Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Love Fights by Andi Watson

Andi Watson had a phenomenal run of comics stories about a decade ago -- the stars aligned for both his work and the commercial environment, I guess -- with a string of great books (with actual stories that begin and end) from Breakfast After Noon to Little Star, from Slow News Day to Dumped. The longest story from that period is Love Fights, which was reprinted in two volumes.

It's probably no coincidence that Love Fights is the one of those books that has superheroes in it. I think Watson planned all of these stories out before drawing them, so it's not a case of popularity driving more issues, but it could be a case of expected popularity driving a contract up front for more issues. Whatever the reason, Love Fights was first twelve issues and then two books, and those books can still be found, if you're motivated.

And I was motivated, so I found them again and read them again.

This is one of those more-or-less realistic worlds with superheroes in, and Watson, as he often does, focuses on the media landscape around something more than the thing itself. So Jack is the penciller of the regular comic book about actual real-world superhero The Flamer, while Nora is a very junior but very ambitious staffer on the vaguely exploitative superhero-news magazine Expose who has a lead on a story about that very same hero. They meet cute -- on a subway train delayed by a superhero fight involving The Flamer, as it happens -- and bump into each other a few times over the next day or so until Jack finally summons enough courage to ask Nora out.

Meanwhile -- there always has to be a subplot in a superhero story -- Jack's cat Guthrie has had a secret origin of his own, becoming the talking, flying super-cat Future Feline. And that story Nora is chasing -- that The Flamer has a love child with some random woman -- is heating up, causing friction between the devoted-to-the-Flamer Jack and the devoted-to-getting-a-byline Nora.

All of this is closely related, of course. Their love story, such as it is -- they're somewhere between broken up and just stopped dating after a few fizzles for most of the story -- takes place against the backdrop of a fiendish plot against The Flamer, as of course it must. That does tend to make the Jack-and-Nora story almost a sidebar in its own story, so this isn't my favorite Watson book of this era -- he's so good with people and their relationships that I want to see him do more of that, and less superhero-intrigue.

But I am not most people, and Love Fights is probably the Watson book best suited for getting most comics-readers interested in his excellent work. So, if you like stories about superheroes, and think you might like reading about a penciller and a journalist finding each other against a backdrop of capes and fights, you should definitely pick this book up.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/26

Back again, like a bad penny!

Every week, I list here the books that showed up in my mailbox, sent by the fine publicists of book publishing. (Note: if there are publicists from any other industries who have a burning desire to send me stuff for free, we can certainly talk about it.) And I tell you what I can about those books, in the hope that one or more of them will look enticing to one or more of you.

This week, I have a very miscellaneous collection, which I like -- publishing is broad and contains multitudes, and I like to see those multitudes myself. So I'll list these four books in roughly order of physical size, which is coincidentally how they're stacked in front of me right now.

First up is a manga volume from Yen Press with the mouthful of a title Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl, Vol. 1, which is credited to a person or collective or post-human uploaded mind-engram known as Canno. It's about two teen girls just starting high school -- so, something totally new and different for a manga -- one of whom is a super-grind who has always been first in everything because of that hard work and the other of whom is a super-genius who slacks off and still is now first in everything. And I gather they become best friends.

Next up is a book for those shorter humans who may be in your house. (Yes, I mean children.) It's the second in Bruce Hale's "Monstertown Mysteries," Mutant Mantis Lunch Ladies! You can get it from Disney/Hyperion on March 7th, and you might want to do so if either you or those aforementioned shorter human are particularly fond of things like Goosebumps. The two boys who saved their teacher from becoming a were-hyena -- you know, as you do -- in the first book now have to investigate strange doings in the cafeteria, and I'm afraid the title gives away the big secret.

I have a mystery novel, the latest in a long-running series -- Loren D. Estleman's The Lioness Is the Hunter, the 26th about Amos Walker (plus a book of short stories, for those sticklers out there). I had a reading project of the early books in this series back around 2007, and it's frankly probably time for another such project -- Estleman's been putting out a book a year since then. This one is available from Forge as of tomorrow (Tuesday, February 28), and is about a case that starts out when Walker is hired by a local entrepreneur to investigate the businessman's missing partner but quickly gets caught up in what seems to be a current recurring villain in the series (who also seems awfully Dragon Lady-like in a way I would not expect in the 21st century).

And last up is a fantasy novel, Richard A. Knaak's Black City Demon. It's the second in an urban fantasy series -- not a contemporary one, since it's set in Prohibition-era Chicago -- about a guy who used to be St. George but somehow merged with his famous dragon and now protects the world from the nasty creatures from what Knaak spells as Feirie. This one is from Pyr, and is available March 14.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Two Collections of Miscellaneous Neil Gaiman Stories from DC

There's a vast gulf between the big earners and the rest. Not artistically, necessarily -- many of the big earners, in whatever field you want to mention, are meat-and-potatoes types -- but in availability and marketing enthusiasm and sheer flow of product.

