Sunday, September 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #273: Henchgirl by Kristen Gudsnuk

Flipping the script is a great way to freshen things up. The standard take on Young People Today is that they're poor and stressed out, so how about giving your heroine more income than she knows what to do with and a give-no-fucks attitude?

OK, sure, she still lives in a dumpy apartment with two roommates, because young people always do that, but she actually has a decent health-care plan. (Though she does have to see Dr. Maniac every time.)

That's the kind of plan you get when you work for a supervillain: those are the pros and cons. You have to fight superheroes a lot, but you make a lot of money and get to steal really cool things.

This is Mary Posa's life: she's a Henchgirl in the Butterfly Gang, run by Monsieur Butterfly. (The other members: Larry Va, Paladan Birdwing, Chris Calis, Katie Pillar, and of course Coco Oon.) She's young and gleeful in Crepe City, in this offbeat and not-entirely-serious story about superpersons by Kristen Gudsnuk.

I said "not-entirely-serious," but it's not entirely silly, either. Henchgirl is neither parody nor straight superhero story, but something more particular, in-between. Mary's world is silly, maybe even a little more so than your standard superhero world, but it's taken as seriously as any of those. Mary lives in a town where the preeminent hero is Mr. Great Guy, and where we the readers can figure out pretty easily that's he's actually millionaire playboy Greg Gains. But that's where she really lives: it's not the basis for jokes. Crepe City is absurd in different ways than our world -- ways that align with a lot of superhero-comics cliches -- but who's to say those absurdities are less likely?

Mary is flippant and frivolous and carefree -- well, as carefree as you can be when you're one of the top lieutenants of a major villain in a superhero universe. Luckily, this is the kind of superhero universe where the villains mostly get away with it and their henchfolks are rolling in the dough. Things blow up, buildings fall down, aliens invade and kill thousands -- it's a modern superhero world, and it would probably look pretty grim 'n' gritty if we were seeing it from Mr. Great Guy's POV.

For Mary, though, it's pretty sweet for a long time: she gets a boyfriend, Fred, who is also the not-terribly-effective superhero Mannequin, and uses him to leak her boss's plan to rob an orphanage. (So the crew does her heist instead, and also she gets to feel good about the horrible thing they didn't do.) The money's great, the hours aren't bad, and she can live with her roommates Tina and Sue complaining about her evil activities and lack of tax-paying work.

But then things start getting more problematic: Monsieur Butterfly is getting violent as he searches for the "mole" in his gang...and the gang is not that big to begin with. And her parents, the '80s-era heroes Flame Girl and El Romancero, come to town on their big fancy book tour, accompanied by the daughter they did put in their book, the budding superheroine Photo-Girl.

And Mannequin gets a new crime-fighting partner in the cute but overwhelming Lovely Celestial Angel Amelia, and along the way gets a power increase from her magical gadgets and a new identity as the Time Baron. And Mary's roommate Tina starts developing a weird superpower of her own. And Mary's attempt at heroism, saving her parents from a supervillain, is successful but not particularly popular (or legal, for that matter).

Can one henchgirl make it through all of those problems and find happiness, fulfillment, and that one perfect mask? You'd better believe it!

Mary is an interesting character: a slacker villain henchwoman with vaguely good intentions and a random vague cluelessness that may be just not bothering with things that bore her. The world around her is filled with similarly interesting people -- all pretty flawed, in various ways, but not necessarily bad people, even if they spend their time robbing banks and cheating orphans.

This is the complete Henchgirl, at least for now. There could be more stories about Mary, but Gudsnuk left her in a good superhero-universe ending spot, so I don't think there will be any for at least a few years.

I think Henchgirl was creator Kristen Gudsnuk's first major work -- or maybe I think that because I didn't hear of her before this. (And I hope I would have heard of someone doing work that's this much fun!) She's got a nice, easy line, in a modern style with some anime and western-animation influences and a loose-limbed ease with action and the lack thereof.

I liked Henchgirl a lot -- example: while Googling Gudsnuk to type this, I found she has a new middle-grade graphic novel out this year, and I already have a hold on it at the library -- and, if you actually read my blog, there's a very good chance you will, as well. It's that kind of off-kilter semi-superhero thing that uses the genre as a jumping-off point rather than a pit to wallow in.

