Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #243: Betsy and Me by Jack Cole

It's a natural human reaction to try to find meaning in tragedy, or to claim great art was the result of great suffering. Our minds are wired to find connections and turn events into stories, so that's the way we always bend: we want everything to make sense and to be explained somehow.

But the actual world is random and chaotic -- even the parts of it comprised of people's lives and behavior. And so those stories aren't usually true: the tragedy is just a sad thing that happened, for no reason, and suffering is just suffering, sad but everyday and banal. Not all of those stories are lies, exactly, but they're not true, and they distract us from what is true, from the actual hard facts and measured judgements we should be concentrating on.

Jack Cole was a great cartoonist. That much is definitely true: his work on the Plastic Man comic book was groundbreaking, thrilling, funny, and wonderful. And his cartoons for Playboy, a few years later, were witty, sexy, sumptuous, and lovely. And he did kill himself in 1958, very soon after hitting what was considered the peak of a mid-century cartooning career: getting a syndicated newspaper strip of his very own. All those things are facts.

R.C. Harvey, though, wants to turn them into a story in his long and detail-packed introduction to Betsy and Me, a book that collects the entire run of that ill-fated strip. And they're not a story: they're a few high points in a life. Lives are not stories, and we should remember that, no matter how much we want them to be.

And Betsy and Me, at the very best, is the stub of a strip: Cole did two and a half months of strips and then Dwight Parks took over to do about as much more. Cole spent most of his time introducing his cast -- chatty everyman Chester B. Tibbit, his pretty but mostly uncharacterized wife Betsy, and their standard 1950s genius child (glasses, giant round head, occasionally even a beanie) Farley -- with an extended opening sequence describing Chester's courtship of Betsy and the subsequent birth and first few years of Farley. We can't have any idea of what Betsy and Me would be like as a mature strip, because Cole didn't live that long: he was still engaging in a slow setup when he died. (Parks's stuff is a cut below Cole, but only if you pay careful attention: there's no obvious demarcation as when E.C. Segar had to give up Thimble Theatre.)

It's all drawn in a very standard 1950s UPA-derived style, and the gags and situations are equally stereotypically 1950s: Cole has Chester go moony over the birth of his son, then spend a few weeks to buy a car and was just settling the family into the suburbs when he died. Harvey makes a lot of hay about the discrepancy between text and images in Cole's strips, but that strikes me as pure special pleading: this is a very, very talky strip, so there will be some cases where the talk amusingly works against the pictures. But I didn't see any indication that was Cole's main humorous aim in Betsy and Me: most of his gags are vastly more obvious and standard than that. It's just a strip with a lot of words: too many, most of the time.

Betsy and Me is not a great lost strip -- maybe it could have been a great strip, if Cole lived longer, but we will never know that. Cole was certainly capable of greatness. It is a broken stub, in a very common idiom of its time, of interest only because of the circumstances surrounding its creation. Harvey's introduction may be the best part of the book: it provides a reasonable potted history of Cole, with some well-chosen illustrations, and only goes a bit off the rails in its claims for Betsy and Me. But this is really just a book for serious fans of Cole or equally serious students of the mid-century newspaper strip.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #242: The Best of Milligan & McCarthy

Most books of comics privilege story: they collect an arc of Batman, or encapsulate a year of a webcomic, or present a brand-new graphic novel. That's the current model, born of comics' engagement with the book market over the last decade or so, and it works quite well: each volume is relatively accessible and is at least somewhat a thing in itself.

There's another model, though: of comics as art and the history of art, presenting a gallery of images and moments and ideas, hitting the high points without spending too much time mucking around with all of the fiddly bits that came in between. And it's not surprising that two ex-art school guys like Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy choose that other, now less common model to gather and celebrate the best work from their decade of collaboration in The Best of Milligan & McCarthy.

So you won't find a table of contents or an index here: Best of opens and closes with panels blown up to oversize-page size, signposting that this is a book primarily about eyeball kicks and isolated moments, ruthlessly culling all of the work that these two men did from 1983 to 1994 into about two hundred and fifty pages of heavily-designed art-comics, with each section smash-cutting into the next without half-titles or other book-design fripperies. It even disposes of page numbers the vast majority of the time, to let McCarthy's vibrantly bright and unsettlingly detailed images fill the reader's entire visual field.

