Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell

Campbell is Gaiman's "scary goddaughter" and the daughter of cartoonist Eddie Campbell; she's now a journalist in London and one of the few sensible writers about comics for UK papers. And The Art of Neil Gaiman is a slightly oversized, heavily illustrated book about all things Gaiman, including a thumbnail biography and focusing mostly on loving examinations of all of the various writings he's done for various media. (It is, therefore, much like Gaiman's own very early book, Don't Panic!, about Douglas Adams. The rhythms of the creative life are strangely consistent over the decades.)

I've been a Gaiman reader and aficionado for a long time -- I hesitate to call myself a "fan," since he's attracted some very devoted sorts who would find my zeal insufficient -- all the way back to Black Orchid and Don't Panic!, and I found this pleasant and complete, if hagiographic and unsurprising. The point of a book like this is to celebrate rather than criticize, of course, but Campbell has a non-nonsense, journalistic tone rather than the pose of a breathless acolyte, so it comes across as more-or-less honest and balanced. Campbell also, since she's already part of the Gaiman circle, got unmatched access to Gaiman and his various collaborators -- she already knew a lot of the people she had to interview for this book, and spent a lot of time rooting around in Gaiman's attic and basement for artifacts from his long, twisting career. It's very clear that no one other than Gaiman himself would have had that level of access, and Gaiman has too many other projects to write his own book-length bibliography.

This is also a heavily designed book, with art integrated on every page, from notebook scraps to comics panels to movie stills and snapshots. And it all reads very cleanly, even with lightly tinted paper and slightly fussy caption styles. I believe this is primarily due to Art Director Julie Weir, credited as part of a larger team of The Ilex Press, which owns the copyright. (They look like a book-packaging firm to my eye, though the name isn't familiar.) The art is also generally well-chosen -- though Gaiman's scrawl makes the many examples of his handwritten notes difficult to decipher -- and doesn't focus on just the big obvious pictures (though there are plenty of those as well).

So this is about as good as a project like this could ever be: it's inherently celebratory rather than critical, obviously, but it covers all of Gaiman's various activities (comics, novels, movies, odder things) in appropriate depth and detail and even really devoted fans will likely learn some new trivia. If you like, say, 60% or more of things Gaimanesque, you will likely enjoy reading this.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Declaration of Review Bankruptcy

Right at this very second, I have twenty-seven books sitting stacked on the corner of my desk. I've read all of them and reviewed none of them.

I've repeatedly said here that my goal is to put each book I read into its own post -- maybe short, maybe long, maybe half-assed in some cases -- because I like things tidy and because that helps me find them later. (I'm under no illusions that this blog is primarily for anything but my own amusement and external memory.)

But I'm also very fond of saying "the best is the enemy of the good," and this is one of those cases. By the time this weekend is over, and the month of May with it, at least half of those books will be off my desk and will have at least a couple of words attached to them here. (If I get really ambitious, some of those words will be scheduled to post later in the week.) If there was anyone hoping that I'd do a long, thorough post on, say, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen or The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (both of which, among several others, deserve it), I apologize for having let you down once again.

Regular service will probably not resume after this; I am reading quickly again, but my blogging time is severely limited with the new-job schedule. (Out the door at 6:40 AM, back home after 8 PM, and a faint hope to do other things with my free time in my exhausted evenings.) We'll see how this shakes out over time: I have a couple of reading projects I'd planned to do this year, but I'll need to be back on the regular-blogging horse before that can happen.

Anyway, the good news is that there will be at least a post or two with some words in them. I may even say something that intrigues you about a book you might love. Stranger things have happened.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of May 23

I suspect most of my readers for these "Reviewing the Mail" posts are Americans -- because the books I get in the mail are about 99 44/100% American-published, because of shipping costs and territorial rights and other boring things -- so you're probably out enjoying the holiday.

(If, like one of my my new colleagues at TR, you're not American and aren't sure what "Memorial Day" is all about, it's the general patriotic holiday vaguely focused on veterans and/or "the troops." More or less the US-specific version of Armistice Day, but with more focus on soldiers/sailors/aviators/marines who didn't necessarily buy the farm Over There.)

