Thursday, March 30, 2017

Descender, Vol. 3: Singularities by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

I keep thinking that I've been avoiding reading SF, but that's not true at all. I mean, look at what I've read this month -- World of Edena, 100%,  the second volume of Paper Girls, this book. That's a lot of SF, in different modes and styles, from trippy inner-space to wide-screen space opera to small-scale lived-in to high concept time war.

So maybe I've just been avoiding prose SF, and I'll have to dig into that sometime later.

Because today I have Descender, Vol. 3: Singularities to write about, the third volume collecting the ongoing SFnal comic by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen, and it is frankly awesome.

This book breaks any rules I would have suggested for it: it collects five issues of the series, and every single one is a flashback. The overall plot doves forward only an infinitesimal amount from the end of Vol. 2 to the end of this book -- one or two moments -- so this could easily be seen as spinning wheels.

Instead, it feels like Lemire said, "OK, you think you know who these people are, but let me tell you some new things." So we learn about Tim-22, and Telsa, and Bandit, and Andy, and Driller. ("Driller's a real killer" turns out to be the Hodor of this series.) And what was sliding towards big-explosion space opera, full of big moments that might not have been as earned as they should be, suddenly snaps back into a story about people trapped in a dangerous, complicated universe, with competing loyalties and ideas and plans and needs. And a lot of really destructive hardware to put teeth in those competitions.

Look, if you're just reading this post cold you have no idea who those people are. I know. You can go back to my posts on the first and second books for more details, definitely. But this series is both good comics and good SF -- fairly soft, with planet-sized robots and casual FTL, but entirely respectable -- so you frankly should just read the thing. Lemire tells great stories and Nguyen makes great images.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Paper Girls, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Ideas are great. Plots are wonderful. But, if you don't have characters at the heart of them, you just have a lump.

I've complained about various Brian K. Vaughan projects over the years -- I admit it -- but he's a writer who always understands character, and puts well-realized characters at the center of his stories...even if, sometimes, those stories meander and fizzle out rather than popping the way we'd hope.

The first volume of Paper Girls was mostly set-up, throwing four tweens from 1988 into SFnal events they weren't well-equipped to understand or handle, and keeping them on the run from two competing groups of time-warring future-dwellers, teasing the idea of a generation-gap time war but not explaining too much.

Paper Girls, Vol. 2 picks up from the moment Vol. 1 ended -- actually, about ten minutes before, from a slightly different perspective -- and tightens the character focus to Erin. Erin is the outsider in this group of paper girls, brand-new on what they're already calling Hell Morning, and the end of the first volume saw twelve-year-old Erin meet 2016's older version, her own forty-year-old future self. And, before this book is done, there will be a third Erin in the mix as well -- time-travel is like that; you can meet yourself coming and going. (Cf. "All You Zombies")

But Erin's not the only one of the girls we learn more about: another of the quartet learns unpleasant things about herself in this 2016, and all of them are having trouble just dealing with what's happening. Of course, if you keep running, you don't have the luxury of time to think.

We still don't know exactly what's going on here. Both sides of the time war believe they're in the right, and both seem entirely willing to capture and mind-wipe entire populations casually, not to mention more destructive interventions. It may be that the background deaths we've seen aren't "permanent" -- time war can be like that, particularly in an only-one-timeline-that-keeps-changing world like this one -- but there's a definite blithe disregard for civilian impacts here, and I have a lurking suspicion that neither side actually cares about anyone other than their team.

The girls want to get back home, of course -- get back to their normal, stable world. But we readers, particularly those of us familiar with time-war stories, know it won't be that simple. They're going to have to solve this somehow, to figure out how to end this war, before they can get back to throwing piles of newsprint at front doors back in 1988. (And, frankly, I can see one or more of them deciding that there are more interesting things to do in a time war than getting back to the life you lived before.)

So: this is getting chewy and exciting and fun; Vol. 2 takes what was good about the first book and complicates it in smart and thrilling ways. I may be shorting Cliff Chiang's contributions here, but a good half of the storytelling comes from his crisp art, particularly his faces. (And let's not forget he draws scenes with three different versions of the same character and differentiates them effortlessly -- even the two that are the same age.) I don't know where Paper Girls is going, but, right now, it's heading there in high style and at high speed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

100% by Paul Pope

Predicting the future is never easy. And a thousand unlikely things have already happened, so a million more will happen, given enough time.

Still, I'm pretty sure that the next trend in erotic entertainment will not be "gastro" -- watching a half-naked dancer's stomach contents fizzing and bubbling on a big screen behind her as she gyrates.

Call it a hunch.

Otherwise, Paul Pope's graphic novel 100% (created 2002-2002, collected 2009, set in 2038) presents a plausible, lived-in urban future, a few decades up the line -- in fact, except for gastro, it's notable mostly because things haven't changed that much. There's no strong AI, no flying cars, no implants, no apparent gene-surgery or designer people, no sign of robots or advanced digital assistants, let alone regular space travel or any of the more exotic SFnal ideas. Instead, it's a city full of people drinking in bars, falling in and out of love, trying to get ahead, worried about themselves and the ones the care about, and chasing that next big thing.

