Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #59: The Collected Sequential by Paul Hornschemeier

Someday Paul Hornschemeier will be so famous and lauded that everyone will remember how to spell his name -- even me. Until that day, though, I'll keep triple-checking every time I look at one of his projects, eternally unsure if I have enough "e"s in there or not. [1]

The Collected Sequential isn't going to be the book that does that for him. Not because it's not good -- though I'll get into its strengths later -- but because it's the 2004 collection of his first self-published comics series from 1999-2001, from a small comics-publishing house and not in wide distribution a decade and a half later.

What's most likely to make Hornschemeier famous is more books like the strong graphic novels Mother, Come Home and Life With Mr. Dangerous. His short work tends to be weirder and more elliptical, and this collection even more so than later books like All and Sundry and Let Us Be Perfectly Clear.

Let me be honest: this is quite weird, a lot of very short experiments and collections of panels that mostly don't aim to be "stories" in a conventional sense. A bunch of them are jokes, more or less, but very elliptical ones that relied on very particular things Hornschemeier knew at the time for their punch. Some of the stuff in here is more successful than others, as usual for a miscellany and doubly usual for someone's first comics work. Even the "successful" pieces, though, are difficult to describe and explain -- Hornschemeier is a creator who shows things that can't be put clearly into words (or at least not put clearly into words by me, which is the important point right this second).

His art got stronger and more consistent than it was at the beginning of this project, but it did so quickly and almost completely -- the first issue, dated February 1999, is a little rougher and less assured, but the last page of that issue is pretty confident, and the second issue (from that April) takes that confidence and runs with it. You might not be quite clear what Hornschemeier means or is trying to do at any given moment, but you can't deny that it's exactly what he wanted to do, whatever it was.

Again, this is the earliest work of someone who got better at his craft (of making stories in particular, since he was good at the picture-making side of comics very quickly) and who has expanded to much longer works since this. At this point in the history of the universe, you'll want to check out Sequential when you've a) discovered Hornschemeier and b) worked your way backwards through the rest of his work. If you get there, it's an intriguing, unusual destination.

[1] Writing this post, I realize I consistently dropped one of those pesky "e"s in my post about Let Me Be Perfectly Clear, and that no one noticed for several years. It's correct now. I think.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #58: Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim

France now has a minor tradition of "I grew up in a Middle Eastern country, and got out before it became a hellhole" memoirs in comics form, from Persepolis to The Arab of the Future. It only makes sense, since France was the imperial power across several of those countries, back in the day, and they've taken in a large number of refugees and migrants in recent years.

The most recent of those books to hit US shores is from Brigitte Findakly, noted French colorist and artist. She worked with her husband, Lewis Trondheim, to organize her memories into short vignettes, one page or several long, and then Trondheim drew those pages, some of them originally for a comics app and a newspaper website. Eventually, those pages were long enough for a book -- or maybe the original few pages spurred the book project, or were spun off the already existing book project; it isn't clear -- and so we got Poppies of Iraq.

Findakly and her family got out of Iraq in her teens, in the mid-70s -- before the Iran-Iraq war, long before even the first Desert Shield/Storm. And she's telling a mosaic here, with each story an individual small piece of the life of her and her family. So this is somewhat lighter than those similar books I mentioned above; Findakly had a quirky childhood, and some of her extended family has had horrible things happen after she and her immediate family got out, but it's not a story about bad things happening to her. Instead, Findakly tells vignettes about a childhood in a country slowly sliding into autocracy and Islamism, turning away from Europe and from modernity and towards corruption and the cult of an idealized leader. (Aside from having to replace that word "Islamism," that may describe other countries much closer to home.)

Trondheim is invisible in the story: he's part of Findakly's life, but not the part she's describing here. He doesn't appear in the book at all, though his eye and pen created every line in it. He uses small, doll-like figures here, with big heads, lines for eyes, and no fingers or toes -- simplified people for a story that's anything but simple.

Poppies of Iraq is not a story with a message: it's the story of a life, or of part of a life. Findakly was happy, as she shows us -- as happy as a child with loving parents usually is. But her country was growing worse and worse over those years, and, looking back, she can see how it happened. Again, this is not a story with a message. Findakly has no prescriptions to keep other countries from following the same path, or other, worse ones. She just has her own story to tell, and memories of times happy and sad. That's plenty, though: Poppies of Iraq is a lovely book about an interesting person in an interesting time and place.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #57: Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell

In this world, there are optimists and pessimists. Optimists see glasses half-full; pessimists half-empty. Optimists look to opportunities for success; pessimists for chances to fail. Optimists believe that light lets us see the world.

Pessimists think there's light because something is burning down.

I can't prove Gabrielle Bell is a pessimist purely by the title of her last graphic memoir, Everything Is Flammable. I probably could prove it by judicious quoting from her work, though: she's on my side, the side of honesty and truth and the core realization that Life Is Shit.

Bell's comics work has been mostly concerned with documenting her own life -- she did some fictional strips earlier in her career, but has focused on diary comics for some time now. And, as seems counter-intuitively very common for diary comics-makers, she's an introvert who doesn't seem to like going out or doing things. (Again: I can totally relate.)

Everything Is Flammable collects comics made over the course of about a year, starting in the summer of 2014. Bell was living quietly with her neuroses in Beacon, New York (up the Hudson from The City), and the first few strips here show her day-to-day life and worries. But then she learned that her mother's house, out in rural northern California, had just burned down. Even though she worried that she'd be more distraction than help, she went to help anyway. The strips afterward chronicle that trip to visit her mother and a few more trips over the next few months, along with other, related aspects of her life back on the East Coast

Her mother, and Bell's relationship with her mother, is at the core of the book: they're both complicated, crotchety, damaged people, and Bell gets into some of the reasons why in these stories -- there's a lot of history there. (And she's made comics about her family before, of course -- comics diarists can go back over similar ground a number of times.)

Bell uses a boxy six-panel grid, giving lots of room for text in those big panels -- both dialogue and her own narration/rumination. Her people, as always, are very real and vulnerable-looking: a little lumpy, a little sad, a little lost. They're mostly sitting around talking -- or standing around talking -- with busy backgrounds filled with objects and architecture and stuff. Bell's world is an overwhelming one, in which her characters try to understand themselves and each other -- and not always succeeding.