Gudsnuk is funny and smart and tells good stories with good people. I hope she does a lot more comics, so I can read 'em.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #272: Oddjob by Ian and Tyson Smith

An indy comic with bold, dark-outlined computer art and a cast off oddballs investigating weird things...I smell the '90s!

I kid, I kid. But Oddjob does feel very much of a particular era in comics. This book collects the full Slave Labor Graphic series of the same name (which followed a series of minicomics, some in different art styles, under slightly different names) by Ian and Tyson Smith. The book was published in 2002, collecting comics from early 1999 through early 2001 -- which is close enough to "the '90s" for me.

I don't know the Smith brothers otherwise: I found this book randomly in a store, many years later, and picked it up because it reminded me of a lot of other oddball comics from the '90s and other decades. From a quick websearch, it looks like this was the way they broke into comics, and they had a couple of projects afterward, moved on into movies for a while, and have been quiet (at least on the places I saw) for about a decade.

On the other hand, there's both a dead British politician and a live British comedian named "Ian Smuth," and Tyson is only somewhat less common. So it's entirely possible that they're active doing something artsy but not plugged strongly into Google-Fu.

Anyway, this is the mostly-complete adventures of Moe, Investigator of the Odd! He has a mysterious, enigmatic origin, goggles that he never removes, a vault full of strange and quirky artifacts that he must keep from the hands of ordinary men, and an office above "the second freshest-smelling bar in Spiral City."

His sidekicks are the tough Moose Mulligan, owner and tender of that bar I just mentioned, and the nearly-useless performance-artist Robin the Clown. His investigations include living Gummi creatures from another dimension, exploding echidnas, missing mystical tikis, and the bell that makes it recess forever. There is both a runawayMoe-bot and an Evil Moe within just eight issues.

It has to be said that Oddjob is aggressively wacky. I think it's all honestly wacky: these are the stories these guys wanted to tell. But it is not unlike other very wacky things in comics and animation, from Flaming Carrot and Freakazoid on down.

Writer Ian has a knack for keeping it all going and making the pacing work -- not a small thing in a story where literally anything could happen. And artist Tyson's fat inky lines are delightful -- there's a note in the backmatter that he moved to computer art because he could finally get the really clean, thick lines he wanted that way, and it shows in his work.

Even in the history of quirky comics, Oddjob is just a footnote. But everything doesn't need to be important or major: things can just be fun. And this is.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #271: The F Word by Jesse Sheidlower

Most people wouldn't read dictionaries for fun. But, if they did, they'd probably read fun and quirky dictionaries, and they'd read them in some way that lets them read a bit, enjoy that, and then put it down until the next time.

So if you aspire to be more than "most people," I can suggest that Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word, which I recently read in the updated 2009 edition, is a fine book to have on your nightstand, where you can dip into it a bit before bed, on those nights when you feel like it.

It is, yes, a dictionary. But it's a dictionary entirely made up of words with "fuck" in them -- and a few very obvious euphemisms included for purposes of completeness -- which makes it more interesting and racy than your average desk Webster's.

And Sheidlower, who published the first edition of this book in 1995, is exactly the person to do it: he's an Editor at Large on the OED and is generally considered the pre-eminent expert on the obscene side of the English language. [1]

According to Amazon, which as we all know is never wrong, this is still the current edition of F Word: the final word (at least to date) on all of the ways you can say Fuck in English. It is published by the Oxford University Press, and is impressively scholarly, with a long introduction by Sheidlower on etymology and usage and taboo status and when Fuck first appeared in various media. It also has this excellent statement of purpose, buried on page xxxvi:
This book contains every sense of fuck, and every compound word or phrase of which fuck is a part, that the editor believe has ever had broad currency in English. It does not contain words meaning 'to have sex' or 'to victimize' that are used, often unconsciously, as euphemisms for fuck, such as lay, screw, shaft, or do it.However, it does include euphemisms for fuck that directly suggest, in sound and meaning, the word itself: thus the inclusion of freaking, foul up, mofo, and others. 
It's full of historical usages of all of those words, of course, and can get a bit dry as you work through ten pages of usages of all of the senses of 'fuck, verb.' But it's also full of the wonders of the language, from go fuck a duck to hate-fuck to beans and motherfuckers to absofuckinglutely to ratfuck to unfuckable.