It does collect a lot of Paradax and Freakwave pages, along with lesser-known Milligan-McCarthy work like The Electric Hoax (from UK music newspaper Sounds), and Summer of Love (another newspaper strip, from an unnamed UK Sunday paper), and Sooner or Later (from 2000 AD), but all of those are presented in pieces: some pages here and there, with notes about what happened in between and afterward. Freakwave in particular comes out badly battered by this; they include a lot of grotesquerie and atmosphere and random oddness, but don't have that leading anywhere, so it feels like a sequence of ideas in search of a plot.

Shorter works come out better -- both of the major Milligan-McCarthy one-shots, Skin and Rogan Gosh, are presented whole, as are a number of shorter stories including the only extant tale of Mirkin the Mystic, who they always intended to do more with. And all of the excerpts are well-chosen pages that showcase Milligan's philosopho-mystical dialogue and McCarthy's colorful near-anarchy.

Best of Milligan & McCarthy just might send some readers looking for a complete collection of Freakwave (which doesn't exist) or Paradax (I think this book has nearly all of the Paradax pages), but it's a big enough meal in itself: two hundred and fifty big pages from a fizzy, artistically exciting collaboration from the over-the-top Eighties. McCarthy left comics for the movies after this period -- and who can blame him? -- but fans of Milligan's later work might be interested to see what their man was doing before X-Statix, before Shade the Changing Man, before even (most of it) Skreemer.

This is a deeply idiosyncratic book from a deeply idiosyncratic comics team: this work was all very much of its time and place, and that time has been gone for two decades now. But The Best of Milligan & McCarthy drags those stories out of buried longboxes and shoves them back under our eyes -- and they're well worth the time and effort to remember or recreate that time and place.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, August 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #241: The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

Even in the world of Charles Stross's Laundry novels -- set in a nightmare version of the modern world where the darkest dreams of both H.P. Lovecraft and Scott Adams are equally true -- some things are just too ludicrous to be believed. Yes, there are slavering horrors from beyond space that want to eat our brains. And, yes, every nation has a secret agency set up to deal with those problems, of which the UK's Laundry is possibly the most benevolent and forward-looking, meaning that it's a horrible compartmentalized, barnacled bureaucracy struggling to incorporate management insights from the 1960s and thus working there is only slightly more soul-destroying than, say, at Comcast. But all of the agents of the Laundry, from the lowliest HR drones to the deeply spooky combat sorcerers of Mahogany Row, know one thing for sure: there's no such thing as vampires.

The Rhesus Chart is the fifth of the Laundry novels, and probably the best one: it succeeds The Apocalypse Codex, The Fuller Memorandum, The Jennifer Morgue, and The Atrocity Archives. (I could possibly argue that elements of the ending of Jennifer didn't quite work as well as they should, but, otherwise, the this-new-one-is-the-best-one pattern has held remarkably true for the length of the series.) All of the novels are narrated primarily by Bob Howard, who fell into the occult world as an undergraduate in computer science over a decade ago: he discovered a neat little algorithm that nearly destroyed the Midlands by opening a portal for the monsters from outside our world, and was required to sign the Official Secrets Act in blood (the special secret Official Secrets Act) and join the Laundry forthwith. He's managed to not die in the middle of horrible events several times since then, which is the hallmark of the Laundry's top people: the best sorcerers are the ones still above the ground. So he's added on a variety of skills, job duties, and connections over the years, not least due to his work as the assistant to the very creepy DSS Angleton, who appears to be a flinty old man but whose motivating intelligence is much older and from much farther away.

This time around, the Laundry has caught a management fad from Google: all of the officers of sufficient rank are now required to spend 10% of their time on a personal project. But, being the Laundry, those personal projects can only come from a tightly controlled list, and are really just new job duties, just highly speculative and recondite ones unlikely to have any direct value. And of course the other work doesn't lessen because of these "ten-percenter" projects, so they're entirely additional, generally unnecessarily, completely obligatory work. Bob's project is to trawl a National Health database to search for signs of a particular syndrome that affects sorcerers -- when you summon monsters from other spaces, the space in your own head gets more porous, and the otherworldly equivalents of viruses pop in for little snacks, until the accumulated damage turns a sorcerer into something very much like an Alzheimer's case. Bob expects to find only a tiny handful of similar cases, because the media would certainly have noticed if there was an epidemic of people with their brains being eaten, wouldn't they?