Everything is flammable, but not everything will actually burn. I guess that's as optimistic as we can get, here. That feels honest to me. That feels true. Bell is good at that kind of hard honesty and truth, and we can see from her comics that getting to that almost-optimism is not easy for her. But she turns it into excellent comics: she saves meaning and life from the fire. Let's celebrate that. Let's celebrate that she can do that, and hope that she keeps doing so, and finds ways to move closer to optimism, as she goes on.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/24/18

This week, I have one publicity book and five from the library. I'll list the publicity one first, so, for those of you who can count, it should be easy to tell which are which (Yes, once again I'm insulting my readers -- I'm only getting spam comments these days, so maybe I'm poking to see if there are any real people there who are able to comment.)

Sent to me from the fine folks at Tor is the new Nancy Kress novel If Tomorrow Comes. It's the second book in the Yesterday's Kin trilogy, after Tomorrow's Kin, which means I would have lost the title-style office pool: I thought the series would all be called {foo}'s Kin. (And If Tomorrow Comes sounded vaguely familiar to me, because it was a late-80s Sidney Sheldon novel that was still very active at the bookclubs when I worked there. As always, title can't be copyrighted.) It's a new hardcover SF novel (available March 6th) from a multiple award-winner and it's the middle of a trilogy -- what could be more quintessentially genre than that? Kin was a first contact novel: aliens arrived in New York Harbor and did the usual stuff. Now it's ten years later, and we've sent a ship back to the alien homeworld -- where nothing is the way it was supposed to be.

The following books came to me through the auspices of the PALS Plus library consortium, because I asked for them. There may be a similar system in your area -- look for it.

The Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir by Thi Bui, who immigrated to the US from Vietnam as a child.

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening is the first book collecting a comics series by YA novelist Marjorie Liu and Japanese illustrator Sana Takeda. I've vaguely been resisting looking at this series, and I don't actually have a coherent reason why -- maybe the critical praise has been reminding me of similar praise for The Wicked + the Divine, which I didn't like much. Anyway, if enough people say to me (or in public where I can hear) that a book is good, I'll finally look at it.

Shade, the Changing Girl, Vol. 1: Earth Girl Made Easy is the first collection of this new Vertigo Young Animal series written by Cecil Castellucci and drawn by Marley Zarcone. My understanding is that this has some complex relationship to the '90s Milligan/Bachalo Shade the Changing Man series, which I liked a lot at the time (but haven't read in probably two decades). And Castelluci has done some books I've liked, too.

Nightlights is a graphic novel for younger readers by Lorena Alvarez, and, again, it's a book I've seen praised a lot. (I'm vaguely looking at several Best of 2017 lists as I gather more stuff to read for Book-A-Day; in previous years I had a lot more publicity books coming in, so I'd read those. This time around, I'd rather focus on things I expect I'll enjoy.)

And last is Louis Undercover, a graphic novel from Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. They did Jane, The Fox & Me a few years back, and I was quite impressed by it. I'm not sure what this new book is, but it's nice to be surprised.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #56: The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones

I'm not sure if I can entirely accept new books in series that I think of as "done" in my head. Sure, four books that only really share one major character and a universe are a pretty loose series to begin with, and leaves a lot of room for further stories. But, still -- there's something in me that thinks things should stay the way they were when I first noticed them.

(That voice would not have been very strong back in the days when I edited and sold SFF for a living. Then, new books in established series were great -- they had a built-in audience, and a lot of the time I was a fan as well. Perhaps I'm just getting more crotchety and set in my ways as I get older; I wouldn't be the first.)

In any case, I've long-since learned the world does not change to suit me. And so there was a seventh Chrestomanci book from Diana Wynne Jones -- a series that, in my mind, still has only four "real" books, and then some late additions -- in 2006, which I finally brought myself to read.

That book, dear reader, is The Pinhoe Egg. And for quite a while it looks as it it might become a screed against Christianity, which would have been an exciting thing in a book for young readers this century. But, sadly, the nasty, anti-magic, oppressive religion repeatedly mentioned earlier in the book is carefully explained away as a pre-Roman religion (no, nothing specific, nothing you ever would have heard of, nothing to see here, please move along) at the end.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

This a a Chrestomanci book, and the Chrestomanci in question here is still Christopher Chant, as usual. But he's a paternal figure here, just slightly distant, as the action of the novel concentrates on his son Eric and some other magical teenagers in the vicinity of Chrestomanci Castle.

(When I wrote about the last couple of late Wynne Jones books I read -- Enchanted Glass and House of Many Ways --I noted that late Wynne Jones was OK on the semblance of conflict, but that those conflicts were generally minor and happy endings sprouted almost without effort at the slightest provocation. Pinhoe Egg is a step earlier on that path: the setting is as cozy as a Sunday-evening PBS British import, set in some charming village full of quaint local characters, but the ending does manage to maintain a plausible possibility of ruin for a long time.)

Eric is called Cat by everyone, for some reason that was probably explained in a book I read far too long ago. This serves only to be confusing. He, like his father, is a nine-lived enchanter, and one of the very, very most powerful magical people on Earth or anywhere. (Along with his father and mother of course! All of the good people in fantasy YAs must be better in every possible way than everyone else.)

In the villages around Chrestomanci Castle, there are villagers, who secretly have their own magic, which they keep secret from their lords. (No, sadly, it's not that kind of book -- this is firmly a late-Victorian fantasy, in which the lord is right because he's lord because he's right.) There are three magically powerful families, Pinhoes and Farleighs and Cleeves, and they manage to be both matriarchal and patriarchal in a way that only makes sense for an audience that isn't used to thinking about sex while reading yet.

The Gammer (matriarch) of the Pinhoe family is old and crotchety as the book opens, and is tormenting her grandchildren Marianne and Joe (both of whom are semi-main characters, and so therefore amazingly special and possessed of powers and abilities beyond those of mortal man). Soon Gammer Pinhoe breaks entirely from reality -- possibly because of a magical attack from someone else -- and her large family has to step in and take over her affairs and sell off her huge old house, which of course has been in the family since the Battle of Hastings. (Or perhaps Badon Hill.)

During the clearing of that house, Marianne gives the titular egg to Eric/Cat, out of the usual "I feel I should do this, even though I have no good reason to do it." Meanwhile, Joe is in the Castle as a spy (and not the only one) for his family, though he's no good at that job, preferring to instead tinker with magical technology with another son of the Chrestomanci.

Also meanwhile, a lot of unlucky things are happening to a lot of people in the surrounding countryside, almost as if the Pinhoes and Farleighs are conducting a quiet magic war against each other. But the Pinhoes don't think they are. And Eric/Cat is discovering that there are magical barriers set up criss-crossing the countryside, keeping him (or anyone not a Pinhoe, Farleigh, or Cleeve, depending on the particular barrier) from crossing them. And then that egg hatches.