It's a fucking great book: this is what I'm saying. For anyone who likes this language and isn't too old-maidish about it, it's a book you should be familiar with. It's one of the most entertaining dictionaries I've ever read. [2]

[1] This, of course, makes me wonder if Sheidlower has counterparts in the other major world languages, and if they all get together and discuss whether Hindi or Catalan have more evocative words for talking about shit, or if French really is the pre-eminent language of the sexual act. That would be an awesome conference.

[2] The very most entertaining dictionary I've ever read, obviously, is Manguel and Guadalupi's The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. But that's not a proper dictionary, and so is probably cheating.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #270: Come Again by Nate Powell

The cliche is that the happiest-looking people have the darkest secrets. I don't know if that's consistently true in real life -- how would you design a study to test that, anyway? -- but it's a surefire winner in fiction, where contrast and irony are the go-to tools.

Nate Powell's new graphic novel Come Again is about the secrets in a seemingly idyllic group of hippies on an Arkansas Ozark hill. Haven Station is where they live, an "intentional community" eight years into its life in 1979. They farm and garden and live off the land -- what the land mostly provides is marijuana, but don't say that too loudly.

Two couples were among the first to join up back in 1971; four young friends who had known each other since childhood: Haluska and Gus, Whitney and Adrian. Since then, they each had a son -- Haluska and Gus's Jacob, Whitney and Adrian's Shane. Gus left Haluska, a year or so back, and went "downhill" to the local town, back to straight society and normal life. It looks like it was the usual kind of breakup, and they're friendly with each other, still, for Jacob's sake and because this is a small, isolated area and you can't get too far away from each other.

Gus did not leave Haluska because she's been having an affair with Adrian. He doesn't know that. No one knows that.

But they have: they've been sneaking away together since at least 1971, since before they joined Haven Station. And Haluska is our central character here, the one who will have to confront those long-held secrets and those years of lying.

(I'm happy that the book focuses on a woman: we need more of that. I'm not as happy about how Come Again settles all of the weight of responsibility for this affair on her shoulders, letting Adrian stay vague and personable. He's just as responsible, just as complicit, just as central, just as lying. And centering the story on her can look like slut-shaming from a lot of perspectives: that the woman bears the price for infidelity, and is the one who has to make everything right, because she's the one who controls sexuality and child-rearing. It's not a fatal flaw, but it's noticeable. And that conception  -- that this all is Haluska's responsibility -- is central to Come Again.)

Powell's books often have supernatural underpinnings, particularly the magisterial Swallow Me Whole. Come Again follows in that tradition, but, as before, it's nothing you've seen before, nothing with a name. On that Ozark hillside, there's a door, which leads into some rooms and caverns. In that space -- maybe also elsewhere; maybe everywhere -- is an entity, a voice in the darkness that is sometimes quiet and half-forgotten and sometimes is demanding, feeding on secrets.

That set of caverns, of course, is where Haluska and Adrian run away to have sex together. We see them do so near the beginning of this book; we think they may have been doing this, off and on, every day or week or month for eight years or more. That's a lot of secrets.

Most of Come Again take place over a couple of days. It's Haluska and Adrian's turn to take the farm's produce -- again, with the pot hidden under the table but the real draw for their customers -- down to a farmer's market in town. Meanwhile, Jacob and Shane, the two boys of these two couples, are out wandering around like boys do.

They find the door. They enter the caves. They go too far.

Meanwhile, Haluska and Adrian come back from town, in the middle of a fight. They break up, for what might be forever. They won't need that door anymore, and prove it to each other.

But a boy is lost. And when he's not found, he quickly drops out of memory -- as if no one, except one person, can hold on to the secret of his existence.

And who cares most about secrets in this place?

Come Again has gorgeous, brilliant pages, equal parts seeped in the darkness of night secrets and dark caves and shot through with the glow of a late-summer day. Powell has some neat tricks with lettering as well, to show secrets and forgetfulness, to hint at the power of that strange voice underground.

I didn't love Come Again as much as Swallow Me Whole, in part because of the embedded sexism of Haluska, in part because I don't quite buy the logic of the supernatural deal at the end. But it's a strong work, well-written and powerfully imagined and brilliantly drawn. And Powell is one of our very best comics storytellers in the modern world.