But no. There is a new clutch of vampires, just arisen inside one of the major investment Banks, consisting of all ten members of a small group focused on the more recondite end of quantitative finance and calling itself the Scrum. They have become infected with a parasite from beyond space that acts more like a symbiote -- it doesn't immediately kill them, for example -- and grants immense strength, a lack of need for sleep, and immense powers of suggestion to its hosts. (It also causes a very quick and firey reaction to sunlight, but nothing is perfect.) The reason these V-parasites don't eat the brains of their hosts is due to a sorcerous link forged by blood: the eat the brains of their hosts' victims. And so Bob's Big Data investigation quickly leads him to discover first an anomalous cluster of deaths among the staff of a particular cleaning agency, and then that there's something very, very wrong in that Bank, and that some kind of monster -- certainly not a vampire, though, since those don't exist -- has taken up a home in the Scrum.

Things get more complicated and dangerous from there, as Bob rushes a Laundry team to the Bank to find and eliminate the not-vampire creatures there. Meanwhile, Bob's home life has come unraveled at an unpleasant pace: his wife Mo O'Brien, who as AGENT CANDID is the holder of a Zahn violin and one of the Laundry's top operatives for very wet work, is racing Bob to a work-induced breakdown; and the second-in-command of the Scrum, oddly enough, is ex-Laundry HR, Mhari Murphy, who's also Bob's crazy ex-girlfriend from ten years before.

It is all too neat and tightly connected to be that simple, of course. And it all points in one direction: vampires are real, but someone has a very strong vested interest in the belief otherwise. But who?

The Rhesus Chart is one of the homier of the Laundry novels; it takes place almost entirely in Bob's apartment or in the Laundry offices -- with a third locale in an off-site Laundry storage facility. And it's the most concerned of any of the books so far with the workings of the Laundry itself: Bob has been climbing the career ladder over the past two books, getting management training here and secondment to a new department there, and now he is high enough to glance over the battlements and see the wider world.

And, of course, it all comes together in the end, with two major battles among powerful beings -- some of whom may be vampires, though, mind you, they don't exist -- and a shattering attack on Laundry headquarters itself. The Rhesus Chart is brilliant, tense, complex in the most pleasing ways, and entirely integrated -- the alternating chapters of narration Stross has used in earlier books blends into something smoother and crisper here, as Bob tells us the story of both what he saw and did and what he only learned afterward. This is a major novel from a major SFF talent working at the height of his powers, and another brilliant and thrilling book in possibly the best series running right now.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #240: Young Lovecraft, Vol. 2 by Oliver & Torres

It's inevitable that any high-concept idea moves away from that concept if it becomes an ongoing work: what works for a one-off or to launch a concept is only one possibility, and the nature of ongoing storytelling is to investigate as many of the possibilities as is feasible.

So it's not a surprise that Young Lovecraft, a webcomic by the Spaniards Jose Oliver (script) and Bartolo Torres (art), has moved pretty far from its original concept in this second collection, the cleanly named Young Lovecraft, Vol. 2. Young Howard Lovecraft is still supposedly at the center of the story, but he's less obviously HPL here, and the goth/metal take on things is mixed higher than it was the first time around.

That's not a bad thing, since it continues the process by which Young Lovecraft becomes its own thing: the stories about this neurotic boy named Howard in what sometimes does seem like 1900ish, and about his "dog," the ghoul Glenn, and his gothy friend Siouxsie -- and, in a new style in this volume, a series of adaptations of classic ghost and horror stories (Stevenson, Hodgson, James) using that cast as part of a repertory company.

This time out, we also get a solo adventure of those dead French poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. And a quick appearance by Ambrose Bierce, happier and more positive than he ever was in life. We also get a somewhat misfired sequence with HPL as an exchange student in Norway, replaced at home by the very metal Ishan. (This is the height of the anachronisms in this volume, but more of a problem is that Oliver doesn't have much for Howard to do in Norway, and Ishan is similarly reduced to an anti-clerical, anarchist caricature.) Much better are sequences about a visit from a few Hounds of Tindalos -- friends of Glenn's naturally -- and a picnic, which we first see, very amusingly, from Howard's horrified, usually-sedentary point of view.