It all ends up with a big crowd scene in one of those rustic villages in which all of the characters above (and several dozen more) take vociferous part, and All Is Revealed. That nasty pre-historic religion is given a non-specific tsk-tsking, and things by magic made wrong are by magic made right. And all of our main characters are confirmed as smart and correct and super-duperly magically more powerful than anyone else.

This is a fairly minor Wynne Jones book, as you might tell by my excess of sarcasm above. It's perfectly pleasant to read, but it's full of cliche and wishful-thinking-as-plotting. If you are a Chrestomanci fan and managed to miss this one, you didn't miss a whole lot, but you'll probably enjoy it when you do read it. But Wynne Jones gets vastly better than this: I'd recommend looking at Deep Secret instead, particularly if you are already adult.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #55: Defiance and Victory by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis

These are two more books that sat, unloved, on my shelves for too long. Defiance and Victory are the back two-thirds of a trilogy of graphic novels for younger readers about the French Resistance during WW II, written by novelist Carla Jablonski and drawn by comics pro Leland Purvis. The trilogy -- the first book was Resistance, naturally, and I covered it here around the time it was published -- came out yearly from 2010-12, in the usual way of publishing, and I should have read and commented on them a number of years ago.

But should-haves don't get anything done by themselves, so here we are in 2018, and I've finally found the time to check in on the three Tessier children and their lives in some town -- I don't think it ever gets a name in either of these books -- in Vichy France in the summers of 1943 and 1944, as the tide of Nazi Germany reaches its height and then starts to ebb back.

These are books suitable for young readers, so, while there is some implied fraternization with the occupying Germans, there's nothing that unambiguously suggests any Frenchwoman actually fucked them. Similarly, we hear about a neighboring village killed in reprisal for an attack on a munitions train in Defiance, but there's only one strategic on-panel death, at the climax of Victory. Mostly, this is the story of events that are very dangerous, but all turn out right for the Tessier family.

Oh, sure, they have to make it through the war, but they all do. The Tessiers survived WW II with some bumps, but were always on the right side of history and the readers' sympathies, doing interesting things and standing up for justice just as much as doesn't get anyone stood up against a wall and shot. This trilogy is entirely suitable for children young enough or sheltered enough that Anne Frank's Diary would have too much sexuality and too unhappy an ending for them.

That's too cruel of me, though: these are perfectly good historical graphic novels for younger readers. I just tend to think the age these are aimed at -- probably middle school -- is old enough for some more reality. School boards and local librarians probably disagree with me, though. Jablonski does try to give more context in her text pieces at the beginning and end of each volume -- pseudo-comics pages lettered to match the balloons -- but, even there, she does elide a whole lot of atrocities and horrors.

Again, these books are aimed at kids, and they do that job pretty well. And those kids will learn the darker truths eventually.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #54: Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota

To be a sad sack, a character has to be sad. If she's just as put-upon by life, but has a chipper attitude the whole time, she turns into something else. I'm not sure if we have a name for that something else, but maybe we can start calling her a Lucky Penny.

Penny Brighton would be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she were a supporting character in someone else's story, but Lucky Penny is her story, so she's just manic. She's also a mess, but it's not entirely clear how much of that is her fault. In a fictional universe, luck can be a real thing that molds lives, and maybe Penny is just cursed to fail every single luck roll.

Her book is Lucky Penny; it's a comedy in graphic novel form -- not quite a romantic comedy, closer to a comedy of errors. It's by writer Ananth Hirsh and cartoonist Yuko Ota, who work together regularly and also appear to be a couple.

It opens with Penny, who is somewhere in her twenties but not precisely an adult, losing her clothing-retail job and her apartment in the same day. (The apartment should have been a longer-term issue, since her roommate Helen is moving away to get married, but I get the sense that Penny doesn't make "plans" the way other people do.) So, since her judgment and adult skills are so good, she moves into Helen's vacated storage unit (cheap!) and cajoles Helen into getting her a job at the family-owned laundromat, where she will be bossed by Helen's kid brother David. (I can just barely believe in a laundromat that has one person working there full-time, to watch it, but two at once? That doesn't seem right. What do you do working in a laundromat?)

Penny is energetic and lackadaisical and would be happy-go-lucky if she consistently was lucky or had more things to be happy about. But either her own lack of adult skills or the weight of the universe continually throws obstacles in her way -- luckily for her and us, this is a comedy, so they're funny obstacles. She does fail to plan for a lot of things -- how will she stay warm in that unheated storage unit? how will she handle showers and other bodily needs living there? what kind of security does a roll-up door provide when you're inside it? is she saving up to get an actual apartment? does she go shopping for food ever, or just live on her own manic pixie energy? -- but, again, this is a comedy, so I should just relax.

And it is funny. Penny is a Weeble -- she gets bounced around, but nothing in this particular fictional universe can actually knock her down. This is not the story of how she learns adult skills and finds a sensible apartment that she can afford, and starts taking night classes in double-entry accounting to get her foot on the ladder of success. It is the story of how she meets a cute guy at the community center, tries to scam him to get free shows, and ends up dating him in the end. Oh, and saves him from her evil boss's plot of destruction, because Lucky Penny makes a hard left turn into another, but equally silly, genre at the end.

This is not a book to take seriously. Penny is a world-class goofball, and her world has strong goofball tendencies to begin with. And that ending genre-switch comes totally out of nowhere. But it is funny and amusing: Hirsh's dialogue and captions are smart, and Ota is a fine cartoonist of moods and manic energy.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #53: Spinning by Tillie Walden

The cliche is that you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to get good at it. But what if you get good, and then realize you don't like it? And what if those hours started when you were five or six years old, before you really had a choice?

Tillie Walden was a competitive skater for twelve years, quitting near the end of high school. So that first choice wasn't hers. But somewhere along the line, it became her choice, as it always does -- no one does something seriously and competitively for a decade by accident. And no one stops doing it by accident, either.

Spinning is Walden's first major work of comics: it pretty much has to be, since she was born in 1996. But maybe the same drive that kept her getting up at four in the morning for practice all those years is what motivated her to write and draw these four hundred pages. Spinning exists because Walden was a competitive skater: not just in the trivial way that this is the story she's telling, but in the deep sense that she's the person who can look at her life this intensely and turn it into art because she did something difficult and taxing and demanding for so long at such a high level. Most people don't work that hard before they turn eighteen; a lot never work that hard at all.

