Thursday, December 31, 2015

Nancy Is Happy by Ernie Bushmiller

Actually, Nancy isn't all that happy too much of the time -- a lot of Bushmiller's gags in the three years of comics collected here require her to be annoyed (or annoying), grumpy, sad, rained on, or worried. But it makes a snappy title, doesn't it?

Nancy Is Happy collects all of Bushmiller's daily Nancy comics from the years 1943 through 1945, in an attractive and only very slightly day-glow volume with slightly plasticized covers. (Perhaps so you can have it out while feeding your infant, and wipe it clean when the strained peas go awry.) Only the cover indicated those years, in small letters on the spine -- I get the sense that this series tries to be casual-reader friendly, rather than aiming itself at Bushmiller completists. And -- let's be honest -- the point of Bushmiller is that his world is consistent and complete and a perfect home for a vast array of gags. It's not the place for long continuities or anything that could be the hobgoblin of a little mind. Even those who love Bushmiller don't have the same desire to have all of his work lined up as the fans of a great adventure strip do.

That said, though, these years do see Bushmiller having something like continuities -- several times during this span, Aunt Fritzi goes away for some reason, and Nancy is foisted on the neighbors, the Sputters, for a few weeks. (And once Nancy, Sluggo, and Aunt Fritzi go to sunny Florida, in the middle of winter.) But all those are just premises for individual gags: Mr. Sputter hates Nancy, because she ruins his peace and quiet, and messes up other parts of his life. And Florida is full up with other tourists, allowing Bushmiller to run a series of no-room-at-the-motel and sleeping-on-the-beach gags. All of those series basically putter out; when Bushmiller runs out of gags for that particular situation, Nancy is back in her usual place, often with no explanation or link -- because explanations aren't funny.

Nancy was one of the greatest gag-a-day strips, though these years see Bushmiller still ramping up -- he's good here, with some excellent dailies, but his art was still refining itself and getting more precise in service of those gags. There are even a few moment when he seems to have too many lines, but those are very few.

This era of Nancy is also interesting because it's less timeless than Bushmiller's peak -- these are clearly WWII-era strips, with ration books and shortages and "is this trip necessary?" signs and patriotic collections of scrap metal. By the '50s, Bushmiller was making gags set entirely in his own version of an iconic small city, but in the mid-40s, Nancy's world still represented our own most of the time.

If you want only one collection of Bushmiller's Nancy, this probably isn't it, for all that it's "Volume One" of the Fantagraphics reprint series. This is all good stuff, but it's not pure Bushmiller yet. But if you're willing to get more than one -- and we three-rocks devotees are silently sending brain-waves to bring you over to our side -- this is not just a signpost on the way to full Bushmiller, but a great collection of gags in its own right.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hit Lit by James W. Hall

What makes a bestseller? (No fair saying "a lot of people buying the same book." I mean, that's true, but it's not terribly helpful.) What attracts millions of readers to the same book, and what makes that happen really quickly?

Thriller writer James W. Hall, under his other hat teaching graduate writing students at Florida International University, decided to examine that question some years ago. (He's a little vague about exactly when.) And since he is a professor, the way he examined it was by having a class on the subject, so he could get paid to look into it and his students could pay for the privilege of figuring it out for him. (Professor Hall is no dummy, you can plainly see.)

The class ran for a number of years -- it's not clear, but Hall might still be teaching it today -- even once Hall had codified what he thinks are the aspects all really huge bestsellers have in common. (That's not really a surprise, I guess: professors are supposed to know the thing they're teaching before the classes start at the beginning of the semester.) And, in the grand tradition of "publish or perish," Hall wrote up his findings and set off to have them published. But unlike most similar academics, he already had strong big-publishing contacts from his decade-plus career as a successful writer of thrillers, and he had a topic that was of great inherent interest to Big Publishing. (We all love to hear stories about ourselves, don't we?)

Hit Lit is the book distilled from the years of that course: a class in the American bestseller of the past seventy years or so, organized into a dozen essential traits and embodied in a dozen exemplar books. (Though not all of the books live up to all of the traits, and the books are not quite all of the biggest bestsellers of those seventy years, no matter how you define "bestseller." But a little fuzziness around the edges is expected in an academic theory, right?)

The dozen books are:
  •  Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (which turns out to be an outlier in a number of Hall's areas, making me wonder why he didn't pick something more typical to make his theory work better)
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  • Jaws by Peter Benchley
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King (an outlier in a different way: Hall describes it as King's first big bestseller -- though I think he means hardcover, which is a major distinction -- and it doesn't fit his description for a Big Bang-style bestseller)
  • The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  • The Firm by John Grisham
  • The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
If you're not Professor Hall, you might think what those books have in common -- most of them, at least -- is that they hit a Zeitgeist-y topic squarely at the right time, they were published well and were lucky in the marker, they were almost entirely first novels (or first big novels, early in a writer's career), and they all became big successful movies fairly quickly. But Hall has more detailed analyses to dig into, and a dozen Procrustean beds that these books more or less fit (there are some stretchers, and some severed feet, before we're done).

