Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Legends of the World's Finest by Walt Simonson & Daniel Brereton

Note: I didn't plan to read this book and have the review land on Halloween -- that was purely random. But it's nice when things work out so appropriately, isn't it? 

There are books where you wonder why anyone ever thought they were a good idea -- how they could possibly have come into existence. A fully-painted series of comic books in which a sweaty-looking Superman and Batman trade dreams as part of the schemes of an undead Scottish laird to beat a random female demon would fall into that category for a whole lot of people.

But, once you realize that comics not uncommonly come into existence because the then-hot artist had a list of things he really wanted to draw, it starts to make more sense. Legends of the World's Finest, the book in question, has introductions from both writer Walt Simonson and painter Daniel Brereton in which both of them pretend this was a good or at least plausible idea to begin with. (In their defense, it was 1993, when the spandex-dudes industry was teetering on an unsustainable peak of grimacing, variant covers, belt pouches, bad art, and speculator hype. A lot of things looked like good ideas at the time from inside the industry. And Brereton, unlike some artists of that era, was hot because he paints creepy, gorgeous art, so the demon-plot at least was driven by his obvious strengths.)

This Legends is also from long enough ago that it feels more like the wordy comics of the '70s and '80s than the more stripped-down style of the last twenty years -- everyone here yammers on a lot, and the narrative voice gets into the action, too, telling us things we can clearly see in the panels repeatedly. I'm too lazy to look up whether the "real" Superman was officially dead or alive when Legends was published -- it was right in the middle of that foofaraw, when first he was dead, then he was four other people, and then he suddenly wasn't dead and wasn't any of them, either -- but it's from that era of comics, when the Big Two companies were throwing everything they could think of at the wall, with the Image founders doing the same with even less likely things, and nearly everything was sticking.

For a while, at least. The wall wised up before too long, and a hell of a lot of things suddenly stopped sticking very soon after this. And a lot of projects that worked well enough in the inflationary era look silly and ridiculous afterwards.

Again, which brings us back to Legends. It is silly. I won't say that it's actually ridiculous, but it and ridiculous are close enough neighbors to share a snow-blower this winter. It has Batman and Superman act wildly out of character on purpose, but doesn't manage to wring any humor, or much drama, out of that. It manages to feel much longer than its hundred-and-fifty-ish pages. For a presumably out-of-continuity Prestige Format series, it's remarkably mired in the dull continuity of the era. (Superman thinks about his last encounter with Blaze, the female demon! It features the character sensation of never, the who-ever-cared-about-her Silver Banshee!)

There are a lot of big elements here that just don't come off as big. The world is nearly destroyed, yet again, but it's ho-hum. There's way too much talking, none of it in words that are surprising or interesting. And it teaches the great superhero lesson that evil people can never change, so you should never ever help anyone who asks.

Everyone has probably forgotten this even existed. They were pretty much right to do so. But the Brereton art is still quite impressive, especially if you want to see a sweaty, bodybuilder-esque Superman lurching around. That's the most positive thing I can say about it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/28

Here we go again with the Monday thing. As a possible distraction, I post every week about whatever new books I've gotten, in the hopes other people will want them as well. (This isn't quite as self-centered as it sounds, since those books tend to be sent to me unexpectedly by their publishers.)

This week I have one book to mention: the twentieth "Saga of Reculse" fantasy novel by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., The Mongrel Mage. I've only met Modesitt once or twice in passing, and read one book in this series more years ago than I remember, so I'm not going to pretend to a deep knowledge of the man or his work. But he's been writing smart fantasy for more than twenty years (plus some SF as well), across a number of series, which should be celebrated.

Mongrel Mage is a Tor hardcover, officially going on sale tomorrow in all of the North American places you can buy books imprinted on paper or electrons.

Recluse is a world where there are two distinct kinds of magic -- white Chaos and black Order -- but the main character of this book, Beltar, can use both of them, in ways no one has seen for hundreds of years. And that, of course, makes him a target, as new capabilities and powers always are. I don't know if this volume completes Beltar's stories, but Modesitt has generally let each Recluse book stand as a novel rather than stringing out plots endlessly.