So, when you have a creator like Neil Gaiman, who was first a really popular and successful writer of comic books (because of The Sandman in the '90s, primarily) and then either leveled up or transferred to being an equally popular and successful writer of mostly novel-shaped things since then, you find that nearly everything he's touched keeps coming back into print.

(The big counterexample, of course, is Miracleman: The Silver Age, but we all know that entire property is cursed, right?)

But, at least in the old, days, when people started out in comics, they did little things first -- backup stories, fill-in issues, one-shots. So that means someone like Gaiman has a lot of loose ends and short bits of string and pieces of stories and tidbits. And, therefore, the people who want to keep making some Neil Gaiman money from their ownership of all that random stuff need to figure out ways to package those stories that looks more purposeful and reasoned -- and, they hope, to put it into a form that can keep selling for years without having to keep worrying about it.

I have two such examples, from the same company, in front of me right now. So that company had enough stories to make two books, and had to figure out how to divide them. What DC did, more or less, was to take the mostly earlier, mostly horror-themed stories, put them in a volume called Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days, and publish it under the Vertigo imprint. And then what was left were the mostly later, mostly superhero stories, which became The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman, from the main parent company.

Now, it's not an entirely clean division. Midnight Days was originally published in 1999, collecting stories from 1989 through 1998 and one old script newly drawn at that time. DC Universe was originally published in 2016, and collected stories from as far back as 1988 but only as recent as 2009 -- and its newly-drawn-from-an-old-script project came out in floppy-comics form back in 2000. But, generally, Midnight Days is the one with stories about Swamp Thing and John Constantine and people concerned with dreams, while DC Universe has the stories about Batman and Superman.

Midnight Days is odder and more miscellaneous, maybe because Vertigo was an odder imprint to begin with. It collects Gaiman's great single-issue Hellblazer story "Hold Me," drawn by Dave McKean, and his pretty good Swamp Thing annual re-introducing Brother Power the Geek, drawn mostly by Richard Piers Rayner. And the long, atmospheric Sandman Midnight Theatre one-shot, co-written with Matt Wagner -- and mostly featuring Wagner's characters --  and drawn perfectly by Teddy Kristiansen. But there's also a silly little framing story from a reprint collection of House of Mystery stories from the 1970s, drawn by Sergio Aragones, and that minor Swamp Thing story drawn a decade late by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, and a nice back-up drawn by Mike Mignola from that same Swamp Thing Annnual that was to serve as a teaser for the Gaiman Swamp Thing plotline he never got to write, after the DC Powers That Be freaked out and fired Rick Veitch over his Jesus issue.

Again: it's a miscellany. Both books are. And maybe "sort-of horror" has a less distinct, specific tone than "modern superheroes" does.

DC Universe is bigger and flashier, with an on-the-nose Brian Bolland cover instead of the moody Dave McKean package of Midnight Days. And it starts out with a story that could have been in Midnight Days -- Gaiman alludes to it, archly, in that book, and to the DC continuity reasons why it didn't make it in there -- in a story from Secret Origins (remember that?) about Poison Ivy that was more Swamp Thing than Batman. There's also a full Batman-themed Secret Origins Special orchestrated by Gaiman, with a frame story (drawn by Mike Hoffman and Kevin Nowlan) and a Riddler story drawn excellently and quirkily by Bernie Mireault. (And also two other stories, from the teams of Alan Grant and Sam Kieth on the one hand and Mark Verheiden, Pat Broderick, and Dick Giordano on the other, telling stories about Penguin and Two-Face.)

There's an amusing short metafiction, drawn in deep sketchy blacks, by Simon Bisley, of Batman and the Joker bantering in the Green Room as they wait to go on-panel -- this is perhaps the most Gaimanesque story in the book, the one that no one else would have told.

And then the lost-and-refound story, a Batman/Green Lantern team-up that was originally planned to be the wrap-up issue of the failed weekly version of Action Comics but was finally drawn by an all-star cast (Eddie Campbell, Michael Allred, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Eric Shanower, Jim Aparo, Kevin Nowlan, and Jason Little) for an out-of-continuity one-shot years later. By that point, Gaiman was famous enough that the DC editors were happy to do his stories even if they were out of continuity. This one is a full -- too full, frankly -- superhero romp, more an exercise in getting from Point A to Point B than something really impressive in its own right.

But there's a great, short, poignant Deadman story next, drawn by Teddy Kristiansen (him again!) to follow. And a deliberate throw-back story about Metamorpho, originally published broadsheet size in the twelve issues of Wednesday Comics and somewhat diminished in size and scope when republished here.

And last, most recent and probably most central, is Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?," his stab at the canonical dead-Batman story. Andy Kubert does a virtuoso job of drawing every art style Gaiman throws at him -- which is a lot of them -- and I found the story more affecting this time around than the first time I read it. It's still yet another Gaiman story-about-stories, joining the long line, and it more than faintly echoes Gaiman's stronger finale to the Sandman series, The Wake. But, as corporate comics go, it's pretty darn good.