Pope intertwines several stories more or less about love -- a new gastro dancer hooks up with the busboy, the serious young bartender meets an artist on the verge of a potentially life-changing grant, the bar's manager has to deal with her professional-fighter ex coming back to town. They mostly work together, they mostly know each other, so they bounce off each other and their stories affect each other over the course of about a week.

There's no big plot: no one is conquering the world, or creating a new transformative product, or learning the secret of reality. Chekhov would be disappointed with one particular plot element, but it didn't bother me at all. 100% is not going to tell the story you think it will: it will not tell you a story you've heard before. Instead, it will show you a window into the lives of a group of ordinary people, in a 2038 that's as reasonable or possible as any other world.

And it's all told by Paul Pope, in his grungy lines and deep blacks -- his people are attractive but not pretty, like always, the battered-god avatars of themselves, and their world is full of detail and specificity. His work is great for SF, since the THB days -- I hope he does more of it, and makes more crazy ideas.

Even if, like gastro, I can't quite bring myself to believe in them.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Incoming Books: Late March

I continue to buy books faster than I read them: some might think that's a problem, but I'm sure it will work out all right in the end. (Don't you get a prize if you die with the largest number of unread books?)

Anyway, two of these came from a library sale, and two came from a trip to Midtown Comics in the city on the way to a production of Julius Caesar by the Acting Company. You can probably guess which is which.

The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes is a novel by Lawrence Block, published in 2015 by Hard Case Crime. I suspect it's an old book, probably from the '60s, since that's the style hard Case works in. But it says it's the first edition, so that would either make it a brand-new novel (as of two years ago, admittedly) or something lost in the files for whatever reason.

Catch and Release is another Block book from Hard Case; it was a collection of short stories, and it came out in 2013. (Really? That long ago? I am getting behind.)

Mooncop is a graphic novel by Tom Gauld. You can guess what it's about. Gauld has a great style, and a great deadpan affect -- as seen in his collection of short strips You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack for example -- so this should be great.

Bandette, Vol. 3: The House of the Green Mask is the latest in the series by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover about the lady thief of the title. (The distaff version of a "gentleman thief," so to speak.) See my reviews of the first two books, both excellent souffle-esque concoctions kept up by pure elan and verve.

And last is Giant Days, Vol. 4 the latest collection of the comic by John Allison and Max Sarin. It is awesome, you should be reading it, and, if you want to know why, see my posts on volumes one, two, and three.

I Look 47 But I'm 24

Too much of my brain's processing-power was taken up this morning by a stupid dilemma: why does the title of this book seem so familiar?

I knew it was a song lyric, but it just kept repeating itself in my head, which wasn't much help.

Finally, I realized: that's the way the song goes, and I finally powered through to the chorus and remembered it was Tom Waits's "Cold Water."

So, for anyone else reading Bookgasm today and having that tickle in the back of your're welcome.

And, in case you're somewhere where you can have sound playing, here's a video:

P.S.: the title of this post is inaccurate. I actually am 47, which is why I look 47. Please forgive me.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/25

Yup, this again.

Every Monday, I list whatever books arrived in my mail, in the hopes that some of you people out there will want to read, buy, and/or love them. (This is how publicity works: it's not complicated, but it is hard.) I haven't read any of those books: I find I'm not reading as many books these days as I used to, but, then, all things decay and die, so why should this be any exception?

This week, I have one book to tell you about: Alex Bledsoe's new novel Gather Her Round.

It's the fourth in his series about the Tufa, a backwoods North American kind of faerie community, and how they live with the local humans. This time out, a young Tufa woman was killed and partially eaten in the deep woods -- probably, everyone thinks, by the local pack of wild boars.

But then another person dies in those woods -- a man who was having an affair with that woman -- and perhaps something else is going on.

Gather Her Round is a hardcover from Tor, which officially published on March 7th.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I haven't read Batman: Arkham Asylum in twenty years, at least. But I wish I could talk to that earlier Andrew Wheeler, who read it soon after publication in 1989, because I desperately want to know.

Did I realize the plot made no sense back then, or was I distracted by the fancy package and the semi-profundities?

In retrospect, this set the tone for a lot of writer Grant Morrison's later work: portentous superhero operas, with characters emoting in high style, skating by on charm and flash and eye-candy to distract from the fact that the moments of the story don't entirely track and that sensible human beings would never actually act in these ways.

(Ah! But you say that long-underwear characters aren't sensible human beings! They're deeply damaged psychological cripples, heroically rising above their problems to fight for love and justice and the pure joy of punching people in the face. And I say to you: phooey. That is the worst kind of special pleading, and you should be ashamed to use it.)