Hall's dozen elements include -- here I'm being very reductive -- secret societies, maverick protagonists, enough sex to be mildly scandalous without getting completely banned, corrupt cities vs. upstanding country, mild questions about conventional Christianity, similarly mild questioning of and unpacking of the American Dream, hot-button topics, a big scope, detailed-sounding information about interesting real-world facts, and family strife. Hall does his best, but the reader might come away with the sneaking suspicion that his "twelve features" are loose enough to be applied to almost any work of fiction, and thus not all that helpful for showing how big bestsellers are different from other similar books.

(Oh, and the subtitle is inaccurate, since Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, and is not part of the Twentieth Century. As long as I'm picking nits.)

I don't think Hall has really identified anything specific here; his book is so full of caveats and qualifications and explanations of the levels of particular elements in particular books that there are no rules here. This was never going to rise to the level of scientific rigor, but his elements are so vague that, as I said above, a reader can pick basically any piece of mainstream American fiction and find all of these elements. It doesn't work for strongly genre books as easily -- though a lot of crime fiction, particularly thrillers, will fits solidly into all of his elements -- but it basically defines mainstream mimetic fiction by Americans. And that is not the most useful thing in the world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Deadman: Lost Souls by Mike Baron and Kelley Jones

DC Comics thought it was riding a horror revival in the early '90s, when it turned out they just had the good luck to hire Neil Gaiman to write Sandman. (Sure, the rest of the early Vertigo lineup, and the Vertigo precursors like the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, had a strong horror flavor in their superhero gumbo, but it was always a flavor rather than a main course, and it died out pretty much in parallel to Sandman wandering further and further away from horror.) But, along the way, they put out a bunch of comics with horror flavors -- from vampire Batman to the creepiness of Shade the Changing Man -- and revived a number of characters with horror in their DNA.

Deadman is one obvious example. He's one of DC's third-tier heroes, who's had an ongoing series a few times but never long enough to really deserve that "ongoing" name. But he is dead, and his power is possessing people so he can use their bodies to do whatever he's doing at the time, and he was definitely available, so he got scarified and sent off to see if he could attract that Sandman lightning. (Actually, given the timing, I suspect it was Swamp Thing lightning -- the bigger bolt hadn't hit DC yet.)

So the team of Mike Baron and Kelley Jones -- Baron one of the more inventive and interesting mainstream comics writers of that generation, with excellent work from Badger and Nexus and a fine run on Punisher at roughly the same time; and Jones an impressionist of the comics page, a heir of Bernie Wrightson with a great eye for grotesques and extreme situations -- relaunched a Deadman serial in Action Comics Weekly in the late '80s, which eventually led to two short "Prestige Format" miniseries in 1989 and 1992.

Those two miniseries -- each one was two 48-page issues long, under the titles Love After Death and Exorcism -- were collected in Deadman: Lost Souls in 1995, which stayed in print some time after that. (DC didn't including printing numbers or dates during this era -- in fact, I'm not sure if they do that now -- so I can't tell precisely how old my copy is. Comics publishers are about fifty years behind prose publishers in some very basic putting-books-together stuff.)

The two are discrete stories, but this book tries to disguise that by running them together without separation -- it's a bit jarring to go from the Love After Death "deadend" page immediately to two pages of Exorcism that quickly retell that story and the rest of the Deadman backstory -- and they are related, since Love After Death basically breaks Deadman and Exorcism puts him back together. (Well, he actually breaks after the end of Love After Death, but that's just quibbling.)

So we begin with Deadman sour and unhappy and frustrated -- he's been bodiless for however long its been since his first story in 1967, fighting to keep the cosmic balance for the vague goddess Rama Kushna, and his angst over that is rising. Deadman hears a rumor of a haunted house out in the Wisconsin woods, the abandoned home of a circus owner from decades before, supposedly haunted by the spirit of his aerialist wife. Deadman was a circus performer and aerialist in life, so he's intrigued and goes to investigate. And he does find the ghost of the beautiful aerialist, who does have the power to touch living people at will -- but she's not the only ghost, and her dead husband is still around and powered by a nasty demonic spirit.

Does Deadman defeat the evil ringmaster and his demon overlord? Well, what do you think? Does he get the girl and (after)live happily ever after? You really haven't read many mainstream comics, have you?

And so Exorcism begins with Deadman having gone crazy -- comic-book style crazy, the kind that's very demonstrative and can be snapped out of with a bit of help -- and roaming around some other woods (in Vermont this time), where he runs into a heavy metal band and a pair of young lovers. The band is quickly possessed by three ancient, and very different, nasty spirits, and the young lovers are quickly in danger. Since Deadman is comic-book crazy, he basically caused that, and capers about gleefully. Meanwhile, Madame Waxahachie -- a comics character who makes Amanda Waller look svelte and demure and non-stereotypical -- finds the circus booking agent in Boston that Deadman has been possessing to beat up gay men -- this part of the plot doesn't entirely make sense -- and drags that man and his regular therapist up to the abandoned church in Vermont where the possessed band is, in time for a guest appearance by the Phantom Stranger (who is as clear and helpful as he usually is).

