Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #212: Ms. Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II by Wilson, Alphona, Miyazawa, and Andofo

I don't know if superhero conflicts are required to be based on the stupidest possible interpretation of premises, but it certainly seems that way. Subtlety or nuance don't exist in superhero universes; in a world where people can punch each other through brick walls, that's the only way to do anything.

Ms.Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II is another piece of crossover, which means it's substantially stupider than a standalone Ms. Marvel story. I'm not claiming they're brain-teasers in the best of situations, but they generally consist of believable characters doing understandable things for plausible reasons.

Before I go on to talk about the story, here's who brought it to us: writer G. Willow Wilson continues as usual, with original series artist Adrian Alphona taking the first issue and flashback scenes in the next four, Takeshi Miyazawa doing the non-flashbacks for those issues, and Mirka Andolfo drawing the last one collected here.

Those first and last issues (numbers 7 and 12 of the 2015 Ms. Marvel series, for those of you scoring at home) are standalones, and I'll get to them later.

The main story here spins out of the big dumb [1] crossover Civil War II, which apparently triggered when someone discovered a new Inhuman -- yeah, they were still on that kick in early 2016 -- named Ulysses, who, well, I'll let Captain Marvel [2] do the honors:
It's more like mathematics -- he can determine, to within a fraction of a percent, the probability that certain events are going to take place.
As described, this covers any event, of any kind. And, since it's a superhero power, it's declared to be absolutely, totally reliable all of the time. Extremely improbably, Ulysses is not already the richest man on Earth from stock-picking or craps or sports book. Nor will his powers be used to, oh, predict earthquakes and hurricanes for the betterment of all mankind. Nor to fiendishly predict the weak spots in other nations or corporations for the power-enhancement and enrichment of his friends and bosses. Nor to turbo-charge scientific development by focusing attention on the areas most amenable to breakthroughs. Nor to do a million other things that you need to actually take five minutes to think through.

No, instead Ulysses's vast powers will be used to predict street-level crime in Jersey City, New Jersey so a group of teen vigilantes can go beat up people a day before they would have done something bad, and/or vaguely "citizen's arrest" them, holding them down until after the time they were going to do the thing they were just stopped from doing.

Mere human language cannot adequately convey how deeply, utterly stupid an idea this is, nor now vastly it undervalues Ulysses's powers. I am in awe of the weapons-grade idiocy here, and wonder if Ulysses is actually some idiot-savant who is just endlessly shouting out things like "John Smith of 331B 25th Street, New York, has a 37.562% chance of shoplifting a fun-size Snickers bar from the Sunny Day bodega on the corner of 24th and Market at 4:52 PM local time today." The story would almost make sense if he had no control of his power and was psychologically focused on stupid minor crimes close to him for some plot-sufficient reason.

So, yeah. Ms. Marvel, the girl of stretch, is brought in by the senior Marvel, Carol Danvers, to supervise a random group of gung-ho crime-fighting teenagers in her neighborhood, because of course that's how serious government projects work. (The other crime-fighting teens are all people we've never seen before, and probably mostly people we will never see again: utterly plot furniture.) They get random updates from Ulysses, run off, and punch people generally mere moments before they're about to do something naughty. These updates only come in when they're not in school or sleeping or doing homework -- they're foiling convenient crimes.

Their MO is wildly inconsistent: one actual supervillain who stole a government tank is told he'll be held for fifteen minutes until the unfoilable super-security system blows up the tank, because they apparently can't arrest him for stealing a tank, or driving it down a city street, or attacking civilians, but only could stop him if it blew up with him in it when he didn't realize it would. But then when an otherwise honor-student teen boy might -- Ulysses's supposed "fraction of a percent" predictions are never actually cited; everything is a sure bet every single time -- cause a power surge the next day that would start a fire, they grab him and throw him into some kind of black-box high-security private prison.

This makes no fucking sense. Not for a second. Ulysses isn't providing percentages for anything, and the focus on teenagers in Jersey City is deeply ludicrous. And the outcomes go so far beyond arbitrary and capricious that they turn into the opposite of anything reasonable. Even assuming crime-fighting was the best use of these powers -- and, again, it totally isn't -- this is quite possibly the single worst way of doing so.

But wait! The whole stupid plot seems to be designed to make our Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, realize that, hey, y'know, maybe beating up people and locking them up without due process just might be a bad thing...as long as it's purely based on something they haven't done yet, of course, since doing that to people otherwise would be totally fine! And that realization is purely to fuel her break with Danvers, the current Captain Marvel.

Danvers is a former military test pilot and big fan of the chain of command...except when an ill-defined group is using a random superhuman for bizarre crime-fighting activities, but it's her ill-defined group, and crime-fighting is the only thing these caped lunatics know, so let's go with it -- and so barks out the kind of cliche conversation where she talks down to "junior" superheroes and calls them things like "soldier" using random Army jargon picked up from Full Metal Jacket.

Because military people in comics are all about "shut up and do as you're told," since the question of legal and appropriate use of force never comes up in fictional universes. Obviously.

So The Lesson Kamala learns here is that your idols sometimes assholes who aren't going to do what you want them to, and also that semi-fascist panopticons are not as cool an idea as they might seem. I know! Who would have thought! (Presumably somewhere in the actual Civil War II series it all ended when we learned that Ulysses's powers can't handle vibranium, or he's a Skrull spy, or some such stupid bullshit, so everything could go back to normal.)

Oh! Also another Lesson: it is your fault if your best friend does something you warn him is really dangerous and gets seriously injured, because you are A Superhero and should be able to make everything nice all the time. (Well, maybe there's also a bit of "You went along with something that didn't smell right and it turned out horribly and crippled your best friend.") But, as a bonus, Wilson is totally setting up ex-best-friend to return as a supervillain in another 5-10 issues. So we have that to look forward to.

This book also contains two single issues untainted by crossover, and so therefore relatively intelligent. The one up front is a cute science-fair story, with a side order of Millennials Have It So Much Worse Than Other Generations (Even the Ones That Had to Go To War and Stuff) Because Student Loans, and guest appearances by Spider-Man and Nova, to underline how much they are all basically the same damn character.

And the closing story sees Kamala take a trip back to her native Pakistan. This seems unlikely to happen during the school year for a student as much of a grind as Kamala, but it's not clear when any of these stories take place during the year, so maybe it's suddenly summer? And there she Learns Things, though she doesn't notice that her new friend is also totally that local superhero she runs into. Oh, and the local society is corrupt and riddled with bad actors in multiple ways, but she shouldn't be judge-y about it! Let the locals deal with it!

