Monday, June 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #180: The Hoodoodad by Lewis Trondheim

Just yesterday -- Day 179 -- I covered Harum Scarum, the first book in Lewis Trondheim's "Spiffy Advenures of McConey" series to be published in English. There are ten books in all in that series -- six of them in a loose contemporary sequence, four others as one-offs in various historical eras and/or genre idioms, with versions of the main characters in similar roles -- but only one other has made it into the language I'm typing in now. So, unless you can read French, you'll have a deformed image of the series. And by "you," I of course mean me.

That other book is The Hoodoodad (aka Pichenettes in French), the second in the main modern sequence of the series, following McConey/Lapinot (the bunny) and his best friend/roommate Richie/Richard as what might be a curse mildly interferes with their daily lives as young men hanging out in the big city. (Again, which city is left vague: they go to Houston Street, implying NYC, but the houses and gendarmes and general atmosphere argue more strongly for Paris.)

Hoodoodad is a much looser book than Harum Scarum was: the latter has a tight plot driven by an ever-escalating thriller elements, while Hoodoodad can be better described as "our heroes take on a curse from a bum, argue about whether it exists at all, have humorous accidents, and remove the curse." The pleasures of Hoodoodad are more like Trondheim's great autobiographical comics: close observations of dialogue and body language, the humor in only slightly exaggerated everyday life. This volume is something like a good sitcom, taking characters already established and running them through a sequence of events that doesn't seriously change any of them, but leaves a feeling of imminent or possible change. (It's a lot like a French Seinfeld, actually, down to the obsessiveness about minor points of life.)

Hoodoodad is more of a "hanging out" book -- Richie does think he's cursed, and is trying to get rid of it, but that doesn't strongly drive the plot. But it's more fun, and probably more purely enjoyable, than Harum Scarum because of that looseness and expansiveness. Neither of these book are all that easy to find these days -- they're both out of print -- but I'd send new readers to Hoodoodad first by choice.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/28

Once again, it's Monday -- for me, that means I do another one of these posts, listing the books that arrived during the previous week. I haven't read any of these books yet, but here's what looks interesting/amusing/different about them from right here at this moment.

I'm thrilled to see Charles Stross' new "Laundry Files" book, The Rhesus Chart, since I've been a fan of the series since the first book, The Atrocity Archives. (Back then, this series came out from a small press and was considered unlikely to succeed -- it's one of the vanishingly few cases where I something I absolutely loved was embraced by the larger genre community, and so I love the series even more for that.) Anyway, this is the fifth book about a British civil servant who goes by the name Bob Howard for the purposes of these memoirs, and whose primary goal -- and that of the entire bureaucracy to which he belongs -- is to delay and mitigate and undermine the looming inevitable Lovecraftian apocalypse as much as possible. I've written about several of the previous books -- The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, and The Apocalypse Codex -- and this is probably my very favorite series currently being published. It's an Ace hardcover, available to the general public any minute now, and if you've ever liked anything in the Venn diagram defined by Dilbert-ian office politics, the British spy novel, or Lovecraft, you need to read at least one of these books immediately.

I'm amazed to see that the next book -- Unwept, first in an fantasy trilogy called "The Nightbirds" by Tracy & Laura Hickman -- is so short; it's less than three hundred pages. It also has a remarkably classy, atmospheric cover for a fantasy. Whenever something runs against type, it becomes that much more interesting, so Unwept is looking pretty good. It seems to be a contemporary novel, centered on an amnesiac girl in a mysterious Maine seaside town, so it may even have a touch of the YA about it. Unwept is a Tor hardcover, hitting stores tomorrow on the first of July.

I mentioned Paul Park's new novel, All Those Vanished Engines, when I saw a galley a few weeks back. It's now a finished hardcover, and I don't have much more to say, since I haven't managed to read it yet. It's still a Tor hardcover hitting July 1, I still hope to read it, and Park is still a smart, masterful novelist.