Walden tells the story of her skating life starting with its big dislocation: her family moved from New Jersey to Texas at the end of her elementary school years, when she was already serious about skating and part of a competitive synchro team. Her life wasn't wonderful in New Jersey, with a nasty coach and relentless bullying in public school, but it was the only life she knew. Everything was different in Texas -- private school, different names for skating routines, a whole different competitive landscape. But Walden still did well, on the ice as she didn't, quite, in school.

We all need something we can be good at. Especially if we feel isolated and alienated to begin with. And Walden did: not just a Jersey kid in Texas, but a girl who realized early on that she was attracted to other girls, in a family and among schoolmates and fellow skaters who she knew would not understand or support her. Walden's first love was a fellow skater; she tells that story here, touchingly. She was forced out of the closet, earlier than she wanted, by the forced break-up of that relationship, and got none of the love and support she deserved.

Spinning is about skating, but skating is just the lens: it's about Tillie Walden, and how she grew up and started deciding what she wanted for herself. She was gay. She wasn't going to go to college. She wanted to draw and tell stories. And, finally, she was done with skating.

It is frankly amazing that Spinning is Walden's first long story, that she has this level of control of her art and story at the beginning of her career, that she has this distance and clarity about her own life so early. Spinning is a major graphic memoir, full stop -- not just good for a first book, not just good with qualifiers. From the evidence here, Tillie Walden is a major talent: smart, hard-working, tenacious, with a relentless eye and a light, Adrian Tomine-like line. I hope to keep reading great comics from her for the next forty years or more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #52: Bizarro Heroes by Dan Piraro

There's not a whole lot to say about this book as a book, so it might be time for some Book-A-Day behind-the-scenes. You see, to keep the hopper fed -- especially early in the year, which sets the tone and energy for the whole project -- I'm making sure to read at least one book a day, and that generally means a book of comics. (Call it a graphic novel or a bande dessinee or a tankobon or a trade paperback or whatever you want: a book-format work of comics.)

Actually, so far, every single day it is a book of comics. Some other things, too, on top of that, but the one book every single day is comics. (I've got a book going in the smallest room of the house, one going by the bed, and one going here next to my computer, and I'm also reading a "real" book of prose every week, but the comics are the day-in, day-out engine that keeps this running.)

Sometimes I plan to read a particular book: I'm working through my longer graphic novels right now, for instance. But I might find, as I did one day recently, that it's deep into the evening and I haven't touched that book. So it's late and I'm tired, but I want to keep the engine going. For times like that, I have a few things I know I can read quickly.

One of them was Bizarro Heroes, a 2011 collection of Bizarro comics by Dan Piraro with a superhero theme in one way or another. Bizarro is a single-panel daily cartoon anyway, with no continuity, so it's all one-off jokes to begin with. So it would be the perfect strip to birth a series of one-off thematic books like this -- get some intern earning "college credit" to tag all ten-thousand-plus strips in a database, input some search criteria, and prepare to pump out product.

Sadly, the era for one-off thematic books (Bizarro Golf! Bizarro Tennis! Bizarro Smug Vegetarianism! Bizarro Inexplicable Melancholy!) ended not too long after Piraro launched Bizarro in 1985, and his obsessions were never all that in tune with mass America to begin with. So I don't think the glorious era of themed Bizarro books ever got off the ground. But this one does exist, and superheroes are even hotter now than they were in 2011.

Bizarro Heroes is about what you'd expect: a hundred pages of comics, generally one to a page, all with jokes about superheroes. Piraro knows the obvious stuff, but clearly isn't a superhero geek: he makes a Batman/Manbat joke that shows he didn't know there was an actual Man-Bat in the Batman comics. So these are sometimes jokes about other things using superheroes, sometimes jokes about how superheroes are silly, and sometimes jokes about the usual furniture of capes and secret identities. About half of the cartoons are in color; the rest are black and white. They seem to be entirely from the decade before the book -- I found some dated as early as 2000, but they mostly come from 2007-2010.

If you're in the market for a book of single-panel cartoons about superheroes, you probably don't have many choices. Even with the lack of competition, though, this is a pretty good choice -- as long as you aren't so much more geeky than Piraro that his lack of geekitude will annoy you (and there definitely are plenty of guys like that; you'll know if you are one).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #51: Black Kiss and Black Kiss 2 by Howard Chaykin

Nearly all of us like sex in our own personal lives. (A few years ago, I would have just said "all of us," but I'm coming to think there's nothing that's true for "all of us." Still, liking sex is about as close as it gets.)

But narrative art about sex is only very rarely as positive as we are in our own lives. Maybe it's because people having sex happily has a tendency to devolve into porn, or because art requires conflict, but the "erotic thriller" is much more common than the "erotic comedy" -- comedies about sex keep the sex as a joke and hidden behind those multiple slamming doors, not front and center. And cautionary stories about sex causing bad things are even more common than that.

Howard Chaykin is no exception: his most famous comics about sex are Black Kiss from 1988 and it's belated prequel/follow-up Black Kiss 2 from 2013, and there's very little happy sex in either of them. Oh, a lot of people get it on, pan-sexually, over and over again, but a lot of that sex is rape, a big chunk of the rest isn't terribly consensual, and a hell of a lot of people get killed during or after getting it on. (There are also serious arguments to be made that the Black Kiss stories are transphobic, or just plain sexist/misogynistic, but I won't make those arguments here. And a lot of that desire mixed with disgust for femininity is baked into the "erotic thriller" concept to begin with -- I don't know if that excuses anything, but it's inherent in the genre.)

Some of that is down to Chaykin, though: the first Black Kiss marks the moment when his early cynicism (as seen in projects like American Flagg!) curdled into sourness and his essential plot for the next several decades solidified into a cliche: the up-for-anything Jewish guy (with a big dick) gets caught up in something horrible, is tormented by at least one blonde vixen, and then generally kills her (and maybe several others) to escape with the brunette girl, who is more eager to follow his lead. In Black Kiss, that guy is Cass Pollack, a small-time jazz musician who we never see actually playing an instrument. (I am studiously avoiding making a joke on "instrument" here.)

Unusually for Chaykin, we don't open with Cass but with Dagmar Laine, a blonde trans* woman who is the lover of (and dead ringer for) faded movie star Beverly Grove. Laine appears to be the smart, organized one of the two, masterminding a complicated plot to get back a scandalous movie of Bev from a priest, while Bev rampages around, usually dead drunk and having dangerous sex with nearly everyone she meets. The plot goes wrong, of course, as a secret society and the usual nasty crooked cops get involved, and the movie is not destroyed as expected. Bev runs into Cass, on the run from those crooked cops for a mostly unrelated reason, and Cass is drawn into the pan-sexual orgy that is Dagmar and Bev's lives. As I said above, a lot of people have sex, occasionally by choice, and some of them even live to enjoy themselves afterward. But it's not the way to bet.