Don't let my minor misgivings keep you away: this is a major book by a major creator, and if you're not familiar with Powell, you've got a lot of great work ahead of you.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #269: Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat by George Booth

George Booth was exactly the age I am now in 1975, when his cartoon collection Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat came out. By that point, he'd been drafted during WWII, served as a Marine in that war and Korea, had been on the staff of Leatherneck, and had a fifteen-year career as an art director before quitting to make cartoons and gaining fame in the pages of the New Yorker.

So I feel a little bit like a slacker here.

Booth had been illustrating children's books since at least 1964's  Never Tease a Weasel -- including the great Wacky Wednesday, from Theo LeSeig Dr. Seuss's script -- but I think this was his first book of cartoons to be published. It does have an introduction by his mother congratulating him on his achievement, which tends to reinforce that idea.

And, yes, having your mother write the introduction to your book of cartoons and ending with "Stay in there, George. I think you are going to make it." is deeply Boothian, and may start an explanation of where all of the various oddballs and their cats, dogs, musical instruments, bathtubs, potted plants, small appliances, and extension cords come from.

George Booth was always a cartoonist of the odd: his people were deeply rumpled at best and often with faces twisted by either uncanny joy or equally uncanny grumpery, and the scenes they were part of are full of bric-a-brac, junk, detritus, and various small creatures, sometimes recognizable as cats or dogs.

He also, even this far back, was fond of the exceptionally long caption, always phrased perfectly -- such as "When Jamie ate the stamps, I told him Mr. Postman would be very angry. And you are very angry, aren't you, Mr. Postman?" And his unique standard settings -- the man dictating from his bathtub, sometimes even to another person taking notes; the wife announcing something to her clearly tormented-writer husband; the room with far too many flowering plants in it -- are here as well, several times each.

There are people who don't like or understand single-panel cartoons. I hope, some day, there will be a cure for their devastating condition. For the rest of us, George Booth is a national treasure. This is where he started: if you can find it, it's a good place to start with Booth.

But any other book of Booth cartoons is a good place as well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #268: My Boyfriend Is a Bear by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris

No one's perfect, y'know? You're always going to have to deal with some things that aren't exactly what you'd want when you're in a relationship with someone. Sometimes it'll be a dealbreaker -- there's an entertaining double-page spread in this book headed "Douchebags I've Dated" with some examples -- but some things you might just decide you can live with.

Say that you're a young modern LA girl, with an unpleasant call-center job, taking abuse from people who didn't realize they'd signed up for recurring payments for some useless software. Say you have run through those aforementioned douchebags, and even more, without finding anyone nice. And say you meet someone loving and cuddly and tender and only somewhat clumsy and prone to breaking things, and that he clearly loves you.

Would it be a dealbreaker if he happens to be a five-hundred pound American Black Bear?

Well, it wasn't for Nora. And this is her story: My Boyfriend Is a Bear. You could probably read it as an allegory if you wanted to, but, really, it's a fun romance comic about one girl and one bear against the world.

This is, as you might imagine, not entirely serious. Nora's new boyfriend is just "the bear," and the most articulate thing he ever says is "grah." (Which can be more articulate than some people, granted.) My Boyfriend Is a Bear is not set in a world of sentient bears or uplifted mammals or anything exotic like that: it's our world, our LA, only this one bear is in love with this girl. And vice versa.

Boyfriend is sweet and fun and goofy, and is probably playing with more genre-romance cliches than I noticed. Writer Pamela Ribon keeps Nora quirky and fun without making her a total dingbat, and artist Cat Farris makes all of the pages just as cute as a button.

And, if your own relationships bear some odd resemblance to Nora and the bear, well, that's your own problem....

Monday, September 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #267: Three Sisters by Gilbert Hernandez

This may turn into another post where I'm overwhelmed by how prolific Gilbert Hernandez is: Three Sisters is the seventh book collecting his stories from Love and Rockets and related publications, with stories that originally appeared between 1999 and 2007.

And that follows Ofelia, with stories from 1999-2004 and Luba and Her Family, with stories from 1995-2001. (And, in the middle, Comics Dementia, with non-continuity stories over a wider span, but including a bunch from that same decade.)