But I do this anyway, because I want to get the books off my desk and because I love consistency. So here's what I've got this week: three books in the tune of skiffy, as a counterpoint to all of the Souza marches being played elsewhere today.

Oathkeeper is the second novel in the epic fantasy trilogy named after the first novel, Grudgebearer, by J.F. Lewis. (I was surprised to look at the author bio and see that J.F. is clearly a guy named Jeremy; I guess he just isn't that fond of his first name.) (Also, I would love if the concluding book was named Nitpicker, but I'd bet money that it won't be.) It's got a redheaded elf girl in sensible armor and a friendly-ish dragon on the cover, which pegs its appeal pretty closely. And it's a Pyr trade paperback, available June 9.

I have not read The Banished of Muirwood-- nor have I read any of the author's previous six novels with "Muirwood" in the title -- but I can say it must be absolutely fabulous, because it's author is Jeff Wheeler, and everything done by a Wheeler must be assumed to be world-class. It's epic fantasy in the usual medievaloid secondary world, with a spunky young princess whose been Cinderella-ized and a social setup that seems even more hostile to women than usual. Amazon's 47North imprint will bring this one out in the usual paper and electronic formats in August.

And then there's Kevin J. Anderson's Blood of the Cosmos, the second book in the series that began with the currently Hugo-nominated Dark Between the Stars. It's meat-and-potatoes space opera, with somewhat less tech-porn than the average Baen book but plenty of intrigue and complication and physics that is not precisely accurate. This Tor hardcover is available on June 2nd.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Incoming Books: Week of 5/23

I've hit another of the periods when all I seem capable of posting here is lightly annotated list of books. It's not my preference, but the new job gets me out of the house at 6:40 and not back home until 20:05, so time for thinking and writing are very slim right now.

But I did read eight books this week -- all short, and mostly comics, but definitely books -- which is an improvement over my days of unemployment. And so, to keep the cosmic balance, I ended up buying eight books this week as well: also mostly comics.

Those books were:

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, the second full-length graphic novel from Brian Fies (after Mom's Cancer, which I read way back in the misty early days of this blog when I didn't write long meandering posts about books all the time). It's about the dream of the future from the 1939 World's Fair, and it seems to be fictional, unlike Mom's Cancer.

Satellite Sam, Vol. 2 from Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin. This is a complicated mystery story set in the world of early TV in the '50s, with lots of Chaykin dames in their over-constructed lingerie (and not much else, much of the time). I mostly enjoyed the first volume, despite admittedly not entirely understanding it.

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth, Vol. 7: A Cold Day in Hell by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Lawrence Campbell, and Peter Snejbjerg. I'm trying to keep up better with Hellboy-verse stories these days, and I might just sit down for a big week of B.P.R.D. soon. (This was one I was missing in the middle; it's not the most recent book.)

Over Easy, a memoir-ish graphic novel -- or maybe a graphic memoir with some degree of fictionalizing -- from Mimi Pond, who did a lot of great work for National Lampoon in the '70s and whom I haven't seen much lately. (I see that she did a long-running strip for Seventeen magazine for part of that time, which was way off my radar.)

Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon, the last book in the series -- well, more will be published, but this one is at the very end of the internal timeline -- which is written by series creators Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim. The two individual French albums collected here are drawn by Alfred (of Why I Killed Peter fame) and Mazan (who seems to have had several long-running series in Europe that have never been translated into English).

Bandette, Vol. 2: Stealers, Keepers!, the second book collecting a comic by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. I really enjoyed the first one, and I always like Coover's sunny, expressive art.

Grendel vs. The Shadow by Matt Wagner. I probably heard about this at some point -- I'm not completely cut off from all sources of information about the usual comic-shop stuff -- but I was surprised to see it on the shelf. I like Wagner, though I think he's spent too much time this century doing Hunter Rose stories -- and I also think that's what the market-slash-editors keep asking him for. And I guess I'm the problem, because I keep buying them, and providing financial incentive to keep making them.