I'm beginning to think I only read Ms. Marvel because the different ways it annoys me amuse me. It may also be that I had all the superhero bullshit I could stand about twenty years ago, so even "good" superhero comics are so full of crap they make me break out in fits of swearing. Either way, my relationship with this comic is not particularly healthy. Luckily, I just get collections of it from the library about two years late!

[1] I haven't actually read anything else from Civil War II, so it's possible that I'm maligning its intelligence. But I wouldn't bet on it.

[2] No, not the one you're thinking of. Not that one, either. Definitely not that one. The one who's getting a movie.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #211: Beyond Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez

A couple of weeks ago, writing about the previous Gilbert Hernandez Love and Rockets book Human Diastrophism, I said that those stories came from a ten-year span, because Hernandez was busy with other things as well during that time.

Well, Beyond Palomar collects two of those things between one set of covers: two full-length graphic novels originally serialized in Love and Rockets, both of them related to the "Palomar" cycle of stories but not directly part of that main stream. First up is Poison River, originally appearing from 1988 through 1994, which tells the story of Luba's life up to the point she arrived in Palomar in Heartbreak Soup. Then there's Love & Rockets X (from 1989-1993), which is more complicated: it was the first of Gilbert's stories to show some of his Palomar characters in Southern California -- traditionally his brother's Jaime's turf [1] -- but also featured a mostly new cast, most of whom would not return in any of his later stories. (Though two of them, seen in minor and mostly-comic roles here, turn up both in the not-exactly-canonical pornographic miniseries Birdland (from the same era) and then, a little later, as Luba's sisters in stories collected in Human Diastrophism.

That's a lot to unpack. It's probably best if I tackle the two stories separately.

Poison River is substantially longer: a seventeen-part, nearly two-hundred-page cross between a family saga and a gangster epic. And it is very much the story of Luba's life up to her mid-twenties: it opens with her as a small baby, at the point where her official father -- the rich man her mother Maria was married to -- realizes that Luba is actually the daughter of the field hand Eduardo. (Presumably, this is more obvious because Eduardo is Indio -- native or mostly native -- and the unnamed rich guy is of purer colonial stock.) Maria is cast out, with the baby, Eduardo, and her maid Karlota. They take refuge with Eduardo's family, and live in semi-happy poverty for a while until Maria gets fed up and runs off.

(Maria is a deeply self-centered sensation-seeker who is never satisfied; she would have run off eventually. That's just who she is.)

Luba bounces around the fringes of Eduardo's family for her childhood, as part of the underclass of whatever Latin American country this is. (Hernandez deliberately keeps it unclear, but there are echoes of El Savador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and so on -- it could be any of them, or a fictional melange of all of them.) And then, as a teenager, she meets the middle-aged conga player Peter Rios, who falls for her hard and marries her impetuously -- right at the moment he gives up playing music and goes into managing a club.

The club is owned by gangsters, and Peter's ambitions push him upward into their ranks -- along with his former bandmate Blas, who follows him into that world for reasons that seem murky to begin with. The bulk of Poison River is the intertwined stories of the various power struggles among those gangsters, mostly having to do with their unreasoning hatred of mostly-unseen "leftists" who they fear will take over and ruin the country and with conflicts over sexual partners [2], and Luba's growing up and sexual acting-out.

Well, everyone is sexually acting out, so she's not alone. There's a lot of sex and violence before Poison River is over. Hernandez combines them occasionally, which may upset some readers, but the sex is mostly consensual, even if often in secret between people whose partners will react horribly when the secret comes out. It's also all R-rated sex; Hernandez was making Birdland around the same time, and that story is full of insertions and fluids and  really bizarre combinations. Poison River is more cable-TV than porn: we see some flaccid penises, and we can tell people are having sex, but we don't see body parts interlocking.

All of those plots eventually link back to the past -- Maria was part of the same circle of gangsters a generation before, until she fled with that rich husband, and she slept with more than one of them during that time -- so we get flashbacks and various realizations of whose daughter Luba is and an occasional view into Maria's life in the "now" of Poison River. ("Now" covers, if I had to guess, from Luba's birth around 1950 to her entry into Palomar in the late 1970s, with most of the gangster plot taking place in late '60s and early '70s.)

The body count piles up, as it usually does in a gangster story. And, in the end, Luba is alone with her infant daughter Maricela and cousin Ofelia, about to enter Palomar for the first time. Poison River is entirely an origin story: telling us the secrets behind the things we already knew. It's sordid and occasionally nasty and full of bad people doing bad things, but Hernandez makes it compelling.

The back quarter of Beyond Palomar, though, is less serious. The sixty-page Love & Rockets X takes an Altman-esque collection of overlapping plots (not that different from the Palomar stories, though each individual story there tended to be a bit more linear) to tell a less serious story of teens, rock bands, spoiled rich people, racial tension, and various love triangles (and more complicated shapes).

It does loop back to Palomar eventually, so we see a much older Luba and her growing family, but the most important Palomar character is a grown-up Maricela, who fled to Southern California with her girlfriend Riri. The two of them get caught up in the various plots -- which are mostly driven by white Californians, particularly those connected to a lousy garage band called "Love and Rockets" -- that all collide at a "big Hollywood party" where Love and Rockets is supposed to play.

This is Hernandez mostly in a lighter mode, though he still takes all of his characters seriously -- and some of them have real problems. (At least one eating disorder, some white-power terrorists, Maricela and Riri's relationship problems and worries about La Migra.) But, even in lighter mode, there are undertones: this seems to take place in 1989, but the racial tensions hint at riots to come and one character ends up in Iraq, which is explicitly mentioned. Love & Rockets X is an example of that old saying: if you want a happy ending, you have to know when to stop telling the story; all endings are sad if you go on long enough.

So we have two major Gilbert Hernandez stories here, either or both of which would be decent introductions to his work. Poison River gets quite plotty and continuity-heavy, but it's all continuity within the one story, and that's what he does anyway -- if you don't like that in Poison River, you won't enjoy a lot of Hernandez's work. Love & Rockets X might be an even better first Hernandez story: short, often funny, full of quirky characters, enough sex to keep it interesting, and that basically happy ending.

[1] Though, if you recall that Jaime's main character Maggie was mostly in Texas during this time, you could work up a silly theory about geographic coverage and brotherly competition.