That could stand as a judgment on both of these books, actually: it's all stuff created to fill a hole in a monthly publishing schedule and to exploit certain properties that DC Comics owns, but Gaiman takes it all seriously and does good work, as do his collaborators. (I'm afraid I've never warmed up to Kevin Nowlan's work, but I'm pretty sure he's good at what he does. And I pretty much like everything else here.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/18

My SFF-loving peeps might possibly have been unhappy with this feature lately -- since I get so much manga, the SF and Fantasy books aren't as dominant. But, just for them, I have an all-SFF edition this week, due to popular demand!

(Actually, not: like every week, what gets listed here is purely because it's what showed up in my mailbox. But we can always pretend otherwise, right? Make up our own "alternate facts" when the world doesn't fit our preconceptions?)

So first up is V.E. Schwab's alternate-world fantasy A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy about four warring alternate color-coded versions of London. The first one was a NYTimes bestseller, so I expect a lot of you are waiting for this book -- and you can get it as a Tor hardcover on February 21.

Also ending a fantasy trilogy: J.F. Lewis's Worldshaker, coming from Pyr in trade paperback on February 28. This one is the Grudgebearer Trilogy, and, since this is the big finish, there's the usual evil lord who has raised an army of the dead who must be stopped by the usual rag-tag group of heroes, in this case including the new god of death (which sounds awfully convenient).

Friday, February 17, 2017

Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White by Taiyo Matsumoto

The title is an untranslatable pun. It's set in an invented city. The main characters are frankly unrealistic, perhaps more to be taken as types or icons than as individuals. It's six hundred pages long, translated from a foreign language. Even the pages of art had to be physically edited or "flopped" for the comics to read well to a Western eye.

There's a lot to understand in Taiyo Matsumoto's first major work, Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White. And it's likely that I, or anyone else not intimately familiar with the Japan of the early '90s, will miss or misinterpret important, central elements of that book. So, with that understood, here I go....

There are two boys, called only Black and White. Black is older, by a year or so -- or maybe just more assured. They're ten years old, maybe. Maybe less. Not more than a hair more. They defend Treasure Town, or perhaps terrorize it, jumping up and down from roofs and walls and telephone poles, attacking gangsters, sometimes harassing regular people. They should not be able to jump as they do. They should not be able to fight groups of adults and win as they do. They should not be able to live, just the two of them, in an abandoned car in an alley somewhere.

They should not be able to stop plans to redevelop Treasure Town, hatched by gangsters and businessmen who are obviously worse than gangsters. And they might not.

And there's a young gangster, Kimura. His boss, the Rat, is good as far as such things go: focused, thoughtful, organized. But Kimura is between the Rat and the Snake, who may be a gangster or may be a businessman (or may not be a man; the Snake's presentation is creepy and leering, a thing unto itself outside of conventional humanity). The Snake demands things of Kimura, and threatens his pregnant girlfriend.

There's a lot of threatening in Tekkon Kinkreet, actually. Mostly among the shifting gangster alliances and powers: the boys just do instead of talking about it.

Oh, they talk. But their talk is in the moment, just as their actions are. They don't threaten or bluster, and barely make plans.

Black and White have no larger aims, no goals. They may not even be getting older as time passes. They are there, and they are who they are, and they do what they do. And Treasure Town endures them, or celebrates them, or ignores them, from day to day. Near the end, there's also a Minotaur, who may be someone else in the story, in a different form. But he, too, is there and must be dealt with or ignored or faced or repudiated.

There are also two cops. They're important, too, I guess. Amusingly, the two characters with the societal approval to use violence are the two we never see engaging in violence. I doubt this is unintentional.

I don't think I can say I understood Tekkon Kinkreet. I visited it, and saw some of the sights. And I'll have to visit it again. Some day, when I've spent enough time in Treasure Town, maybe I'll be able to be a better guide to its attractions. But, right now, I can definitely say it's worth visiting.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Corto Maltese: Celtic Tales by Hugo Pratt

I'm never sure how typical I am. I've been hearing about Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese stories for at least twenty years, but never read any of them. Oh, yeah -- the great European adventure series, intermittently translated into English and never published very well over here. I had a vague sense of it, but never read any of Pratt's stories. And I feel like that's pretty common: that a lot of people like me who read comics know who Pratt is, and have that vague sense that they might like his work, but haven't actually gotten to any of it. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, IDW's EuroComics imprint has been bringing out the Corto Maltese stories, in what I hear are both appropriately-sized books and good new translations -- both things that have not been as true in the past. (Again, this is second-hand info: I'm no expert.) And that gave me an opportunity to finally read Pratt's work.

The book I found was Celtic Tales, smack dab in the middle of the series -- according to the list in the end of the book, it's fifth in a series of twelve, though I'm not sure if internal chronology is the same as publication chronology, or which one is standardized in that list -- a collection of six stories set in Europe originally published in book form in 1972 (and, individually, sometime before that, though the book is silent on those details).