And last for this week is The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2, a new anthology of some of the best stories in the field, edited by Gordon Van Gelder. This is not a continuation of the long series of anthologies reprinting the best of F&SF from the past year -- those ended thirty years ago, which possibly makes you feel older than you expected -- but the sequel to the first Very Best of F&SF anthology, which Van Gelder edited back in 2009. The current book has twenty-seven stories, originally published in F&SF between 1950 and 2011, including Finney's "The Third Level,"  Knight's "The Country of the Kind," Heinlein's "--All You Zombies--," Lafferty's "Narrow Valley," and Henderson's "The Anything Box" -- and that's just taking a few names from the first half of the book. It's a trade paperback from Tachyon, available July 15.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #179: Harum Scarum by Lewis Trondheim

Lewis Trondheim has made a lot of comics, in many different styles -- there's the slice-of-life auto bio stories, like Little Nothings and Approximate Continuum; the Dungeon series of pseudo-medieval adventures he co-writes with Joann Sfar; books for kids like Monster Christmas and Tiny Tyrant; and odd pantomime humor books like Mister I and Mister O -- and there's as many more series and styles that haven't been translated into English yet. But his first popular series was a series of albums called Les formidables aventures de Lapinot, set in another one of his worlds of anthropomorphic characters and featuring continuing characters who weren't always the same people. (That might not make sense, and I haven't read enough of the books to make it much clearer than this: Trondheim draws the same characters, with the same personalities and sometimes the same names, in entirely separate stories, some of which are historical.)

Two of the ten volumes of Lapinot were translated into English, more than fifteen years ago, under the series title "The Spiffy Adventures of McConey." But they weren't popular enough for the series to continue. Admittedly, this may be in part because they were published in the French album format -- forty-eight pages in a large trim size -- which has never been particularly loved over here.

The first of those books was Harum Scarum (Walter in the French original), in which McConey, a journalist cat friend and a dog policeman are caught up in a monster story that actually begins on the cover -- when you only have forty-eight pages, you need to dive in the deep end and start things moving immediately -- and runs through a lot of convolutions before it comes out the other end. The dog cop is Inspector Ruffhaus, and we know McConey's name from the series -- but I don't think the cat is ever named anything but "the journalist."

But names don't really matter: this is a thriller, full of mad science (of the turning-people-into-monsters kind), international intrigue, kidnappings, corrupt superior officers planning cover-ups and worse, gunshots, double-crosses, enhanced interrogation, lies and fine stories, and a whole lot of running around whatever city this is (my bet is Paris, but it never says) as the night stretches on and the antagonists keep finding our heroes in more and more desperate straits. It all begins with the shadow of that creature on the cover, which sends our trio racing out into the street to escape it. From there, we get some backstory filled in quickly -- McConey was asked to come to visit the scientist living in that apartment by the scientist's son, and brought along the journalist on the son's request -- but mostly move forward at full speed.

There's a lot of dialogue here, all of it snappy and quick -- though some is amusingly off-kilter, as when the Inspector demands to repay McConey for the bill after they all run quickly out of a bar, which leads to seven panels of low finance -- and the story feels big, even at this speed and crammed into so few pages. Some American readers, used to modern "decompressed" comics, may find Trondheim's pages too filled and too wordy, but it all rattles along wonderfully and makes full use of every last nook and cranny on those pages. No matter what style or series, Trondheim makes fun comics -- and Harum Scarum is a great monster movie on the page.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #178: The Little Man by Chester Brown

I seem to be reading a Chester Brown book every two years or so -- with The Playboy late in the 2010 Book-a-Day run, and then Ed the Happy Clown at the beginning of 2013 -- so I'm just about due for another. I must have realized this subconsciously -- assuming that there are specific subconscious motivations for all actions is a good way to make the universe utterly deterministic, at least in your own head -- because I picked up The Little Man today.

This is Brown's odds & sods collection -- or, more politely, the book of short work from the first half of his career. It collects strips that predate his '90s omnibus comic Yummy Fur, some short strips from the Fur itself, and other work that originally appeared in various anthologies. It is, as it must be, very miscellaneous.

Even the earliest stories have Brown's usual disorienting eeriness -- it opens with a four-page story in which toilet paper rises up and kills all of mankind -- and his mature art style is basically in place withing twenty-five pages. Brown does explain, in his extensive endnotes, that he has a lot of "juvenilia" -- stories that he created in his teens and even earlier -- but he only reprints one small pantomime strip from age twelve in those endnotes. (However, that strip is, at best, promising for a twelve-year-old, so it's easy to understand and agree with Brown's choice.)