And then things all go to hell, of course. But, in the end, Deadman is not-crazy again, and the evil spirits are banished back to wherever, and most of the good people are still alive. And, most importantly, Deadman is back to his standard status quo and available to show up in big crossovers and other superhero bumf for another couple of decades. As he did.

These two stories are more than slightly over-the-top; I suspect Baron was out of his usual comfort zone in this supernatural milieu, and he doesn't deliver his best work here. The art is the real standout: Jones revels in the opportunities to draw cadaverous Deadman in tortured poses (often floating in mid-air) and all of the horribly fleshy monsters that Baron can think up. This is not a pretty comics story, but it's full of excellent creepy art, and Jones's inky blacks are well-supported by an equally spooky coloring job by Les Dorscheid.

I'll be honest: this isn't a lost masterpiece or anything. But it does collect two decent stories with great art from one of the quirkier characters in the DC Universe. If you have a fondness for DC's supernatural characters -- I know I do, and I don't think I'm the only one -- this could be a fun find.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? by Brian Fies

Building and sustaining a career as a graphic novelist is even harder than the equivalent for a prose writer: comics require at least twice as much work per page (writing and drawing -- sometimes inking and coloring and lettering, too) for something that's read in a fifth of the time. And that turns making comics, especially mid-list comics, into a time-sink which has serious trouble delivering monetarily on a level with the effort required. And yet people keep trying, like any artform: there are always people with stories to tell and images to share, and some of them manage to turn that into a career along the way. (Others fail entirely, or do a couple of stories and then move on to something else.)

Brian Fies is an interesting case along that continuum. His first major graphic story, Mom's Cancer, was a memoir comic that originally appeared in installments online, about ten years ago. That attracted attention, and got reprinted as a book, and the book apparently did well. His follow-up, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, came four years later -- quite fast for a two-hundred page book written and drawn all by one person -- and was more thematically and conceptually inventive, a switch to mostly fiction, but eventually, it seems, was not quite as successful as his first book.

(This is really common: the disappointing second book/record/gallery show is a cliche across many media. Sometimes the disappointment is commercial, sometimes critical -- and sometimes it doesn't exist at all, which then is the surprising story in that case.)

Fies hasn't yet put out a third book in the six years since Tomorrow. (Though, again, remember that comics take time to make -- time to work up the idea, time to write, time to draw, and then all of the usual publishing stuff. And that often has to happen in between or on top of having a regular job.) And so outside observers like me wonder if Tomorrow was a disappointment to its publisher -- though an outside observer can never figure that out, since it depends entirely on costs and payments and expectations.

I'm not the best reader for Tomorrow, temperamentally: it's a thoughtful, careful fictionalization of the "why don't we have jetpacks?" line of complaint, and I've long since gotten sick of that from hearing it in SF circles for around thirty years. [1] This particular incarnation of that argument starts with the New York World's Fair of 1939, possibly the very height of technological optimism, and mildly asks why the dreams embodied in that fair never came true.

(How many dreams ever come true? But we're not supposed to ask such questions.)

Tomorrow focuses on a father and his son -- Pop and Buddy, as Everyman and Everyboy as Fies can make them -- on a visit to the fair, where they're thrilled and inspired by the wonders they see there. Fies clearly means these two to be iconic rather than real people, but, to my mind, that's ignoring the more important questions: I found myself wondering about the rest of their family, about what Mom or Big Sis would make of these particular technological wonders, and if they would be as impressive to them. (Or what Grandpa, who already went from horse-and-buggy to airplanes and ocean liners, would say. Pop does have a speech along those lines, but it's all in the service of Progress Always Thrusting Forward.)

After the Fair, Tomorrow presents a series of snapshot chapters in the middle of each of the next four decades -- 1945 through 1975 -- in which Pop and Buddy appear at the same ages as they were in 1939. (And there are still no other members of their family: no mother or hint of what happened to her, no other siblings, no extended family -- just two men, older and younger, and their technologically-mediated father-son bond.) So they witness V-E day, build a fallout shelter in the basement, watch a Gemini lift off from Cape Canaveral, and finally the Apollo-Soyuz separation -- almost all specifically space-exploration moments, like yet another sour Stephen Baxter story about how the author didn't get to visit Moon Base Alpha like he was supposed to.

And there's a lot of narration along the way, as "Buddy" tells the reader all of the space-related history in each ten-year span -- all still very much like those whiny "I was promised a house on Mars!" stories from SF magazines of 10-15 years ago. Again, I have very little patience for that viewpoint: I've heard it too many times, and I never bought into it myself. The Space Race is a thing that happened for geopolitical reasons, not scientific or exploration reasons, and it ended when those real reasons were no longer as powerful. There was no aim of history, no majestic purpose to spread monkeys in tin cans throughout the universe. And Tomorrow has a coda at the end -- with Pop and Buddy finally broken free from their static ages -- that somewhat addresses that, talking about the actual technological changes in the years since 1975. But it's also unabashedly still in the tank for the "man must conquer the universe with big phallic rockets!" idea, as if the last forty years was just a pause in the Inevitable Thrust of Man.