Last is the one book with only words on the pages: Defender of the Innocent, a complete collection (so far) of Lawrence Block's stories about Martin Ehrengraf, the criminal defense attorney whose clients are always innocent, no matter what else has to happen for that to be true. Block's short stories are sharp and sneaky -- possibly even better than his novel -- so this should be fun.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/16

In a world of uncertainty and strangeness, there are only a few things you can count on. And one of them is that every Monday morning, I'll post a list of the books that arrived in my mail the prior week. You might not be interested in any of those books, and I might not make them sound enticing, but, by gum!, that post will go up on time!

(There might not be many other posts here on Antick Musings, since my new job is both time-consuming in itself and is at the end of a substantially longer commute than I've been used to from the last few years, but this one string you can count on for as long as I keep getting books in the mail.)

This week, I have four books: two that I've seen before, now returned in perfected published form, a la Gandalf the White. And then I have two books I haven't seen before, though they're both in series and by familiar authors. As always, I will point out that I haven't read any of these, and anything I say about them could easily be wrong because of that.

First up is Darwin's Watch: The Science of Discworld III, from Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. Like the first two Science of Discworld books (and the fourth, which hit the UK several years ago and is still forthcoming on my side of the pond), it combines alternate chapters of a Pratchett-written Unseen University story about wizards poking at a created "Roundworld" with chapters about the actual science implied by those pokes, written by working scientists and popularizers Stewart and Cohen. I don't remember if I read all four of these books, but they start very strong and glide gently downhill, as the authors have less impressive material each time out. Darwin's Watch is a June 2015 trade paperback original from Anchor in the US, only ten years after the UK publication.

And then there's (R)evolution, the first novel from TV writer PJ Manney, coming on June 1st from Amazon's 47North imprint. (So you might have trouble finding it in any smaller independent bookstores that Amazon hasn't managed to drive out of business yet.) It's a technothriller in the vein of Blood Music, with the plucky genius researcher who injects himself with his own creation and then gets caught up in the usual evil conspiracy to control everything.

Long Black Curl is the third novel in Alex Bledsoe's Tufa series, about a secret race of musically magical people in a (hidden?) county in Tennessee, and their intrigues and problems. (I suspect there's an influence from Manly Wade Wellman's "Silver John" stories here, since Bledsoe is also working with authentic American legends.) In this one, one of the two Tufa ever stripped of their powers and exiled is back, and of course she's pissed. Long Black Curl is a Tor hardcover, on sale May 26.

And last is a big fat fantasy novel from Peter Orullian: Trial of Intentions, the sequel to The Unremembered and the continuation of the "Vault of Heaven" series. It's one of those books where there's an ancient evil god out there, and his millennia-old magic chains are failing, so Bad Stuff is ramping up and will keep doing so until the Cast of Thousands travels across the entire map, learns Important Lessons about themselves and the world, gathers all of the Plot Tokens, and reassemble in the last book for a few of the less important characters to die and the rest to be triumphant. (I may be slightly flippant about epic fantasy here. I may also be less than accurate about this particular series.) Trial of Intentions is a Tor hardcover, also available May 26th, and the cover letter insists that it works perfectly fine as an introduction to the series.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/9

For the past eight years -- yes, I know, that surprises me too, when I come to think about it -- I've posted every Monday morning about the books that came in the mail the prior week. And I'm back for another week today.

I haven't read these books yet, and might not manage to read any specific one of them (even the ones I really want to -- there's already a pretty large collection of books I really want to read). But I can tell you things about them from a quick look, and those things will follow. Are those things guaranteed to be entirely correct? Well, no: but I try not to misrepresent any of the books in front of me.

First up is a new short novel by Alastair Reynolds, Slow Bullets, coming in a trade paperback edition from Tachyon in early June. Like all of Reynolds's work, it looks like smart hard-ish science fiction, set in the medium future among former soldiers from both sides of a long, huge interstellar war who wake up on a ship where things are going badly wrong.

Also from Tachyon is a collection by Hannu Rajaniemi, under the easily-remembered title Collected Fiction. Rajaniemi has written several novels, though I've only managed to read the first one (The Quantum Thief) so far. And this book has about a dozen and a half stories -- and a couple of odder things as well -- from the last decade. Rajaniemi is also a pretty hard SF writer when he wants to be; he has a doctorate in Mathematicial Physics and has run what sounds like a think tank for tech innovation.