One of the more interesting things this book illustrates is Brown's transition from a rigid grid -- usually six panels, though sometimes four or nine -- to his later floating panel look, which he explains comes about because he draws each panel separately on a different sheet of paper and only pastes them into pages afterward. In this book, that transition happens abruptly between "Helder" (an autobiographical story about an annoying housemate from 1989) and its follow-up "Showing 'Helder'"(a meta-autobiographical story about the process of creating the former, from a year later). The sparser look suits Brown's art well: he's an obsessive and focuses on tiny details, and placing his panels so carefully lets him be very precise with those details.

Thematically, The Little Man is all over the map: near-collage stories of redrawn panels from old comics put into a new sequence, the retelling of a gnostic story of Jesus, several then-contemporary autobiographical stories in large part about how weird his various male housemates are, some typically Brownian surreal stories of odd events and unlikely occurrences, and a self-educated screed on how evil psychiatry is. (The self-educated so often become cranks on the topics they've educated themselves about, and so it's an occupational hazard of the solo artist -- writers or cartoonists, in particular.) But each piece has definite strengths, and The Little Man holds together more than most short-story collections do, because of Brown's consistent art style and his similarly consistent concerns and images.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, June 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #177: High School DxD, Vol. 1 by Hiroji Mishima

If you're creating a story series aimed at teenage boys -- anything with visuals, from live action to animation to comics -- you can't go wrong including scantily clad women with large breasts. Oh, sure, that's sexist and demeaning and all kinds of other things. But it works, and marketers and creators around the world like things that work. If you can work in sexy-girl dialogue like "I applied some of my magic to it... by embracing you in the nude," all the better!

High School DxD, like so many other successful Japanese transmedia products, began as a light novel series, the product of one creator's imagination. (Heavily filtered through his editors' conception of what the market wants, of course: this is Japan.) Those were written by Ichiei Ishibumi, and there have already been eighteen of them since 2008 -- got to strike while the iron's hot! Popular light-novel series always transmute themselves into other media, so in due course there was an anime TV series and a manga.

The manga was by Hiroji Mishima, and the first volume -- High School DxD, Vol. 1, buy it from your local hegemonic Internet retailer -- is now available in English, translated by Caleb D. Cook. It's the kind of mildly titillating thing that has a lot of naked young women but no visible nipples -- the publisher (Yen Press) has rated this "M" for mature but it's really deeply, essentially adolescent.

(There's nothing wrong with being adolescent; we all are for several years. And High School DxD is quite blatantly and shamelessly adolescent, which is endearing.)

So: in a story for teenage boys, the hero must be a teenage boy -- preferably nebbishy in one way or another, unlucky or incompetent in love and life, to whom things happen but who doesn't drive the action (at least at first). And so our hero is Issei Hyoudou, who we first see on his very first date -- with a girl who asks "I was wondering if you would die for me" and then pieces his abdomen with a giant spear of light. A girl -- I initially thought it was the same girl, since shonen manga only allows for the slightest variation in attractive girl faces -- saves him, somehow. Issei thinks this is a dream, since the girl he dated has disappeared from the school, and no one remembers her but him.

But it was real: he was killed by a fallen angel, and brought back to life by the magic of a devil. Now he's a devil himself, and subject to expository lumps to explain the complicated supernatural setup and the chess metaphors that govern at least the devil forces. This battle has been raging for millennia and has three sides -- angels, devils, and fallen angels -- though it's in a quieter period right now, a time of skirmishes and spies rather than all-out war. And Issei is now low man in the devil group run by the hottest girl in his school, Rias Gremory -- she's the one who just has to get naked next to him to heal him when he gets mortally injured.

High School DxD, so far, is pretty blatant wish-fulfillment mixed with self-loathing: a potent mix when you're trying to attract teenage boys. Issei is going along with the devil gang because he has hopes of rising in the ranks and getting his own harem someday -- and, presumably, because they're all much stronger and more deadly than he is, but he's not smart enough to think about that. There's also a pretty nun starting to complicate things by the end of this volume -- Issei, for maximum audience identification, is as thick as two short planks, but surely even he should realize lusting after a devil-girl and a nun simultaneous will not end well? -- and I expect to see many more real angels as it goes along. It's a quick and undemanding read, though I expect only a vanishingly few female readers will enjoy it, and Mishima tells in in a clean, highly readable modern manga style that looks a lot like a thousand other things (though his villain faces are nicely distinctive and particular).