So: interesting fantasy, relatively standing alone though in a world that a reader can explore further, available immediately. Sounds like a winning combination.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sweatshop by Peter Bagge and others

This is not a limited series. I know: I was surprised, too. But Peter Bagge's afterword, which explains the history of Sweatshop, makes it clear that it was intended to be ongoing, and that he would have been happy to keep it running for a much longer time.

That didn't happen: Sweatshop got a six-issue run from DC in 2003, when that company was in one its periodic throes of trying to broaden its range, which was followed by the inevitable and equally periodic pullback to its core competency of grimacing people in spandex punching each other repeatedly.

Sweatshop is not about spandex, or punching. It does have its share of grimacing, and other extreme facial expressions, because we are talking about Peter Bagge here. But, otherwise, it doesn't look much like a good fit for DC. Our central character is Mel Bowling, a comics creator on the far side of middle age. He's the credited creator of the syndicated strip Freddy Ferret -- though it's really put together by his oddball crew of young, underpaid assistants -- and a lazy, narcissistic golf-playing blowhard.

(The set-up is not unlike some manga about manga-making -- Bagge doesn't mention any inspirations, or Japanese comics at all, in his afterword, but it's at the very least a striking case of parallel development.)

Reading the first issue, I thought it would feature Bagge's art on stories about the whole team and his fellow artists (Stephen Destefano, Bill Wray, Stephanie Gladden, Jim Blanchard, and Johnny Ryan also contribute art to these stories) each picking up from the POV of one of the assistants. That would have been neat, and more formally interesting, but it's not the way the series ended up going: the feint in that direction was apparently a scene-setting one-off for that first issue. Instead, there's mostly a lead story for each issue drawn by Bagge, and then additional stories drawn by one or more of the others, in the style of old humor comics.

The stories are all about that crew in Bowling's studio -- worrying about the "Hammie" awards, planning and going to the big Comic-Con, dealing with a new writer joining the team, and various career and personal issues for all of them. It's not quite as zany and slapstick as Bagge got in the '80s and '90s, but these are broad characters who do crazy things: it's a lot like a sitcom on the page.

Sweatshop is funny, and probably even funnier the more you know about strip comics: I suspect Bagge buried jokes and references I didn't get among the ones I did see and laugh at. Some readers may find the changing art styles distracting, though they all are in the same tradition -- Bagge's rubber-hose arms and googly eyes are probably the most extreme, cartoony style here, with the others giving a (sometimes only very slightly) more restrained version of the same look. What can I say? It's a funny collection of stories about comics and comics people, and a decade has only dated it slightly. (A contemporary version would definitely have at least one issue full of webcomic jokes.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Bakers: Babies and Kittens by Kyle Baker

So, I've been re-reading Kyle Baker's funnybooks -- meaning his comics that are funny, since he's done other kinds as well -- recently, with the first volume of Cartoonist last year, three random books back in January and Cartoonist 2 last month. And he's still got more, meaning I can keep going.

The Bakers: Babies and Kittens was from 2007, and saw Baker go to Image after self-publishing the two Cartoonist books. (Baker has been in another spree of self-publishing the last few years, for whatever reason: my guess would be that he has a deep backlist and no outside publisher can care as much about those books as a self-publisher can.) It contains one long story about his then-young family, with three kids that seem to be under the age of five, told in what I think of as animation-inspired art, usually two wide panels to a page filled with action and energy.

Kids are cute, and kittens are even cuter, but the possibly-fictionalized version of Baker here is allergic to cats, so he puts his foot down and insists the family will not have any. Anyone familiar with American family comedy of the past century will know what happens next: Father is always the butt of the joke, and never gets what he wants. (This all starts, incidentally, with a slapstick scene involving a mouse, which gives an initial impetus to the idea of getting a cat.)

I still think that a lot of Baker's stories from this era really wanted to be animated movies, and would have worked even better in that form. But they're still good as comics, full of vibrant colors and expressive lines, bouncy with comedic energy and verbally fun as well. Maybe I just want to see Babies and Kittens as animation as well: that would have been cool.