Corto Maltese is the main character, who I gather is an Italian sailor. The stories don't give him any background: he's just there, at or near the center of the action, and we take him as he is. He's not a talkative man -- adventure heroes often aren't -- and the wordy narration focuses more on scene-setting and explaining the geopolitical situation behind each story than on telling us about Corto and what he's trying to do. He's not in his very first youth, I guess, but young and vigorous enough, probably in that eternal thirties of other adventure-hero characters like Batman. And, at least in these stories, he's quite detached from the life and schemes around him: the few women (all dangerous and wily femmes fatale) don't stir him at all, and even the lure of riches seems only a minor drive. He's not quite enigmatic, but it's not clear at all what motivates him, or what he cares about.

That puts some distance from the reader -- at least this reader -- and these six stories, making them more historical and less personal than they could have been. Corto is wandering around the edges of the flailing dying struggles of The Great War, during 1917 and 1918, as he incidentally foils a spy plot in Venice, masterminds (mostly off-page) a big heist on the front near the Adriatic coast, falls in with Irish revolutionaries and then with characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream (the latter stopping a German invasion of England), passes near the battle of the Somme in time to see the fall of the Red Baron, and finally foils another, and very quirky, spy plot in northern France.

In these stories, at least, Corto only rarely breaks a sweat. He's usually on top of the situation, or not really part of it to begin with. I have no idea if that detachment is characteristic of the series as a whole, but it felt odd here, as if the main character was saving his energy for something more interesting or important that Pratt might tell us later, if we're lucky.

Pratt's art is strongly illustrative, almost impressionistic at places, full of blacks and messy lines to show the messiness of war. And his visual storytelling is fine and unobtrusive, keeping the action clear while also supporting quieter scenes.

All in all, though, I'm not sure what the excitement is about. I think I'll try again, but I'm reacting to Corto Maltese a lot like I reacted to Terry and the Pirates: thinking it's nice and all, without really feeling what the big deal was.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Arf Forum edited by Craig Yoe

For a few years in the mid-aughts, Craig Yoe had what amounted to a yearly magazine about comics, in an oversized album format, under the umbrella title "Arf." (Don't ask me why, but it's a very Yoe-ish idea.)

The third of the four Arf books was Arf Forum, from 2007. For some reason, it's the one that stuck on my find-this-and-read-it list, and so it was the one I'd been vaguely looking for. (With the even vaguer intention of figuring out the rest of the series and reading those if I liked it.)

Well, I have access to the vast holdings of the New York Public Library these days, since I work less than a block from the Grand Central branch. And I've gotten used to reserving library materials online over the past few years, because who doesn't like asking for free stuff and having it held for you?

So, yadda yadda yadda, I finally found and read Arf Forum. And it's a goofier, more idiosyncratic thing than I expected. I don't want to generalize about the other three books -- well, OK, I do, and my sense is that I can, so I will -- but this seems to be Yoe following his own very specific artistic loves, inspirations, and oddball ideas down some very quirky avenues to pull together a hundred and twenty big pages of reprint comics and new writing about comics, plus some aggressively artsy illustrations to tie it all together.

So this particular volume, the one I actually have in front of me, starts off with over twenty pre-Table of Contents pages of people reading comics: some photos (one of Elvis!), a bunch of strips, and a short comics story written by Stan Lee in the '50s. Just when the reader thinks this is going to be an artsy collage kind of thing, full of found images and loose themes, that ToC hits, and it becomes a more conventional magazine-type assemblage. Yoe leads off with an appreciation of Bill "Smokey Stover" Hollman. Then there's a short piece on Yoe by Stan Lee, and then mostly Yoe-written short bits on cavemen in comics, fine artist Max Ernst, the obscure funny animal character Harry Hotdog, the even more obscure cover painter William Ekgren, cartoonist Ted Scheel, cartoons about hell, and Italian cute-girl cartoonist Kremos. All of those are illustrated, generally with works by the people discussed, and in some cases with a new "portrait" of the artist by a contemporary artist in usually a very jarring style.

It's scattershot, unfocused, and seemingly random, like rummaging through the overstuffed attic of the least organized Museum of Comics imaginable. It's fun in its manic energy, but it's definitely a tour of Yoe's specific artistic/comic interests and obsessions, and will be of interest to other people almost entirely based on how closely one's own interests match up with Yoe's. Mine only loosely follow that pattern. But, after a decade, I finally found and read it, so I mark it up as a win.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, 1997 to 1998 by Chartles M. Schulz

The conventional wisdom is that Peanuts was tired and dull by the end of Charles Schulz's life, focused on standard gags and hampered by Schulz's increasingly shaky hand. And it's definitely true that the long continuities of the '70s were no more, and the more psychologically insightful (and sometimes emotionally painful) years of the strip were similarly far in the past. But Schulz had finally broken free of his four-panel prison a few years before, and the strips from 1997 and 1998 show an amazing flexibility and inventiveness, as Schulz kept finding new cadences for his strips and tried other panel layouts.

At this point, I should probably link to posts I've done over the past decade for the previous books in the series: 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, the flashback to 1950-1952, and then just recently 1995-1996.