In the end, there's a shocking secret, more death, and anyone who's read a Chaykin story knows who walks out alive in the end.

Black Kiss 2 drops back to 1906 to give the backstory of that shocking secret, moving forward seven to ten years (most of the time) for each of its dozen ten-page chapters. The sex is more explicit here -- Chaykin avoided drawing genitalia and penetration in 1988, but not in 2013 -- but just as dreary and unpleasant, a relentless parade of nasty people doing nasty things to each other and the occasional innocent. We do learn Bev's full history, and Dagmar's -- all of the Dagmars, since there have been several -- and finally the plot catches up to the original Black Kiss and brings it up to the present day, with all of the dreary coercive sex intact.

The two Black Kiss books accomplish the difficult task of making sex seem deeply unpleasant and horrible: giving them to young impressionable people would be one of the best ways I know of making lifelong celibates. From these stories, no one could ever guess that sex is something people do together, or even that human beings are able to feel positive emotions for each other, once in a while. The pictures are well-done, I guess: scratchy noir blondes in expensive lingerie romping in vividly imagined spaces, with gouts of black blood at regular intervals for spice.

I can't actually recommend these books. If you're interested in Chaykin -- and you might well be; he's an interesting and deeply talented comics creator, both as a writer and an artist -- you do need to read them at some point; they channel a pure id Chaykin unlike anything else. But I really hope you don't enjoy them: to do that, I think, you need to identify too much with the sexual predators here.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #50: The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

What makes a city work? Well, the easy answer is "people," but there are much more complicated answers about systems and expert knowledge and technology and history and infrastructure.

Those bigger answers can very quickly get beyond the understanding of laymen, but they don't have to. It's possible to explain what makes a city work on a level we all can understand. Kate Ascher did it, a little more than a decade ago, anatomizing the various central systems of New York City in The Works: Anatomy of a City.

My guess is that one of the bookclubs offered The Works back around 2005, when it was published -- probably Book-of-the-Month Club, since it's got that kind of high-minded seriousness to it -- and those days I was in a mode of grabbing every book that looked like it could possibly be of interest. (It was a glorious time: books were everywhere, I could grab more than I could read, and nothing had ever happened to take books away from me. Things changed, of course.) I finally read it this year, when as part of my Book-A-Day exercises I took a hard look at that lower shelf with coffee-table books that I haven't touched in at least five years.

Some of the details in The Works are probably out of date, particularly since Ascher included a section at the end on then-current plans to upgrade or repair the various systems, and those plans are now either accomplished or abandoned. (Farewell, ARC tunnel!) But I expect the general plan is still correct: a city with hundred-plus-year-old water mains doesn't change overnight.

Ascher divided her look at NYC infrastructure into five big chapters: Moving People (streets, subways, bridges, tunnels), Moving Freight (by rail or ship or air, plus a section on markets), Power (electricity, natural gas, and the yes-they-still-use-it surprise of steam), Communications (phone, mail, and wireless spectrum), and Keeping It Clean (water, sewage, and garbage). That's a lot of systems, many of which interrelate -- trash travels by barge on the waterways and conduits can carry more than one kind of pipe or wire.

The Works is a well-designed, highly visual book, with useful sidebars on every page and clean, easily-understandable graphics. Ascher's acknowledgements credit the design and imagery to Alexander Isley, George Kokkinidis, and a larger team, so they should get a lot of the love for making this an easy book to view and understand.

It's fashionable these days to hate on urban-dwellers, but cities are where most economic activity happens, and the engines of the modern world. Even if you have to drive your pick-up fifty miles to the closest Wal-Mart to go grocery shopping, The Works is a useful, informative book that explains how the vital infrastructure of the modern world operates in one of the most demanding environments today.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/17/18

Welcome back to the weekly Antick Musings post about whatever new books have wandered close enough for me to take a look at them. Once upon a time, I only listed things I got free in the mail, as part of Big Book Publishing's publicity efforts, but why limit myself? So now it's more varied, depending on what happened that week.

This time out, I've gotten a few books form the library, and these are they:

Romeo And/Or Juliet is a Choose-Your-Adventure version of the Shakespeare play, rewritten by Ryan North and illustrated by a whole lot of people. I've played the game version of North's previous iteration of the same idea, To Be Or Not To Be, and that was fun. I did think this was more deeply in comics format than it actually is: it's a regular mostly-text book with about 400 pages and 500 numbered text sections, but it does have a bunch of illustrations.

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects was a webcomic (by Andy Warner) that ended just about as soon as I discovered it, which is right about my luck. I think it ended because Warner got the book deal, and needed to save his cartooning efforts for this paid gig, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the book eventually appeared, I intended to read it for a long time, and now it looks like I will.

Kaijumax: Season Two is the second collection of Zander Cannon's giant monster prison movie in comics form, and I guess this means I've given up on actually seeing and buying this series in an actual store. (The problem with the modern world is that you can get anything you desperately want delivered immediately, but things you want to check out or aren't as immediately focused on just don't show up anywhere at all near you.) Anyway, I liked the first volume, and now I've got the second one, even if it took library systems in two states to do it.

The Best American Comics 2013 is a five-year-old book in a series I thought I was going to keep better track of. Well, you know what kind of road-building happens from good intentions. This one was edited by Jeff Smith -- all of the "Best American" books have series editors, who do the initial cull to get a long list of good stuff, and one-off yearly star editors, who select the final contents most from that long list.

And last is a new comics version of Beowulf, by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin. The book itself isn't clear about their roles: did one write and one draw? One layout, the other do finishes, and the first come back Marvel-style to do the dialogue? Did they work simultaneously on the same pages and argue about wording? Did they swap out days, on working Monday-Wednesday-Friday and the other Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday? I simply don't know, and I'm running out of silly options to pretend to care about. However they did it, they adapted the Old English poem into comics, and Image published it as a big hardcover.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #49: A Pelican at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse

In 1969, I was busy being born and learning such important things as object permanence. But P.G. Wodehouse was at the other end of a long productive life, with nearly a hundred books behind him and a worldwide adoring fanbase. (Practically the only thing we had in common was that we both lived in New York State -- he on Long Island, me up in Albany.)