I underline that to show that there's a lot of overlap here: the long stories in each of these books came out in this order, but there's a lot of shorter pieces, and those are much more scattered. Perhaps Hernandez picked stories for each book based on his own knowledge of the internal chronology, perhaps by some general theme, perhaps some other reason -- the book itself doesn't say.

But Three Sisters continues the soap-opera drama of Ofelia, though in a somewhat quieter mode: the big ending events of Ofelia are echoing here -- including one implied but not actually noted there -- in the lives of the three sisters of the title (Luba, Petra, and Fritzi/Rosalba) and their family and friends.

Fritzi is most central to this book: one plot thread is about her shift from being a therapist to a career as a B-movie actress, and the other main thread is the slow drift downward of Mark Herrera, her ex-husband, motivational speaker, and narrator of the "Dumb Solitaire" cluster of stories.

Luba and her family moves into the background -- we see Maricela a little, learn about Doralis's fate, and the "littles" show up around the edges a bit. Guadalupe, though, is more prominent here than before, maybe because her husband Gato isn't in this book, and maybe because her kids also get their own little series of stories as "the Kid Stuff Kids." She's also a belly dancer, with Fritz, which may be more relevant: this is a book that revolves around Fritz, so everyone who has a connection to her get a turn in the secondary spotlight.

Fritz is one of Hernandez's least realistic characters: multi-lingual and lisping in only some of them, ridiculously buxom even for her family, effortlessly successful in several varied careers, bisexual and very busy, with a gun fetish and a manipulative streak notable even among a cast of world-class manipulators. So the stories about her can turn into something like cartoons, or the fan-fiction version of Hollywood. She's fascinating and her exploits entertaining, but she's harder to take seriously than a more grounded character like Guadalupe or Luba.

And the men in Three Sisters are shell-shocked by the Hernandez women, generally thrilled just to be allowed to be part of the world, circling in wider orbits around the center of the action. Without Gato or one of Hernandez's gangster plots, there's no equal center of gravity on the male side of the cast to stand up to Fritz and the other forces of nature that are Hernandez's women. So if Ofelia was a soap opera, complete with shocking ending, Three Sisters is a gentler telenovela centered on a group of indomitable women who will always win out in the end.

Reviewing the Mail : Week of 9/22/18

This week, I have five books from the library to tell you about, so let's get right to it:

Boy's Club is the big collection of Matt Furie's work from 2016,  right at the moment when his character Pepe the Frog was being horribly appropriated by racists and assholes. (Actually, I think this was just a new edition of that work -- maybe bigger and in book form for the first time? -- but the book doesn't explain and trying to Google through that morass is beyond my patience.) I will also admit to being confused about which boy this club belongs to.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 2 collects three more books in Herge's series about the intrepid boy reporter. I liked the first omnibus, even if I thought the pages are reproduced a little small in this series, so I'm back for another one.

All the Answers is a new graphic novel by Michael Kupperman, about his father, who was a quiz-show prodigy as a boy during WWII.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second is the next in this series, which I'll keep reading as long as I can get it from the library. This one came out in 2017, is written by G. Willow Wilson, is drawn by Mirka Andolfo (one issue), Takeshi Miyazawa (four issues) and Francesco Gaston (one issue), and has what looks to me like an inappropriately upskirt cover image about a teenage Muslim girl.

And then there's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, a standalone graphic novel by the team behind SG's regular comic (Ryan North and Erica Henderson). In this one, SG follows in the illustrious footsteps of Deadpool, the Punisher, and Fred Hembeck, and destroys the world she lives in (probably just for this book).

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #266: Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea by Kage Baker and Kathleen Bartholomew

Kage Baker had a very busy and varied career for about fifteen years -- not nearly long enough, but it's what we got. She wrote one sequence of eight SF novels about the time-traveling cyborgs of The Company, and a whole lot of other SF of various lengths that was explicitly or implicitly part of that series, or, at the further extreme, at least set in the same world.

One of the odder pendants of the Company series were the novellas about Nell Gwynne's. You see, the Company was a near-future enterprise that created immortal cyborgs, starting in the distant past, to take valuable things that would otherwise be destroyed and preserve them to be sold later. And a collection of related organizations eventually formed around those cyborgs, as they moved forward through historical time, some of which I think eventually turned into or merged with the Company, in a very Ourborous-like way. One of the precursors to the Company proper was the British Victorian-era Gentlemen's Speculative Society, the usual steampunky organization of spies and operatives.