Babies and Kittens is technically a sequel, but this is basically a sitcom setup: stories of little kids causing problems are universal, and require nothing other than being a human being who has experienced small children. It's cute, and suitable for nearly all ages -- those younger than two may drool and chew on the book more than you prefer, ditto those over one hundred -- and shows, once again, how funny Baker can be when he has good material and the time to build gorgeous art around it.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/21

Welcome back.

Every week, I list whatever new books I've seen, from publicity, purchase or (some word meaning "library" that begins with a p). Sometimes there are many, sometimes none.

This week, there's one: Steal the Stars, a novel by Nat Cassidy based on the dramatic podcast of the same name written by Mac Rogers. (Which descriptor makes me think about whether "drama" or the medium is usually the noun -- see TV drama but also dramatic presentation. Hmm. Dramatic play? Dramatic opera? Dramatic tweetstorm? On balance, I think that's probably the best way to describe the form.)

Steal the Stars is being published by Tor as a trade paperback on November 7th. Regular Tor, I think, not Tor.com or Tor Labs or the other exotic varieties, though the podcast came from Tor Labs and Gideon Media (in, obviously, a different form than a paperback book).

It's described as "noir science fiction," and seems to be one of the many grandchildren of X-Files: there's a crash-landed alien (gray skin, big head, probably a penchant for anal probing -- the whole shebang) held secretly in a US military base, and two of the people guarding it decide they'd have more opportunity to fuck each other and get rich if they stole the alien and ran off. So they do, apparently.

I am typically not your biggest fan of brand extensions into other media, and I am also old and grumpy, so this sounds like another eruption from the woo-woo conspiracy-theory side of SF. So I will not claim I am going to leap right onto this book and clasp it to my bosom. But it has nice quotes from people I respect, like Paul Cornell and Max Gladstone, so that's probably just me. I bet you will love it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Story of the Lincoln County War by Rick Geary

I almost wish I'd held onto Louis Riel and reviewed that together with Rick Geary's The Story of the Lincoln County War: both are stories in comics about 19th century rebellions, mostly for good reasons against corrupt and nasty rulers, that ended with the destruction of the rebellion and the loss of its cause. Louis Riel was a Canadian, and his story had a racial element that eventually turned that story into one of the important lessons of that nation.

Rick Geary, though, has a more sordid story to tell: one motivated by greed and lust for power on one side, and a slightly purer desire to make a living (or, maybe, to push out the old cabal and supplant it with a new corrupt cabal, in someone's wildest dreams) on the other. The place is Lincoln County, New Mexico, in the late 1870s -- a huge expanse of mostly empty land, with ranchers, farmers, and a few townspeople. The current cabal extends all the way up to the territorial governor, and is anchored by the shopkeeper/merchant to the local fort. (He has an admirably compact supply chain, with hired rustlers stealing local cattle for him to sell as beef to that fort, plus a near-monopoly on most staples and the kind of predatory credit that soon afterward gave rise to the company town.)

On the other side is a new shop-owner, trying to get into the business, and a local lawyer who used to work for the cabal and either was kicked out or smartened up. Eventually, it turns to violence, because it always does.

This is "war" in the local-history sense; at no time is there a pitched battle or real tactics, though an army detachment does get into the fray at one point, with the expected results. The fighters in this "war" are close to the conventional idea of cowboys: well-armed young men in bands riding around a semi-barren landscape and shooting at each other. And, since one side of this "war" does have control of the local government, meaning both the apparatus of the law and the assistance of that army detachment, the outcome is not really in doubt.

Over a long period of time, they say, the arc of humanity does bend towards justice. But any story about individual people doesn't have that luxury of time, and this arc was bent in an entirely different direction. The best thing you can say about this "war" is that it was short and, as far as Geary tell us, didn't claim any civilians. It did spawn a few outlaws, most notably someone Geary here calls by his "real" name, William Bonney. (And so this book is something of a prequel to Geary's The True Death of Billy the Kid from a couple of years ago. Like that book, The Story of the Lincoln County War was funded through Kickstarter. It's not yet on Geary's web store, but that would be the most likely place to find it.)