This book still only collects work from 2009, though the English edition was published in 2012. I'm not clear whether Young Lovecraft still continues -- though there is a third volume available in English. It's strongly individual work, with a quirky take on a horror legend and very expressive and individual cartooning. It will always be an odd idea, but webcomics are made for odd ideas, and this is a great version of a great odd idea.

(I reviewed the first collection as Day 118.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Incoming Books: End of August

I'm on vacation this week, so the usual frivolous activities are going on (shopping at IKEA for bookcases, for example). And one of my favorite frivolous activities is shopping for books, so of course I've been indulging that. I've gotten books from a bunch of directions this last week: from the library (both the you-have-to-bring-them-back kind and one unlikely book from the selling-donated-paperbacks table), from an online retailer, from a hospital-organized "book barn" (only 20 minutes away, though I'd never been there before), and from a good used book store in Harrisburg, PA, close to the site of our most intense recent frivolities. (The latter is particularly good for scholarly books; they've got a metric fuckton of art and art history, for example. But they also have a decent little graphics novel section in the very back of the basement, metaphorically behind the "beware of the leopard" sign.

So I got a lot of new books -- mostly from that book barn, since prices there topped out at two bucks. And I enjoy making lists of books, so here's what's come into the house this week:

Matter, the 2008 Culture novel by Iain M. Banks that I actually reviewed here at the time. As I type these words, I have the disconcerting feeling that I already have a slightly nicer copy of this in hardcover and may be out a whole two dollars!

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger -- I had a copy of this for years (pre-flood) and didn't manage to read it then, but now I have another chance.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black -- the first of the Quirke thrillers, by John Banville under a pseudonym. I haven't quite managed to keep up with all of Banville's novels, but I've read a lot of them -- and I've never gone backwards to read his earliest books, from before I discovered him. But the Black novels look a lot like my kind of thing, and I mostly liked what Black/Banville did with the Philip Marlowe novel The Black-Eyed Blonde.

Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll -- there was a time when I was a big Carroll fan, but I hit the point where all of his novels felt the same to me, and so I've missed his last few books. But this is one of his best, and it's a Vintage Contemporary -- and I am building a shelf of those, with a vague idea of collecting the first year or three of that series and reading them straight through.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion -- it's a modern classic, and I find myself drawn to both strong writing and nonfiction these days (and those are often hard to find together).

Coyote V. Acme by Ian Frazier -- one of the great collections of short humor ever written (along with Frazier's Dating Your Mom). Another post-flood repurchase, though I expect to re-read this before it hits the regular shelves.

On the Rez by Ian Frazier -- the other side of Frazier's work; this one is a serious book of reportage about modern-day Native Americans. I probably won't get to it until after his Great Plains (which I already have), but I like Frazier, and this was dirt-cheap.

Casanova Was a Book Lover by John Maxwell Hamilton -- a breezy book about books with a historical theme. I know I had a copy of this before the flood -- this very edition, in fact -- and I'm pretty sure that I didn't manage to read it before. I look vaguely askance at myself for buying the same thing twice without reading it, but a flood is certain extenuating circumstances, isn't it?

Now and Then by Joseph Heller -- a late memoir, which I have here in a UK edition for some odd reason. Catch-22 is a masterpiece, and I periodically think I need to read more Heller -- maybe this, maybe Something Happened.

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones -- she wrote another couple of Chrestomanci novels after the first batch were collected (and I read and did them in the SFBC), which means I missed them. This is one of those; I need to fill in the holes in my DWJ reading.

Corrupting Dr. Nice by John Kessel -- a 1997 time-travel screwball comedy. I had a copy of this for a long time, and I can't quite remember if I read it or not.

The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge -- I seem to recall hearing good things about Lodge, particularly about this early-sixties comic novel about academics.

Ransom by Jay McInerney -- Another Vintage Contemporary, and this one is early enough that it's got a list of prior books in the series on the card page. It's also the mostly-forgotten second novel by the author of Bright Lights, Big City, which is interesting to me.