Tomorrow is an attractive, very well-presented version of an argument and a viewpoint that I rejected long ago. Other readers may be less negative towards the agitprop and thus be able to enjoy the book itself more than I did -- I've just seen this very same kind of story too many times before, by too many writers around Fies's age (fifty-ish, just old enough to be kids during the Apollo years and thus indoctrinated to expect they would go to space some day) to believe in it. And I'm young enough -- I don't get to say that very often, these days, so I'll take any chance I can get -- not to be part of that cohort; Apollo was dead by the time I was old enough to care.

If you love space, and the promise of ever-better transportation, and the dreams of the Space Age, you really will enjoy Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? In fact, if you're just not nearly as negative about those things as I am, you'll probably like it quite a lot.

[1] Short version of my comeback: geometric growth, in anything humans do, always flattens out. It never hits the asymptote, or comes close. We know this in general, but we keep forgetting it for specific cases. So the Transportation Singularity didn't happen: we didn't get ubiquitous flying cars or jet-packs, we can't go to Mars for a vacation, and FTL is still a pipe dream. Similarly, the Information Singularity won't happen either, for similar reasons. Any prediction that contains "and then it goes on just like this for a long time" is bullshit.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/26

When I get books in the mail, I write about them here, every Monday morning.

But Christmas week is not a time when book-publicity packages are flying thickly: the publicists, like all of us, are distracted by more festive things, and the mails are jammed with commercial packages.

So there's nothing to write about this week. Probably nothing next week, too.

Instead, you get the other things that I've been posting here, since I've been off from work and actually have a few moments to string words together. I hope they haven't been too much of a disappointment.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Incoming Books: Christmas!

So I got stuff for Christmas. I bought myself Just Cause 3 from the Steam sale and wrapped up a printout of the store page from "Santa" -- because when you have teenage boys, you need to buy yourself the things you want for any chance to actually get them. And one of the books below is similarly from me to me; I bought it to get an Amazon package up to "Add-On" size to get some cables as part of my frantic effort to install a video card in Thing Two's computer last week. [1]

The rest of these books were gifts, and I'm going to list them all here, because that's what I do.

Get in Trouble is the first new collection of stories by Kelly Link since 2006's Magic for Beginners. Link is one of the best short-story writers of all time, and has been relatively quiet the last few years. (I think the fact that she had a young child in that span did a lot to cause that; I hope she finds a way to be a bit more prolific in the next decade.)

SuperMutant Magic Academy is the book version of the now-ended webcomic of the same name, by Jillian Tamaki (also half of the team behind the excellent graphic novels Skim and This One Summer).

Saga, Vol. 5 continues collecting the excellent space-opera comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. (By the way, does anyone out there know what Staples did before this, and if any of it is worth digging up? She does great stuff here, and -- though I don;t usually follow artists -- she has such a great storytelling sense I'm thinking it might be worth bending my rule here.) Also, see my review of Vol. 1 if you've been living under a rock and have never heard of Saga.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 finishes up the big publishing project, organizing and putting out a series of dictations Twain made at the end of his life. I still haven't read the first two volumes -- well, I did read thirty pages or so of the first one, when I got it five years ago -- but now I could read them all straight through if I feel like it.

B.P.R.D: 1946-1948 collects three "historical" stories from the Hellboy universe written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, with art by a whole bunch of people and colors by Dave Stewart as always.

And then there's The Complete Cul de Sac with the full five-year run of Richard Thompson's great comic strip in two volumes encased by a slipcase. I think I discovered this strip after it ended, or right as it was about to end, so it will be fun to read it all straight through. And, no, it's not that Richard Thompson. (It's one of those names -- I know, since I have one myself.)

[1] Said efforts ended with my taking that computer to the local shop first thing in the morning on Christmas Eve, and picking it up right as they closed at noon. But I did manage to fix the sound problem that resulted from the installation of that video card, so my tech-support score this month is a respectable 1-1.

Monsieur Jean: The Singles Theory

Monsieur Jean is the semi-autobiographical -- a novelist rather than a cartoonist, and somewhat Everyman-ized -- central character in a series of slice-of-life comics stories by the French creators Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian. Much of that series has been collected in English as From Bachelor to Father, after about half of it originally appeared over here as Get a Life. [1] (French albums are short, we must remember: to them, a full-length book-format comic is often just 48 pages. So American reprint projects typically stick at least two books together, and sometimes much more than that.)

The Singles Theory, as far as I can tell, came out of sequence and out of size: it's a 120-plus-page epic of mundanity, set between two of the earlier books, in a popular period of Jean's life. It's the story of how he got inspired to write his second novel -- which anyone involved with the literary world know is the really tough one. (Anyone can write one novel, but for it to be a career and a life, a novelist has to be able to write number two -- three and the rest will then follow.) I suspect this is a popular book in the series, since the US edition is a translation of a special duotone edition that came out in France in 2011.

All of the Monsieur Jean stories have love affairs -- dating, meeting new people, sex, relationship troubles, and break-ups -- as central to their plots, but Singles Theory uses that as the central conceit: Jean's friend Felix, in the middle of a divorce, has moved in with him and has understandably soured on the entire idea of romance and love. At the same time, Jean is having recurring nightmares of armed men who claim they are about to kill him, but always get distracted long enough for Jean to wake up. His friends insist this is all about sex...probably because, in a book like this, everything is all about sex.