And then there's Press Start to Play, an original anthology of SFnal stories about videogames edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams. It'll be an original trade paperback from Vintage, hitting stores on August 28. And it has new stories from twenty-six very diverse writers, from editor Wilson to Charles Yu, from Seanan McGuire to T.C. Boyle, from Hugh Howey to Catherynne M. Valene, from Rhianna Pratchett to Cory Doctorow, all of whom tell stories inspired by videogames in one way or another.

Deborah Harkness finishes up her bestselling trilogy about witches with The Book of Life, which hits paperback from Penguin on May 26th. The first in the series is A Discovery of Witches, and I'm afraid I haven't read any of them, so I can't tell you much. But this one does see our heroes -- "spellbound witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont" -- return from Elizabethan London to the modern day and the characters from the first book.

And last for this week is a SF novel from James L. Cambias, Corsair. It's set in the near future, when asteroid mining has become big business, and top computer hackers battle over the systems dropping the payloads into the ocean -- some on behalf of their employers, the mining companies, and some on behalf of pirates and thieves who want to divert and steal the payloads. (I'm surprised that there's not a stronger regulatory structure around an activity theoretically capable of destroying cities, but that may come up later in the book.) Corsair is a Tor hardcover, and is available now.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hugo Categories We Probably Don't Need

Some time ago -- I keep meaning to save this here, but keep also forgetting again -- there was a Twitter hashtag #newHugocategories, which was generally an outgrowth of the Puppy eruption.

I had a bunch of suggestions of my own, and since I think I'm witty and smart, I still like them. So I wanted to preserve them somewhere more searchable than Twitter.

Anyway, here were my modest suggestions, in order:

My New Gig

I've been coy over the past two weeks, because I didn't want to say too much too early, but my long national nightmare is over as of tonight: I begin my new job tomorrow morning.

I'll be joining a great marketing team on the Practical Law product at Thomson Reuters, and I'm thrilled about all of it: joining a big, smart company with great resources and reach; working on a major product that provides real value to a professional audience; and both using the things I've already learned and learning more about methods and audiences and marketing tools.

Even more interesting, I'm diving right in: there's a big marketing summit for the Legal division of TR on Tuesday and Wednesday, so my first business trip will be on Day Two of the job, which may be a record. (I'm going to Minneapolis, which is where most of this division is headquartered.)

The Practical Law offices are in Manhattan -- Third Ave in the forties, which I'm amused to remember was the big publishing neighborhood back when I started in the business, twenty years ago -- so I'll be back in town all the time now, and might even start showing up more regularly to events there.

Anyway: I've got a great new job at a great division of a great company, which I hope will lead to less grumpiness here than there's been for the past three and a half months of unemployment. It may also lead to fewer posts here, since obviously real work is always the first priority. But we'll all have to see how things shake out: getting back into the commuting habit will probably mean I'll be reading more again.

(And, since I like to track everything, I'm also happy to note that my unemployment time is on a downward slope, though there are very few datapoints. I was out for 20 weeks in 1990-91, 17 weeks in 2007, and now 14 weeks this year. From this, I can project with presidential-election-level confidence that I will next be unemployed for 11 weeks in 2019.)

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

This book, for me, shares something very specific and personal with Ted Heller's Funnymen and Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday: I read each of them intensively while stuck in a hospital overnight for no good reason. (An irregular heartbeat can completely freak out doctors, and doubly so if the patient seems to be perfectly normal while the expensive machines are beeping like crazy. And I think my heart reacts badly to beeping machines, so there's a whole unpleasant feedback loop thing going on there.)

That connection will be entirely besides the point to anyone who isn't me, but I am me, and this is my blog, so that's how I'm leading off. Suck it, everyone else.