That has nothing to do with anything, but we do like to try to connect ourselves to our favorite authors, don't we? And Wodehouse is definitely one of mine: he found something he could do well and elevated light comedy to brilliance over and over again across more than seventy years. His work ethic was hugely admirable, his devotion to craft was amazing, and the results are just as purely entertaining now as they ever were.

A Pelican at Blandings was his new novel for 1969, that year I was born. (In the US, it was originally titled No Nudes Is Good Nudes, because it was the late sixties, and something had to be titled that.) It wasn't quite his last novel, either -- Wodehouse in his eighties was down from his earlier pace of production, but he was still good for a novel nearly every year, and had five more novels still to come after Pelican (plus one close enough to completion that it was published after his death in 1975).

As the title implies, this is a Blandings Castle story featuring Galahad (famously of the Pelican Club). The plot, as usual with Wodehouse, is almost beside the point: one of Lord Emsworth's domineering sisters returns from America for an unwanted visit, along with an even less pleasant friend, the Duke of Dunstable. Young lovers are sundered by their elders' meanness and unfortunate circumstances. Several impostors appear at the Castle. A valuable object is stolen, and is the center of several plots. The majestic Empress of Blandings, second-fattest pig in the county, is in danger of losing her appetite. But, in the end, it all turns out all right.

That's the joy of Wodehouse: he crafts intricate worlds full of complication and seeming heartbreak where everything does turn out all right, every time, and makes it sprightly and amusing the whole way. A Wodehouse book is the purest form of escapism, transporting us to a world that never was or could be, no matter how much we wish it did. Pelican is not one of his very best, true -- you can just see a glimpse of the tighter, brilliant book it could have been, with multiple attempts to steal and/or replace that nude painting happening simultaneously -- but it's funny and sunny and entirely plummy. If you haven't read Wodehouse before, what on earth are you waiting for?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #48: Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, Vols. 4 & 5 by Satoko Kiyuduki

Reading a book at four-year intervals is probably not the best way to keep it in the front of one's mind. But I read the first two volumes of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro (one and two) back in 2010, and then the third in 2014, so, since it's 2018 now, I couldn't continue any earlier than now, can I?

(It would be nice to have a time machine, but, in real life, "today" is always the earliest anything can be done.)

So here I am in 2018, having just read Volumes Four and Five of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, a comic I remember enjoying quite a bit back then. But, this time, I'm not as enthusiastic about Satoko Kiyuduki's world and storyline -- much of the dialogue feels like a lot of pseudo-philosophical windiness that doesn't actually say anything (that could be translation issues, though, or lack of cultural context on my part) and the vertical 4-koma format (except for some pages that read right-to-left like regular manga, to trip me up) forces every interaction and conversation into the same four-box structure with a punch-line-like zinger at the end.

Kuro is a young woman, but precisely how young is difficult to say. She's drawn to look pre-teen, but that could just be a style. She was cursed by a witch, for reasons and in a way that still isn't entirely clear at this point, and has to wander the world, lugging her coffin, until she either becomes a witch herself or dies. (As finally becomes semi-explicit in these volumes.) This is not nearly as dramatic as you're hoping it will be. Instead, she does a lot of vague talking about what it means to be a traveler, except when other characters are saying similar, and if possible even vaguer, things.

We also get an origin for that witch -- I think; it's someone's origin and it's not Kuro's -- somewhere in the middle here. It's sad but vaguely pointless, unless meant to underline that life is arbitrary and capricious and that everything kinda sucks. The witch is also traveling, though she doesn't have strong opinions on the subject the way other characters do. And they're traveling through vaguely fantasy-ish lands, nowhere in particular and far away from cities and large groups of people and anything particularly exciting.

Kuro does occasionally wander through pieces of other stories along her travels, but she's always at the center: everyone is happy to stop whatever they're doing to engage in long conversations with the little girl lugging her own coffin. Late in the second volume, someone actually tries to kill Kuro, which at least adds a bit of variety. It doesn't take, of course.

Kuro is not as mopey as she could be: she's more dogged, in that essential manga way, devoted to keeping on moving forward and being as positive as she can be until something new happens. That's encouraging, but I still wanted things to happen here, and not just have a moment of "oh, gosh, we all perceive this area differently! isn't that odd" before Kuro and her companions move on.

So: the 4-koma format is inherently episodic and distancing, and is tending to make Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro spin its wheels through the same few philosophical thoughts at this point in its life. And sometimes mysteries are much more enticing than their solutions: I think this is a fine example of that effect. The fact that this book is published at really long intervals -- a sixth volume, I see, just came out last fall -- doesn't help much, either.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #47: Manga Sutra, Vol. 2 by Katsu Aki

I believe I've had this book on the shelf for ten years, which means it's one of the small number of things that survived my 2011 flood. (That destroyed my entire basement and somewhere around 4,000 books.) I'm not sure why or how this book survived, but I'm pretty sure I haven't managed to read it until now largely because Manga Sutra is unsuitable for reading on a public train, where I read most of my book-format comics.

In any case, I read Vol. 1 of this series for a "Manga Friday" post at ComicMix back in August of 2008, and finally got to Katsu Aki's Manga Sutra, Vol. 2 in February of 2018.At this rate, I could get through the remaining two US collections by the time I retire, which would leave me time to learn Japanese to read the seventy-two tankobon volumes (to date as of now; it's still running) in my copious spare time.

Or maybe not.

Manga Sutra, sometimes known as Step Up Love Story (the title of the anime adaptation) or Manga Love Story, is a combination romance story and sex manual. It's an odd romance, since it begins after the two main characters are already married and in love. But it's a more typical sex manual: those tend to be for people who don't know what they're doing, and these two very inexperienced young people have no idea what they're doing.

Makoto and Yura Onoda appear not to have had sex before getting married, with each other or with anyone else. They also seem not to have thought about sex, or possibly even known sex existed before that point, at least on Yura's part. (They both have families filled with horndogs, though -- his older brother and her younger sister most prominently -- implying their extreme inexperience is purely for ease of storytelling.) They're having a lot of sex now: this second volume takes place a few months into their marriage, when they've most mastered inserting Tab A into Slot B in ways that both of them generally find appealing, and they do it most nights.

There are problems, of course, or else what use would be the sex manual? Makoto has trouble getting and keeping an erection some of the time, which is largely solved in this volume by Yura learning that blowjobs are a thing and being taught how to do them by her kid sister, with the aid of the requisite banana. On the other side, Yura has not had an orgasm from sex, and probably hasn't had one at all, and that's not quite solved yet. (Makoto was performing oral sex on Yura earlier than she on him, so perhaps he just hasn't had as effective a teacher as Yura did. Or maybe one breakthrough per volume is the maximum allowable.) And both of them are hugely apprehensive, and Yura deeply embarrassed, about talking to each other about sex other than the most basic "tonight?"