[2] This gets really complicated, with basically hetero men, openly gay men, and men who seem to mostly have sex with the presenting-as-women-but-physically-male dancers at Peter's club, and I couldn't begin to map it out or guess how they would all identify themselves. I couldn't even tell you if those dancers -- some of whom are quite important to the story -- think of themselves as women or men or trans or each something different. Oh, and Peter himself has a fetish for bellybuttons, and not a whole lot of interest in "normal" sex, which frustrates the hot-to-trot Luba.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/28/18

As always, this weekly posts lists new books within my immediate grasp, however I got them. (You might be interested in hearing about them, if our tastes are congruent at all, since finding out about books is usually fun. But I do it, these days, in large part because this blog is my external memory and helps me keep track of this stuff.)

This week, I have one book, which came from the library. It has an awesome cover, and it's by Hope Larson, who's previously made such good books as Gray Horses and Mercury.

Her new book this year is All Summer Long, a graphic novel in tones of orange -- like a bright summer sun. Our main character is the young woman on the cover: Bina. She's thirteen and at loose ends for the summer: her best friend (a boy) is off at summer camp, so she's hanging around with his older sister more than she expected. But she's thirteen, which means he's thirteen, so things don't stay the way they always were when he comes back from camp.

Graphic novels for younger readers are a big niche these days, and "younger readers" can mean anything from barely-out-of-picture-books to older-teens. This one looks to aim somewhere in the middle, around middle school, and to be a realistic growing-up story focused on people and without any obvious Messages lurking in it.

I expect to read it really quickly, so I'll have more to say about it after that....

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #210: Blackbird Days by Manuele Fior

If I say a book of stories feels more European than specifically Italian, is that a compliment or a criticism? If I said the same thing with "American" and "Texan," would it be different?

I'm not sure, but they're interesting questions -- and that's where my mind has been going after reading Blackbird Days, a collection of short comics stories by the Italian creator Manuele Fior. (All translated by Jamie Richards, and published this year in the US by Fantagraphics. The ten stories here originally appeared, in various European publications, between 2007 and 2015.)

Fior's work does feel European to me, rather than specifically Italian. His characters are more likely to be in Paris than Rome, and as likely to be in Oslo as Salerno. They tend to be Italians, where their nationality is specified, but they're living and working in a wider world -- they're Italian the way I'm New Jerseyan.

These are mostly short stories -- just a couple of pages -- and mostly have the kind of realistic tone found in non-fiction or its close fictional cousins. The great exceptions are the title story, a near-future SF tale about something that is just about to begin, and the final story in the book, "Gare de l'Est," in which two giant robots (which look, very deliberately, like children's toys) battle just outside that train station.

The rest of the pieces, though, seem to be commissioned on specific topics or themes: the story of mentally disordered Great War soldier, one father's panic when his son disappears, the multi-generational story of a Laotian refugee family, a painter's convalescence, a quiet response to the 2015 Paris terrorist attack, a teacher who changes her mind on an class trip, a young woman visiting Oslo, a young couple on vacation. Does that mean they're not what Fior would have created, given the time and space to make whatever he wanted?

Who knows? And how would it actually matter?

We have these stories, that Fior actually did make. They're smart and just a bit cold, with a softness to his line no matter what the medium. They are about all sorts of things, but they are all quite European. And they make me wish more of Fior's work was available in English.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #209: Over Seventy by P.G. Wodehouse

They say that old people start to repeat themselves, as if they've run out of all of the new words and ideas they ever had and need to start over from the beginning and run through them again.

I don't know if that's true for everyone, but old writers definitely find that they can recycle their old gags and characters and stories and put them in front of the public again. And, except for obsessives, hardly anyone will even notice when they do so, making it the most efficient kind of recycling.

But I am an obsessive, so I started to feel that a lot of the stories in Over Seventy were strangely familiar. Luckily for you, I'm not enough of an obsessive to track those stories down one by one to their origins, since that would be intensely boring for both of us. But I think I know where some of them came from, and maybe suppositions and theories will be more amusing.

Over Seventy is a book by P.G. Wodehouse, originally published under that title in the UK in 1957 as a revised version of America, I Like You, which came out in the US the year before. In the text, Wodehouse presents the whole book as a reply to a letter from a J.P. Winkler, who has a radio show and newspaper column titled Over Seventy and whose job seems to be pestering old famous people to give him free material for those outlets. It's structured, very vaguely and interrupted more often than not by digressions, as an autobiography, responding to the long list of pestering questions from Winkler.

And the last book I read by Wodehouse before this was Louder and Funnier, a collection of essays for Vanity Fair published in 1932. I have the distinct impression that Wodehouse mined that book -- and others of his earlier non-fictional work, like Bring on the Girls with Guy Bolton -- rather than writing entirely new material for the let-assume-he's-real Winkler.

For 99% of Over Seventy readers, that self-plagarism won't be a problem: how many people have just recently read Louder and Funnier in the past couple of months? (OK, both of you: avoid Over Seventy for a few years, until the memories fade.)

The Wodehouse of Over Seventy is settled in Remsenburg on Long Island -- it can cause some mental dislocation for Wodehouse fans to realize he spent the last thirty years of his life in somewhere so American, and much of the preceding fifty years in the New York area as well -- and his life then was as boring as it was for most of his life. He had a few dogs, mostly Pekinese, and otherwise mainly spent his time writing. That's why Over Seventy is primarily digressions: Wodehouse knows very well that the actual outlines of his life will not hold an audience, but his thoughts and amusing anecdotes will.

As with all Wodehouse non-fiction, this isn't where to begin reading him. Wodehouse was a uniquely wonderful novelist, and that's the core of his enduring appeal. But the non-fiction can be quite funny as well, which is good when you realize you're read all of his best novels at least once.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Quote of the Week

"The nourishment is palatable."
 - President Millard Filmore's last words

Book-A-Day 2018 #208: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

How do you know what you want? How do you know why you do the things you do? How do you know what's next for you?

Or do you know any of those things, really?

Kristen Radtke wants to know, and she's made the graphic story Imagine Wanting Only This to work it through for herself. I don't think she'd claim to know for sure the answers to any of those questions, but answers aren't always necessary -- just being able to formulate and ask the question is a good step. Just knowing what you don't know.

Imagine Wanting Only This is partially the story of Radtke's adult life, starting in college in Chicago and running through her years in grad school in Iowa and working life since then. It's as much about the questions and obsessions that concern her over that time: the sudden death of her beloved uncle Dan, the family congenital heart condition that caused his death and that she may have as well, how places humans live become ruined and abandoned and those places themselves. And, underlying all of that, the question of place, of belonging: of having a home you want to come back to or wanting to visit every new place possible.