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan -- I've read a bunch of O'Nan books, but I tend to have to space them out: they each pack a serious emotional punch, and tend not to end well for any of the main characters. (O'Nan has the writing chops of a literary writer and the cold-bloodedness of a horror writer.) I've already got this in hardcover, but I prefer trade paperbacks, so this counts as an upgrade.

Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores, and All the Trouble in the World by P.J. O'Rourke -- I've grumped over the last few years about the grump that O'Rourke has become over the last few years (search this blog for "P.J. O'Rourke" for the details), but he's an incisive, bitterly funny and observant reporter when he takes his ideological blinders off. These are probably his three best books, from his best period right after the end of the Cold War (when, I think, he didn't have as all-encompassing a central ideology to organize his writing around), and the ones I'd be most likely to re-read. So it's nice to have them back after the flood.

Family Resemblances by Lowry Pei -- a Vintage Contemporary from 1988, from a writer I've never even heard of. Assuming I do collect a big clump and read them, that will be the point: to read things I otherwise would never have thought about.

Last Call by Tim Powers -- one of the best modern fantasy novels by one of our very best writers. It later became the first book of a very loose trilogy -- there was a second, unrelated book, and then a third that was a sequel to both of them (though mostly the second) -- but you can ignore that (and those two books, until you've read all of the better Powers, like Declare and The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard).

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie -- his memoir of the decade-plus that he spent under fatwa. Some people think it's brilliant; some think it's self-indulgent. (My copy has a long message from the first owner on the half-title to the latter point.) I had a copy of The Satanic Verses that was in the running for my longest-held unread book: I got it when joining Book-of-the-Month Club early in my college career (around 1987), and it was still on my shelves, unopened, at the time of the flood in 2011. I miss having books like that: it's comforting to have books you still haven't read after two decades.

The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders -- essays by a current critical darling for his short stories. I've only read a couple of Saunders pieces, but I seem to prefer nonfiction these days, so this looked like the best way to sample his work. Plus: cheap!

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg -- I thought my next reading project in 2011 was going to be Silverberg's classic period (the rough decade from Thorns to Shadrach in the Furnace); I had all but one or two of those books and was figuring out when to do it. But the flood killed all of them, and I'm only now starting to re-buy those books (there are twenty-three of them) for another month like last year's Starktober. This one is the 1971 novel about a far-future society where the word "I" is outlawed.

The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux -- I'm slowly finding and reading Theroux's great travel books, and I haven't gotten to this one yet.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn -- More humorous novels from the UK; this series has gotten a lot of critical attention, and I like funny stuff.

Get Real by Donald E. Westlake -- another potential reading project; since I did Stark's Parker novels, I feel like the next natural step would be his alter ego Westlake's Dortmunder books. But I need to track down about a dozen of them first.

Build a Better Life By Stealing Office Supplies and Always Postpone Meetings With Time-Wasting Moronsby Scott Adams -- two of the very earliest and best Dilbert books, and two of the few I kept when I cleaned out my comics-collections shelves (ironically, less than a year before the flood made the exercise moot).

Do Not Disturb Any Further by John Callahan -- I think this was the first collection of his cartoons, and it's great stuff: Callahan was the master of the tasteless joke, with every single one of his cartoons guaranteed to offend someone.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky -- I reviewed this a couple of weeks back, from a copy I got through NetGalley. I expect to keep reading and buying the series, so I wanted the first one in a copy I could keep.

The Trouble With Girls, Vol. 2 by Jacobs, Jones, Hamilton, and Garcia -- One of the great forgotten comic books of the 1980s (and one of my wife's unlikely favorites from when I was getting her to read some of my comics), from the pretty-darn-early days.

Chew, Vol. 2 by John Layman and Rob Guillory -- Just read the first one and liked it, so I'm moving forward.

Finder: Talisman by Carla Speed McNeil -- a standalone graphic novel in a long-running SFnal series that I keep thinking I need to read more of. (I also have one of the thick collections also on the to-be-read shelf.)

Saga, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples -- Again, I recently read and was really impressed with the first volume, so I'm going to try to catch up.