It's possible that Paul Theroux's legendary curmudgeonliness is rubbing off on me from reading Dark Star Safari so intensively (though it was the night of March 26-27, so it wasn't that recent), but I think it's more likely the opposite: I like Theroux so much, and keep returning to his work, because we're similar types of curmudgeons, and have compatible views of the worth of humanity. I still haven't read any of his novels, despite meaning to do so, but I get to one of his travel books at least once a year [1] and always deeply enjoy them.

This one is the story of a trip down the East African coast nearly fifteen years ago -- the book was published in 2003, and I suspect the trip itself took place in late 2001. (And it's a testament to how deeply Theroux does get into the bush and the wilderness that a certain event in early September of that year happens offstage and, as far as I can recall, is not mentioned once in the book.) Theroux started in Cairo and ended up in Cape Town, traveling through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa along the way.

Theroux isn't quite as disgusted and appalled by the state of African cities and their mean money-grubbing ways (from the ubiquitous beggars to the corrupt functionaries) as he was in the aborted trip up the opposite coast a decade later in The Last Train to Zona Verde, but Theroux has depths of disgust and pall that most men only dream of. And we read Theroux in large part for that viewpoint, that jaundiced look at humanity at its civilized worst, so those readers will not be disappointed by Dark Star Safari.

As usual, Theroux also meets a lot of interesting people, and draws his interactions with their often larger-than-life personalities quickly and vividly: he might hate humanity en masse, but he's great at finding and cultivating individual characters during his travels. And he's got strong opinions on Africa in general and its countries in particular: he lived for several years as a Peace Corps teacher in Tanzania in the 1960s and has stronger ties to East Africa than you'd expect of a white guy from Massachusetts.

So Dark Star Safari is concentrated Theroux: lots of muck and danger and hard travel, lots of characters, lots of horrible places and the horrible people who make them worse, lots of railing against most of the above, and not all that much hope for better. A new Theroux reader should not start here; I'd recommend one of the train books (Great Railway Bazaar or Old Patagonian Express, for example) to begin with. But he's a great travel writer -- he goes to interesting places, gets deeply into them, and reports on what he sees vividly and enthrallingly.

[1] See my prior posts about The Last Train to Zona Verde, Ghost Train to the Evening Star, The Imperial Way, and The Pillars of Hercules.

Friday, May 08, 2015

F My Life by Valette, Passgalia, and Guedj

There are times when my pledge to turn every book I read into an Antick Musings post is particularly silly: today is one of those times. The current book is F My Life, the print manifestation of a once-zeitgeisty website of sad, amusing and Schadenfreude-ian real life stories, and it is the thing that it is and no more than that.

So, since I work by day as a marketer, I will do the rest of this review in quick, zippy, impactful bullet points!
  • F My Life is edited by the three French creators of the site: Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedj
  • The site launched in 2008 as Vie de Merde, and the book followed the next year
  • The book contains illustrations by Marie "Missbean" Levesque
  • Like the site, the book is all user-contributed
  • It's divided into six chapters with vague themes about aspects of life
  • All of the stories are embarrassing, humiliating, soul-destroying, or worse
  • But none of the stories happened to you, so you can enjoy them!
Reading the book of a website is an odd thing at the best of times, with only a few major reasons (to support the creators, to have something easier to read in the john, etc.). When the site is full of such short content to begin with, it feels even odder. But, if you like stories of woe happening to other people, this is a great compendium of them.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Great Castles of Britain & Ireland by Lise Hull

I've always been suspicious of people whose reading lives are too orderly and regimented. There are people who claim to read only cozy romances, or military SF, or to be working through the Harvard Classics, and I either don't believe them entirely or pity them for their narrow-mindedness. Books, like any artform, are about all of life, and you can't arbitrarily cut yourself off from life. You have to embrace it, in all its wonder and surprises.

That may seem like an awfully self-aggrandizing way to introduce a book about various piles of worked stone in the British Isles, but it's really about two impulses in the reader. First is the acquisition: you see a book, think it's interesting, hope you might read it one day, and so you keep it. The second impulse is when you finally do read it -- and, for many of us, that impulse doesn't hit nearly as often. (I lost, by a conservative estimate, around a thousand books I hadn't read in my 2011 flood, and I already have at least 500 unread books on my shelves now: even if I stopped acquiring immediately and read intensively, it would take a couple of years just to catch up.)