Yes, the set-up is fine. The lunatics break out and take over the asylum, sure. Batman agrees to go in alone because they have hostages, definitely.

Batman stands there and chats with Joker for twenty-plus pages, like the awkward guy at a cocktail party? Um, no. Batman has been many things for many eras, but he's never been talky. And even less the person who gets talked to for an extended period, which is what Morrison does with him here.

(Batman does word-association with a not-really-a-hostage doctor? Oy, that's even worse.)

Yes, it's reasonably good psycho-babble, if your eyes are better than mine and can decipher the heroically mangled lettering of Gaspar Saladino for Joker's speeches without squinting under your glasses and turning the book closer to the light repeatedly. But if you want Batman to listen to psycho-babble, you have to tie him down first. Batman is a character of action: he's only really himself when he's using that ridiculously large cape to swoop through the darkness to paste a thug in the kisser with a gauntleted fist. Standing politely and waiting for the crazy man to finish up his crazy talk is not really in his wheelhouse.

Eventually, Morrison gets Batman on the run through the asylum, chased by the various crazy people -- which is what we signed on for. And he dispatches each of them in a page or two, since the book is already half over -- Joker took up most of it with his grab-ass and chatter. And the end is the usual non-committal superhero stuff, where nothing changes because nothing can change, and all of the toys are carefully packed up so they can do exactly the same thing again as many times as DC can make money off it.

It's not bad. But it is pointless, and faintly silly. And the evidence that Batman may be as crazy as the inmates -- nudge nudge wink wink! -- is the fact that he thinks about bats and his dead parents all of the time, which isn't precisely a stunning revelation.

(Oh, yeah: and, in a parallel story,  ol' Arkham, the guy who founded the asylum goes nuts either because a maniac murdered his family or because the house makes everyone crazy. If the latter, using it to house people already crazy seems like an even better idea -- what's it going to do to them?)

Dave McKean's pages are still amazing, though my aforementioned aging eyes sometimes found them murkier than preferable. His book design has a few elements that are looking more strongly 1989 than we all expected at the time, but that's life. The art is the major draw at this point -- moody, atmospheric, stunning, unique.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The World of Edena by Moebius

I'm not an expert on Moebius's graphic novels -- I read all of the Epic series when they came out, three decades ago, and scattered other works, but haven't made a serious study of it. So I can't say if this is true. But it does seem to me that every Moebius epic inevitably ends with a big-nosed Everyman on the run from a totalitarian strongman in a dream world, pursuing the image of the perfect woman, who is not so much a character as an idea, even if she's supposed to be a real person.

Again: I could be wrong.

But what I got out of The World of Edena is that Moebius is another one of those artists who draws -- and, in his case, often writes -- about what's of interest to him right then, and incorporates it into his current story, even if that story seemed to be going in a different direction before that point.

This tendency is especially marked when a long series is collected together, as here. World of Edena contains what were originally five separate albums -- four of them published as part of that Epic series, actually -- that were published between 1983 and 2001 (the book doesn't make this clear at all, and online searches have not been terribly helpful, either). It looks like the first three came out relatively quickly -- Upon a Star for a Citroen internal promotion in 1983 and then The Gardens of Edena and The Goddess in time to be published in the Epic series in English in 1988 and 1990 -- and then Stel was in the early '90s (in time for an English translation in 1994), but the last piece, SRA, left until this 2016 book to see a US release.

The first book is a space fantasy, mixing light mysticism with a post-Star Wars lived-in future, with that long Citroen story seeing space mechanics Stel and Atan crash-landing on a strange planet, traveling to the inevitable enigmatic alien artifact, and equally inevitably being the people prophesied for seven hundred thousand years to transform the artifact and transport themselves and all of the other assembled sentients to the fabled paradise planet, Edena. (Before that is a related short story, "Repairs," which the book also fails to explain. Did Moebius create this before the Citroen commission, and decided to re-use the characters? Was it a warm-up for the longer Citroen piece? How much earlier was it written and drawn? Despite a lot of text pieces about how wonderful and philosophical and thoughtful Moebius was, the tedious details of dates and provenance are neglected.)

The Gardens of Edena picks up on that supposed paradise world, but Moebius has a new hobby-horse in the raw-foods movement. So Stel and Atan are thrown onto Edena alone together, and none of the other sentients from the first book (with one exception, much later) are ever seen again, referenced, or given a second of concern. Instead, our heroes find themselves roughing it in an Earthlike savanna landscape, left without their usual machine-created food and health-regulating tech. So they are forced to become "natural," which of course is vastly better than modern medicine -- Moebius is telling this story, so they don't get dysentery or get eaten by a predator or get injured in a way that leads to septicemia or gangrene. No, this is nice nature, the kind that civilized Frenchmen can rhapsodize about at length from posh hotels around the world as they draw their comics pages. The kind of nature that has sparkly fairy creatures massing at night to make gorgeous comics pages of transcendence and love -- pages that will almost convince you.

