Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

In a country that is not China -- but, if it were actually in our world, might be -- there is an important city that has been fought over by three great nations for hundreds of years, with control going back and forth repeatedly. Each of those nations has its own name for the city, but the inhabitants prefer not to give it a name -- since that will only change with the next conquest.

(This is a book aimed for teen readers, or perhaps set in a world slightly more rational than ours, so the inhabitants of that city can have a policy to stand aside and let the three nations fight it out each time. In this world, that means that they survive and continue their lives under different rulers, not that they are sacked and raped and murdered with each change of overlord.)

Faith Erin Hicks tells a story in that city: The Nameless City. That story doesn't end here; there will be at least one more volume. (And what writer can resist a trilogy? Or an expanded trilogy? We'll have to see if Hicks can resist, or wants to.) But the action of this book ends by its last page; this is not a cliff-hanger.

Kaidu is a young man -- say twelve or thirteen, right at the age to begin seriously training for his manhood -- of the Dao nation, the latest conquerors of the city they call DanDao. He grew up with his mother in the homelands, but has been sent to train as a warrior in the city where his never-seen father is an advisor to the Dao general who conquered it thirty years ago and has ruled it since.

Rat is a girl of the streets of the Nameless City, a fearless orphan racing across rooftops, contemptuous of the Dao as her people have been contemptuous of each invader in turn. (So...there's never been any intermarriage among any of these four people, for hundreds of years of turn-and-turn-again conquest? That seems implausible. The people of this city should be utter mutts by this point -- and much stronger for it.)

Kaidu and Rat meet cute, and don't entirely hate each other. They each have no other friends, and so become something like friends when they're not being enemies. Because this is a book for younger people, you may guess that their story is positive and has something like a moral -- don't worry, it's a good moral. If you squint, it might even be a moral about the best government requiring the consent of the governed, rather than that the good overlords will make good decisions because they are good.

This isn't my favorite Hicks book -- there a lot of unexamined neo-feudalism here, and the world is just a hair more cartoonish than I'd prefer -- but it's vibrant and exciting and full of action and has two great characters at its center. Even better, the girl is the more accomplished and level-headed of the two, besides being better at physical derring-do. But, since it's supposed to be for people a third of my age, I can't fault it -- it's very good at doing what it sets out to do, and is a lot of fun as it goes along that path.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

I like to think I'm a thoughtful reader.  Not perfect, of course -- who is? -- but good at working out metaphors and allegories and fictional schemas of all kinds. If I can see that there's a shape moving under the surface of a book, I can usually make a decent guess at what kind of leviathan lurks down there. (This may not need to be said, but authors generally want to be understood: some things may be obscure or subtext, but they do expect that a lot of readers will figure them out nonetheless.)

There is something lurking behind China Mieville's short 2016 novel This Census-Taker. I would swear to that on whatever is worth swearing on. But I can't for the life of me quite figure out what that thing is.

So whatever I say about this book is at least half-wrong -- know that up front. Census-Taker is fabulistic, the story of a deliberately unnamed Boy in a clearly potent landscape. And I'm not going to be able to explain the implications of that landscape, or of the actions of the characters in this story. All I can do is tell you, if you decide to read This Census-Taker, to pay close attention and think about what everything might mean. You could be better at this than I am.

In an unnamed country, a decade or so after an unnamed war, a nine-year-old boy runs down the steep slope from his isolated house to the small town nestled around a bridge over a river between two equally sharp peaks. He says his father has killed his mother -- or perhaps the other way around. He is comforted, taken in, and preparations are quickly made to investigate.

Then the father appears. The mother is not dead, he insists: the boy heard an argument, their final breakup. The mother has left forever, gone away from this town where she grew up (but left once, admittedly), and will never be seen again. But she is definitely not dead, he insists again. Not at all, though he has no proof of this.

The boy is handed over to the father with apologies. The two return to that isolated house, where the father is even more demanding and cold than before, as if the boy has betrayed him. And the father kills animals, now and then -- quickly, and perhaps under a compulsion. The boy thinks the father has killed other people, but never sees it happen. We see this all, interspersed with memories of the time when the mother was still with them, in the way a boy's memories can be mixed and jumbled.

Many years later, the boy is a functionary of a larger political entity. The functionary is telling us this story of the boy's childhood -- well, we think the two are the same person, and they probably are. But This Census-Taker is twisty enough that you'll want to put a pin in that assumption, to mark it. (You may need many such pins before you're done reading.) One of the things our narrator tells us is how another functionary -- now his boss, or the boss of the person telling the story, if that makes a difference -- came to that isolated house, and what happened there.

Does it matter that the father is a foreigner, perhaps a refugee from that war in the past? There's no solid indication that he was a soldier, but it's not impossible. My essential problem in trying to encompass This Census-Taker is trying to figure out what is impossible. And that list is not long.

Mieville's voice is confident and controlling: he tells this story precisely the way he wants to, doling out moments and sentences that glisten like jewels -- but jewels just far enough away that their outlines are less than crystalline. I don't doubt that this is exactly the story he wanted it to be. And perhaps he intended this uneasy confusion, too.

I do recommend reading This Census-Taker: Mieville is one of our best writers, and his prose is a joy to grapple with, even if that grappling feels like a knife-fight in the dark for much of this book. Bring your A-game when you read This Census-Taker; that's my primary advice. You'll need all your wits about you for this one; I was clearly missing a few.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/26

Those of us in the US of A are just coming out of a weekend-long food coma, raising our heavy heads, and looking around bleary-eyed to see if the world is still there. And then a Monday hits us, right when we're not expecting it. (If you think we'd be more prepared after a four day weekend, you don't know Americans.)

But at least I can offer you a few books -- books are quiet and friendly, unlike the outside world or those people you work with. These three came in my mail last week -- I don't know much about them, but let's take a look, shall we?

First up is a story collection by South African novelist Lauren Beukes: Slipping. It collects twenty-one stories -- some of them quite short, as you might guess -- along with five non-fiction pieces and a Glossary for those who are not au courant with SA slang. It's available right now in trade paperback from Tachyon.