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #176: Fatima: The Blood Spinners by Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez has not been shy about his love of pulpy stories -- his work is full of them, from the semi-series of "movies" that one of his "real" characters acted in (like The Troublemakers, Speak of the Devil, and Love from the Shadows) to Girl Crazy (Day 115, his first solo comic after Love & Rockets broke up in the mid-90s), and even his Love & Rockets work is full of gangsters and soap opera. He's never gone far from the great wells of mainstream storytelling, love and fear and anger and betrayal, and seems to be as happy to present them in lurid form as in a more refined style.

Fatima: The Blood Spinners, as you might guess from the title, is not one of the more refined books: it's a pure blast of pulp, set in a near future ravaged by a supposed wonder-drug that turns its users into mindless zombies. (And yet druglords still try to sell it, because that's what druglords do in pulpy stories -- never mind if killing their customers with the first dose is not a smart business practice at all.) Fatima is our heroine, the requisite killing machine whose heart is on the verge of breaking -- she's seen too much, done too much, and the man she loves, Jody, barely notices her.

But there's no time to dwell on any of that: there's spin addicts to kill, and their druglord suppliers to find and eliminate, horrifying double-crosses to survive, and -- most of all -- shocking revelations about the world to come out, as they always must. Fatima can't be the one perfect savior of a horrible world if that world doesn't keep getting ever more horrible, can she?

Fatima moves quickly, jumping from one dramatic, stressful situation to another -- both the book and the woman herself. It's not deep, and it's not serious, but if you like seeing that Beto inky blood spilling all over the lovingly rendered pages, this is a great dose off Hernandez pulp.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #175: All Star by Jesse Lonergan

The world does not treat everyone the same -- we all know that intellectually, but we still react viscerally when we see it happen to us. Sometimes we even react badly when we're the ones getting preferential treatment, though it's much more likely to be the other way around.

Carl Carter, the hero of Jesse Lonergan's new graphic novel All Star, is a golden boy: he's treated better than he deserves a lot of the time. And, as this story unfolds -- at the beginning of the summer of 1998, when Carl is a senior near graduation and the star of his high school's playoffs-bound baseball team -- he comes to realize that, to be unhappy with it, and to fight against it at least a little.

Actually, Carl gets both excused and attacked: his father is hard on him for not making the most of his talents and coasting (and that father is absolutely correct), while he's a BMOC at school where he can do no wrong because of his athletic exploits. His older brother -- who, confusingly, is also on the same baseball team, meaning he's probably been held back -- is more clearly resentful of Carl, annoyed that what he works so hard on comes easier -- and better -- to his slacker kid brother. And then there's Carl's best friend Edsen: when All Star opens Edsen is the only person Carl is really open and himself with, but then the events of the book drive them apart.

Edsen is a "bad kid," partially because he does get into trouble and doesn't do all of his school work, but as much because his father has a violent temper and his older brother is a womanizing creep. (Edsen could be the protagonist in a YA problem novel, and, in some ways, All Star should really be his story: the events of All Star affect him more, and the repercussions will affect him more, than they do Carl.)

So Carl is floating through life: academics aren't really an issue, the playoffs are looming but he's sure he'll do well, and a full scholarship to college will keep his easy-going lifestyle from changing. And then one very bad decision changes everything about Carl's life -- though it also does open his eyes to how people are treated differently, and maybe (just maybe) starts to turn him into a more thoughtful, better person.

Lonergan tells this story quietly and unobtrusively, allowing it to unfold itself with a deliberate, everyday pace -- there's a summery lassitude and aimlessness to the character's lives, that end-of-high-school moment before the real world kicks in and everything is possible -- and his thin lines add to that feeling. All Star is a very strong, grown-up graphic novel about a boy who still has a lot of growing up to do himself -- Lonergan has observed him well.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #174: The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumpher and Hermy by Stan Sakai

It's not uncommon for a creator's most popular character -- or book, or painting, or whatever -- to have clear precursors, since artists usually have a continuity of interests. But they're only occasionally really, really blatant -- though those can be the most interesting cases.

Stan Sakai is most famous for his samurai rabbit, Usagi Yojimbo. He's written and drawn about thirty books of Usagi's adventures (depending on how you count art books and Space Usagi) over the past thirty years. But Sakai created the adventures of a different rabbit with a sword first -- and, in his introduction to this book, he explains how Usagi was originally going to be an important secondary character in a very long graphic story, but that the samurai took over his ideas quickly and sent him in a different direction.