That Society had its own private brothel, called Nell Gwynne's, deep underneath an already-exclusive restaurant in Whitehall. The employees of Nell Gwynne's are the heroines of three Baker novellas published as books: The Women of Nell  Gwynne's, Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, and the book I'm about to tell you about.

That third novella is Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea, and it was left unfinished at Baker's death in 2010. Her sister Kathleen Bartholomew completed it -- I have no idea how much work Bartholomew did, and can't compare this to the previous books, so I'll leave that point there -- and it was published in 2012. I got a copy of it somehow, probably because I was supposed to review it somewhere, but I only managed to read it this year.

And it's, somewhat appropriately, one of the more languid of Baker's works. Some of her novels, particularly Sky Coyote, meander almost aimlessly through events until they're done. She's usually zippier in her shorter works -- some of her strongest, most exciting writing is in her novellas -- and that comes through in some of the novels as well, like The Sons of Heaven. But On Land is not in any hurry to get anywhere.

That's entirely appropriate, since it's the story of a summer vacation.

The young ladies of Nell Gwynne's have the month of July 1848 off, and they head down to the sea-shore of Torquay (interchangeably also called Torbay throughout, for no obvious reason) for several weeks of rest and relaxation on the sands. The ladies themselves are vaguely fungible -- one is fond of digging for fossils, another poses as a boy, three more are sisters -- and don't have terribly distinct personalities. Their madam, Mrs. Corvey, is somewhat more particular, though part of that is because she has fancy telescoping lenses in place of her eyes (hidden behind dark glasses all of the time, as she poses as a blind widow).

The subtitle of On Land is "Who We Did on Our Summer Holidays," but I regret to note that the ladies' erotic expertise is not required or described during this adventure. One of them does need to use her charms to learn more about a strange American, but she's posing as an innocent lady of good family and so mostly just lies there.

No, instead the ladies of Nell Gwynne's have to save England from the awfully mad-science plots of that strange American, who it turns out has a steam-powered submersible and a towering urge to use it to destroy a French warship. Doing so would lead to war, obviously -- well, obviously to all of the character in the book -- and so he must be stopped.

He is, eventually, after 174 pages of not all that much action (erotic or violent), and the ladies can then settle back down to enjoy the rest of their holidays in peace. Along the way, Baker and Bartholomew nudge the reader in the ribs several times about how 1848 this year 1848 is, with overly-obvious references to Brunel, various revolutions going on, and more than one case of "you might not believe this was already A Thing in 1848, but my research shows it jolly well was."

No book finished after a writer's death by other hands is going to be one of her best. On Land is minor Baker, and would have been minor Baker even is she'd lived to complete it. It's there to be enjoyed by fans of the Company series who want just a little more of that world, even if it's a very distant, odd part of that world. And it entirely succeeds on that level, even if it doesn't always read quite like Baker, but like someone doing a quite good Kage Baker impression.

Trese Goes Global!

There is a great urban-fantasy comic from the Philippines called Trese. I've written about the first three volumes here a few years ago -- and there have been three more volumes since then, plus a seventh in progress.

The books are difficult to find on this side of the Pacific, though. (Difficult to find in most of the world, from what I can see -- that happens when you publish out of a smaller country.) And that's a huge shame: this is damn good stuff, as fantasy, as detective stories, as modern reworkings of folktale material, and as comics.

Well, you're finally in luck.

Trese creators Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo have launched an IndieGogo campaign for a global edition of Trese -- starting from the beginning for those of you who haven't seen it before.

A digital edition of the first comic is a measly two bucks. That's a steal.

I've already backed it, and kicked in an extra donation to help out. (The least I can do, since I got the first few books for free as a reviewer.) Go check it out yourself, and I hope you'll decide to back it as well.