Along the way, it turns out that their diet was suppressing their natural sexuality, and that Atan is actually female. Stel, the pilot with the big nose, is of course male, and of course gets most of the pages and action from this point forward. Very soon after this revelation, Stel attempts to rape Atan -- Moebius probably wouldn't put it that way, but it's what happens -- and they separate.

The Goddess follows Atana -- she has to change her name, apparently, since a gender-neutral name is only suitable for a man -- on her wanderings through this natural world. But Moebius's hobby-horse has mutated, so she's captured by the hyper-technological denizens of The Nest -- all human, and, as we learn later, the descendants of the other humans from Upon a Star -- and sees how horribly non-natural they are in their underground bunker and full-body suits. She quickly becomes the figurehead of their rebellion, against the mysterious Paternum, who also appears to her in nightmarish dreams. And she appears to be successful in the end.

Then we return to Stel, who does not have to change his name when he transitions from sexless to male, because male is the default, right? (There could be a major feminist critique of World of Edena, and the names would be only the beginning.) He also gets caught up in the Nest and the Paternum, which is not as defeated as we thought. Atana is now sleeping somewhere, and Stel is prophesied to be the god who will save her, uniting their powers to save the world. There's a lot of running around and a lot of two-bit philosophy and a lot of supposedly profound dreams for close to a hundred pages. Moebius draws all of this beautifully, even if I couldn't precisely believe it. And it ends of a massive cliff-hanger, but luckily we don't have to wait a decade, as the original French readers did.

The final book, SRA, continues the adventures of he-man Stel, as Atana is still missing and believed sleeping. All or most of it takes place in dream-worlds, as Stel battles the person barely mentioned in Upon a Star that became the evil Paternum, with the aid of Edena's fairy-like sprites, another supernatural character on his side, and possibly the mysterious powers of still-sleeping Atana. And, yes, the big-nose guy is on the run in a world controlled by the evil totalitarian, to save or be saved by the perfect woman who he hasn't seen for years, tried to rape the last time he saw her, and doesn't really know at all.

Ah, romance!

The ending is oddly enigmatic for that set-up: we don't even see Stel and Atan(a) meet. The supposed god and goddess of this world are separated for most of the book, pretty much from the moment they get differentiated by sex, and one or more of them are dead on one or more levels of reality. A cynical reader might think that Moebius wasn't actually finished, and that this book doesn't so much end as stop, before a final book that might have actually tied up everything and actually got Stel and Atana together and friendly with each other, finally. Luckily no such cynical reader is right here.

I enjoyed The World of Edena without taking it seriously for a second once it hit that paradise planet. It is lovely and sumptuous and stuffed full of half-digested (and frequently silly and sophomoric) ideas. Moebius draws magnificently, so it's a shame that his people are so cardboard and his moral dilemmas are so dull.

Also, every time I see the title, my mind sings it to match this song. So let me infect you with the same earworm:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Incoming Books: Early March

So, about a week ago, I got a box of books that I'd ordered about a week before that -- dates get vague when you're not keeping track and no one actually cares to begin with -- because my usual comics store was having a 50% off sale on some clearance stuff. So the books below are pretty random and tend to be older, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Here's what I did get, and expect to be reading sometime relatively soon:

Kyle Baker Cartoonist, Vol. 2 -- another one of the books Baker self-published back a decade or so ago, this one is mostly filled with strips and single-panel stuff about his then-young family. (I presume, like all of the rest of us, they're slightly older now.)

Gobler Toys: The Fun We Can't Remember by Steve Casino and Steve Fink -- I came across the website for Gobler Toys -- the toy company you don't remember because it never actually existed -- years ago, and have gone back to it now and then. At some point, I learned there was a book, too, and i finally found it. I have a weakness for fake history and fake non-fiction in all forms, so this is right up my alley.

Troop 142 by Mike Dawson -- Dawson is a fellow New Jerseyan, and he's been killing it with his short comics (mostly for The Nib) over the past year. (Many collected in Rules for Dating My Daughter, along with other stuff.) So that's enough to dig out this slightly older GN of his about a Boy Scout troop.

Hot Dog Taste Test -- a collection of comics by Lisa Hanawalt, mostly in the humorous vein. I have to admit that I keep mixing up Hanawalt with Gemma Correll for no good reason -- but I hope reading a concentrated dose of Hanawalt will clear my brain-cache and allow me to make the distinction in future.

The Collected Hutch Owen by Tom Hart -- Hart impressed me with Rosalie Lightning (as he's impressed every one who's seen that book), which overcame my past aversion to his often sketchy, big-nose style. This seems to have been his major work pre-Rosalie, so I wanted to check it out.

Sunny, Vol. 6 by Taiyo Matsumoto -- I think this is the last in the excellent series by the creator still best known for Tekkon Kinkreet. Great slice-of-life comics about orphans in 1970s Japan -- really particularly and psychologically real.