Those are some of the loose threads that wind through a series of discrete, individual stories about Jean and his friends -- they go to a birthday party for a friend far our in the countryside, Jean is interviewed badly about his work, Felix gets trapped in an elevator, and so forth. It's not for readers who want gigantic moments and lots of punching in their comics, but they're very unlikely to pick up something called Monsieur Jean in the first place. For people who like movies and books that are about characters and dialogue rather than plot -- who appreciate that things don't always have to move at a breakneck pace -- this is a wonderful story about real people in a real world.

[1] I've read Get a Life twice -- most recently just a couple of months ago -- and reviewed it in a quick, desultory fashion here each time. I won't bother to link; you're not missing anything. Slice-of-life stories are difficult to criticize/analyze.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Shadow: Midnight in Moscow by Howard Chaykin

The Shadow is a character that often feels like he should be more popular than he is -- sure, he was massively popular in the '30s and '40s, and even got a movie within the past twenty years (and that movie is actually pretty decent, and fairly faithful to the character), but he hasn't been Batman-level since, well, basically since there's been a Batman. And for the people who think the Shadow is better than Batman -- or just that he was first, or that he's purer, or whatever reason -- that is annoying.

I don't know if Howard Chaykin is one of those people; Chaykin strikes me as a creator who has a lot of ideas and a lot of willingness to do the jobs that come along, but not a lot of angst or burning desires to do specific characters owned by other people. (I could be wrong.) Chaykin relaunched the Shadow once, for DC in the mid-80s, during a general housecleaning and relaunching period for DC, and his story was not just a good Shadow story, but it also set up the Shadow for a new era, with a slightly modified origin and an updated crew of assistants. Sure, regular series writer Andrew Helfer and his crew of sympatico artists then dragged the Shadow off in a direction that scuttlebutt has it was deeply unpopular with the licensor, but none of that was Chaykin's fault: he built a solid, useful foundation, and then went off to build other things while Helfer and crew constructed their rococo Shadow house.

Thirty years later, Chaykin came back to the Shadow -- I don't think he did any Shadow stories in between, but the character has been relaunched so may times that I could easily have missed something -- with The Shadow: Midnight in Moscow, which has none of the foundation-building expectations of his earlier Blood and Thunder. No, this time Chaykin is closing things down -- this is the story of the Shadow's last case, in 1949, as he decides to give up on the harvesting-bitter-fruit business entirely and disappear. (It is not quite the same Shadow as Blood and Thunder, but an inventive fan could definitely work up a theory to make them consistent. I'm not energetic enough to do so here, though.)

But there is that one last case to handle before, of course -- and it's a continent-spanning thing, with Soviet spies and secret agents and femmes fatale and the threat of nuclear megadeath. The fact that it takes place in a half-dozen cities doesn't really matter -- they're all dark collections of tall buildings, the way Chaykin draws them -- and there's not as much narrative tension as there could be; the reader is always sure the Shadow didn't let the world end in nuclear fire sixty years ago. In the end, this is a solid Shadow story, somewhat valedictory, with gorgeous Chaykin art and crackling Chaykin dialogue.  If it doesn't come from anywhere or lead to anywhere, well, that's the shape of a Shadow story in 2015 -- this exists because The Shadow is a valuable piece of intellectual property, and the owners of that property want to see some income from it. They could have done much worse.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Defender of the Innocent by Lawrence Block

A book of crime fiction may seem an odd choice for Christmas Day, I admit. But this is a book, at its heart, about innocence -- and what day is more appropriate for that?

Martin Ehrengraf is a criminal defense attorney with two quirks -- just enough to hang a series of crime short-stories from -- first, that he absolutely and irrevocably believes in the innocence of the poor souls who can afford to hire him at his sky-high rates, and, secondly, that he works on contingency, and thus only gets paid if his client is set free. Oh, and one other thing: he never loses a case. He rarely even sees the inside of a courtroom, but his work ahead of trial is generally sufficient to have his clients exonerated and freed forever.

Block has been writing precise, pointed stories about Ehrengraf for nearly forty years now -- the first one appeared in 1978 -- but he's been careful not to push those quirks too far. Defender of the Innocent collects all of the stories about Ehrengraf: just a dozen of them, coming only every few years. (Or, to be more precise, coming whenever Block came up with a new twist on the Ehrengraf story -- they all come out the same way, so adding in complications and reversals was the way to make each new story distinct and strong.) The first eight were originally collected as Ehrengraf for the Defense in 1994, meaning Block has only had four good Ehrengraf plot ideas in the past twenty years.

But that's all fine: you don't want to read this book straight through anyway. Since Ehrengraf's methods will be the same in any case -- although we readers never are quite sure about exactly what he has done to free the defendants that we usually are quite sure did actually commit the murders they are accused of -- running through a number of them in quick succession would be too much of the same good thing, like gorging on meringue.