From Yen Press -- their Yen On imprint, and that distinction I have to admit I don't entirely understand -- comes Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1, a light novel by Kumo Kagyu with illustrations by Noboru Kannatuki. It seems to be set in a RPG-ish world, focusing on a young Priestess joining a party of dungeon-crawlers for the first time. This particular party contains the title character, the usual enigmatic figure clad in dark armor with a quixotic obsession -- his is slaughtering every last goblin, as you can guess from his name -- and that presumably leads to complications.

And last for this week is a big manga volume: Blame! Master Edition, Vol. 2 by Tsutomu Nihei. I didn't see the first volume, and this one doesn't have any description -- literally the only thing on the cover other than title and author is "Toha Heavy Industries Manga Production Division," which I think is the author's puckish name for his studio -- can I can tell you it's about a robot girl who fights creepier robots in an at least mildly post-apocalyptic future. This one if from Vertical.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Carnal Knowledge by John Baxter

Would you say the 20th century had more sex than previous centuries, or less?

John Baxter set out to encyclopedize the sex of the 20th century -- he called it "modern sex," which basically means from the tail end of the Victorian era up to 2009, when he published -- in Carnal Knowledge, which could be taken to imply the answer to that question is "more." (Truly, though, it's probably all a wash: we just don't like to think about our grandparents knocking boots, and previous generations were either more discreet, used euphemisms we don't recognize anymore, or were posthumously bowdlerized in the occasional waves of prudery that followed them.)

Carnal Knowledge runs from AC/DC -- not the band, in case you're wondering -- to Zoophilia, covering a few hundred people, places, kinks, ideas, and erotic works along the way. And, if you're looking for a book to while away stray moments, an encyclopedia of sex is hard to beat: it's chock-full of interesting tidbits (most of them prurient, obviously), but easy to pick up and put down repeatedly. Baxter affects a globalist outlook here, though his default cultural milieu seems to be the UK. This may disconcert those who think that the US is the rightful center of the world in all things, but I found it lended a quirky parallax to the various forms of spanking and other activities covered here.

I hope I don't need to say this bluntly, but Carnal Knowledge is not itself particularly arousing, though it does have some soft photographic and cartoon nudity among its many black-and-white illustrations. It's not a book to put one in the mood, but to list and comment briefly on a wide range of moods that a whole lot of people have had for the past century or so. You'll probably find a decent fraction of them perverted or appalling, but that's how sex is: if you're not scaring the horses when you do it in the road, you're not doing it right.

I found some facts here I could quibble with, but I didn't take notes -- really, it's not that kind of book -- so I can't attempt to dazzle you with my inappropriate knowledge. I do think the timing of Carnal Knowledge meant that Baxter's descriptions of the porn-film industry as it is "now" means that it's already a historical document; the Internet has transformed all content businesses a lot this past decade. But its whole point is to talk about sex historically, so that's not a bug so much as a feature: just file the descriptions of mid-aughts porn as "historical" in the same way you do Baxter's descriptions of the mob-dominated big-hair porn scene of the '70s.

This is an essentially frivolous book, but in the best way. It will not make you smarter, and any facts you learn here will be difficult to bring up in conversation in most circles. But it's amusing and interesting in a wholesomely voyeuristic way, and sex should be treated seriously, like any other aspect of human behavior.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

I tend to treat Brian K. Vaughan as just another comics writer --  whether that's a positive or a negative thing, I'll leave to each of you to decide -- but he really has the instincts of a TV writer, befitting the other half of his career. Vaughan loves high concepts, even if they seem inherently destined to deflate, as similar concepts have dozens of times before.

And Paper Girls is definitely a high concept: four spunky (and mildly ethnically diverse) 12-year-old paper-delivery girls in 1988 -- perhaps because that's close to the end of the time in which delivering news by hand in pulp-paper format overnight was a bedrock part of the American landscape [1] -- are out on their bikes, hurling big piles of newsprint at front doors late the night after Halloween.

And then...weird shit happens!

Well, it's not so weird that the careful reader can't figure it out pretty quickly: there's a time-war on, and the Snakes and Spiders this time around are different generations of future-dwellers. (Yes, a generation-gap time war! There's probably a Harlan Ellison story on the same general idea from about 1967.) And our girls are stuck right in the middle of it: apparently the only civilians left in their neighborhood after the warring time factions cleaned it up for whatever nefarious purposes they each are contemplating. (We're still really early; we have no idea what the aims of each side is, and they both claim to be on the side of the angels, as of course they would.)

Now, Cliff Chiang has a grounded, realistically-detailed art style that helps to sell all of this very well. And Vaughan is, I should admit, really good at throwing bizarre concepts up into the air and creating a sense of mystery. (Catching all of those concepts and resolving the mystery...well, it's too early for Paper Girls to dwell on that.)

So Paper Girls, Vol. 1 is a hoot: it's all mysterious questions and bizarre ideas and strange moments. It even ends on another great moment, showing Vaughan will keep throwing complications in for as long as he can think of them. Since comics is mostly about beginnings and only rarely about endings, it's been quite popular, and for good reason: this is a great beginning. I just hope there's something left here once it stops being a beginning -- but, then, I'm well-known as a grump and a curmudgeon, so of course I would take the darkest view possible. This book is a lot of fun; my only quibble is that when I look forward, I seem to dimly see another sequence of Vaughan stories, each slightly less fun than the one before, until the whole thing ends in a muffled thump.

[1] Or, more pointedly, because Vaughan himself was 12 years old that year, and solipsism is a terrible thing to waste.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Street Gang by Michael Davis

Don't ask me why I read this book. I was looking for something to read on a recent business trip, and grabbed the now-not-all-that-new translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I really do expect to read one of these days. But I never want to have only one book for a trip -- what if I'm not in the right mood? -- so I also grabbed a battered nonfiction paperback for contrast. And that's the one I picked up on that plane flight, and ended up reading over the next two weeks.