So the first impulse is the easy one: deciding that this book is one you might like to read, someday, and that you're willing to take the space, effort, and money to get it and keep it. If you're any kind of serious reader, that happens a lot, because the world is interesting and full of things that excite you.

The second impulse is much more specific: a desire to read this book right now. That can strike right after the first, or years later, or never. It can be triggered by a browse through your shelves -- one of the world's great unexamined pleasures -- or a memory of the book, or by an external event. (An award nomination, for example, or a friend who notes she's currently reading that book.)

Now, personally, I've worked in publishing for twenty-plus years, and that's led to one of my pieces of advice: work in an industry that makes things you like, because you'll end up with a lot of them in your house. What you work with tends to stick to your hands, and fill up your life. (This explains why investment bankers have all the money, for example.) These days, I get a lot of books for review, which tend to run in specific categories. But, back in my book-club days, there was a fabled thing called The Giveaway Shelf. It was a bookcase or two, somewhere in whatever office we were inhabiting that year, where editors dumped books they didn't want. And, since the bookclub companies had a lot of operations in a lot of subject areas -- and we paid money to publishers for the books we wanted -- there was a constant flood of books into those offices from far and wide. So we all were dumping pretty regularly, just to keep our offices manageable: there were more books than anyone could read, and almost more than we could keep track of.

So browsing the Giveaway Shelf was always fun: one part an educational exercise in what's being published right at that moment, one part treasure hunt for things of personal interest, and one part continual surprise at projects that actual businesses would put money behind. And, unlike browsing a book store, all of these books were free for the taking -- so I took a lot, for many years.

I think The Great Castles of Britain & Ireland is from that era: I saved a shelf-worth of unread large-format books from the flood, and that shelf is getting read very slowly. (When you read mostly on trains, big books have to fit into the small bits of other reading time.) It was a subject I thought I was interested in -- I'd read a 1926 book, Castles, by the early 20th century military historian Charles Oman, which had a lot of details of warfare and great illustrations. And so I thought this book, written by Lise Hull with great photographs by Stephen Whitehorne, would be in a similar vein.

It isn't, though: this is a more touristy book, aimed at the general public, with thumbnail prose sketches of the history and interesting features of fifty major and historically-important castles in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. It's a lovely coffee-table book, but I find I want the in-depth details more. I want to hear from an expert in something about the deep knowledge of his specialty, not to get a superficial look at fifty places and a few snippets of history about each of them.

That doesn't make this a bad book, and it is definitely more useful to Britons, since it also includes details about when and how these buildings are open to the public. It's a great guide for people who are close enough to actually visit, and Hull expert enough to tell those people what architectural features of the individual castles to look for. But I missed Oman's schematics: I think I'm just the kind of person who prefers a drawing that tells me how something works to a pretty picture that shows me what it looks like.

But this is definitely a swell, attractive book: the pictures are gorgeous, the text covers the big picture for each of these places, and the whole thing looks impressive displayed in your home.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Graphic Witness edited by George A. Walker

The novel is a fairly well defined category at this point: a collection of words (anywhere from about forty thousand of them up to half a million), telling a story of some kind, generally in prose but not necessarily, stuck between two covers. But George Walker here collects four wordless novels -- stories told entirely in pictures on the page -- to shake up that idea.

Despite my tag on this post, these four stories aren't "comics" by most definitions, since they each have one image to a page, and none of the visual language of comics -- no speech or thought balloons, no captions, no panel transitions. They're somewhere in the same family tree, obviously, but they also show by their existence that the prose novel is not that far away in the same tree -- that sequential storytelling has some elements in common no matter what the building blocks of the story, whether prose or poetry or images. As the afterword from the cartoonist Seth makes clear, the "wordless novel" draws its visual imagery and language from the silent movie rather than from comics -- not unlike recent books by Brian Selznick like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck -- though Selznick mixes stretches of prose with his movie-derived images.