Block is a master of nasty crime short stories -- he's a master of many things, but that one is remarked on less often, since short stories are a minor sidebar field these days -- and the Ehrengraf cases are some of his smartest and nastiest. They have a tight formal structure, almost like a sonnet, and Block plays changes on that form with each of the successive stories. Perhaps we shouldn't wish that he could write more of them, but instead be amazed that he's found twelve variations on this tight theme -- twelve very distinctive and pointed variations -- so far.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

If You Steal by Jason

I've previously pointed out that we always need to call him "the Norwegian cartoonist Jason" to place him, as if he has a Homeric epithet, and so I'm doing that again here. (If you say something is necessary, and then don't do it, you undercut your own argument.) If I'm counting correctly, this is his third Jason collection of short comics to be published in the US, after Low Moon and Athos in America. Since none of those collections list place or date of first publication, I have no idea if this means that Jason has been doing a lot of short stories over the past decade -- and, if so, where they've been appearing -- or if his US publisher, Fantagraphics, is just catching up on a huge backlog.

(Once again, we see a side effect of the fact that I am not King of All Books; requiring detailed listings of previous publications would be my very first decree.)

If You Steal has eleven stories in just over two hundred pages -- it's the short-story companion to Athos in America, which had six longer stories in about the same page count. As usual, it has some genre exercises -- "Karma Chameleon" is a 1950s giant-creature movie in comics form, and "Lorena Vasquez" is a deadpan spoof of a Mexican wrestler-movie fight scene -- along with more surrealist pieces, like the openers and closers ("If You Steal" and "Nothing") and quick jokes, like "Waiting for Bardot," which mashes up Brigitte with Beckett. And there's also the ultimate conspiracy-theory story about JFK's assassination, "Ask Not," which manages to encompass every possible variation in thirty pages, with its only captions giving time and place.

Jason's work is chilly and intellectual at its core, but the outside is familiar and welcoming, using ideas and characters and plots we all recognize -- though transformed into his trademark dead-eyed animal-headed people, who never show any emotion. I can see readers being turned off by either of those two elements -- the underlying cold analysis or the surface triviality -- but they're the ones who are missing out; Jason's stories are smart and funny and sneaky and silly (in a very dignified, artsy way).

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Cassell Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by Nigel Rees

Books about words are fun, so I grab them when I see them. The Cassell Dictionary of Word & Phrase Origins sat around a long time before I finally got to read it -- nearly twenty years, in fact, since it's the 1998 second edition of a book originally published in 1996. And that means that all of the "recent" slang included to be hip and au courant was very, very old indeed.

Some categories of book -- of many things, actually, but let's stick to books for now -- have a watershed at the birth of the Internet, and are completely different afterward. Word and phrase origins are one of the big ones -- it's not just the rise of Urban Dictionary and things like that which democratized the idea, but the ability to do massive literature searches quickly and to easily find earlier citations is something that just didn't exist in 1996.

Come to think of it, is there any column/blog/writer doing that? Looking up phrases regularly and digging into how old they really are? That's something I'd love to see regularly. (If it does exist, though, it's probably a podcast. I hate podcasts -- I'm not interested in people talking at me.)

This book is the work of one guy -- one smart guy, who knows the standard references and uses them, who doesn't go too far out on a limb to make a judgment and honestly notes where the origins of something are confused or disputed, and who can write entertainingly in a short space about what a lot of people would consider a very dry topic. I'm sure there's a more definitive, French-Academy style compendium of word origins -- come to think of it, that's one of the secondary functions of the OED, isn't it? -- but this book is just fine for what it is. It was better when it was new, of course -- but, then, aren't all of us?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Elektra:Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz

In the late '80s, Elektra: Assassin was possibly the very favorite comic of my brother and myself -- he even bought an extra copy of the splash-page-filled climactic issue and covered a large portion of his ceiling with it. (I can still quote the important bit from memory: "And flesh/all flesh/will scream/and burn/and die" with the next page being the utterly perfect "and die/and die/and die/and die/and die."

Does it hold up? Surprisingly well, actually. It uses some Marvel Universe furniture -- SHIELD is important, with Nick Fury wandering through once or twice, and Daredevil shows up equally briefly in a flashback -- but it's really its own thing, a fever dream of politics and megadeath and violence and paranoia that's set sometime that could be 1972 or 1986 or no year in particular. And for a book so over the top and full of grotesques, it's got some of Miller's most subtle writing -- particularly impressive for those of us depressed at how Miller abandoned subtlety forever almost immediately afterward.

It's set before Elektra's death in Daredevil -- probably. A presidential campaign is heating up, and a young, personable candidate (Ken Wind), who is a Democrat but never named as such, is winning over America with his sunny vision. Meanwhile, The President, who looks mostly like Nixon but could be Reagan if you squint hard enough, is paranoid and obsessed with nuclear war and his own machismo. And if you think you know which of those is a bigger threat to the world, you're wrong. (This may be a hint of Miller's later right-wing stridency, but it works perfectly in context.)

And in a small Latin American tin-pot dictatorship -- propped up by SHIELD and the US more generally -- a deeply mediocre and not overly intelligent SHIELD agent named Garrett is about to get in way over his head. The Beast -- the supernatural being behind the secretive Hand organization of ninja -- is trying to possess a human being, to further that plot I hinted at in the first paragraph. And Elektra is there to stop him, mostly by killing people in inventive and spectacular ways.

