Somewhere! a collection of the incredibly obscure but great strip cartoon Eyebeam by Sam Hurt. There were five or so collections of this strip through the '80s (and at least one of its successor Queen of the Universe in the early '90s), and I had collected most of them after discovering the strip about twenty years ago. (They're very hard to find, especially thirty years later -- I think they're the kind of books that turn up used only when someone dies.) I was just missing one collection -- Our Eyebeams Twisted -- when the flood hit, but now I'm back from zero. And, googling to write this, I see Sam Hurt has come back to Eyebeam in the past decade and his style is amazingly still consistent.

I've been reading a lot of Roger Langridge lately -- he'd been on my "you'll probably like him" mental list for a long time, but I really clicked with the Muppet Show books he did for a stretch a few years back -- so I was happy to see Zoot Suite, another collaboration with his brother Andrew from the late '90s. (And I hope this isn't entirely work that's also included in Art d'Ecco, which I just read.)

I read the massive and vital Willie & Joe: The WWII Years collection by Bill Mauldin when I was an Eisner judge a few years back, and I do have a copy of the follow-up, Willie & Joe: Back Home (which is almost as important to comics history and, in its buried way, perhaps even a more impressive achievement). And now I have a copy of the WWII book in the cheaper single-volume paperback edition -- it doesn't seem to be designed quite as wonderfully as the slipcased hardcovers were, but all of the Mauldin cartoons are here, which is the central thing.

Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 collects most of Scott McCloud's first major comics work -- everything but the first ten issues, which were originally in color and can be found in a Kitchen Sink trade paperback reprint if you hunt -- and now I have a copy of it again.

And another book I had to re-buy after the flood is Cyril Pedrosa's Three Shadows, which I reviewed for ComicMix in 2008 when I first saw it. It's not well-known here, though it won a major prize at Angouleme when originally published in French, and I stand by what I said about it then: "This book will break your heart; I warn you now."

And then to prose:

I read and loved Martin Amis's London Fields back in about 1991 -- I might have even bought the iconic Vintage International edition, all yellow and black -- and that set me off buying and reading backwards and forwards in Amis's career, until that lousy book about "a police" stopped me, for at least a while. And then the floods destroyed all of the Vintage International editions, lined up carefully. But I heard that there's a film of London Fields coming -- someone (and I forget who) was on Craig Ferguson's talk show recently talking about it --and so that seemed like a good excuse to get the same edition again and try to find time to re-read the book.

I read Lawrence Block's smutty thriller Getting Off-- transparently published with a small writing as Jill Emerson" credit -- from the library when it was published a few years back, but didn't have my own copy of it until today. Block is one of my favorite writers, though, so I do intermittently think about trying again to collect all of his books.

I do have nearly all of Steven Brust's books -- the flood was damaging, but authors at the beginning of the alphabet in hardcover weren't touched -- with a few exceptions, and Sethra Lavode was one. I also intermittently think I might re-read all of his Dumas pastiches, and now I actually have all of them.

I originally read Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita back in the '80s -- I got it from the SFBC, in whatever the standard translation was in those days -- and have vaguely thought about re-reading it since. That desire picked up when there was a major new translation a few years back, and I had a copy of that new translation sitting on the shelf when the flood hit. So, today, when I saw a Penguin Classics edition -- translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the standard famous translators of Russian novels for this generation -- I figured that was it. But after a little research, I think the acclaimed translation was by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, and came out a year before the Pevear/Volokhonsky. As I understand it, both of the '90s translations are from the rediscovered uncensored original text of the novel -- unlike the '60s translation I originally read -- so either one is good that way. I doubt I'll have time to read both translations, but who knows?

I've seen several British writers -- Martin Amis, I think, and others I can't recall right now -- praising the short novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, who started her novel career in 1977 at the age of sixty-one. So when I saw an inexpensive edition of her novels Offshore, Human Voices, The Beginning of Springin a nice Everyman's Library edition, I snapped it up. Particularly since I'm doing Book-A-Day this year, short novels look appealing to me.

I've had St. Clair McKelway's Reporting at Wit's End -- a colleection of his journalism from The New Yorker of the '30s through the '60s -- on my "look for it" list for several years, and I finally found a cheap trade paperback copy today.

I've had a vague interest in re-reading J.D. Salinger for years, so I also grabbed The Catcher in the Rye in mass-market. If I manage to get to it, and like it, I might dive into all of the Glass stories after that -- but that would be the next thing.

And last was The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux -- though, as I remember the shopping trip, I think this was actually the first book I picked up and decided to buy, which is nicely circular -- which seems to be a bunch of quotes and passages about travel and various specific places by the travel writers Theroux himself likes. I've liked Theroux's own travel books, so it wasn't a stretch to think I might like the things he liked.