Radtke narrates this, but Imagine Wanting Only This isn't a book of narrative: it's not about what happens next, who she's dating, what she's studying, where she goes and what she thinks about those places. This is a more literary memoir, the kind whose territory is centered in the author's head -- and we haven't seen those books in comics form much.

There are no answers, of course. There can be no answers when the questions are on that level.

Radtke's story is stronger than her art, to my eye. I'm not sure what tools she's using here, but I think they're mostly digital -- maybe working from photos, as well. Her characters tend to look static, as if placed individually, and her lines tend to have the same weight. The art is enough to carry the narrative, though, which is what it needs to do, and the slightly undersized pages, with broad white margins, make the book look like an artifact from some other comics-making culture.

(I haven't been able to find any comics-industry reviews of Imagine Wanting Only This; I'd like to see what people who know more about art than I do think about Radtke's work.)

Imagine Wanting Only This is a literary memoir, about decay and death and restlessness, broken things and lost places and limited time. If that sounds like your kind of thing, go for it: it's quite good at what it does.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #207: Mister I by Lewis Trondheim

Mister I -- a simply-drawn figure in a simply-drawn world -- is hungry. He's looking for fruit from a tree, or meat from a bird or hunted animal or freshly-caught fish, or even an iconic pie cooling on a windowsill.

He will not get what he wants. Maybe because he's rude: trying to steal that pie, or whining to a hunter for meat, or grabbing a lollipop from a kid, or aggressive panhandling with bad singing. Maybe just because he's unlucky.

Maybe because that's the premise. Like Wile E. Coyote, Mister I has to fail -- and to be killed at the end of each silent page-long story -- because that's the joke.

Mister I is Lewis Trondheim's other book of wordless gag comics -- I think Mister O came first, and I definitely read it first (several years ago), but they're both the same sort of thing working with slightly different material.

Mister O wants to get somewhere, and fails. (And dies.) Mister I wants to eat something, and fails. (And dies.) Entire comedy careers have been built on less.

There are thirty-two stories in this book, each of them a single large page of sixty small panels -- in a tight grid with no gutters, looking almost like an animation sequence pasted down on the page. And they all work from that same premise: here's Mister I, here's some kind of food that he wants to get, and here's how he doesn't get it.

I like this kind of stuff is pretty funny: I love the inventiveness of it, and the way one variation (digging with a shovel to get that pie, for example) leads to another and another, and the inevitability of Mister I's failure. You do have to enjoy slapstick, I suppose. But silent comics are as close to a universal language as anyone's developed yet, so I'm confident there are a lot of people who would love to see Mister I trying and failing, over and over and over again.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #206: Sudden Gravity by Greg Ruth

Sometimes you just can't even. It could be the world at large, or another person, or a work of art. But you can't grasp it, or deal with it, or do anything coherent.

I'm perilously close to that point with Sudden Gravity, but I want to try to understand it, as best I can: it's ferociously well-drawn and impressively intelligent, and there's clearly something meaty here. But it's also even more impressively hermetic, closing in on itself from all directions and resolutely refusing to be clear or understandable. And it clearly was a passion project for creator Greg Ruth -- you want to take seriously things that other people pour a lot of time and effort into, and work at a high level of professionalism on.

But damn if I can tell you what Sudden Gravity is about.

Maybe I can sketch some general outlines. As far as I can tell, it was a mini-series from Caliber Comics in 1997, and then reprinted in a single volume -- which is how I read it -- by Dark Horse in 2006. It's subtitled "a Tale of the Panopticon," but there don't seem to be any other tales of the panopticon. (At least, not from Ruth -- it's a term that predates him, invented by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century to describe a jail or similar institution where the keepers can watch all of the inmates without the inmates knowing who is being watched at any given moment.)

Frankly, I can't even tell you what the title means. And, while the institution in the book is called  Bentham Hospital, and the external shots look like the classical panopticon, the plot taking place inside it is not particularly about the management watching everybody, nor does the interior look much like Bentham's conception.

So, OK. Names aside. There's this big mental hospital in New York. Commissioner Alice Spark is being taken there after having (allegedly) setting the house fire that killed her husband and children. Already there is a catatonic boy who apparently has been the same age for generations, and who starts to speak when something particularly horrific is about to happen. One doctor lost his eyesight (possibly his actual physical eyes) in an encounter with that boy fifteen years ago, and another disappeared entirely and has been considered dead since then. The rest of the doctors are similarly quirky and damaged, almost as much so as the inmates.

There's also a secret society which may be trying to hasten the end of the world and to which some of the doctors of Bentham may belong -- either knowingly or not. And the hospital is full of eerie paintings which exactly depict future events that will happen in front of them.

Our story begins five days before something major happens, as signposted on the first page. Ominous stuff happens on nearly every page, with characters speaking backwards (often in long words and names that have not previously been mentioned, making their messages difficult to decipher), bizarre murders, portentous conversations, portal-esque murals, interpersonal conflict, secrets from the hospital's fiendish Victorian founder, potentially supernatural events, and a general air of unease and disquiet. It will not be clearly explained. You may not know who the players are or what they're playing for. It may not be clear what has happened by the end.

The touchstone usually evoked for Sudden Gravity is Twin Peaks: this is another story of menace and strangeness, with mysterious messages that aren't entirely explicable, combatants whose aims and purposes stay obscure, and endings that don't entirely satisfy. It's appropriate: if you liked one, you may like the other.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #205: Roswell Walks Among Us by Bill Morrison

There are some comics that look like they should be broadly popular, but aren't really. I don't mean everyone's favorite parlor game, Why My Favorites Should Be Everyone's Favorites. I mean that there are comics that look like the kind of stories Americans love: broad, funny, with sturdy vaguely stereotypical characters, easy-to-follow plots, clean lines, and heart to spare. And those comics feel like they're similar to the kinds of things Middle America likes in other media: movies about sports teams that win despite the odds, TV shows about a bunch of co-workers who make the world better, songs with way too much melisma and emotion to match, news stories about pets who cross continents to get back to their loving owners.

Those comics usually aren't all that popular, because the broad Middle American audience isn't the one reading comics, mostly. But they feel like they're a popular thing, even when they're not.

Bill Morrison's Roswell Walks Among Us is one of those comics.

It collects a three-issue 1996 miniseries, Roswell, Little Green Man, and a four-part follow-up ("How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On the Ant Farm?") that was a backup in Simpsons Comics soon afterward, all written and drawn by Morrison with colors by Nathan Kane and letters by Tim Harkins.