The book was Street Gang, a history of the TV show Sesame Street by longtime writer-about-TV Michael Davis, which I found in a library sale for a quarter sometime last year. It's meat-and-potatoes nonfiction, with a chapter about the life of each of the major people who launched Sesame and potted bios of a number of other people who aren't quite as important. Davis doesn't transcend his material here, but he does give a good account of early TV for kids -- Beany & Cecil, Captain Kangaroo, and so forth -- as he gets to the launch of Sesame in 1969 at about the halfway point of the book.

From there it gets vaguer and looser: Davis mostly follows the major players forward, or at least does so when they (like Northern Calloway) had a tragic ending. He doesn't attempt to chronicle the show season-by-season, or even divide it into eras any more specific than decades. So each decade -- '70s, '80s, and '90s/aughts -- gets a scattershot chapter covering some of the many things that were happening then. (And somewhere along the lines I realized I really wanted to read a book about Jim Henson, who isn't actually in this book all that much -- the prologue is set at his 1990 funeral, though, and I think that's what dragged me in.)

Street Gang came out in 2008, just shy of Sesame's fortieth anniversary. That's a lot of ground to cover, particularly in a book that wants to explain the industry as it existed pre-Sesame and show where the major figures of Children's Television Workshop came from. (The answer, more often than not, was Captain Kangaroo.) It suffers somewhat from wanting to tell and show everything about everything -- everyone's lives before Sesame, all of the conflicts as the show went on, the professional lives of all of the main cast, and how Sesame affected the world as well -- because it really doesn't have enough space, nor any reader enough patience, to do all of that. Readers more attuned to the world of TV than me will probably enjoy this more, but Street Gang is honestly a pretty good book about a great show that really did change the world for the better.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rules for Dating My Daughter by Mike Dawson

I'm lucky, personally: I have only sons. So I can sit on the sidelines of the feminist-parenting debate, and pretend that I would have all of the perfect answers if things had gone otherwise. What are the rules for dating my sons? Well, first you have to like one of them, and want to date them -- I'm assuming that will happen at some point, though it hasn't yet. I'll work out any other rules at that point, I guess. (Probably won't need to.)

Mike Dawson, on the other hand, has a young daughter. And the title story of this collection of short comics is about the wonders and terrors of parenting a daughter as a 21st century man. (There are plenty of men out there who are still stuck in prior centuries -- a majority of them just elected a President.) He's seen the usual fake-redneck rules, and reacted strongly against them -- he's modern enough to realize the goal there is the control of women's sexuality, and not want to buy into that. And he's seen a feminist version -- "her body, her rules," that kind of thing -- which is also uneasy-making, because it still implies he gets to make rules, and, also, his particular daughter is young enough that he doesn't want to think about it. So "Rules for Dating My Daughter" ends up not having any; he's not the one who will make those rules, and she's too young to think about it.

But what about the rest of Rules for Dating My Daughter? The book contains more stories than the title track. The remainder, though, aren't there to provide  guidance for young people in 2025 looking to woo Miss Dawson. (Which is definitely a good thing: 2025 will come soon enough, so we don't have to hurry it.) But all of the stories are political in the way the title story is -- maybe more the-personal-is-political, but that certainly counts -- worries about role models and masculinity and which lives matter and climate change and violence and apocalypse.

Many of them are about that daughter, directly or as part of the family, but I think I can say that all of them are about the fears that come with having a child. Suddenly, you're not looking just at your own life, just at the next day or year -- you wonder what the world will be like after you're gone, what kind of a society you're bringing a new life into. Dawson isn't thrilled by the world and society we have, but, like so many of us, doesn't know exactly what to do.

He shows us that uncertainty and thought process, in the short comics collected here. Dawson uses captions a lot more than the mainstream standard now -- maybe because he's an '80s kid like me, maybe because it really does illuminate his stream of consciousness really well, to tease out nuances and doubts and the back-and-forth of internal debate. Rules is not a book to tell us what Mike Dawson thinks the answers are: it's a book of his questions and worries and thoughts as he tries to figure out for himself what an answer might look like. That's vastly more honest and appealing than a I-know-best style, and Dawson is thoughtful and interesting as he works through these concerns and ideas.

Multiple Nights in a Not-All-That-Lonely October

Hey! I've just finally posted the list of books I read in October, since I've just now finished up posts for all of those books. (I have a system going, I guess -- it's a weird system, and one I don't want to talk about, but it still counts as a system.)

If you want to go to that list of links, here is the path. But do remember: it's dangerous to go alone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt

There's a standard for autobiographical comics: they have to be about "you," obviously, but that "you" must be larger than life. Whatever your actual flaws are, make them bigger and funnier -- your cartoon avatar must be a cartoon, in all of the senses of that word that you can manage.

Gina Wyndrandt understands this instinctively -- or maybe from her art-school background in Chicago -- and so her first collection of comics, Someone Please Have Sex With Me, features a hot mess central character exaggerated from what the real Wynbrandt must think are the most interesting (or most easily parodied) aspects of herself. Someone Please collects five minicomics -- one for each of the last five years -- which are essentially all of her work to date. (I found another one-pager on her website, but otherwise this is pretty much it; she's right at the beginning of her career.)

So the Gina of these comics is sex-obsessed and self-deluded, a big ball of longing and wrecking-ball destructiveness, a more clueless Melissa McCarthy character. (American culture never knows what to do with oversized women, like it doesn't know what to do with loud ones, so there are few role models for a Wynbrandt character. In her lazy thoughtlessness, she's almost more like a gender-swapped Kevin James character, if that makes any sense.) Comics Gina starts out obsessed with Justin Bieber -- inappropriately, as even other characters point out -- and Wynbrandt's fantasy-tinged stories allow her avatar to meet and have a relationship with him.

It all turns out badly, of course -- autobio comics are usually about wacky people failing, and Wynbrandt is in that tradition. But it turns out badly in nutty over-the-top ways -- like the title story, which projects a sex-starved Comics Gina almost a century into the future, still begging and cajoling and maneuvering to get more nookie. Each story works that way, starting with something like reality and then steadily moving farther and farther afield as Cartoon Gina deforms reality around her with the force of her demands.