In that last post, I wrote about the looming end of the series -- we know it's looming, but Schulz didn't, until very near the end -- and how that can overshadow what's actually good and interesting in those strips. The same is true, probably even more so, for The Complete Peanuts: 1997 to 1998. Schulz's panel layouts get even more interesting in these years, with a number of strips with staccato panels -- up to six or seven of them -- to rattle through a run of dialogue, and many more in one single quieter long panel.

And if he didn't have the three-week epic camp or baseball stories of the '60s and '70s any more, he did something quirkier these years, bringing Snoopy's brothers Andy and Olaf in to visit, and then sending them off on an odyssey to find their other brother Spike, out in the western desert. Andy and Olaf are less capable than even the hapless Spike, so they keep coming back -- every month or three, the two funny-looking dogs return, with another story of not quite making it to Spike, and what they found instead. Schulz keeps these stories in the established milieu of the strip -- Spike's desert, the suburban landscape around Snoopy's doghouse -- rather than showing us Andy and Olaf actually in the various places they visited by accident.

And it has to be said that Schulz was a very funny cartoonist by this point in his career: each strip is funny and precise, based on the personalities of his cast and enlivened by new characters: Rerun, in particular, gets to grow into more of a rounded person, and not just be the little kid stuck on the back of his mother's bicycle, as he was when he first appeared.

Again, I still wouldn't call this peak Peanuts. But it's doing different things than peak Peanuts was, and doing those things equally well. This was a strong, vibrant, funny strip from beginning to end, the product of one devoted, hard-working, honest cartoonist sitting down at that board day after day for fifty years to come up with another idea, another joke, another drawing.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/11

I don't have anything clever to say here this week. (Cue the peanut gallery: "As opposed to every other week? Ho ho ho!")

But these are a couple of books that showed up in my mail this past week, both of them new manga volumes from Yen Press. And I thought that you -- yes you, don't look behind yourself -- might be interested. So take a gander:

Anne Happy, Vol. 4 comes to us from a manga-ka credited as Cotoji, and continues the story of the "happiness class" of Tennnomifune Academy. Apparently, in this particular story-world, luck (or lack thereof) can be measured and ranked, and the five girls with the worst scores have been stuck together in one group so their bad luck won't hurt anyone else. (Or something like that.)

Over in meta-world is Monthly Girls' Nozaki-Kun, Vol. 6, another manga about making manga, from Izukmi Tsubaki. This is the fantasy-world version of being a creator, though, so our hero is not only a busy high school student and a successful professional, but also spends this volume doing goofy things to get ideas for his work.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Nobody's Home by Tim Powers

Right up front, I'll tell you this: I'm pretty sure Nobody's Home fits right in between particular pages in Tim Powers's 1983 novel The Anubis Gates. There are probably people on the Internet who can tell you which pages those are, and have already devised a re-read plan to slot it into the middle of that novel at the appropriate point.

I'm not going to do that. I like The Anubis Gates and am a big Powers fan, but I haven't read that book in some years (could be twenty) and I'm not obsessive about that particular thing. (Like all of us, I'm obsessive about something. But that's a story for another time.)

What I can tell you: Nobody's Home is set in the middle of the early-19th century London portion of Anubis Gates's plot, with Jacky Snapp having disguised herself as a boy to find Dog-Faced Joe, the cursed body-swapping pseudo-werewolf who took her fiance's body and led to her shooting that poor young man to death.

But, while she's searching for that villain, she runs into another young woman haunted by the ghost of a loved one -- her Indian husband, who is keen to have her join him through suttee. The encounter leaves both ghosts very agitated and active, making the two women a beacon to all of the people who prey on ghosts and those they haunt. They have to lay those spirits, and quickly -- the only way is to flee upriver to the houseboat called Nobody's Home, where the mysterious Nobody can do what they need.

Nobody's Home is a novella rather than a novel -- actually, it might even be a novelette, since it's only 73 story pages [1] -- so it's focused on that single stream of events. It's very much a sidebar; Jacky's quest is as unfulfilled at the end of the book as it was at the beginning. So it's a nice bit of Powers prose, but it doesn't really stand on its own as a story or a book -- it's purely an additional thing for Anubis Gates fans, like a long-lost deleted chapter.

If that's appealing to you, here it is. If you haven't read Anubis Gates, well, what have you been doing instead for the past thirty-four years? I swear, some people....

[1] And, if I still remember how to do a cast-off -- which I do not guarantee -- it's around 13k words, which is shorter than a novella.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Something New by Lucy Knisley

At some point, you need to stop talking about how young someone is, and how impressive the work she's done so far. It's a bit patronizing to begin with, of course, but you can only be a wunderkind for so long. Since Lucy Knisley turned thirty during the events she chronicled in Something New, I think it's definitely time to retire the "My God, she's so talented and prolific so young" card.

But it doesn't mean it isn't still true. It just means it's getting rude to focus on that so much.

Something New is Knisley's fifth full-length graphic novel in less than a decade, following the first first-book-ish "spending a month in Paris with my mother" French Milk, the foodie-lover's dream Relish, the enjoying-being-young-and-unencumbered travelogue An Age of License, and the enjoying-being-stuck-with-ninety-something-grandparents travelogue Displacement. It's another memoir -- at some point her life may stop giving her so much rich material, but it hasn't yet -- and, as the title implies, it's about her wedding.