Sparky O'Hare by Mawil -- Mawil is a German cartoonist; I've seen two of his books, including this one. He's got a nice loose line, a knack for being funny, and is otherwise almost completely unknown to me. (I say "he" because of the male gaze of the stories and the usual cultural baggage -- I don't think I'm wrong there but I could be.)

Bizarro Heroes by Dan Piraro -- One of the many collections of Piraro's long-running Bizarro single-panel cartoon. This one came out from Last Gasp and focuses entirely on cartoons about people in long underwear, capes, and domino masks.

Paul Moves Out by Michel Rabagliati -- One in the long series of semi-autobiographical books by Quebecois cartoonist Rabagliati, this is a book I used to own (pre-flood) and now do again.

Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz -- In the '50s and '60s Schulz did other stuff, before the ever-growing Peanuts licensing empire took over his life entirely. One of the major other pieces of that work was a series of single-panel gag cartoons about teenagers, and this book collects all of 'em.

Sweaterweather by Sara Varon -- This is a collection of short comics (and, I think, maybe other things, too) by the creator of Robot Dreams. She's got a nice picture-book style and manner, and it's interesting to see that deployed into somewhat more traditional comics formats.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/18

Every week, I list the books that came in the mail the week before -- the ones sent by publicists looking for publicity, I mean; if I ever got SECRET BOOKS from SECRET CONTACTS I would never even mention it.

Some weeks there's a whole bunch, some not so many.

This week there were none.

So, herewith, the list:
But I do expect to have an "Incoming Books" post later today to list some books I bought, which is totally different.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

My role here is mostly superfluous -- if you happened to miss that Neil Gaiman had a new short-story collection in 2015 (despite all of William Morrow's most strenuous efforts), you've suddenly realized it now. I suppose it's not precisely impossible that someone may be reading this blog on the Internet and not be familiar with Gaiman, but I find that unlikely on the raining-pennies-from-heaven level.

So, at this point, I'm talking to two audiences. First, the people who like Gaiman's work, and either have already read Trigger Warning or have it on that big shelf of things they fully intend to get to "someday." And, secondly, the people who just don't like Gaiman.

I won't try to characterize the second group, since taste is so subjective. There are writers I respect but never will warm to (that old dullard Henry James primary among them), and writers I haven't the least bit of respect for but will never say so in public. I'm sure it's the same way with Gaiman. He often has a tinge of horror to his work, especially in the shorter forms, and, as a reader who generally hates horror, I can see that turning off a number of readers. Maybe some people find him too twee, or two verbose, or too roundabout, or just too British. Or the opposite of all of those things, for all I know: we are all idiosyncratic.

Anyway: I doubt I'll convince you, folks in Group Two. I might suggest that you might not just have clicked, and a look at some of his best short stories ("Snow, Glass, Apples" is still my choice there, or "The Problem With Susan," though this book's "'The Truth Is a Cave In the Black Mountains...'" is very close) or graphic novels (Violent Cases with Dave McKean, or Black Orchid also with McKean) or novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Coraline, both nicely compact) could perhaps show you something you actually do like.

But time is short and books are near-infinite. You have no obligation to give anyone a second chance -- or a first one, for that matter.

I do think you're missing something, though: Gaiman is that unicorn of the literary world, a subtle writer who is a regular bestseller. He's a writer's writer who somehow wrote himself into a reader's reader audience, and has maintained it for close to thirty years now, across two and a half media (comics and prose and somewhat movies). That's rare and worth celebrating; writers like Gaiman are usually the ones who their compatriots love and whose books appear in small editions from presses with strange names.

But Trigger Warning, despite being that very unfashionable thing, a collection of short stories --  containing a fair bit of poetry as well -- was a major bestseller a couple of years back, and is now a very respectable trade paperback with a book-club guide in the back and everything. (And Gaiman has another bestseller at the moment in his retelling of Norse Mythology; I begin to suspect he made a pact with an infernal power many years back for such success at unlikely writing projects.)

I should provide some consumer information here: Trigger Warning contains exactly two dozen works of prose and poetry -- much more of the former than the latter, for those of you allergic to verse -- all but one and a half of which were originally published between 2004 and 2013. (The American Gods-related novella "Black Dog" is completely original, and "The Return of the Thin White Duke" contains a first half published in V Magazine -- no, I've never heard of it, either -- and a second half only written when Gaiman assembled this collection in 2014.) Gaiman completists will likely have read much of this -- "'The Truth Is a Cave In the Black Mountains...'" and "The Sleeper and the Spindle" both appeared as individual, illustrated books in the past several years, for example. But much of it, particularly the poetry, is more obscure, and will be new to all but a few obsessives.