The art improves steadily over the course of the book, getting more assured and expressive with each story -- and even the first one, "One Less Lonely Girl," is just fine. The book itself is a cute little thing, drenched in a very girly pink for maximum impact.

I hope Wynbrandt finds other things to cartoon about than herself, eventually, but she's got a fun character in Cartoon Gina, and there's still plenty of life there. As a first book, this is both a hoot and a stake driven into the sand to show the direction Wynbrandt is going to be headed (away from everyone else, which is the best direction to travel for a new creator).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith

It takes some kind of chutzpah to write a full-length book about your own mother's infidelity. And a towering sense of equanimity to do so positively, openly wishing your mother had married the man she dallied with for sixteen years instead of the presumably lousy second husband who is barely named. But Bill Griffith has both of those things -- and, on top of that, a much better ability to control and shape a complex book-length story than one might expect from the cartoonist behind Zippy the Pinhead for the last few decades.

Invisible Ink is billed as "a graphic memoir," but it's more about Barbara Jackson Griffith -- Bill's mother -- and Lawrence Lariar, the cartoonist she had an affair with from 1957 to 1973. Bill tells the story, and organizes it -- like so many Zippy sequences, this is the story of the "Griffith character" looking at things and thinking a lot about them, though he lets himself be more grounded and less neurotic than his usual Zippy persona. (It helps that he's not trying to set up a punch line every four panels here, of course.) Bill, or his cartoon avatar, is our guide, and the one who uncovers the story -- but the core story is about Barbara and "Mr. Lariar," as she always called him.

Along the way, we learn that Bill's childhood was not all that happy -- he and his sister Nancy were both regularly beaten by their tightly-wound father (even before their mother's long affair, in case anyone suspects a cause-and-effect relationship), though Bill hit back at age eleven, and that seems to have stopped the abuse for him, at least. That father, Jim Griffith, stays a distant, cold, unpleasant figure throughout the book; he was young and happy once, but that curdled when the two children were young and didn't lift until his unlikely bike-accident death in 1972. Bill wasn't thus super-close to his mother, either -- it looks like one of those chilly WASPy mid-century families, where the kids play outside and far away as much as they can to stay away from the parents that much longer.

Barbara told Bill about her affair right after Jim died -- Bill was in his late twenties then, but, still, it's an unusual thing to tell even an adult son about a long-running affair. The affair was just about to break up then, as Griffith shows here: Lariar was married, and didn't want to break that marriage for the newly-free Barbara. But Barbara wanted a solid relationship, one that encompassed her whole life, and wasn't willing to stay the woman on the side once her own husband was gone. So Lariar broke it off, and Barbara married that barely-mentioned second husband a year later, on the rebound.

Some time after that, Barbara wrote a novel -- never published, and it's not clear if it's even finished -- about her life and centering on that affair. (Amusingly to me, to simply her life into fiction, she shrunk "her" family down to one child, leaving Bill out of the book entirely.) Invisible Ink is, in part, about what Bill learned by reading that novel -- and also, in part, what he learned while obsessively researching Lariar. (He now claims to be the preeminent expert on Lariar in the world, which is entirely plausible.)

Invisible Ink is a deeply humanist book, full of thought and wisdom: it's the book of an older man looking back at several lives (his own among them) and seeing the things that could have gone better. There's a wishful tone in places, but more often an inquisitive spirit: every life has secrets, and Invisible Ink is the story of Bill Griffith delving into the deepest secrets closest to his own life and coming to terms with what he finds out. Actually, "coming to terms" is too strong -- Griffith already accepts all of it; there's no anger or disbelief here. He just wants to understand and to know -- and, along the way, he presents it all for us, written thoughtfully and drawn compellingly.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/19

Here I am once again, to tell you about the book that arrived in my mail last week. Yes, this time out it's "book" -- singular rather than plural. (Saves me some time on a Sunday morning, which is no bad thing.)

And that book is the new SF novel by Hugo-winner Robert Charles Wilson, which is pretty darn great even before we look at the book itself.

That book is Last Year, one of those SF stories in which time travel exists, but each portal connects to a different alternate universe -- and that new universe is, obviously, immediately altered by the connection and starts to move further and further from recorded history as future people change things up.

One such gateway has been opened to 1876 Ohio, but it's been open for about a decade, and the locals have gotten more familiar with future people -- even jaded, you might say -- and its days as a tourist attraction are numbered. Which means that gateway -- the only possible link between those two worlds, unrepeatable and unique -- might just be severed forever sometime soon.

Jesse Cullum is a native of that 1876 Ohio, but he's in love with a woman from the other side of that gate. And so he needs to get through it while it's still there -- no matter what that takes.

Last Year is a Tor hardcover hitting shelves and electron-dispensing apparatuses on December 6th. Check it out.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cousin Joseph by Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer, I'm beginning to believe, can write anything. He's a cartoonist (Explainers), a screenwriter (Carnal Knowledge), a playwright (Little Murders), a memoirist (Backing Into Forward), and, late in life, a graphic novelist (Kill My Mother). I won't claim he's always entirely successful at all of those things -- who ever is? -- but he's done good work in all of those areas, over a fifty-plus year career.

So I find myself wanting to softball his new book Cousin Joseph, another graphic novel that is both a prequel to Kill My Mother and the middle book of a trilogy. It's got that great scratchy Feiffer line, and a lot of great Feiffer dialogue -- so does it matter that it also has a lot of warmed-over '30s movie cliches?

Cousin Joseph is the story of the father of the women in Kill My Mother, and it ends about as well as that book did: this trilogy is deep noir, the movies that Feiffer didn't get to write because the genre ended when he was a young man. It has a twisty plot, a lot of characters, plenty of overheated dialogue, some shocking revelations, deep-seated corruption, and a tough man trying to do right at the center of the story -- again, I said it was noir.