This is Geary in his usual mature sombre-historical mode, not the madcap Geary of his early career. (Though that wild-hair Geary still does make occasional appearances, once in a while.) As always, he's very good at 19th century faces, at physical spaces from maps to rooms to dusty streets, and at explaining complicated, violent, nasty bits of history to a modern audience. Again, this was a Kickstarter project, presumably because it was considered to have less wide of an appeal than Geary's usual books about historical murders. But this is an interesting bit of unpleasant history -- another tale of capitalism run riot and corrupt, in case we need one more in these fallen days -- told well by a master of comics. If you can find it, it's worth it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Conan: Book of Thoth by Busiek, Wein & Jones

We really don't need any more origin stories. OK, maybe if it's integrated -- a quick flashback during something else -- it's not so bad. But, please, not a whole story just to show us how the guy we already know got to the place we've seen him. Boooo-ring.

Writers Kurt Busiek and Len Wein (along with artist Kelley Jones) work hard to keep Conan: Book of Thoth out of the Boring Zone, but I'm afraid it's a losing battle.

A) this is an origin story, and (even worse) one of a villain, so it's all cackling laughter and evil triumphing.

Two) this is a Conan story in which Conan can't appear at all, so we just get a couple hundred pages of neo-Howardian pre-historical squalor and woe.

Thoth-Amon is a major Conan villain -- one of the few who doesn't show up and get his head chopped off in the space of a short story, I mean, which is what "major Conan villain" means. And so, round about 2005, he got a comic-book series to explain Who He Is and How He Got That Way. And, well, it turns out he was a nasty street kid -- battered by his father, to make it even more tedious and psychological -- in some random Hyperborian Age city, who did various nasty things for four long issues to end up as High Priest of Set and secret ruler of an entire nation.


Book of Thoth is pretty much all one tone -- slightly detached tsk-tsking at how horrible this guy named variously Thoth, Amon, and Thoth-Amon is, while still being excited at each new bit of nastiness. It's really only for huge Conan fans, and I have no clear idea why it was on my shelf. (My best theory is that it came in one of the care packages of comics I got after my flood in 2011.) And it is one more signpost to show that we really don't need more origin stories.

(By the way, I don't know if Mssrs. Busiek, Wein and Jones knew this at the time, but if you google "Book of Thoth," you get a whole lot of what are technically called "woo-woo" books about Atlanteans and energy beings and a tiny little bit of Egyptiana. Sometimes the obvious title makes your project hard to find.) 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/7

Some weeks I buy a lot of books. Some weeks I get a bunch in the mail. Either one is frankly wonderful.

Some weeks I just turn around, look at everything sitting on my unread shelves (three big bookcases, quite a bit of it double-shelved, down here in my blogger's basement) and try to estimate how long it will take to read through all of it at my current speed.

(And sometimes I look at those shelves and think about the plan to move some things around that's been in the back of my head for at least three months now. Still hasn't happened.)

The point is: I've got plenty of books. And that's not even counting my access to two big library systems. I have way too much to read at any given moment, and the only real problem is the eternal question of which book to read next. (The more books you have, the harder that question is.)

This week there's nothing new to write about. So I get a brief second of thinking I'm keeping ahead of the rising tide. Next week might well be different.....

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Louis Riel by Chester Brown

The great thing about history is that it never stops being history. It might technically get older, but, realistically, a hundred years is the same as a hundred and twenty. Old is old, dead is dead.

So I can read the tenth anniversary edition of a book four years later without feeling any guilt, because the guy it's about has been dead since 1885 anyway. He's not doing anything new in the meantime.

I am, of course talking about Chester Brown's historical graphical comic-book thing Louis Riel, one of the works that most deforms the common usage of the term "graphic novel." (So I'm avoiding using it directly.) Brown himself is one of those quirky Canadian oddballs that comics seems to throw off regularly -- not quite as monomaniacal and misogynistic as Dave Sim, definitely further down the spectrum than seems-to-mostly-just-be-eccentric Seth, and probably about equal with world-class work-avoider Joe Matt -- with his own very defined passions and crankish ideas that mostly stay out of this primarily fact-based book. (Riel did claim to have direct knowledge of the divine, which could easily have been one of the things that attracted Brown to his story -- but that's material that was already there waiting for him. And women are almost entirely absent from this story of 19th century politics and war, whether because of Brown's views or because any contributions they made were quiet at the time and ignored thereafter.)