I don't know if Knisley needs a "breakthrough book" -- I haven't had access to Bookscan for a few years now, so I have no idea how she sells. But, if she does, this could easily do it: from the gorgeous cover that reads perfectly from across a room, to her bright and appealing art, to the obviously perennial subject, to her bemused modern (and very personal) take on this perennial ritual, Something New is a deeply appealing book. (Maybe not as much to people with my particular anatomy -- men tend to be somewhat less interested in wedding stories than women, you might have noticed -- but men read fewer books and spend less money to begin with.)

Most of the book is about preparations and the wedding itself, as it should be, but Knisley starts with how she got there -- which is natural, since her readers already know a lot about her life from her previous books. (Though let's never assume we know as much as we think we do: Knisley is clearly smart and thoughtful, and she's forming each of her books. It doesn't mean they're not true, but they're all stories about herself told in the way she wants to tell them.) She's conflicted about weddings, since they've gotten caught up (especially when this story starts, a few years ago) in all of the cultural baggage about "traditional marriage" and the anti-feminist agenda behind that slogan. She's a modern city-dweller who believes in equality; is there a wedding for her?

Well, yes, obviously. And Something New tells the story of how she, and her mother, and her friends/bridesmaids -- and of course her fiance John -- put together the wedding she wanted, celebrating the things she wanted to celebrate. It didn't all work out exactly as she hoped -- what ever does? -- but she tells a lovely, happy story of a young couple bringing their lives together and throwing a big party fort heir friends and family to mark the occasion.

Wedding books are happy books, and usually funny ones: Something New is no exception. As usual, Knisley makes herself the butt of the jokes most of the time -- see her self-image on the cover for one example -- so that her spouse-to-be can be the calm, centered one. (Friendly comedy is "look at what a goof I am," while hostile comedy is "look at those jerks over there.") As I said, I think the audience for this book will be more female than male, but that's no bad thing -- and if it gets some men thinking about weddings (either "I should probably do that someday" or "man, that quirky tradition is super-sexist; how did I not notice that?"), that's also a bonus.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Plutona by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox

If I were pitching this book to Hollywood -- which I am not, and never expect to -- the obvious line would be "It's Stand by Me meets Powers." (Although that assumes the person I'm pitching to wouldn't mind that Powers was a flop, which is probably untrue of anyone who might potentially be in that position.)

I don't think that means that Plutona is particularly high-concept; we just live in an era saturated with stories and obsessed with connecting stories to other stories. Plutona stands entirely on its own, but it does also fit interestingly into the larger universe of books about superheroes in almost-our-world and into the universe of stories about unhappy, disaffected teens.

Plutona is a superhero -- a young woman with a complicated, busy life, pulled in multiple directions, but still a superhero -- in Metro City. Out in the countryside nearby is a small town, with woods around. And, one day, five kids -- young teens, mostly -- from that town find the body of Plutona lying in those woods.

Writer Jeff Lemire -- he also contributes art for short flashback chapters about how Plutona got into those woods -- has designed those five kids for maximum drama: they know each other, but aren't "friends" more than superficially. There's the chubby smart girl and the budding mean girl who takes advantage of her, the bully from a broken family and the meek boy he picks on, and the mean girl's quiet younger brother. They don't really have anything in common-- just the body.

They have unrealistic ideas of what they can and should do -- telling the authorities,the obvious best response, is off the table immediately. And their relationships are twisted and tested by that body in the woods: can they benefit from it somehow? Can they get rich, get famous, get superpowers? And even if any of those things are possible, who will get them?

Emi Lenox draws all of the main story in a matter-of-fact style driven by body language and particularly by eyes -- this is a book where paying attention to eyelines is important. And Jodie Bellaire adds soft, almost watercolor-style hues, for both the dark woods over several nights and the bright, should-be-cheery school in the intervening days.

Plutona is not a happy story. It's not about happy people. And, given that it's an indy story written by Jeff Lemire, you can assume it won't end well. It doesn't end in any of the ways I expected, which was a very good thing -- but it ends truly, and honestly, and devastatingly. This is not really a story about superheroes at all: it's a story about kids who make bad choices when they hit an Outside Context Problem, and how that escalates. If you're looking for the usual superhero fare, where violence solves problems...well, you probably should read Plutona, because that's not what violence actually does.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Cosplayers: Perfect Collection by Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw's comics are deceptively simple -- both in his almost primitivist art style, and in their seemingly straightforward narratives. And his most recent graphic novel is perhaps his most simple-looking book yet.  Cosplayers is the story of two young women with a passion -- though whether that passion is for their costuming activities or for using those activities to get famous is a bit of an open question.

As so often with an intense two-person friendship, one is outgoing and one is behind the scenes. These two young women are both in their late teens, avoiding college and the specter of someone else's plan for their lives while trying to turn their passion into a life. So they make movies, guerrilla-style. Annie dresses up as some character, and interacts with unsuspecting random people, while Verti films it. It's making them a little money, and Cosplayers tells the story of a few months in their collaboration -- one vignette at a time.