There are a number of quite short, mostly borderline-horror stories, including "A Calendar of Tales," which is twelve of them all together -- all well-done, but of necessity small things -- and a story about Gaiman's particular favorite Dr. Who incarnation, which is quite good for sharecropping work. The long stories -- "Nothing O'Clock," the Dr. Who piece, along with "Black Dog" and the two already published in illustrated form -- are the standouts here, as one would expect.

If you've never read any Gaiman short fiction, go to Smoke and Mirrors first. It's not so much that he was better when he was younger as that his time was spent more on short fiction then, so there's more strongly invested work there. But if you're keeping up with him, more or less, this is an excellent collection of work by a writer who is never satisfied with the almost-right word or a story that blatantly tells you what it's about.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/11

Since this is a Monday, it's time for Reviewing the Mail, the fan-favorite blog feature in which Your Humble Blogger roots through his mail from the week before to find books to surprise and delight you.

(Note: surprise and/or delight are not guaranteed. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited by law.)

This week, I have two books from the fine folks at Tachyon, and let me dive right into them....

Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade is a follow-up to last year's Hap and Leonard, which collected all of the stories about Joe R. Lansdale's crime-fighting odd couple that had been published to that point. Well, Mamma Lansdale's youngest son has been very busy this past year, because Blood and Lemonade contains thirteen more stories about Hap and Leonard (though I think one of them was the new story in last year's book), all copyright 2016 or 2017.

You'd think there was a new season of a Hap and Leonard  TV show hitting, or something!

(Note: there is.)

Anyway, this has a whole bunch of new Lansdale stories, about probably his most popular characters, right at the moment when they're getting on TV for all the world to see. I suspect this will be reasonably popular, and it's available in trade paperback on March 14 (which would be tomorrow, for those of you trying to count on your toes).

And the other book is In Calabria from Peter S. Beagle, whose last novel, Summerlong, came out last September. Which means this is the first time Beagle has had two novels within a six-month period, ever, as far as I can tell. This is probably a novella, though -- like "Lila the Werewolf," among other things -- so you may insert an asterisk if you wish.

In Calabria is out now; it hit stores in February as a hardcover. And it's a new unicorn story -- this one set in the modern world (in Calabria, as the title indicates) and featuring a farmer whose solitary happy life is upended when that unicorn wanders into his life.

Two new Peter Beagle books within a year! Maybe the world isn't doing so bad, after all.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Duel With the Devil by Paul Collins

Paul Collins is a working writer, a guy who writes interesting, usually historical and research-inspired non-fiction books and who has never (as far as I've noticed) hit that bestseller level. He's also almost exactly the same age as me, and has a couple of sons around the ages of my sons: we always like best the people who remind us of ourselves. So I've been a Collins reader for some time, previously reading and babbling about his books Banvard's Folly, Not Even Wrong, The Trouble With Tom, Sixpence House, The Book of William, and The Murder of the Century here.

Duel With the Devil was his new book for 2013; I'm starting to run behind with Collins as I am with so many other writers. (I think he already has another book out; it's sad when writers you like can write faster than you can read.) And it's in the same vein as his previous book, The Murder of the Century: it pulls a shocking murder story out of historical newspapers and other documents to present it new to a modern audience.

(Not at all unlike what Rick Geary has been doing in comic form in his Treasury of {insert era} Murder series, actually -- so this is a thing I've liked and burbled about for a long time from someone else as well.)

Duel picks up on a shocking event a good hundred years before the murder in Century -- the death of Elma Sands in New York City at the very end of 1799. She was a young Quaker woman living in a boardinghouse on Greenwich Street, and suspicion immediately fell on a young man in that same house, one Levi Weeks. Duel is divided into four parts -- the first two fill in the picture from before Elma's death, telling her story and Levi's, and the back half of the book covers Levi's trial for her murder and the verdict and its aftermath.

As the subtitle implies, the big draw here is that this case brought together two major political enemies: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Only four years later, they would duel and Burr would kill Hamilton, but, in the winter of 1800, they were on the same side of a courtroom in lower Manhattan, defending the brother of a top contractor in that growing young city (and, not less important, a huge creditor of the then-insolvent Burr).

Collins follows the pattern of Century here; he has a lot of historical documents to draw from to tell this story, and makes it all clear and compelling. Again, this isn't as idiosyncratic and quirky as his earlier books, but I know that quirky doesn't pay the bills. I wish Collins could have a brilliant, bestseller-filled career writing books like The Trouble With Tom, but I'm old enough to know that the world doesn't come close to my wishes in a million ways. The career Collins has is a solid one, and I hope some of the millions of people who are interested in Hamilton find this book and make their way to the rest of his work.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Drawn & Quarterly edited by Tom Devlin with a cast of thousands

You might think I'm joking with that headline, but the title page lists four other people who helped Devlin edit this book, two people (including Devlin) who designed it, five who worked on the production, and Helge Dascher, who translated whatever was originally in other languages. And then the book itself is nearly eight hundred pages long, on relatively heavy stock to show off the art. There's a lot of stuff here, and it required a lot of people to bring it into the world.