I can't speak from any personal knowledge of Riel's story, or any previous scholarship. My sense is that Brown followed the generally accepted scholarly consensus at the time, and that his telling is as "true" as any book of history: it's what most experts think happened, in broad outlines, even if some of them probably argue violently with each other about individual details. And that is the old sad story of distant elites of one ethnicity scheming to disenfranchise (or worse) a minority they don't like within a burgeoning territory they control.

In this case, it's the English-descended government of Canada, mostly in the person of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, planning how best to cut up and use a vast section of the mid-continent prairies and deliberately alienating, damaging, and snubbing the locals, particularly the population of mixed French-native background called Metis. (That area eventually became the province of Manitoba, if that helps place it in space and time.)

The Metis people were not happy with this, of course. "No taxation without representation" is only one specific expression of an age-old problem: those people over there, with all the power and most of the guns, are telling us to do things we don't think they should have any say in. The Metis fought back, and Louis Riel is the man who became their leader -- it seems, from Brown's telling, that was because he was right there when the first clash happened on Metis land, and because he spoke English well enough to be a go-between. And he was strong-willed and charismatic to stay in that role. Brown presents him as the leader of his people, and doesn't get into any power struggles that might have happened within the Metis community, even as we suspect they must have happened.

Riel eventually led two different rebellions against the government of Canada. As Brown tells it, he was goaded and guided into doing so by Macdonald and others, who knew they would win militarily and preferred the simplicity of bullets to the messiness of actually doing their political jobs of compromising and allowing all voices to be heard. It's a sad, sordid story, basically a tragedy: Riel was unstable and mentally ill (that supposed direct connection with the divine), which possibly kept him from finding a better solution for his people. Or maybe they were doomed from the beginning, since the other side had the government, the railroad, most of the guns, more money, and their own racism to convince themselves they were firmly in the right.

Brown tells the story well, focusing on Riel's life and actions and using a clean six-panel grid -- he gets out of the way of his story almost entirely. This looks like a Chester Brown story, since his art is distinctive, but it reads like compelling reality, without the surrealistic breaks and self-obsessions of his earlier works. There's a reason this has become a Canadian classic; it tells an important story well. This edition includes an extensive collection of sources and notes, plus a section at the back with sketches, original comics covers and other related stuff. To maximize the scholarly heft, there's an essay by an academic to close the whole thing out. But most readers won't bother with that anyway. The book itself is enough: it tells a story we've seen many times before, but need to be reminded of regularly.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Mind MGMT, Vol. 2: The Futurist by Matt Kindt

Sometimes I read too slowly. I got to the first volume of Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT series back in 2014 -- already late, since it's a six-book series that ran and was collected 2012-15 -- and have had the second one on my shelf most of the days since then. At this rate, I calculate, I'll get through the whole series by 2029.

Well, maybe I can speed up -- only take two years between some of the books -- and save a little time.

In any case, here's the second one: Mind MGMT, Vol. 2: The Futurist. There is one shocking surprise near the end of this volume that anyone who's read comics anytime in the past fifty years will have seen coming miles away, but otherwise it's the same heady, intriguing mix of paranoia, Phildickian reality-twisting, and secret-society intrigue as the first book. The story is opening out here, and we learn more about Mind Management and its agents, though still, oddly, it's never 100% clear that this was an actual government agency run by the USA or not.

The core is still Maru, true-crime writer on the trail of the biggest story of her life, and Harry Lyme, the most powerful agent (according to him) of the now-defunct Mind Management agency, which changed minds and people and politics all around the world for decades through super-secret methods. (Basically psionics, without ever actually using the term -- all various kinds of mind powers.)