Starting to write this review, I was surprised to learn that this series is still running, after twenty years. And I wondered: is it locked into time like Kinsey Milhone, so that Makoto and Yura are still newlyweds in the late '90s and not that good at sex? Or have they been leveling up consistently since then, and have sex powers over 9000? Either way could be fun.

Manga Sutra is a bit old-fashioned, so that it's not too far ahead of anyone who might come to it. It's also a bit old-fashioned because it's a bit old at this point -- twenty years is a whole generation. Old-fashioned generally means the sex is tasteful: penetration is only shown as cutaway graphics and genitalia are never clearly drawn. But old-fashioned also means those wacky families nudge-nudge wink-winking tediously, and a gaggle of office ladies trying to entice Makoto into an affair -- luckily, he's too in love with his wife (or too oblivious) to even notice.  In many ways, Manga Sutra is your father's sex-instruction comic. And, if you need or want that, four volumes like this are out there for you.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #46: Museum of Mistakes by Julia Wertz

We all regret our twenties. Some of us regret how quickly we settled down and got boring, and some of us regret that we didn't settle down and get boring, at all or quickly enough.

I'm one of the former; I think Julia Wertz is one of the latter. Museum of Mistakes is the big collection of the comics she made at the time, and somewhat afterward, about her not being boring.

(Well. not exactly: Wertz shows herself as a massive introvert and an alcoholic, who spent way too much time in a tiny apartment making comics and drinking. One might well think of that as being boring.)

These days, artistic development happens in public more often than not, and it was that way for Wertz: she started publishing comics about her early-twenties life in San Francisco as "The Fart Party" about a decade ago, turned some of those comics into self-published zines soon afterward, and then turned those into books. She had two collections of Fart Party -- I reviewed the first one, more or less, for Comic Mix in 2008 -- and then went to a bigger company for Drinking at the Movies, which was billed as a full-length memoir but was really another collection of somewhat linked stories, all about her life at the time. It could have been Fart Party 3, but it wasn't. (Big companies are not likely to start off a brand-new relationship with a #3.)

The big-company thing didn't entirely work out for Wertz: she was part of the land-rush for cartoonists (especially autobiographical, especially female) in the wake of Persepolis and some other big successes. And the thing about a publishing land-rush is that a lot of stuff -- good, not-as-good, half-baked -- is published by people who haven't figured out yet how to replicate success, and are hoping they can hit the target enough times to work out a coherent plan. Wertz's comics were real and raw and true, but they were pretty far from the things that were working really big in those days, so it's not surprising that Drinking didn't rocket her to fame and fortune.

(And, possibly as important, Wertz was really ambivalent about fame and fortune. Around the same time, there was nearly a TV show based on Fart Party, but, as she's told the story afterward in her comics, she sabotaged it, partly on purpose and partly unconsciously.)

Since the world loves irony, her book after the big-company book was stronger and more of a clear step forward in telling longer, more unified stories -- that was The Infinite Wait, which brings us up to as close to now as Wertz got in her career. She hasn't published much in the past half-decade or so; she got into "urban exploration" and maybe just living her life for a while instead of turning it into comics immediately.)

So this book, from 2014, is still (I think) her most recent. It collects all of The Fart Party and The Fart Party 2, plus another book's worth of other strips: a section of stuff that wasn't Fart Party 3 because she did Drinking instead, some pre-Fart Party work, sketches, zine work, and other things.

This is the definitive early Wertz: the snotty slacker who had a series of lousy food-service jobs, had her boyfriend move cross-country and then break up with her, and who herself moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn. She loved cheese and wine, she took as little shit as she possibly could, she swore a lot, and she had a weird childhood.

She's probably still some of those things, or is the person formed by being those things in her twenties. Any book, especially a memoir, is a snapshot of who that person was at the time, and Wertz was very good at snapshots, with her deliberately crude art and sarcastic dialogue. No one wants the burden of being the voice of a generation, but Wertz did speak for a lot of millennials in the late Bush II years-- grumpy, disgruntled, stuck in a crapsack world built by other people, looking for their own moments of happiness and fulfillment. She was good at it by not trying to do anything like that: she just told stories of her own life, which was close enough to a million other lives to catch fire. It was a Fart Party, and we won't see it's like again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #45: Jack Staff Vol. 1 by Paul Grist

This book has more panels introducing its characters than any comic I've ever seen in my life. I know it was originally published as twelve individual issues of the Jack Staff comic, but it's much more common than that -- so often that I started to think this had been serialized somewhere, no more than five pages at a time, for an audience with short-term memory loss.

It's clearly on purpose, even if I'm not sure why creator Paul Grist is doing it. Is it some meta-commentary on superhero comics? A sly jab at the big comics universe-building instinct, so that every important character gets a hook and a logo, ready to spin off into his own book at the drop of a hat?

In any case, that's how Jack Staff, Vol. 1: Everything Used to Be Black and White goes -- every time the plot shifts to Jack, or to Becky Burdock, {Spoiler} Reporter, or to Tom Tom the Robot Man, or to The Spider, or to Bramble & Sons, Vampire Hunters, or to Detective Inspector Maveryk, old-fashioned copper, there's a logo-like treatment of their names splashed on the page, and usually some purple prose that almost but not quite tells the true believers to face front.

I suspect that Grist does not take his superhero comics entirely seriously, but that's fine: I haven't been able to do that for at least two decades now myself. And Jack Staff comes across as a book in which the creator is having an immense amount of fun, and is choosing the plot elements that make him cackle in delight as he draws them. That may make for a certain amount of whiplash, as he jumps from plot thread to plot thread every couple of pages, but it's all clear, and the reader certainly has no trouble remembering who any of the characters are.

In any case: this is a British superhero comic, so it's required by law to be somewhat self-effacing and to subvert expectations of the genre at least once per twenty-four pages. Grist is entirely happy to do that, but his subversion is of an older school than Moore or Morrison: he's someone who seems to doubt, down deep, that dressing up in silly costumes and punching people is really a good solution to serious problems. That is entirely true, but it can be a fatal attitude for superhero comics unless it's coupled with a light touch.

Grist does also have a light touch, so we're good there.