The main and title character is the guy on the cover, an alien journalist from the planet Zoot who got stuck on a spaceship to Earth by accident and then stranded here when that ship blew up at an inopportune moment. (This may make him sound particularly accident-prone, but neither of those things was his fault.) Oh, and his real name is *#@!!#, which -- since this is a comic book -- is a horrible swear-world on Earth.

Anyway, he ends up in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, and wacky hijinks ensue. In fact, the story starts with the wacky hijinks, and only later doubles back to explain Who He Is and How He Came To Be.

He's chased by rednecks and befriended by a hot redheaded waitress (Julienne Fryes) who is also a world-class inventor, as well as the giant-rabbit-riding cowboy (Jasper Kudzu) who wants to get into the pants of that waitress -- or would if he were less well-mannered and this were less of an all-ages comic. The Army wants to capture him, of course, and they have a particularly histrionic ex-Nazi mad scientist who will do fiendish experiments on Roswell if they do.

There is quite a lot of running about at top speed, as you might guess. It is all good-hearted, and Roswell has a clean, pleasant line in a Simpsons Comics/Disney/animation-inspired style. And it does all feel like the kind of things that Mr and Mrs Middle America would lap up if it were in a medium that they paid attention to.

It is nice and pleasant and good clean fun and not all that much my kind of thing. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #204: Perla La Loca by Jaime Hernandez

Perla La Loca closes out the original era of Love and Rockets, collecting the last five years or so of Jaime Hernandez's stories, and ending with the 1996 hiatus.

(Of course, that "hiatus" turned into a "bunch of continuations under different names," for both Jaime and his brother Gilbert, which eventually led to the second L&R series in 2001. But we'll get there in a couple of weeks.)

Like Maggie the Mechanic and The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S., these are stories mostly about Maggie and Hopey and their world -- a little more Hopey this time, which is welcome since she was missing for most of the past book. And what becomes clearer about both of them, as they're now sliding through their late 20s (probably; their ages and timeline is still more than a little fluid) is that neither of them is particularly motivated or organized or planful: they both drift through life, Maggie apprehensive and Hopey gleefully opportunistic, without work or other goals to orient them.

Hopey has been a musician, but she's not as devoted to it as her one-time bandmate Terry Downe is -- we see Terry somewhat more successful and older for a moment here, which makes sense. Terry is motivated and directed: she was heading somewhere. (She's also deeply manipulative, but few of Jaime's characters are all that wonderful as human beings. They're real people, which means they all do shitty things some of the time.) Hopey likes new things, and having fun, and stirring shit up, but we don't see her being much deeper than that: she probably cares about Maggie as much as she cares about anything, but, at this point in her life, she doesn't care all that much about anything.

And Maggie...well, Maggie occasionally feints in the direction of going back to work as a mechanic, though it's got to be close to a decade now since she was a trainee, and the SF elements associated with that world have fallen out of Jaime's stories. Instead, she works crappy retail jobs when we see her work at all: she seems to have turned into the kind of person who works only as much as she needs to. She spends most of this book either living on her aunt Vicki's wrestling-training camp out in Texas, briefly living with her long-estranged father nearby, or living in a town not that far away. (Come to think of it, I don't think we see her work at all in this volume -- that could be because Hernandez isn't interested in that side of her life, but clearly Maggie isn't interested in that side of her life.)

This book isn't the story of how either of them grows up. When we hit the last page here, we may think that will come next -- either a story to be told, or never told, if it's 1996 and we think Love and Rockets just ended for good. Perla La Loca tells stories about how they were still young and confused and conflicted: mostly in Texas this time, on that camp and in the nearby wide spot in the road Chester Square and wherever the characters live. How Maggie's sister Esther runs away from her impending marriage and stays with her for a while. How her friend Danita -- an odd kind of "friend," since her boyfriend Ray left Maggie for Danita -- also moved to Texas, became part of that wresting circle, and made a new life.

A whole bunch of people are making new lives and moving on in Perla La Loca. Others are just moving forward in the lives they have: building wrestling careers, indulging the weird fantasies of rich old women, getting married. Maggie is at the middle of all that, but she's not changing. (Is that because of who she is, or was it Hernandez trying to hold onto the character she was in 1981? Or maybe a bit of both?)

Questions of identity also start cropping up: I'm calling her "Maggie" here for simplicity, but she's mostly "Perla" in this book, the name her family calls her. Similarly, is Penny Century "really" Beatriz Garcia? As the title quietly underscores, "Locas" is not just the title of the story-cycle: Hernandez's main characters really do act crazy, sabotaging themselves over and over again, doing things that are bad for them, running away from their lives.

At this point, both Maggie and Hopey have been away from their old town of Hoppers for years, totally out of touch. The long opening story here, "Wigwam Bam," is basically the story of what else is going on while Maggie is wasting time in Texas: Izzy is cracking up, Doyle is trending down, Ray and Danita are falling apart, and Hopey is drifting aimlessly, first in a circle of deeply superficial catty lesbians and then into the related world of those rich old women and their hired "daughters." The rest of the book mostly focuses on Maggie, with a few Hopey interruptions and news from Hoppers when Danita and then Esther arrive.

I think Hernandez was thinking, part of the time as he made these stories, that no one can stay young forever. (Well, comics characters can, but, if they're real, they shouldn't.) Maggie and Hopey still aren't growing up, but they're getting older -- and that will continue. They're starting to realize that they're not the crazy young punker girls they were in 1981 -- but they're not quite thinking about who they should be now, yet.

Hernandez shows all of this without ever telling it. His stories are supple and imply vastly more than they say, letting these flawed people act out their conflicts and problems in front of us, almost making us feel like voyeurs in their lives. He started strong at the beginning of Love and Rockets and only got better from there: by this point, he was as good as anyone in comics and still getting stronger.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/21/18

Welcome back to Monday! Every week, I have a list here of books that are new in my house -- sometimes because they're newly-published and sent by hard-working publicists, sometimes because I've bought them, and sometimes because I got them from the library.

This week I have ten books, all of which came from the library. (Have I mentioned recently how great it is that libraries collect graphic novels these days?)

Hermes is the tenth book in George O'Connor's Olympians series -- all graphic novels about various Greek gods, aimed at younger readers but great for those of us who haven't seen the inside of a middle-school for several decades.