Shaw tells this story in short-story form: how they met; one video's creation; Venti dating a guy while Annie films, to switch up roles; attending a Tezuka-focused anime con; going to a comics shop on Free Comic Book Day; dealing with bad online reviews; the possibility of a "real production deal" with real money attached; and so on. It's all moments -- Shaw focuses his story in now rather than a through line, keeping these young women in their moment, not looking forward or looking back.

It's a small book, and of necessity an open-ended one. If Annie and Venti become successful, together or separately, this will be the story of how they learned their first important lessons. But we don't know that -- maybe because they don't know that. This could also be the story of that crazy time when they were young and free: we never know what our stories will be until they've happened.

That open-endedness will annoy some readers, but I think those readers would avoid Shaw anyway, with his blocky color overlays and his thick black lines that seem less planned than they are. There will probably be more to this story, eventually. But this book is a "Perfect Collect" nonetheless.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/4

Every week, I list here the books that came in my mail the week before, as part of the endless (and now a bit anachronistic) ritual of book publicity. I may never actually review any particular book I list here, since I already have far too many books on my shelves, but I can at least tell you that they're coming, and (I hope) talk about what's most interesting and appealing in each of them.

This week I have three books from Yen Press, all coming out this month. One is a new manga, one is a reprint fancy-edition manga, and the third is a light novel (which is like manga, except you have to make up the pictures in your own head). And I'll even write about them in that order, to make things easier for you the home viewer.

Miyuki Nakayama's Spirits & Cat Ears, Vol. 1 launches a new series about a young woman who is a) so massively introverted that she hasn't gone outside in years, b) a priestess who can control spirits and has just accepted a job performing exorcisms at a shrine, and c) the summoner of a familiar who apparently regularly puts her on a leash. (The last I am tentatively assuming has to do with forcing her to interact with other people, and not some kind of ritual sex magic thing. But I could be wrong.) Manga revel in stories about the painfully shy, so, if that's what you like, here's another one. Oh, and she has cat ears -- there doesn't seem to be any obvious explanation why, but she does have them, and I know that's appealing to the same kind of people who like manga stories about girls in short skirts on leashes.

The reprint is Fruits Basket: Collector's Edition, Vol. 10, by Tatsuki Takaya. This big fat book combines what were volumes 19 and 20 of the original series, for those of you who have trouble with simple math. And there's a guy in a Mr. Rogers sweater on the front. What more could you ask?

Our light novel for this week is Natsume Akatsuki's Konosuba: God's Blessing on This Wonderful World, Vol. 1: Oh! My Useless Goddess, which has illustrations by Kurone Mishima. (So I was slightly incorrect above: you don't have to make up all of the pictures in your head. Just most of them.) This is another story about a shut-in -- I told you! --this time a teenage boy who died in a traffic accident on the one day he left the house. (Teaching the obvious lesson.) But he's given the opportunity to reincarnate in another world, one very much like an online fantasy MMO, where he gathers a dysfunctional party consisting of three attractive young women with strange hair colors to differentiate them. Yup, another harem story, plus a slightly new take on the trapped-in-a-game-world subgenre. The second chapter title mentions panties, so we're in for a bumpy ride.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Arctic Marauder by Jacques Tardi

I am no expert on the career of the great French comics master Jacques Tardi -- rather the opposite, actually. I've read most of his work that's been translated into English, but in a sideways, random way, and I'm entirely ignorant of whatever hasn't been translated. (And that's probably quite a lot, since he's been working at this full-time since around the time I was born.)

But two things about his 1974 book Le Demon des glaces (as translated by Kim Thompson and published as The Arctic Marauder in 2011) struck me. First was how much it prefigures steampunk, from the 19th century alternative "high-tech" accouterments and somewhat ahistorically tough, active women to the anti-heroes and their casual attitude towards mass murder. And second was how it felt like a rough sketch of ideas that came together more strongly in Tardi's graphic novels about Adele Blanc-Sec, starting just a few years later (I reviewed an omnibus of the first two Blanc-Sec books a couple of years ago, for reference.)

The Arctic Marauder is the story of a horrible shipwreck in the foggy, icebound North Atlantic, about a young man who survived that ship's explosion through unlikely means, and about the hidden super-science behind that shipwreck -- and, eventually, many more similar wrecks. That young man seems to be our hero, but he does not act as we would expect a stalwart young man to do, when faced with fiends using super-science to achieve their horrible ends. And Arctic Marauder ends on an open question, as if it would lead to other stories, though I don't think it ever did so. (Tardi is still alive and actively creating, so perhaps it still could, but I don't think he's planning to come back to a forty-year-old book at this point.)