I think it's a bit less coherent than Kill My Mother, which was already pretty far over the top, but still a fun genre exercise for a great creator whose work is always fun and engrossing. And I think I want to leave it at that; I'll be back for the big trilogy-ending finale, and hoping that focused the whole series and makes it all sing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan and Carlos Martin

Metaphors are wonderful things, in their places. They can brighten literary works, create unexpected parallels, and add depth to stories that otherwise would feel thin. What they can't do, though, is substitute for worldbuilding. (There are a thousand bad examples back on my homeworld of Skiffy.) A metaphor has to become concretized in a story, to be something other than the words that make it up -- it has to mean actual things that happen in the story or underpin it.

I'm saying all this because Brian K. Vaughan doesn't seem to have learned that lesson yet.

The Private Eye is based on a metaphor: blatantly and nakedly. We say that all of our data is "in the cloud" these days, yes? Well, in The Private Eye that cloud burst! And it rained data upon the USA! For a highly biblical forty days and nights! Isn't that exciting and amazing?

But if the reader thinks about that for a nanosecond, the questions instantly pop up. Did some hacking group simultaneously break into AWS and Google and the NSA? Did a million disgruntled tech employees team up with WikiLeaks in the greatest data-dump known to mankind? Did a foreign power get everything at once and release it? Did the Internet itself become sentient, like an early William Gibson story, and throw off all of the merely human shackles on it? (That last one is the least likely, though it's the most plausible mechanism for everything being accessible immediately.)

And did this happen to the whole world, or just the US? If the latter -- which the story hints is the case -- what stopped it from going wider?

Vaughan doesn't care about any of those questions. The cloud burst! Get it! Isn't that awesome?! He waves away any tedious questions about how dozens of different, physically separate servers could "burst" simultaneously, or how the Internet would remain up while everyone did all of this intensive research on their neighbors and co-workers over a month or so, or even how people were able to find anything meaningful in a torrent of unindexed terabytes of random stuff from a million sources.

Even worse, what seems to be the most damaging things were individual search patterns and web know, the stuff that's mostly held locally and already has prompted a lot of unpleasant conversations between family members and co-workers? Of all of the things that could happen in a world with total data transparency -- from baroque forms of identity theft to chaos in the financial markets to weird forms of information arbitrage -- widespread distress about regular people's sex lives is easily the most boring, conventional, and dull.

And all of this could have been avoided: Vaughan didn't need that metaphor in the first place. All he really wanted was to tell a near-future detective story in a world where everyone wears masks. (Like superheroes! Because this is comics!) Now, except for the opening pages, the fact that masks hide identities really isn't important -- it really looks like Vaughan started from "wouldn't it be kewl if everyone dressed up like superheroes" and didn't go much farther than cobbling up a quick explanation for that.

But that's what he did: the "cloud burst," and the USA collectively turned off the Internet, destroyed all serious computing devices, and went back to making shiny physical stuff like we did in '50s SF. A generation or so later, the US is prosperous if insulated from the world (which is also against every economic lesson of the last 200 years, but I'll let that go for now) and everyone wears masks all of the time because Vaughan thinks that would be awesome. Oh, and the media are now the police, for no obvious reason -- though that's also a cool metaphor!

That all is too bad, because the detective story is OK (if very conventional and Chandleresque) once you finally get down to it. Sure, there's a murderous megalomanical billionaire with a stupidly complicated plot to do something both gigantic and silly, but you have to expect a comic-book writer like Vaughan to go too big: that's what comics trains writers to do. (Oh, and the foreign-accented henchmen as well...come to think of it, there are a lot of cliches here, so spotting them could be an amusing pastime while reading.) Our hero is the usual guy who walks down mean streets but is not himself mean -- yadda yadda yadda -- but he also has a fancy apartment that can get trashed and a comic-book hero's requisite quirky and vitally useful sidekicks, so he's less Philip Marlowe and more MacGyver.

The art is from Marcos Martin, in low, wide pages originally designed for screens -- which translates into a short fat book that is substantially more expensive that you might expect -- and there's less to criticize there: he tells the story cleanly, using his unusually-sized pages well. The art is a bit scratchy and dark, to suit the noir atmosphere, which colorist Muntsa Vicente also plays up.

I can't really recommend The Private Eye to anyone familiar with prose science fiction or mysteries; it will come across as cartoonish in a number of ways to readers who've thought about any of these things before. It has been pretty lauded in the comics market, which possibly says more about that market than about the book. It is pretty, and it aims higher than most comics about people who wear masks all of the time, and it has a real structure and ending. That may sound like damning with faint praise, and maybe it is. But it's better than you might expect for a comic about an LA full of costumed wackos that was originally going to be called Masks.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Song for Millennials

On the way in to work this morning, I realized this song is very appropriate -- both in my country and the UK, sadly -- for the generation seeing their parents turn to xenophobia, racism, and fear-mongering. (Me? I'm the generation in between. Gen X has never been large enough to be more than a media blip; we're the pause between the boom and echo. My parents are late war-babies and my kids are probably whatever we'll call the bunch that comes after millennials.)

The video itself goes in a different direction, but the lyrics are very appropriate as "leaders" in both countries try to figure out how to actually deliver the frightening things they've promised:

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/12

Yeah, Monday again. What can you do? On my end, what I do is list some books that came to me by the fine folks in American book publishing, hoping that you the home viewer will find something that you will clasp to your bosom forevermore. (Or, being more realistic, read with moderate appreciation and then argue internally about donating to the library sale.)

This week, I have five manga volumes from my friends at Yen Press, all coming out this month. I have them organized basically in order of size, because why not?

Anne Happy, Vol. 3 comes to us from the mono-named Cotoji, and continues the story of the unluckiest class in Tennomifune Academy. (They seem to be officially unlucky, as if this is set in a world where karma can be quantified, as in a video game, and students can be sorted based on it.) It seems to particularly focus on three very, very unlucky girls, and I understand the aim is light, mostly positive comedy.

A very different school figures in Dragons Rioting, Vol. 5 by Tsuyoshi Watanabe. It's (I think) about a boy at a very competitive and formerly all-girls school -- and that "competitive", in best manga fashion, extends to martial arts, so these kids are beating the crap out of each other as well as taking tests.