The resulting monolith has the run-on title Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. Some small pieces of it may not be exactly contemporary -- there are reprints of work by John Stanley and Tove Jansson, for example, and several others I'm overlooking in the very long Table of Contents right now -- but it all can be thrown into the buckets of "cartooning, comics, and graphic novels." I will stand aside if anyone wants to start defining exactly which pieces go into which of those buckets, or how those buckets are different from each other -- that's a fight I want no part of.

But I should note that a huge piece of this book is not words-and-pictures-juxtaposed, which somewhat surprised me. It's something of a coffee-table book history of D&Q, with lots of text pieces covering the company and all of their major cartoonists, with many of those cartoonists writing about each other and plenty of writers-about-comics telling us why this person or that is so totally awesome. (And I agree with nearly all of them, nearly all of the time.) So you should know that this book is even longer than it looks -- it's not eight hundred pages of comics, it's about five hundred pages of comics wedded to a three-hundred-page book of essays.

We all know that any review of a book like this is going to degenerate into a list of names at some point, right? Well, let me get into it, then. D&Q showcases the work of a large number of cartoonists closely associated with that publisher, including the original famous triumvirate (Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt), Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, James Sturm, Jason Lutes, Dylan Horrocks, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Frank King, John Stanley, Doug Wright, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Michel Rabagliati, Rutu Modan, Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Duy Delisle, John Porcellino, Brian Ralph, Ron Rege, Jr., Marc Bell, Mimi Pond, Vanessa Davis, Tove Jansson, Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Pascal Girard, Tom Gauld, Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie, Seiichi Hayashi, Denys Wortman, Art Spiegelman, Brecht Vandenbroucke, Michael DeForge, and Shigeru Mizuki.

(And that's not even a full list.)

But the point of the book is not that it has a lot of cartoonists shoveled in; it's that it tells the story of a great publisher, run by a smart team (originally Chris Oliveros, pretty much all alone for ten to fifteen years, and joined by a number of others -- most prominently Peggy Burns and Devlin -- over the past decade) that took a chance on smart, artistic, literary work both from close to them (Quebec and Canada in general) and around the world, because they believed in the strength of those stories and that artwork. D&Q has never chased trends, it's never put out a book about people in capes punching the world better, and it's never pandered to anyone.

And Drawn & Quarterly (the book) is a great monument to the work that Drawn & Quarterly (the publishing company) has done over those twenty-five years. It has a massive number of pages of great comics, and it's going to be a very rare reader that's already familiar with more than 75% of it. If you like comics as an artform and a medium for serious expression, this is a book you need to read.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Animal Man: 3 volumes by Grant Morrison, Chas Truog, and Doug Hazlewood

The idea has gone from unknown to exciting to cliche and then all the way to passe, but there was an era where "choose a minor superhero-universe character and get a British writer to take him seriously" was brilliant and new. Frankly, it was the source of a lot of the best mainstream comics for close to a decade. Alan Moore on Swamp Thing led the pack, of course, but Peter Milligan did it to Shade the Changing Man and Neil Gaiman did it to Sandman and Grant Morrison did it to Doom Patrol.

And, at about the same time, to Animal Man.

Morrison's Animal Man, though, was a lot shorter than those other examples -- twenty-six issues, barely two years. And it arguably went a lot farther a lot faster than those others, gleefully deconstructing itself and the entire concept of corporate superhero comics at high speed before Morrison lept off, specifically stating as Grant Morrison in his last issue of the comic that someone else would be coming along:
They might play it safe and write you as a straight action superhero who fights animal-inspired villains every issue. They might do the obvious and go for shock by turning you into a meat-eater. I don't know.
It's not hyperbole to say that Animal Man -- along with Doom Patrol, which was less blatantly metafictional and closer to the path he'd continue to follow -- showed us exactly what Grant Morrison would be writing about for the next quarter-century, and the kinds of fictional toys he would return to again and again during that time.

Morrison's relaunch of Animal Man -- drawn by Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood for almost the entire run -- started out as something more conventional, with an '80s gritty Buddy Baker meeting superhero-style with the even more obscure (and rightfully so) B'wana Beast and giving the comeuppance to the usual comics-style evil scientists, who do nasty experiments just because they're evil and cruel. It looked like that would be the pattern of the comic: Buddy fights evil scientists, keeps learning more about their creepy pointless animal-torture, gets more radical, turns vegan, and maybe eventually joins Earth First! and does something even Morrison thinks is morally wrong in pursuit of his cause.