There's not much more I can say about this book without either spoiling the first book or repeating what I already wrote about that book. So let me just say that Kindt is probably the best creator in comics on spycraft, dark mysteries, and dangerous secrets -- and I find his spiky, watercolor-washed, slightly rough-looking art to be a perfect match for his writing. (Some people find his art too far from the slick superhero norm: those people are called Philistines.)

The series is done now: I can't promise it's all this good, since (as I said) I haven't read it all yet. But it does start very strong, and Kindt's work hasn't disappointed yet.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/30

The end of September saw a cold snap in my neck of the woods, as if Nature said "well, right, that's Summer thoroughly done for now." There's currently a chill breeze coming in through the small window in my blogger's basement, making me think seriously about actually closing that window. But it's supposed to warm up a bit again this week -- Nature is deeply fickle -- so I think I can stand it until then.

Things change every week, with new ideas and sights -- and among the most pleasant changes are new books being published. This week, I've got two new hardcovers from Tor to lay out before your amazed eyes.

I'll start with Children of the Fleet, a new "Ender" novel by Orson Scott Card, hitting stores on October 10th. I'm not as plugged-in to this series as some other people, but I believe this is set in the gap between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, and is about yet another super-smart kid who wants to go to the super-awesome Fleet School to learn to massacre evil alien Buggers. (No, wait. The Buggers are all dead at this point, right? So who are all the Earth kids learning to massacre at this point?) This kid is Dabeet Ochoa, and he has an unknown father, which I'm sure will never become a plot point. The title page has the subtitle "Fleet School," which I have a lurking suspicion means this may become a series -- either with more books about Dabeet, or a number of books about different students at the school. Time will tell.

The other book is War and Craft by Tom Doyle, the third in the American Craftsman series. It's modern military fantasy secret history, about the super-classified magical Spec Ops types who keep the world safe for democracy by killing a lot of bad guys in entertaining ways and doing the rest of that MilSF stuff. This one seems to be the climax of the series, and is mostly set in India, because what good are American special forces types if they're not wreaking havoc in foreign countries? War and Craft hit stores on September 26; you should be able to find it everywhere now. If the idea sounds interesting, though, you probably want to start with the first book, American Craftsmen.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Read in September

My current working situation has started to seriously affect my reading, which is about the silliest and most counter-productive thing in the world to complain about. (So don't think I'm complaining.)

I'm currently working from home three days a week because a) my primary set of colleagues is in Eagan, MN; b) my secondary set of colleagues already moved crosstown in NYC; and c) my most immediate colleague is on an extended maternity leave. So I'm kinda alone when I'm actually in the office -- there are about a dozen of us left on the floor, if everyone is in the office the same day, and it feels like the very beginning of my career again, on a mostly-empty Doubleday floor, high up in the then-Bear Sterns building on the East side. Everything does come around again, eventually.

So, since over the last two decades I've gotten into the habit of doing most of my reading while commuting, having a three-minute commute down the basement stairs several times a week means I need to make other time to read in my schedule. (Again: this is whatever the opposite of a complaint is. A brag, maybe?) I haven't done that yet, so the list of books below is a bit meager:

Boulet, Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve (9/5)

Mawil, Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician (9/6)

I read Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician back in 2009, when it was relatively recent (Mawil is German, and the German edition came out in 2006 and this English edition from the UK publisher Blank Slate in 2008), and liked it quite a bit then. But the copy I had was lost in my 2011 flood, which I already mention far too much.

Oh, look, here's my review, buried in the middle of a longer round-up of graphic novels!

Re-reading that post, I agree with myself entirely. So, if you want to know what this book is, read that. If you want to just read a collection of funny comics pages about a bumbling bunny electrician in an office of cute girls (drawn in a quirky style), just go buy it already.

Ted McKeever, Transit: The Complete Series + the Lost Finale (9/19)

Andi Watson, Glister (9/20)

Michael D'Antonio, Hershey (9/20)

Matt Kindt, Mind MGMT, Vol. 2: The Futurist (9/26)

Chester Brown, Louis Riel (9/27)

And that was September. I'm typing these words the morning of October 1, so pretty much right on time. I expect I'll read more books this month, and be back here to grumble and complain about them. It's a life.