Then there's Sword Art Online: Girls' Ops, Vol. 3, another side-story about those poor kids trapped in an MMO (as opposed to all of the other manga stories about other poor kids trapped in their own MMOs). This one has art by Neko Nekobyou and credits original story (the light novel Sword Art Online, I think) to Reki Kawahara and character designs to the enigmatic entity known only as abec. This seems to be just a side-story about a group of female characters, presumably fan-favorites. (And if you wonder why manga keep having "who's your favorite character" polls, this is why: they're trying to figure out whose side-stories you'll buy.)

And we're back to dangerous high schools with Akira Hiramoto's Prison School, Vol. 5, about what seems to be the maximum security prison for Japanese teenage murderers. (Yes, in this world, there are enough of them to fill a school. And yes, they do all look super-attractive, like most young manga characters.) In this volume, the boys battle the power of the girls of the Shadow Student Council, showing some things never change in manga high schools, even if all of the kids there are felons. Also, the back-cover copy un-subtly promises lots of "butts," and the book is shrinkwrapped to help sell that.

Last for this week is the complete-in-one-volume Scumbag Loser by Mikoto Yamaguti (which seems to have been published in three smaller volumes other places). Our main character is the second worst "scumbag loser" in his class...until the absolutely worst one suddenly gets a girlfriend, dropping him into the crapper. He invents a fictional girlfriend to try to save his place, but she then appears, and, sadly, she's creepy and murderous and quite possibly some kind of supernatural being. It's tough out there for a scumbag loser, forced to procure new bodies for his pseudo-girlfriend so she doesn't kill him.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Chicago by Glenn Head

So Glenn Head was a wild young thing: he was too cool and too underground-comics to actually go to his classes or study or work at the Cleveland Institute of Art when he enrolled there in 1977 at the age of nineteen. He wanted to live life, man! He wanted to be a real cartoonist, like the mighty R. Crumb! He had no time for life drawing or professors or getting a job or any of that bullshit.

(Why, yes! He did grow up quite rich and privileged, in New Jersey to a Wall Street father who paid his full tuition at CIA. He'd never worked a day in his life, and saw no reason why he ever should. How did you guess?)

And so Glenn -- well, in this book he's Glen, with one "N," but it's otherwise autobiographical -- leaves squaresville and heads to the big time! He doesn't even bother to tell the school he's dropping out, just hops a bus to Chicago, to live real life and to, he thinks, immediately get a great job drawing comics for Playboy, because everything always works out for a guy like Glen, right?

Well, of course not. But it does work out better than we might expect: he meets someone the first day who lets him crash for the duration of his stay, and Playboy art director Skip Williamson indulges Glen, including actually inviting him to a dinner party with Crumb. Glen doesn't get a job or any kind of real stability, but he also doesn't become an addict, break any laws, or really hit bottom -- he panhandles for money and doesn't have enough food to eat some of the time, but that's as bad as it gets. (He steals from the refrigerator at the apartment where he's crashing! He's that guy in the office who takes other people's lunches, basically, but he doesn't get caught.)

A much older Glenn Head tells this story in Chicago, and he clearly has affection for the young man he once was, so much that he might not see what an obnoxious asshole young Glen actually was. The only real bright spot is that he's entirely an inward-facing asshole; he's so lazy and unmotivated that he doesn't do anything to anyone else. Sure, his family is worried about him, but that's about it -- young Glen is such a fuck-up that he can only damage things through neglect, not through actual action.

You might guess that I did not have much sympathy for young Glen. Old Glenn does not show him learning anything from his experience; his family saves him and brings him back safe to New Jersey after a short tourist-trip through the scenic gutters of Chicago. The book then jumps ahead in time more than twenty years, to 2010, when a now older and successful (though he says that success is entirely due to inherited family money from that Wall Street father) Glen again meets with Sarah, the coulda-been love of his life from high school because she showed up early in the book and then disappeared.

Reader, he fucks her. Which is nice from a closure point of view, though the book isn't about his relationship with Sarah. (That would have been a different book.) And she leaves immediately afterward, anyway. So what's the point of the coda in 2010? Damned if I know. To me, it looks like Old Glenn couldn't figure out how to end the story of young self-indulgent asshole Glen, who I think still had a few years of young self-indulgent assholery ahead of him. (Head eventually graduated from New York's School of the Visual Arts in 1986, nearly a decade later.)

Old Glenn is energetic in his art and dialogue, and does his damnedest to make young Glen likable and engaging. This is a well-told story of a young asshole, slightly hampered by not being entirely clear about what its actual story is. If it's the story of Glen and Sarah, it needs to start earlier, include more of Sarah, and it could use more of an ending. If it's the story of how young Glen got serious about art and comics, Chicago doesn't show him doing that in Chicago, and definitely not back in NJ. If it's just a nostalgic wallow in his gutter days, it would be better if there were some actual gutters to wallow in.

So, as I see it, Chicago has two big problems. First, young Glen is a jerk who doesn't really do anything, just whines and complains and refuses to work. And second, the book isn't clear on what its central story is: it begins before young Glen's time in  Chicago and extends twenty-plus years later, and doesn't make a clear case that the few weeks in Chicago changed young Glen in any way.

 It looks great, and readers who mind young-asshole protagonists less than I do will probably enjoy it a lot more -- young Glen is engaging and amusing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia

Somewhere in America, there's a town by a river -- maybe not even a town, really, but a neighborhood. It's cut off from the outside world for some reason -- we don't know why, we don't know how. But the people who live there are going on about their lives as if nothing has changed -- except that they're all teenagers. (Well, we do see a couple of tweens. But no one older, and no one younger.) It's been going on for a while, too -- at least a couple of years.

How did this happen? Liz Suburbia will not tell you. What does it mean? She's not going to be really clear on that, either. There's no why in Sacred Heart. There's just a here.

As in, here are these teens, living the way they would without parents or expectations or requirements. Forming bands, having parties, going to the high school every day but mostly just to hang out, making and breaking relationships, watching movies, drinking, swearing and smoking and carrying on. The stuff teens do.

Oh, and dying. At least once in a while.  Suburbia will tell us more about that, as Sacred Heart goes on, but at first it just looks like what you'd expect from rowdy unsupervised teens: some car crashes, some fights that got out of hand, some people who probably just left town.