But that was sidelined almost immediately with the fifth issue of the series, which stands with Alan Moore's Swamp Thing #27 as one of the strongest and most radical changes of tone and substance for a corporate comics series. "The Coyote Gospel" wasn't about Animal Man at all, really -- it was about Crafty, a Wile E. Coyote figure from a "lower reality" who was moved into Animal Man's world by "God," to suffer and be maimed and heal, over and over again. It was both a wonderfully blasphemous take on the Christ narrative and a sign that just telling this story was already starting to bore Morrison: he didn't want to tell a story, he wanted to write about story, as centrally and purely as he could.

So he did, more and more over those next twenty issues, reveling in obscure comics continuity through the lens of the Psycho Pirate, a very minor character who was the only one to officially remember the DC Universe before the still-recent Crisis (back when that was the first and only universe restructuring; not even fans can remember them all, these days). And edging closer and closer to making himself a character in the story, which he finally did in that last issue. Buddy Baker didn't meet his maker, exactly, but he did get to meet the comics avatar of the writer who was currently making him jump through hoops. It was as weird and exhilarating as it sounds, and if it made it difficult for anyone to follow, well, that's the problem with metafiction. It's difficult to step back down to plain old fiction afterward.

And it's a good thing the metafiction got so strong so quickly, because the animal-rights stuff was expressed in a frankly silly and childish way -- the Grant Morrison character blatantly states that the life of a human child can't possibly be considered of more value than that of a lab rat, because human beings have caused environmental damage. (There are similar sentiments, on about that level of plausibility, throughout Morrison's run -- but he was smart enough not to dwell on them, however much he believed them.) That is a stupid argument in several ways, not least that animals will cause environmental damage as well, destroying entire habitats by overpopulation before dying out. It's agitprop for the point of agitprop, and I hope Morrison never meant it literally.

But, even more crucially, there's a serious issue with being a vegetarian in the DC Universe, where intelligent plants are not uncommon. Morrison's trying to draw a real-world bright line in a very unreal world with lines that run in very different directions. I hope any morality of food in the DC Universe would start with "don't eat anything that can talk," and presumably get more sophisticated from there. Focusing on the kingdom an entity came from is not the way to go.

But corporate comics are always messy -- there's always some stupid crossover that messes up the pace of the story, costumes that change for no reason, and secondary characters who either changed from the script to the final page due to Recent Shocking Development or are shoehorned in just to keep their trademarks alive. Animal Man dealt with that stuff better than most, but they're inevitable speed bumps for what could otherwise be a smooth ride. If some of the messiness of Animal Man came out of Morrison and his own passions instead of the usual DC continuity bullshit, that's at least a better quality of messiness to deal with.

The Morrison run was collected, finally, a decade later -- the first volume came out at the time, but nothing else -- as something like a trilogy. The first book is just Animal Man, the second is Origin of the Species, and the third is Deus Ex Machina. The work of the folks who followed Morrison is also being collected, I see: I didn't read those at the time, and don't really plan to do so now. (But you can if you want.)

A mic drop is something to be respected.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/4

This is one of those weeks without a lot of books, so I have lots of time to waste in preliminaries!

Luckily for both of us, I'm not going to actually do that.

When I get books in the mail, I write about them here, every Monday. This week, I got one book, so let me tell you about it -- whatever I can tell from a quick glance at something I didn't know existed until I opened a package on Saturday afternoon.

Spymaster begins a new epic fantasy series -- The Dragon Corsairs -- from Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes, who previous wrote the Dragon Brigades series together. (Weis, of course, has written a lot of other things with a lot of other people going back to Dragonlance in the misty '80s.) This series has a Lost Prince claimant lurking in the wings -- and so I expect will be about the fates of kingdoms by the time its done -- but this first book is mostly about a privateer captain in an Age of Sail world with both dragons and battling empires. (And that's less generic, and more interesting than yet another guy who wants to be the next King of Wherever.) Oh, and the privateer captain is a woman, which would have been notable in the real-world analogy of this time, but maybe less so in the modern fantasy genre.

Spymaster is a hardcover from Tor, officially on sale March 21st.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Read in February

As usual, here I'm listing the books I've read this past month. If all goes according to plan -- said every super-villain, the moment before it didn't -- this will post a moment into March and contain links to my posts about those books.

If not, well, blame those meddling do-gooders.

Craig Yoe, editor, Arf Forum (2/6)

Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: Celtic Tales (2/7)

Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White (2/8)

Bobby London, Popeye, Vol. 1: 1986-1989 (2/9)

Neil Gaiman and various artists, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days (2/14)

Neil Gaiman and others, The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman (2/15)

Andi Watson, Love Fights, Vol. 1 (2/21)

Andi Watson, Love Fights, Vol. 2 (2/22)

Grant Morrison, Chas Truog, and Doug Hazlewood, Animal Man, Vol. 1 (2/27)

Tom Devlin, editor, Drawn & Quarterly (2/27)

Grant Morrison, Chas Truog, and Doug Hazlewood, Animal Man, Vol. 2: Origin of the Species (2/28) it happened, I was a few days late, because I forgot to update this during the week when the month actually ended. Oops. But here it is now.