But Elektra is in over her head, too. She's been captured and indoctrinated by the Hand at least twice, not to mention the time she just spent in a snake pit of a local insane asylum, and her fuzzy and confused mind is running almost entirely on instinct and pure willpower.

Unfortunately, Elektra and Garrett are the only ones who can save the world. From the Beast, and his dreams of megadeath. From Ken Wind. From the technological wizards of SHIELD's ExTechOps division, and the cyborgs they create to chase the AWOL Garrett -- including his ex-partner, Perry, who would have been a serial killer if he hadn't found an easier, more legal way to kill lots of people.

Miller tells this story in the best example of '80s style I know of, all stream-of-consciousness narrative captions from multiple points of view and overlapping screamed dialogue. He throws hints into the air to have them hit targets perfectly sixty pages later, and weaves it all together seamlessly. And this is Sienkiewicz at the height of his visual ambition, right before Stray Toasters, painting like a demon and shifting from photorealist to a child's scrawl to slashes of color instantly to support Miller's equally quick changes of mood. (I'll also note that Archie Goodwin, one of the unsung heroes of comics, was the original editor, and I expect that he had a lot to do with making Elektra: Assassin as coherent and crisp and powerful as it is.)

Elektra: Assassin is a smart, fast-moving, overwhelming, psychological, all-encompassing thriller comic, set in the Marvel Universe but not of it, and a superhero story only by courtesy. It does things effortlessly on the page that are thrilling and amazing, and has amazing depths of subtlety for a book about a ninja-girl stopping a demon from blowing up the world. This is one major '80s comic that completely holds up, and one of the real highlights of the careers of two hugely talented creators.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

There are times when I doubt that Feynman could possibly be real. A wild man physics savant who was also  a world-class womanizer, bongo player, and practical joker? No, no -- that's a fictional character, not a real man. But the world then gently points out that he was real.

Ottaviani has made a small career in comics out of telling stories about science and scientists, and this latest book-length graphic novel fits well into his oeuvre. Feynman is the most interesting scientist of the 20th century, beating out even Einstein and Hawking -- quirky, fun, endlessly quotable, but still clearly brilliant at really esoteric theoretical physics and creator of a major explanatory theory that hardly anyone has ever understood.

(I know much less about Myrick -- he's got a lot of credits, but I haven't seen much of his work. He has a slightly cartoonier style than I'd expect for a biography, which means his Feynman looks only slightly like the real man, but he has the skills to tell this story well, despite a lot of talking heads and big caption boxes.)

Ottaviani mostly tells Feynman's story straight through, with a few digressions for style and framing. He uses unobtrusive captions to place each scene in a time and place, jumping forward occasionally to use a major lecture or discovery to frame earlier events. It makes what could have been a dull life -- Feynman, for all of his energy and wit and wackiness, spent most of his time lecturing, writing, or sitting in a chair thinking about physics -- into a thoughtful graphic novel that mediates on an interesting life lived well.

I expect this will mostly be read by physics nerds and young readers -- it's the kind of thing
that teachers and librarians hope will snare some resultant reader into a life-long passion -- but that's fine. Feynman was both of those things, in his time, and I think he'd be glad of the company.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/19

Every week, I list here the books that came in the mail over the previous seven days. There have been fewer of those over the past few years -- because sending physical books is expensive and anachronistic, because publishers regularly review their media lists and redeploy resources where they will have more impact, and because I've just been reviewing fewer of the books sent to me. All of those are completely legitimate and good reasons, and I've often remarked that Marketer Me would never keep sending Blogger Me as many books as other publishers have. (This may also be a sign of the great gulf between Publicity and Marketing; Marketers are legendarily harder-hearted, crueler, and tighter-fisted than the open-handed folk of Publicity.)

Anyway, this is all leading up to the point where I admit that I didn't get any free books this week. (Boo f-ing hoo, I can hear you say. And I sympathize with the sentiment.) So I'm not able to write about them here.

But the lack of new books did free up some time to write about books I have read, so you might notice that the post for the month of November went up yesterday, and a stretch of daily review posts began on Saturday and will continue through at least next Sunday. As ever, I refuse to speculate about if this a last hurrah or a rebirth; I don't know, and the only way to find out will be seeing what happens, day by day.

So good luck with your own upcoming days -- take them one at a time, and I hope you can find something to enjoy in each of them.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Incoming Books: Mid-December

A few days ago, I mentioned buying some graphic novels (squarebound comics, BD, whatever the heck you call fancy comic books in book shapes), because my local comic shop had a great sale for Cyber Monday.

Well, that wasn't the only great Cyber Monday sale. The comics publisher Fantagraphics also had one, and -- since I'm only a man, with a man's weaknesses -- I had to buy some things. Most of those came in at the end of this week, minus the books that haven't actually been published yet. And these are they:

Gag On This, a collection of gag cartoons by the late, great Charles Rodrigues. Fanta also published Ray and Joe, a collection of Rodrigues's longer comics, last year, which I was very happy to see. Rodrigues had a wonderfully scruffy line and an equally scruffy mind to write the comics he did. I'm amazed that there's a Rodrigues revival, but it's very welcome.