So, finally, The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy has been collected -- the first few fragments of what Sakai originally expected would fill 2500 pages, plus some later stories done after he'd already shifted gears and given most of his serious attention to Usagi. Sakai's original conception, as he describes it, bears a very clear debt to Dave Sim's Cerebus, though Sakai never mentions that. This book has about a hundred pages of stories about an adventuring rabbit and his sidekick (as required: lovable, loyal, honest to a fault, and more than a little dimwitted), in a cod-medieval world full of anthropomorphic animals. They read a lot like Sakai's version of those first dozen or so Cerebus issues, taking standard fantasy-novel tropes  (mostly from Conan, and probably mostly via Conan comics and secondarily via Groo) and translating them into comics. Nilson and Hermy run into wizards and witches, kings and thieves, lurking monsters and lost cities -- all of the expected trappings of adventure in the early '80s. Each story basically stands alone, though the nasty wizard does return a couple of times.

This is minor work, of course, but it's a cute little package of amusing fantasy stories -- suitable for readers of nearly any age. Sakai's serious fans will probably find the most to enjoy here, with a Sakai rabbit hero probably previously unknown to them

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #173: Bad Machinery, Vol. 1 by John Allison

The great divide in serial short comics -- whether delivered by newspaper or web -- is between serial and gag-a-day. No one seriously disputes this: most strips fall on one side or the other. Mary Worth is a serial strip; Family Circus is gag-a-day.

The corollary to this is that the best strips -- the longest-remembered, the most honored, the most beloved by the audience -- are the special few that run straight down that line, doing both and doing both well. From Gasoline Alley and Thimble Theater to Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, these are the bulk of the most-honored strips, the ones we love the most.

John Allison's Bad Machinery is that good, and in exactly that way: it's riotously funny, with crackerjack dialogue and realistic-but-hilarious situations; and it's structured as a series of mysteries solved by the pre-teen main characters -- and, as is typical for twelve-year-olds, the three girls are in competition with the three boys for most mysteries solved. (Allison's drawing is also wonderfully animated -- his kids are enthusiastic and grumpy and depressed and sullen, all in their body language.)

What's it like? OK: imagine Scooby Doo without the dog, age down all the kids five years, throw in a few extra kids to make up for it, and toss them into a British public school.

Well maybe not. All right: take Harry Potter Year One, get rid of the magic and depressing orphan stuff, triple the number of girls, add a black kid, and give their mysteries a little more variety. (Spoiler! It's Voldemort! Every damn time!)

Bad Machinery Vol. 1: The Case of the Team Spirit is the first collection of Allison's webcomic. (Yes, you can read it all for free online, and I do suggest you start there, and only buy this book when you can't stop your chortling.) The girls are trying to help out an old woman, "Mrs. Biscuits," whose home is standing in the way of progress building a huge stadium for the local football (soccer) club. The boys are investigating the mysterious curse on the Russian owner of that very same club. Who! Will! Win!

Seriously, Allison writes some of the best smart-arse teen dialogue I've ever seen, and his stories live up to that dialogue. And his drawing is possibly even better than that. For anyone who likes stories in comics form, about kids, with mysteries and the supernatural (or any two of those aspects), this is exactly what you didn't know what you were looking for.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/21

Hey, here's two books that might interest some of you. They showed up in my mailbox serendipitously -- which here means "I haven't read them, and don't know much about them" -- but may turn out to be your favorite books of the year. Who knows?

Speaking of words that mean very specific things in the right context: "in the tradition of" is a phrase used in publishing to mean "if you liked that, you'll probably like this" -- it doesn't necessarily mean the new writer was specifically influenced by the older one at all. So if I say that Emily Croy Barker's first novel The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic looks to be in the tradition of Deborah Harkness's very popular recent trilogy, I'm not claiming any specific influence. (And I'm clearly not the only one that sees the connection, since there's a quote from Harkness on the cover of Thinking Woman.) The Thinking Woman in this case is named Nora: she wanders away from a wedding and accidentally is transported into a secondary world where, of course, magic works. And that world at first seems vastly better to Nora -- until things turn more dangerous, as they always must. Thinking Woman is a penguin trade paperback: it officially goes on sale July 29.