Sacred Heart is mostly the story of Ben Schiller -- we learn her full name near the end, but she prefers to be just Ben, so that's what I'll call her -- and secondarily the story of her younger sister Empathy and her best friend Otto. Ben is probably a high school junior or senior; or she would be in a normal town. She's a little smarter and a little clearer-headed than most of the kids here; she thinks about the world and makes plans in ways most of these teens don't. In a more normal town, she'd be one of the good kids, diligent at school and near the top of her class, preparing to go to a good college and move on to a successful life.

But that's not possible here -- this is a place entirely about now. No one is making plans, no one is going to be an adult. They're all reveling in teenager-ness, and Ben is, too, mostly, She has a crush on a boy on the football team -- don't ask how there's still a high-school football team, or who they play, because those questions won't help -- and she's worried about her little sister. (Worried about her in the entirely wrong way, as it turns out, like so many parents and older siblings.)

Ben isn't the focus all of the time; Suburbia's camera eye roams around the town -- the opening pages ape a tracking camera or montage, to tell us up front that she's telling the story of this place, and not one person -- and a number of teens, and those two weird tweens, have significant time on the page to have their stories come to life, too. This is a big book -- over 300 pages -- and Suburbia takes her time in telling this story, so she has room for a lot of pieces of stories, a lot of couples and breakups and heartbreak and crazy stories and just hanging out.

Sacred Heart is a remarkably quiet and understated graphic novel, for a story about rowdy teens left to their own devices with a mildly apocalyptic ending. It's a book about people and their relationships in a quirky, not-quite-realist world -- the closest comparison that comes to mind is Jaime Hernandez's early "Mechanics" stories, also about teens living in bigger-than-life ways. Suburbia's art is clean and just a bit cartoony, the kind of black-and-white art that denies that color is even a consideration. I don't know if I completely understood it -- I'm the kind of reader who wants to know how worlds work, and this isn't a world that can be clearly explicated -- but I liked it, and respected it, and cared about the people in it.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/5


Yen Press sent me a gigantic box this week -- they're are too nice to me, I admit it -- so I don't want to waste time and energy up here. So, here's the scoop:
  • These books came in the mail
  • I haven't read them
  • You might love them
  • Here's what I can tell you
Most of this list will be from Yen, either light novels or manga, which are coming out this month. But I'll start out with two skiffy books first.

Dan Wells, author of the John Wayne Cleaver books (most recently Over Your Dead Body) is back just a few months after that aforementioned book with a new standalone, Extreme Makeover. (A subtitle, Apocalypse Edition, appears only on the title and copyright pages.) This one is satirical SF, in which the beauty company NewYew is testing an anti-aging hand lotion. Good news: it really does make people younger. Bad news: it also changes their DNA to make them a younger someone else. But is that a good enough reason not to go to market? Extreme Makeover is a Tor trade paperback, available November 15.

Ten years ago, Ellen Datlow had a big anthology called Darkness, collecting her picks for the best horror stories of the previous two decades. (Since, basically, she started working in that field and paying close attention to it.) But there was no reason that she had to wait two decades to do it again, and so Tachyon is bringing out Datlow's Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror as a trade paperback. (It officially published on October 31, as so many horror books of the fall do.) Nightmares collects twenty-four horror stories from the past decade, from writers including Laird Barron, Garth Nix, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Richard Kadrey, Margo Lanagan, M. Rickert, Reggie Oliver, Lisa Tuttle, Gene Wolfe, my ex-co-worker Livia Llewellyn, and more than a dozen others. Datlow is probably the best-known and highest-regarded horror editor out there, so if you have any interest at all in the form, you'll want to take a glance at this.

From here on, everything is from Yen and everything is coming this month. I'm going to start with the stack of larger-format books (light novels and some fat manga volumes), just because it's slightly closer to my hand. Hey, we've all got to make decisions based on something....

A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 6 is a light novel by Kazuma Kamachi with illustrations by Kiyotaka Haimura, continuing the series about a city filled with magical schools and the obligatory "average guy" who is the protagonist. This time out, there's a big athletic tournament, the Daihasei Festival, in which all of the previously established characters are competing.

Turning to manga, we see there's ain't no party like a Corpse Party: Blood Covered, Vol. 3. ('Cause a corpse really disgusting? I don't know where I'm going with this.) This comes from Makoto Kedouin (story) and Toshimi Shinomiya, and is one of those horror stories about seeing a lot of teenagers in peril and/or murdered in inventive ways. In this case, it's a passel of unquiet ghosts from a dead elementary school ("dead" in several senses) and the modern teens have to lay those ghosts before they're all murdered.

The cover of the next book declares itself DRRR!!, Vol. 5, but if you try to search that on popular on-line book-shopping services, you might not find it. The actual title is Durarara!! (still with the two bangs), and it's by Ryohgo Narita and illustrated by Suzuhito Yasuda, who does not get a cover credit. (Call your agent, Yasuda!) This light novel series has a bunch of loosely-connected plot threads in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo -- or at least it did when it started; it might have turned into something else by now. This book focuses on spring break, which I did not know was a thing for people old enough to be out of school. Maybe it is in Japan?

Continuing the republication of Natsuki Takaya's well-liked series in larger double-size volumes: Fruits Basket Collector's Edition, Vol. 7. It has the currently-popular manga cover style, "Here, have a character or two per cover until we get them all in color. No it doesn't have much of anything to do with the interior. Why?"

A new entry in the long title sweepstakes! A side-story to the light novel series, in what may be a new light novel series, launches with (deep breath) Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? On the Side: Sword Oratoria, Vol. 1. It's written by Fujino Omori with illustrations by Kiyotaka Haimura. I think this is one of those "retell the story from the girl's POV" things, made popular by Sword Art Online. And I'm going to pointedly avoid any of the "Singing Sword" puns that are coming to mind.