Violenzia And Other Deadly Amusements is the latest collection of comics by Richard Sala, master of stylish mayhem and creepy doings and attractive young barefoot girls. What Sala does is very distinctive and, one might even say, predictable. But no one else does it, and I love it.

The Complete Peanuts, 1995 to1996 by Charles M. Schulz (of course!) sees the reprint series coming close to the end of the line at Schulz's death in 2000. This one also has an introduction by a couple of the current Rifftrax writers (not Mike, Bill, or Kevin, the faces and voices of the franchise) and a couple pages of Schulz strips riffed -- which doesn't work terribly well, but that's understandable: it's a style designed for bad art, so why would we expect it to work with Schulz?

And then I got a few things from the  less reputable side of Fanta, their Eros imprint -- which, as I understand it, kept the whole enterprise afloat in the rough '90s, but is basically defunct now in the era of Internet porn. (One does wonder what Fanta/Eros could make out of DeviantArt, but not in our side of the Trousers of Time, I suppose.) One was Frank Thorne's The Complete Iron Devil because I've never read much Thorne, and I have the sense that his work was always smutty to one degree or another, so this should be representative, more or less.

And I also got two of Fanta's collections of those old under-the-counter gems, the Tijuana Bibles. Those were Volume Seven and Volume Eight; I may try to collect the whole series. I read the big Tijuana Bibles book before this blog started, and still think I might get a new copy to replace the one the floodwaters stole. TBs are weird, quirky products of the deepest recesses of the American Id -- some of them are just lousy, but some are fascinating, and a select few are fun and amusing and well-drawn. (That, though, is never the way to bet -- they were cheap crap mass-produced illegally to meet a disreputable need.)

Scout (2 volumes) by Tim Truman

On the one hand, I'm amazed that these two books even exist: that a great but forgotten series like Scout was collected at all, almost thirty years after it was originally published as floppy comics. But, on the other hand, I'm vaguely unhappy that this reprint series couldn't manage to last long enough to do War Shaman, the follow-up, as well. And I'm more solidly unhappy that there wasn't a third collection to finish up the actual Scout series -- that's a bigger lack. (I'm clear-eyed enough not to expect the spin-off serieses, but enough of a dreamer to think maybe this reprint project would lead to a huge resurgence of interest in Truman and get him to finally make the other two related series he planned in the late '80s.)

Does that all even out to being happy for what I got? I dunno; it's more like wild swings to one side and then the other. But, still: Scout was republished! (Sure, almost ten years ago -- I'm going to pretend I let them sit on my shelf that long because I was wishing really hard for the War Shaman collections.)

Scout is a dystopian near-future story that mixes SF and fantasy -- and, since it was a near-future in the mid-80s, it's now an alternate past, since this first series took place in 1999. (I could quibble with Truman's timeline, since he really doesn't have enough time for all of his change to take place within a single decade -- if I was his editor back in 1987, I would have recommended stretching out the timeline to put Scout in about 2010 or so, with an entire generation for things to fall apart comprehensively. But the thing about an alternate past is that you can pretend it was different for even longer, if you want -- and Scout is unassailable if you push the divergence point back to the mid-70s and assume the first oil shock was the beginning of the end.)

Emmanuel Santana is an Apache and former Army Ranger in the US Southwest; the US all but fell apart over the past decade, shut out by a trade pact among the rest of the world that left it poor and a second Dust Bowl that destroyed its food crops. There was never a war, but the US would be hard-pressed to be considered a third-rate power. Oh, and four legendary Beasts -- supernatural creatures with the aspects of animals that have incarnated in human form -- are pushing mankind toward a more permanent apocalypse. And the only person who knows about it is Santana, haunted by his heritage and by more immediate visions, driven to kill those four beasts and save his people -- whatever "people" that really means.

There are other main characters, other viewpoints -- including a young woman who is still a Ranger and takes a dim view of Santana's plans, despite their affair back in Basic. But the reader never doubts Santana's quest -- we see the beasts, and hear their plans. They're not just evil men, though they are that -- they are monsters.

That's only the first story, though. Scout's world is thoroughly screwed up, in ways that one man very skilled with guns can't fix by himself. And the stories of Scout get weirder and less focused on Apache folklore from that point -- there's a fan theory that Truman tried to shove every idea he had for adventure stories in Scout, which didn't entirely work, and I have some sympathy for that theory -- but Scout stayed an energetic, exciting story about a world and a main character unlike anything else in comics at the time. (And still unique in comics, though Scout's world would fit alongside any number of YA novels these days.)

In a better world, Scout would have been a big hit, and Truman would have kept it running -- either as a single series, or under subtitles for each new story arc -- for a decade or two, getting better with each story and reaping the benefit of his work. This is very clearly not a better world, though. But we did get 24 issues of Scout and 16 of War Shaman, and not that long ago we got the first sixteen of those comics collected. Three more volumes would finish that up...any takers, comics publishers?