Michael Chabon's The Escapist: Amazing Adventures collects some fraction of the 2003 Dark Horse series of basically the same name; it seems to be an amalgamation of the original first two trade paperback reprints of that series. (There seems to be another book of about this size, plus a Brian K. Vaughan-written miniseries in its own volume.) I think I've read some Escapist stories before -- despite still having Chabon's Kavalier and Clay novel on my to-be-read shelves a decade-plus later -- but it was a while ago, and I don't remember much.

The Creeps is the second collection from Fran Krause's excellent crowd-sourced webcomic Deep Dark Fears; each page is Krause illustrating one person's fear, usually submitted anonymously on that website. People aren't generally afraid of things for logical or consistent reasons, so it's an often-creepy look into other people's worries.

Why Art? is a new book by Eleanor Davis, creator of How to Be Happy and You & a Bike & A Road. I think it's one of those quirky books that's not quite fiction and not quite non-fiction, about why people create art and what good it is.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World is a collection of comics about great women in history who were not overly deferential to men by Penelope Bagieu, whose Exquisite Corpse I read a long time ago.

Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling is -- I think -- the second in Tony Cliff's historical adventure series, after ...and the Turkish Lieutenant, which I saw a few years back. (But it's been long enough that I could easily have missed a book or two.)

Speaking of my assumptions, and of historical adventure stories, I'm pretty sure Knife's Edge, by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock, is the second half of the story that started in Compass South -- it's a story about twins, and they have two important items, which are named in the two book titles. All that says to me "this is not a trilogy." But the draw of trilogy is so strong I may well be wrong; I'll find out if this one ends when I read it.

Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time is another collection of the comics series by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen, and I expect to continue to enjoy it despite feeling like I'm the opposite of the target audience. (And that's just fine: a reasonable world is filled with things that have nothing to do with me.)

And I'm up to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 5: Like I'm The Only Squirrel in the World, my longest title of the week by far. (With Book-A-Day this year, I might even catch up on some of these series I get from the library.) This one, like the previous volumes, is mostly written by Ryan North and drawn by Erica Henderson, with some scripting on one sequence by Will Murray.

Last is Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, continuing the epic fantasy in comics form. (See my post on the first book, if you like.)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #203: The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick and Art Huffman

If you had asked me "is physics more interesting than history?," I'd probably have to think about it. Both are fascinating in their own ways, full of convoluted intricate stuff that's fun to learn about or think through. It wouldn't be obvious at all.

So when I saw that Larry Gonick, author of multiple volumes of The Cartoon History of the Universe (and its follow-up, ...of the Modern World) had a book called The Cartoon Guide to Physics, created with physics teacher Art Huffman, I thought that was a book for me.

(And then it sat on my shelf for at least a decade, because that's what always happens.)

I finally read it recently, and it reminded me of something I learned back when I worked in publishing: a truism that I wanted not to be true but, eventually, accepted that definitely was.

The truism is this: Every equation in a book reduces its potential audience by half.

The Cartoon Guide to Physics has eight equations in the first chapter alone.

So this is a book primarily for people seriously interested in learning physics -- not learning about physics, or science in general, or general knowledge. It's for people who want to start with F=ma, understand what that means, and go on from there. My guess is that it's primarily used on the highschool level, and I could see it being a lot of fun for students who are learning this stuff anyway -- it's definitely more interesting and dynamic than a textbook.

But it's much less interesting and dynamic than, say, a random graphic novel, which is what it might be shelved next to. So if you pick up a Gonick Cartoon Guide book, take a look inside it -- they can vary a lot.

This one is divided into two large sections -- the first covers Mechanics, with the laws of motion, starting with speed and acceleration and moving on to cover orbits, momentum, gravity, inertia, collisions, and rotation (and several dozen equations). The second half of the book is Electricity and Magnetism, which has slightly fewer equations but just as many numbers and technical details.

I read this book casually, which really isn't the point. You should read each page carefully, think through the equations and implications, and only move on once it all makes sense to you. (I'm going to pretend that I already knew all of this stuff, and that's why I read it straight through. Yeah. That's the ticket.)

Gonick draws this is in a very loose, expressive style, and his main characters this time are a young woman (who is unnamed as far as I could see) and a Gonick-esque mustachioed man called Ringo. Like his other books, it's not really comics -- there are drawings on the page, but there's also a lot of words, mostly arranged in block around them, and the drawings only rarely form a sequence of action. But it's a first cousin of comics, and could be of interest to comics people for that reason. But the primary audience, again, is people trying to seriously learn physics, either as part of a regular course of study or just for themselves.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #202: Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and various artists (6 volumes)

I wouldn't say that all of modern mainstream comics comes from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. Frank Miller's work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight was just as influential, alongside the Claremont X-Men and the event frenzy kick-started by the Wolfman/Perez Crisis. And there have certainly been major developments in the thirty years since then. But our modern adventure-story comics world was formed in those days of the mid-80s when the Direct Market was strong and growing, when the outside world was reading "comics are growing up" stories every few months (with new examples each time), and the expectations of both readers and publishers started to bend to shocking revelations and long story arcs and Worlds That Would Never Be the Same. And that world was strongly molded by Alan Moore, starting with Swamp Thing in late 1983.

Thirty-plus years later, those Moore stories are both shockingly modern and shockingly old-fashioned: cold-eyed about humanity and the place of superbeings alongside it, but utterly besotted with their own wordy narration. These are intensely told stories: Moore in the '80s was the culmination of Silver Age style, all captions and explanations and background and atmosphere, cramming all of his ideas and poetic descriptions into each twenty-three page issue, exhausting every concept as soon as he introduced it.

Swamp Thing, the character, was a scientist named Alec Holland, working on a "bio-restorative formula" with his also-scientist wife in what looked like a barn deep in the Louisiana marshes. (This all made sense in the early 1970s, when ecology and back-to-the-land were huge.) The usual evil forces of international business sabotaged his work: his wife was killed and Alec, permeated with the formula and burning to death from an explosion, fell into the swamp. He arose, a few days later, as the slow-talking Swamp Thing, to stop those evil businessmen and battle weird menaces around the world for at least the duration of the early-70s horror boom. His first comics series ended after 24 issues of slowly dwindling sales and quickly increasing gimmicks to try to reverse the sales drop, and was revived about a decade later when a cheap movie adaptation came out. The same slow-death started setting in, with similar results, and the second series began to look like it would run only about as long as the first.