OK, I think the title pieces of this next book come together like this: The Isolator: Realization of Absolute Solitude, Vol. 3:The Trancer. It's a light novel by Reki Kawahara (author of Accel World and Sword Art Online), with illustrations by Shimeji. It seems to be one of those teens-with-super-powers books, in which our hero is working for the usual shadowy government agency to defeat slavering evil, along with other teens with strange powers. (The girl on the cover, who seems to be very sorry for whatever she did and hopes you won't ground her, is I would guess one of them.)

The next manga is Karneval, Vol. 6 by Touya Alikanagi, and I don't have a good sense of what this series is about. (And it consistently neglects to have any description on the back cover to help us out.) So my best guess is that it's about interdimensional circus-cops and the normal kids who gets caught up in one of their operations.

Hey! Anybody want a light novel about people being trapped in a MMO? (OK, how about yet another one?) Log Horizon, Vol. 6: Lost Child of the Dawn will scratch that very specific itch, though this one seems to be heavier on the building-society stuff and less about dungeon-crawling. As usualy, the book is written by Mamare Touno, and it has illustrations from Kazuhiro Hara.

One more light novel for you: Re:ZERO: - Starting Life in Another World - , Vol. 2. (And, yes, the dashes are part of the title. That ZERO might actually be ZeRo, from the cover, but life is just too short to figure that out.) It's written by Tappei Nagatsuki with illustrations by Shinichirou Otsuka, and is not about people getting stuck in an online MMO. It's about one person getting stuck in an alternate universe with some game-like aspects. Totally different!

The heroine of Natsuki Takaya's Twinkle Stars, Vol. 1 has absolutely massive eyes, big enough to have their own slight gravitational field. And we all know what that means. This new manga series is about a sweet orphan girl and the boy she met in passing once who she immediately afterward latches onto as her One True Love of All Time, and is only slightly hindered by not really knowing who he is or how to find him. She also apparently heads her school's looking-at-the-stars club, because of course there would be one of those.

Last of the large books from Yen is Until Death Do Us Part, Vol. 13, ending the series by Hiroshi Takashige and DOUBLE-S about an esper girl and her blind swordsman protector. This is the big confrontation, of course, though I haven't read this series, so I can't tell you much more than that.

And now we're into the home stretch, with the regular-manga-sized manga books, if that isn't a complete oxymoron. (Also note that "home stretch" is still a dozen books; Yen publishes a lot of manga on a regular basis!)

Yana Toboso's popular pesudo-Victorian series is back in Black Butler XXIII, the series that sneers at your modern Arabic numerals. This time out, our hero the Earl and his butler are sent by Queen Victoria to investigate a popular but suspicious music hall.

Btooom!, Vol. 15 is from Junya Inoue, and is still about an island where a large number of kidnapped people are forced to murder each other with various explosive devices. And even after fifteen volumes, there are still plenty of people to be blown up.

Then there's Dimension W, Vol. 4 from Yuji Iwahara, in which a cop and his robot fight ghosts. (I think; I might have mangled that. This volume definitely has ghosts, but they might other things the rest of the time. And it's possible that I'm misremembering that she's a robot.)

I have no idea why this is called How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend, Vol. 4; it seems to be a series a bout a guy and three girls (harem manga alert!) who are making a dating simulator game, but perhaps he's dating one or more of them. (Or maybe the sim is a fiendish plot to make one or more of them fall in love with him!) I think this is from a light novel; it's credited to Fumiaki Maruto (original story), Takeshi Moriki (art), and Kurehito Misaki (character design).

Hey, remember the side-story about girls in a dungeon way up above? Well, there's a new volume of the manga as well: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, Vol 6. It's by Kunieda from Fujino Omori's light novel, and features lots of hot girl-picking action in dungeons, as you demand!

Next up is Konosuba: God's Blessing on This Wonderful World!, Vol. 1 by Masahito Watari (art), Natsume Akatsuki (original story) and Kurone Mishima (character design). A game-loving shut-in boy dies in a stupid way, but comes up before a ditzy cute-girl goddess, who offers him a new a fantasy universe, with the requisite quest to defeat a demon king. But things don't work out as expected, and soon he's got three goofy girls with short skirts around him. (I'm not saying this is a harem manga, but it seems to be tending in that direction.)

Nico Tanigawa's otaku heroine is back for No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 9, featuring hot headband-tying action on the cover. This volume features the end of a class trip and the beginning (and maybe end) of a sports festival, providing lots of opportunities, I'm sure, for Tomoko to be inappropriate.

And if you like your manga to be about making manga, I have for you Izumi Tsubaki with Monthly Girtls' Nozaki-Kun, Vol. 5, which is just that thing. I think most of the characters are in high school, because that seems to be a law in Japan: no manga allowed without at least 75% of the characters still in secondary school.

I have rarely been so confused by a first volume, but here's Puella Magi Oriko Magica: Sadness Prayer, Vol. 1. (There's also a [New Testament] on the cover, but I'm damned if I know where that would go in the title.) This is part of the ever proliferating "Puella Magi" series across media, about a troupe of magical girls and the universe they save from evil (which I think is also mostly in the form of magical girls). The story is by the opaquely named Magica Quartet, and the art is by Mura Kuroe.

Books don't usually have seasons, but this next one does: Rose Guns Days, Season 2, Volume 1. It's related to an animated show somehow (adapted? telling related stories? existed first?) and I think it's semi-Victorian and set in China. But don't take my word for that.

Are you looking for a story about the zombie apocalypse, but also want to read about a bunch of bubbly girls at a high-school club? Well, you don't have to choose: School-Live!, Vol. 5 gives you both of those things in one volume! The art is by Sadoru Chiba and the story is by something called Norimitsu Kaihou [Nitroplus]. 

And last for this week is Trinity Seven, Vol. 7 by Kenji Saito and Akinari Nao. This is yet another we're-at-wizard-school story, with a side order of saving-the-world, since wizard schools now require world-saving as part of the core curriculum after the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Act of 1998. This one is also sealed in plastic, so I expect there are some cartoon boobies as well, in case any of you are experiencing a dearth of such. (If so, please remember that you are on the Internet, the greatest repository of cartoon boobies ever devised by man.)