So: proto-steampunk, told in an arch narration that always knows more than both we readers and the characters in the story. Inky black art with plenty of super-science details -- not quite as precise as Tardi at his best,but still strong work. A definite lack of a hero. Murderous doings far out at sea, aided by steam-powered scientific marvels (and including a diagram of the mysterious ship, of course!) Such is The Arctic Marauder, and it's pretty darn keen.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck, and Dave Stewart

The Hellboy universe has been throwing off sidebar material for almost as long as it's existed, with BPRD and Abe Sapien leading the charge. But some sidebars are much further off to the side, if you know what I mean -- say, something like Sledgehammer 44 from a couple of years back -- and end up feeling more like riffs on the same idea than parts of the same story.

And, hey! Here's another one: Frankenstein Underground tells the further adventures of Frankenstein's Monster in the Hellboy universe, after Hellboy punched him free from the clutches of a mad scientist in Mexico in the 1950s. It's written by Mignola, drawn by Ben Stenbeck, and colored by Dave Stewart [1] -- very much a core team for this universe.

But FU -- that acronym is not really appropriate, but it amuses me, so that's how I'll refer to it -- is pretty close to a generic Mignola story. The Monster flees one mad scientist who wants to control his special powers for nefarious purposes, finds himself in a vast, mysterious underground realm, where he's taken in by what turns out to be another mad scientist who wants to control his special powers for nefarious purposes, before punching a lot of things to cause destruction and the defeat of a nasty supernatural creature from beyond our world.

It's fun to read, but there is a faint sense of a Mignola Mad-Libs generator running in the background somewhere, churning out variations of the same ideas over an over again and coming out this time with a particularly thin rendition. There is nothing at all wrong with FU, but as one more book on top of a very large stack, it's not particularly impressive. This is the Mignola book to read when you've run out of all of the other ones and still want something new, like listening to a scratchy audience-taped Grateful Dead bootleg because you want one more hit of your favorite thing.

[1] I think I've been neglecting colorist credits a lot of the time, and frankly I don't think I'm going to be consistent about it. But Stewart is so much part of the Hellboy gestalt that he really deserves to be included as a full partner.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The New Deal by Jonathan Case

There are more than eight billion people in the world, so it shouldn't surprise me that I lose track of some of them now and then. Still, you tend to assume that if you've seen Artistic Work X by somebody and really liked it, you'd remember that guy's name and keep track of him.

Apparently not, though. Jonathan Case had a great debut graphic novel in Dear Creature, a wonderfully oddball mashup of Creature of the Black Lagoon and Shakespeare (see my review in an old round-up) back in 2011, and I promptly let his name fall out of my head.

Flashforward five years, and I hear about a new graphic novel called The New Deal, a caper story set in a NYC hotel during the Depression. It gets good reviews, and sounds like a smart, interesting thing. By somebody named Jonathan Case -- and that name does not ring a bell, sadly.

(This may be the curse of the WASP; I have one of those Standard American Guy names as well, and I bet that I am not as memorable to other people as I think I should be.)

So I found and read The New Deal, which is indeed a fun caper story set in a NYC hotel during the Depression, and which I won't tell you much about since the point of a caper story is to see things unfold as they happen. And, reading it, I happened to see Dear Creature listed as a previous work by the author, and finally connected some very obvious dots.

There are two lessons here. First is that this book (The New Deal, remember, by Jonathan Case, available right now in an attractive album-sized hardcover from your friends at Dark Horse) is good and you should read it. Even if you don't know who Jonathan Case is. Hell, even if you don't know who I am -- take the word of this random Internet stranger!

The second lesson is that we live in a world saturated with media, and it's left to each of us to curate it for ourselves. We have more tools than ever for doing that -- feeds and social media and email newsletters and online recommendation engines and just watching the TV news network that most closely fits our prejudices -- but it does mean we have to do it, or else we'll get just what other people think is important. And people are different enough that no one else's idea of what's important will exactly match yours: so don't rely on serendipity.

Read in January

Below is a list of the books I read in the month of January, and, if things go right, you could potentially read this in the very early morning of the first day of February. (Things very much did not go right, in that sense, for all of last year.) If you're reading this substantially later, there may be an excuse at the bottom to amuse or mollify you.

Ward Sutton, editor, Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To (1/1)

Kyle Baker, You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance! (1/3)

Kyle Baker, Important Literary Journal (1/4)

Kyle Baker, Undercover Genie (1/6)

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, 1995 to 1996 (1/8)

John Allison and Max Sarin, Giant Days, Vol. 3 (1/9)

Dash Shaw, Cosplayers: Perfect Collection (1/10)

Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox, Plutona (1/11)

Kage Baker, In The Company of Thieves (1/11)

Mary M. Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot, Sally Heathcote, Suffragette (1/13)

Shaun Tan, The Signing Bones (1/17)

G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days. (1/17)

Ryan North and Eric Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 1: Squirrel Power (1/18)

Jonathan Case, The New Deal (1/18)

Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck, Frankenstein Underground (1/20)

Jacques Tardi, The Arctic Marauder (1/20)

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, 1997 to 1998 (1/28)

Lucy Knisley, Something New (1/31)

Tim Powers, Nobody's Home (1/31)

Hey! I'm posting this on time, even though I haven't written about all of the books listed here! Let's see if that crumbles what little structure I have here....