The other book I have this week is not quite a first novel -- but it's a first fantasy novel, which is pretty close. Susan Klaus has published two thrillers with a smaller publishing company, but Flight of the Golden Harpy is her first novel in "the bigs," as we in publishing never actually say. It's in the category of fantasy that takes place on an alien world with intelligent, mostly humanoid aliens, whom the heroine has to prove to her fellow humans actually are intelligent. (There's also a romance plot between the heroine and one of the harpies, just in case you thought this was getting to close to Little Fuzzy.) Since Golden Harpy comes from a SF publisher (Tor -- in hardcover right now), I presume that means there are elements of magic or the supernatural as well, but those aren't clear in the cover letter.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #172: Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker

Even in the restricted category of "novels that takes place entirely in the mind of one character," there can be clear distinctions. Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, cataloged the thoughts of a man named Howie on his way back to work after his lunch hour one day in the early '80s. His second novel similarly covers the thoughts of one man during one short action -- but the focus is very different.

The Mezzanine was almost hermetic: full of footnotes, obsessed with minutiae, describing the processes of a mind in large part trying to understand itself, focused on small details of the narrator's life and especially specific physical objects. Howie connected intellectually with objects, and in a small sense with writers of the past, but wasn't thinking about other people or his place in the world. Baker's second novel, Room Temperature, though, is all about connection and family and communication with others -- what we say, what he hesitate to say, what can only be brought up after a long relationship.

Room Temperature takes place, like Mezzanine, entirely in the head of its narrator -- but the action of Room Temperature is that narrator, Mike, cradling and feeding his infant daughter, called the Bug. And so this novel -- though still full of thoughts about peanut-butter jars and French horns and the sound of a pen writing in a notebook -- is much more intimately concerned with family life, with the progress of a marriage, and with its narrator's own journey through life and the choices he's made. There are no footnotes, though there certainly are digressions -- the entire book is a digression, what one man's mind thinks about while he's doing something that doesn't require thought.

Room Temperature is a warmer, friendlier, more personal novel than The Mezzanine was -- Mike is mostly thinking about his wife, Patty, and about all of the things that swirl around their relationship. Some of those things are grossly personal -- nose-picking, the damage birth can do to a woman's genitals -- but they're all treated matter-of-factly, inside a friendly, happy, loving marriage. Mike isn't perfect -- are any of us? -- but we like him and wish him well, because we can see aspects of ourselves in him.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #171: The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth by Lender & Giallongo

Of all of the Shakespeare plays that you could retell for younger readers, Macbeth is one of the more unlikely. Oh, sure, King Lear is definitely even worse -- yucky old people, boring do-my-kids-respect-me plot motivation -- and I don't expect to see a picture-book Coriolanus anytime soon. But, still, Macbeth is about ambition and madness and hubris, not usually core concerns for fourth-graders. Though it does have about 200% less hesitation than Hamlet, so it has that going for it.

Ian Lender and Zack Giallongo -- writer and artist, respectively -- clearly don't worry about that, because they're launching a series of graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare plays with The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth. (Romeo and Juliet is already promised as a follow-up.)

The conceit is amusing and appropriate: the animals of the Stratford-on-Avon zoo, presumably being steeped in all things Shakespearean, perform plays for their peers late at night, after the zoo is closed an all of the humans are gone. The first show we see of theirs is this Macbeth, but this is clearly not their first show. We're mostly watching the show on stage, but attention wanders -- we see the audience commenting, complaining, and murmuring to each other throughout, including a family of unnamed small furry mammals (lemurs? monkeys? some small apes?) who almost become our viewpoint characters.

It's all kid-appropriate: the dialogue has some Shakespearean lines and phrases, but those are rephrased and the action reframed to suit the older elementary-school crowd. So Macbeth is a lion who eats the owl king, and the stain on his wife's hand is because she's washing the ketchup stains out of Macbeth's clothes after his murders-cum-feasts. It's not far away from the original, but just far enough: identifiable to adults, but still clear to kids. Stratford Zoo has some violent moments -- this Macbeth does eat several people, just barely off-panel -- but he eats them like the Wolf in the most kid-appropriate versions of Red Riding Hood, if you know what I mean.

Some of the changes to make this kid-friendly are silly -- Macduff's army dresses in foliage from Burnham Wood because they forgot their armor -- and some seem just a hair off what they could have been -- Macduff is a bird, so the "not born from a mother" could easily have been "hatched from an egg," but Lender goes with the stork explanation instead.

But it's funny and age-appropriate and hews pretty closely to Shakespeare the whole time. I expect to see this in a lot of classrooms over the next few years -- and I think the kid will like reading it, too, which is even more important.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index