So, Graphic Witness collects four stories from the first half of the 20th century (more or less), when there was a brief flourishing of this form. (Milt Gross's He Done Her Wrong, which I've reviewed twice, is a parody of that flourishing.) According to Walker's introduction, the form was most associated with radical politics, and he implies this is because they could avoid censorship by not including any of the trigger words -- presumably things like "trade unionism" and "socialism" and "worker solidarity." That implied theory does neatly explain why that flourishing mostly ended with WWII, since the world changed significantly at that point, and the politics were no longer the same.

All four of these books also use the same style of art, which was the standard for this short-lived art form. All are printed from cut blocks -- whether linocuts or woodcuts or otherwise -- and so have that white-lines-on-black scratchboard look, with all of its strengths of immediacy and imagistic power balanced by the difficulty of doing intricate detail work. (Though Lynd Ward, in particular, manages a fantastic array of line widths and crosshatching to achieve all of the effects of ink on paper.)

Franz Masreel, a Belgian who worked in this area mostly during the wars, and had his most success in Germany, leads off with 1918's The Passion of a Man, probably the earliest work of this kind. (It's also made up of only twenty-five images, which may perhaps deform the idea of a "novel" in an entirely different direction.) It's the crudest of the four in its story-telling, covering the story of a poor young man from his illegitimate birth through hard times and rabble-rousing (maybe union organizing, maybe leading a revolution) to his inevitable end. It's clearly agitprop, but strongly conceived and told.

Next is Lynd Ward, the best-known worker in this form to Americans: he made six books in this style over the course of a decade, from 1929's God's Man to 1937's Vertigo. (And, continuing the implication that this was an art-form tied to a particular moment in time, lived another fifty years without quite completing another such story.) Walker has chosen Ward's third book, Wild Pilgrimage, from 1932. It's a more complex story than Masreel's Passion, telling the story of one man's wanderings from a dark industrial city into a more pastoral landscape -- which has its own share of darkness. Ward also mixes the real world, in black, with dreams or visions of his main character, in a reddish tint, to add another level of depth and reflection. There's something like a labor riot at the end of Pilgrimage as well, bringing this nameless man's story to a similar end to hat of Masreel's hero.

Italian-born San Franciscan Giacomo Patri tells the story of a different sector of the class struggle in 1940's White Collar, his only wordless book. White Collar is more naturalistic than Ward's or Masreel's work, telling the story of an advertising artist and his family in a noir-esque '30s style, with only a few intrusions of symbolic art. Patri's hero is firmly above the union workers when his story begins, living in a suburban house with his wife and two children and commuting to his city job. But then the 1929 stock market crash hits, and he's out of work. He tries various things, but none of them succeed and the bills keep piling up, until his family is thrown out of their home and they join the army of similar people: all now equal and unified against the heartless capitalists. Patri's art is not quite as complex as Ward's, but it "reads" more crisply on the page, and he varies the sizes of his images to suit his subjects in a way that anticipates later comics developments.

Walker's last selection is the only post-war choice: Canadian Laurence Hyde's 1951 book Southern Cross, also his only wordless book. (I haven't emphasized just how much work and time goes into each individual woodcut: Hyde spent three years making his book, and Patri about the same amount of time.) The politics have shifted, but Southern Cross is still a book to persuade: it tells the story of a loving family on some South Pacific island -- presumably Bikini Atoll -- who are ripped from their homes by US forces who are testing a nuclear weapon. And that, of course, is not the end of the trials for this family: a persuasive book must pile up the drama to make its case. Hyde doesn't vary his image's size as much as Patri did, but he does break his flow of mostly small, same-sized images to punch specific moments, and his art is supple and evocative.

I don't know the rest of this field well enough to independently verify Walker's description of it, but it fits everything I know: the wordless book did only last for a short time, and its central works are clearly deeply political in motivation and purpose. The four books he's selected and presented here are each strong in their own ways, both in storytelling and in art. I suspect these stories will be more interesting in a social-history context than in looking at the history of American comics, since they draw much more from the general leftist thought of the time than from what was then a minor and disreputable art form. But they're worth reading and thinking about, particularly as our own era rumbles into levels of income inequality not seen since the late Twenties.