And then Alan Moore took over writing what was then Saga of the Swamp Thing from Martin Pasko with issue #20. His first outing was a clean-up effort, tying off "Loose Ends" from the Pasko run, like a concert pianist running a few scales to warm up before diving into the meat of the program. A month later, he delivered one of the most influential and iconic single issues of any comic, "The Anatomy Lesson," where he carefully explained that Swamp Thing's origin and explanation made no sense whatsoever, and started the path to what he declared was a better foundation for the character. (He was right, and he shouldn't be blamed that a thousand others have tried to do the same thing to a thousand other characters since then, with not necessarily the same level of rigor or success.)

Before long, the title had simplified to Swamp Thing -- the same as that original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson series a decade before -- grown the tag-line "Sophisticated Suspense," and quietly become the first Big Two comic to ditch the Comics Code seal. It was also a huge hit, both critically and commercially. By the time Moore ended his run on Swamp Thing with #64, almost four years later, the Crisis had come and gone, he was in the middle of Watchmen, and the landscape of American comics had been radically changed.

(As a sidebar, it's interesting to note that the editor on those early Moore Swamp Thing issues was Wein himself -- it's a fantastic example of a creator nurturing stories that reinterpret, even replace, the work he did earlier.)

That Swamp Thing run was one of the first to be collected in a comprehensive way soon after periodical publication, as the comics industry started to realize what the book industry had known for several generations: a creative property you can keep selling in a fixed form for years is vastly more valuable than creative properties that you need to refresh every month. The complete Alan Moore run is currently available as six trade paperbacks, under the overall title The Saga of the Swamp Thing, reprinting all forty-five issues with introductions by various people. (Not including Moore, though, as anyone who has heard about his contentious relationship with DC Comics since will expect.) If you're looking for those books individually, have some links: one, two, three, four, five, six.

The first thing to note is that the divisions between books generally make sense: they each collect eight issues, except Book Five has only six, and they tend to break at important moments. This is partially an artifact of comics-storytelling norms of the time: then, a three-issue story was an epic, and anything longer than that was remarkable. (Of course, subplots would run longer than that -- I mentioned Claremont up top, and he's one of the major originators of the throw-in-hints-of-the-next-four-stories-in-each-issue plotting style -- but the actual conflict in any issue would be done within fifty or seventy pages nearly all the time.) But Swamp Thing also tended to run to story arcs, more and more as Moore wrote it; it's one of the origins of that now-common structure. So it's partially luck, partially planning, and partially the nature of these stories that makes them break down as cleanly as they do into volumes. It means that a reader can come to this series thirty years later -- it's now impossible to come to it any earlier, if you haven't already -- and take it one book at a time, as her interest is piqued. (Or you can run through all of them quickly, as I did.)

Book One leads off with #20, "Loose Ends" -- not generally included in Swamp Thing reprints for the first decade or so, as DC presumably wanted to start with the bigger bang of "The Anatomy Lesson" -- and runs through the continuation of that story with Jason Woodrue and then a three-part story featuring Jack Kirby's The Demon. These are the foundational stories, in which Moore resets everything about the series: tone, cast, mood, atmosphere, even genre. (There were horror elements in the earlier stories, obviously, but Moore moved it definitively from "superhero story with horror villains" to "horror story with a muckmonster hero.") The Woodrue story also has a nice cameo by the Justice League, cementing Swampy's place in the "real" DC Universe. Swamp Thing, and the Vertigo imprint that eventually grew out of it, would have a complicated relationship with that continuity over the next few decades -- as that continuity itself got more complex and self-referential, in part driven by the work Moore did here and other writers did in a similar vein -- but, when it began, it was just the weird corner of the same universe.

Book Two is anchored by the return of Anton Arcane, Swampy's greatest villain, who Moore made even more infernal as he threw Arcane into Hell and brought him (briefly) back. I'm not sure if this is the first time we get an extended look at DC Comics Hell -- there were a bunch of vaguely Satanic comics in the '70s, though mostly on the Marvel side -- but Moore's vision of Hell, as amplified and extended a few years later by Neil Gaiman in the early issues of Sandman, was the model for DC for a generation from this point. This second book also has the first visual breaks from the main look for the Moore run: the majority of the early Moore issues are pencilled by Stephen Bissette and inked by John Totleben, but they have a very detailed, intricate style and Swamp Thing also tended to have heavily designed pages -- which all added up to mean that getting twenty-three pages done, at that level and in that style, tended to take longer than the month between issues. So this volume has two issues drawn by Shawn McManus: the first a coda to the storyline of the first volume, the second a homage to Walt Kelly's Pogo. And another issue reprinted here brings back Cain and Abel, the mystery hosts from DC's horror-anthology comics of the early '70s, in a framing story drawn by Ron Randall to showcase the original short "Swamp Thing" comic by Wein and Wrightson that served as a tryout and model for the '70s series.

Book Three is the bulk of the "American Gothic" storyline, introducing John Constantine -- who has gone on to fame on his own, with a very long-running comic and a movie that was at least higher-budget than any of Swampy's -- and sending Swampy cross-country to see and confront growing horrors in the world: nuclear waste, racism, sexism, and (of course) aquatic vampires. Here the art continues to move around a small team: Rick Veitch pencils one issue (he also helped out on some pages in two issues in the first volume), Alfredo Alcala inks another, and Stan Woch pencils a third. The team is clearly moving resources around to maintain a consistent visual look and at the same time maintain that punishing monthly deadline. These stories are the heart of Swamp Thing as a horror comic: Moore is taking individual concerns of the then-modern world (mostly; the aquatic vampires aren't particularly emblematic of anything) and showing how they can be twisted and made horrible.

Book Four finishes up "American Gothic," which leads into the double whammy of Crisis and Swamp Thing's own fiftieth issue, which was explicitly positioned in the story as a crisis after the Infinite Earths one. (Evil South American wizards -- the same ones mentioned in Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, which I coincidentally read recently -- knew the whole "worlds will live, worlds will die" thing was coming, and planned to summon Primordial Darkness to take over Heaven in the tumult.) This is one of Moore's largest-scale stories, and from that era when he aspired to write big superhero-universe crossovers: Watchmen started out that way, and the aborted Twilight of the Superheroes project from 1987 was an even bigger take on the same idea. So Swampy almost becomes a supporting character in his own book, with the Demon and the Phantom Stranger and Deadman and the Spectre and Dr. Fate and John Constantine with a roomfull of minor DC magicians all demanding their time in the spotlight. It does all come together, and tells a strong story -- even if the ending is strangely muted, with characters explicitly saying things like:
Happened? Nothing has happened. Everything has happened. Can't you feel it? Everywhere things look the same, but the feeling...the feeling is different."
One can admire Moore's writing and plotting and still think this is a remarkably deflating denouement.