Jack himself is a mildly brick-like superguy, dressed in his nation's flag and first encountered during WW II doing his bit to defend democracy and battle the evil Hun. He's clearly tough to some level, but he can't fly or do any of that obvious super-stuff, and he needs a big stick to hit people adequately. On the other hand, he does seem to be much, much older than he has any right to be, and still looking mid-thirties in these stories from the late '90s. There are more serious supernatural elements -- I mentioned vampire hunters above, and they do have vampires to hunt -- and one villain we see has definite weather-control powers. So this is a real superhero universe, even if we're just seeing a quirky British corner of it.

I originally read Grist's crime comic Kane in the '90s -- it looks like I kept up with it almost to the end, missing the last collection -- and bought this 2004 collection about four years ago with a thought of maybe getting into his other big self-published series. There are three more Jack Staff collections, I see, though this series also seems to be definitively over. I might keep going, if I can find the books: this are fun adventure comics that don't take themselves too seriously, and Grist's inky art and smash-cut plotting make his pages lively and zippy.

If you, too, are willing to accept that superheroes are inherently goofy, you'll probably enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #44: King City by Brandon Graham

For those of you scoring at home, this is the major Brandon Graham comic that does not include a random hardcore sex scene thrown into the middle (The one that does is Multiple Warheads. Graham toiled in the sex-comics vineyards for several years, and one sex-comic idea blossomed or transformed into an idea that could be a comic about other things than sex.)

This is the major Brandon Graham comic that features a cat with drug-induced superpowers, though. So if that's the one you wanted: here you go.

(There's also Prophet, but I think he just wrote that and doesn't own it, either. I'm enough of a purist to have a preference for the comics that someone owns and does all the work on.)

As I understand it, King City is a slightly earlier work than Multiple Warheads, though I think the publication history of both stories is a bit mixed and mingled. (And Prophet is later than both of them. Maybe still going on now, for all I know!) In any case, it was eventually twelve issues of comics, in two big clumps, from first Tokyopop and then Image. This big collection of the whole shebang came out in 2012 and says it was co-published by the two companies. (My guess is that Image did all of the work and just cut Tokyopop a check based on whatever they owned/controlled, but I am a noted cynic.)

King City is a young man's comic, about a young man: Joe, the Cat Master who would have been the title character if Tokyopop hadn't balked at Cat Master for a title. He's back in King City after a few years away, learning the secrets of Cat Mastery somewhere in California and getting his weapon/partner Earthling along the way. In case you're wondering, the cat doesn't talk, or do anything particularly un-catlike except when Joe injects him with a syringe to unlock weird powers. Earthling is pretty much here to be Joe's random superpower, and to give Graham an excuse to draw a bucket full of cat regularly.

Joe meets back up with his old friend Pete, who doesn't have any particular super-stuff, but does strange odd jobs for one of the local gangs. King City is deeply weird, in a manga-meets-indy-comics way, so the gangs are inscrutable and hermetic and don't seem to spend any time doing anything we'd normally think of as criminal activity -- but they are dangerous, and have their own weird powers and abilities. There's also Joe's old girlfriend Anna, who he's still pining for, but she's now with Max, a shell-shocked survivor of the zombie war in Korea who is now addicted to the drug chalk (which turns its users, eventually, into chalk).

Those are the characters, more or less. There's also Beebay, the mysterious woman who hires Joe for her gang, Pete's nasty employers and the water-breathing nameless alien girl they hire him to transport (until he falls for her and pulls a double-cross), a few other cat masters who show up for the big showdown, and a gigantic Lovecraftian-cum-Akira-ball-of-flesh that must be stopped in the finale.

Well, stopped by someone. Not necessarily our heroes. It's not that kind of story.

Graham bounces from just-slightly-satirical spy-craft to kitchen-sink drama to goofball pun-based comedy, often the the course of a single panel. What ties it all together is this overstuffed neo-future city, where everything is unreal enough for anything to be possible. It's not a heavily plotted comic -- things happen, and they happen in a logical sequence, but it doesn't build up to anything, and Graham wants to subvert expectations rather than encourage them. His art is similar bouncy: here a little manga-inspired, especially in the buildings, here a little indy-goofball, here recovering sex-comics artist.

So King City feels a lot like another slacker comic: the characters aren't exactly slackers themselves, but it has that laid-back vibe, as if nothing can get too bad, as long as you've got your cat with you. And that's all right, man.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #43: Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

There are at least two Jeff Lemires. One is the writer of big superhero adventures -- I hear good things about him, from people who actually enjoy big superhero adventures, but I don't expect to ever meet him. Another one writes and draws comics about damaged people in Canada (Essex County, The Underwater Welder, The Nobody), and that's the Lemire I know pretty well. You could say, I guess, that there's a third Lemire, who tells stories of other kinds, somewhere in the middle -- the Lemire of Trillium and Sweet Tooth and Descender and Plutona -- and that one combines the strengths of the two extremes of Lemire. You could say that.

But what I have here is a book by the pure second Lemire, a book deeply Canadian, set in a small town way out in the cold and the emptiness, about a big palooka who used to play hockey and his kid sister who used to not be a junkie. Roughneck is a book about a lot of "used to be"s.

Derek Oulette is from a little town "up north" called Pimitamon -- "The Pit" to locals. To the north of it somewhere is a First Nations reservation where Derek's mother came from, a ways to the south is Timmins, which isn't much bigger than The Pit. All around is snow and pine trees and wildlife and snowmobile trails, and not much else. Derek got out of there young, away from an abusive father, to play hockey for the Rangers for a few years -- but, even there, he was "never really a hockey player...I was just a thug."

As Roughneck begins, he's back in The Pit, slinging eggs in the local greasy spoon and spending his evenings trying to drink quietly in the one bar in town. But there's always some yahoo who wants to get a rise out of the ex-pro, and it's really easy to get a rise out of Derek. The only reason Derek isn't in jail is because he lives in a small town where everyone knows everyone, including the cops.

And then one day Beth comes back -- Derek's younger sister, fleeing an abusive relationship of her own. They haven't seen each other for more than a decade: Beth ran off to Toronto not long after Derek went into pro hockey, both of them somewhere in their teens. And they're both pretty damaged, by their horrible father and what happened to them after they got away from him.

But Roughneck is the story of how they get beyond that. Derek does not have to be a roughneck. Beth does not have to be a junkie. Their horrible father does not have to define them.

Lemire tells this story mostly in muted blue-green tones, as chilly as the world he's drawing. Memories and flashbacks bring more color, to set them apart. The people all have Lemire faces: beaten down (or up) by life, lined and seamed, usually gigantic noses. This is a rough world he's writing and drawing about. But the message of Roughneck is that you don't need to be rough yourself to get through a rough world -- and that's a good message to hear.