Book Five is another group of transitional stories. First, because the art team switches to Veitch and Alcala, except for one issue in the middle drawn entirely by Totleben. And, more importantly, because it moves from the aftermath of the "spiritual Crisis" through the arrest and prosecution of Swampy's girlfriend Abby in Gotham City -- and Swampy's subsequent assault on that city through a massive green-ification project -- before Swampy sets off, unexpectedly and not by choice, on his next story arc. At the risk of spoiling thirty-five year old stories, he's catapulted off into space, where he needs to learn how to modulate his wavelengths (more or less) to get back home.

And Book Six is when he does so. By this time, Moore was also working on Watchmen, and was getting to the point where he'd nearly said all he wanted to say with Swamp Thing. So this last volume has stories explicitly planned as transitions to the story-sequence that would follow: Rick Veitch would take over writing (on top of pencilling), and so he writes one story here. Bissette writes another, a sidebar set back on Earth, in which Abby is reunited, for one last time, with her ill-fated father. One issue has a quite experimental art style from Totleben, all chilly mecanico-organic forms, and the big conclusion is something of a jam issue, with art from nearly everyone who contributed to the Moore run: Bissette, original Saga penciller Tom Yeates, Veitch, and Alcala, under a Totleben cover.

It all ends on a happy note: Swampy is back where he belongs, having learned more about himself and the universe and having found something like peace. If the series had ended there, it would have been an ending -- but popular comics didn't end in 1987 just because they had a good place to do so.

Instead, the next month there was a Veitch-Alcala issue, launching a new plot arc. Veitch continued the concerns and manner of the Moore run -- though with somewhat less of the overwrought narration, which was becoming outmoded even in the late '80s -- but ran afoul of DC brass a little over a year later, during a time-travel storyline that was to culminate with Swampy meeting a certain religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine.

But that's all another story: a story not collected in the books I'm writing about here, and in fact never collected, since it was cancelled and twisted and broken in the process.

Moore wrote forty-three issues of Swamp Thing over a four-year period, including at least three double-length issues (and, again, Veitch and Bissette also each contributed one script as part of the overall plot line). He worked with a team that ended up being fairly large -- Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, and Alcala most of the time, McManus and Randall and Yeates and Dan Day stepping in here and there. But the whole thing does hang together -- it's not quite one story, but it's a closely related cluster of stories, with consistent themes and concerns, that took a fairly conventional "weird hero" and turned him and his world into something new and strange in American comics.

Others have built on this foundation since then: most obviously, Neil Gaiman with Sandman, who got the luxury of a real ending and who was able to take a stronger hand at choosing art teams to go with specific story sequences. But Sandman could not have happened without the Moore Swamp Thing, as a thousand other comics could not have happened -- all of Vertigo, for example, and most of what Image currently publishes, and Mike Mignola's Hellboy universe, among many others.

Modern readers might find the Moore Swamp Thing much wordier than they expect: he was the last great Silver Age writer, a decade or two out of his time, when he wrote these comics. They're all good words, deployed well and to strong effect -- but we have to admit there are a lot of them. The coloring is also clearly '80s vintage: very strong for its time, and pushing the limits of what could be done with newsstand comics in those days long before desktop publishing, but still clearly more limited and bold than what we're used to today.

All those things are inherent in reading older stories. And all stories are "older" before too long. The strong stories are worth the effort -- frankly, even new strong stories require some effort, since that's one of the main things that makes them strong.

You should read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, if you have any interest in comics or horror or superhero universes or ecology in literature or spirituality or transcendence. If you're not interested in any of those things, well, it sounds like a dull life, but good luck with it.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #201: How To Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr

I'm mostly reading books I can be serious about for Book-A-Day this time. That's mildly surprising; when I've done this in the past, it's often turned into my reading the silliest and most frivolous books I had on hand and dashing off something quick about them so I could get back to whatever else was going on in my life at the time.

But today I don't think I can be all that serious. Because today the book I have is How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr, which seems to have grown out of the author's involvement with A Prairie Home Companion back in the '80s but turned into its own cottage industry once the first edition of the book was published in 1987. (What I read was an expanded anniversary edition from 2012.)

My excuse for reading it is that I'm spending a lot of time either in Minnesota or with Minnesotans these days; the "mothership" for my division of Thomson Reuters is in a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, and I'm out there several times a year. Most of my close colleagues are housed there, too -- I work with one person who sits next to me in Hoboken, another one who works from home in Connecticut, and then a whole bunch of Minnesotans.

So I clearly want to understand these strange people, right?

Well, there's two problems with that. First, they're not actually all that strange -- sure, they do care a lot more about the State Fair than anyone I've ever met on the east coast, and food plays a much larger part in office culture there than it does here. But those are pretty minor differences, and the others I've seen are on that level.

Second, Mohr's model Minnesotan is male and rural -- very specifically as opposed to those citified Twin Cities types -- and of a generation at least comfortably middle-aged in the mid-80s. We've all changed since then, and Minnesotans are no exception. Most of the people I work with are from later generations -- my own, and the ones after -- and most of them are women, as well. Now, Mohr does cover Minnesotan women here, but the bulk of his material is about that laconic, semi-rural Midwestern male with an origin sometime around WWII.

So this book was, not all that surprisingly, not a very good guide to the culture of my co-workers, even granting the usual exaggerations inherent in a book of humor. It actually reminded me more of the brief period when I was a fan of the Red Green Show -- it's that same kind of gentle real-guy humor, focused on fixing things, vaguely manly pursuits, and avoiding talking about emotions at all costs.

I'm sure the specific manifestations of Upper Midwest Manhood here are peculiar to Minnesota -- I'm not saying this is the same as the Canadian or Michigan or Wisconsin versions -- but they all rhyme to a certain degree. (And that familiarity, of course, is the basis of humor -- you only laugh at something you recognize.)

But How to Talk Minnesotan is a good example of that kind of gentle, self-deprecating male humor, with long disquisitions on how to wave while driving a car (the most advanced practitioners can use a single finger), what "a little lunch" is and how often you'll be eating it, and how to use those staples of conversation, "you bet" and "tell me about it."

You do not need to be Minnesotan to enjoy it, though the younger, more female, and/or more urban you are, the farther it will be from your experience of life. It is amusing rather than trying to be hit-you-over-the-head funny, with a lot of fake ads and other things some readers will find faintly redolent of the Dad Joke. And, in a sense, How to Talk Minnesotan is, at its heart, one long dad joke.

I am a dad, if not really this kind of dad, so that was OK with me.