My dream is that Trese will someday be as big as Hellboy -- it may be a crazy dream, but I'll settle for Trese books actually widely available in North America.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #265: Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: Earth's Mightiest Hero by DeConnick, Sebela, Soy, Rios, & Andrade

First up, the consumer note that I wanted but didn't get: this is indeed Volume 1 of the books reprinting the 2012 Captain Marvel series written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. (It contains twelve issues and the second volume has five more.) That was preceded by comics called Captain Marvel (just by Marvel, with various people using that superhero moniker) in 2008, 2002, 2000, 1995, 1994, 1989, and 1968, and followed by further Marvel Captain Marvel series in 2014, 2016, and 2017 (that last one starting with issue number 125, to totally confuse everyone).

So this is nowhere near the beginning of anything. Being a superhero series from one of the Big Two, I shouldn't have to mention that it's nowhere near an ending, either.

But, there's a Captain Marvel movie coming, vaguely sort-of based on this take on the character, so this is the book Marvel is hoping people will buy once they see and like that movie, and this series is also somewhat of a grand-mommy to the recent slew of "diverse" comics from Marvel. (Scare-quotes around "diverse" since a lot of it is just showcasing more women, who the numerically literate among us already know make up more than half of the human race.)

So, anyway: Captain Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Hero, Vol. 1. (I think that's the correct order of the title elements. If not, I have another option in the post title.) These are the comics where Carol Danvers, ex-Air Force test pilot and possessor of strange powers granted her by alien beings (somewhat literally) changes her costume and name, casting off "Ms. Marvel" so it can be used by someone else and Marvel can sell more comics and make more money because she is better than that, and deserves to use the slightly misspelled name of an alien dead guy because blah blah legacy yammer yammer mantle yadda yadda please tell me you're buying this?

The stupid speech I'm referring to above is given by Captain America on pages 8-10 of the first issue here, after they beat up a random bad guy in a museum for I'm sure what wouldn't be a gratuitous fight scene if anyone bothered to explain it. It contains the kind of logic and rhetoric that exist only in superhero comics, and only there because the real reason Carol Danvers is going to become Captain Marvel is that 1) Marvel owns a trademark in that name, and expects that trademark to return it some cold hard cash on the regular and 2) there are several thousand fanboys consumers who will buy anything that says Captain Marvel on the cover, at least for a few issues. Danvers is just the most obvious person to do so.

So Captain Marvel exists as pure trademark-extension, for both "Carol Danvers™" and "Captain Marvel™." Let's stipulate that. And it doesn't have to be all that good to fulfill that mission: Danvers punches someone new each issue, has some supporting cast with problems, bingo bango, it'll last long enough to make us to the next crossover event where everything will change.

But DeConnick is actually interested in people and their relationships -- well, let's not go crazy here; she is to the extent anyone can be in the straitjacket of a Marvel Universe comic -- and so she (and co-writer Christopher Sebela, on issues 7-8 and 10-12 for no obvious reason) has plots that mostly aren't about punching the Villain of the Month, and which tie into Danvers's backstory and history.

Now, again, I don't want to oversell it: it's mostly on the level of a decent made-for-TV movie or passable airport paperback, with the tough female test pilot still yearning to prove what she can do after she's left that world, and her complicated relationship with the older woman who was something of a mentor to her, plus a friendship with another woman who used to be Captain Marvel and the guy who will probably be a boyfriend, eventually. (With added time travel and aliens, obviously.)

The art is also quite distinctive: Dexter Soy does six of the issues, in what I think is a full-painted look and which is brightly surreal in a good way. Emma Rios has a spiky take on more traditional comics pencil-and-ink look (colored by Jordie Bellaire) for two issues in the middle, and Filipe Andrade does the last four issues in a very angular, loose-lined (but with almost chibi faces) style that also goes all the way to color.

This may well have looked like something startlingly different, particularly to pure Marvel readers of 2012. And it is pretty different from most of what Marvel was doing, being actually concerned with women and their emotions. For me, it's slightly more interesting than a standard Marvel comic, but only the same way sandstone is more interesting than a broken piece of concrete -- one is a bit more real than the other.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #264: Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF by Montclare, Reeder, and Bustos

It is pretty hard to have a team-up book where one of the two team members has no way to actually know the other one's name. (Not to mention everyone else in the world, who know that name by some kind of comic-book-world telepathy, I think.)

And, on an entirely different level, it is hard for me to take seriously a book that seems to be the high-speed collision of "hey, don't we need to do something with Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur every so often to keep the trademark active?" and "hey, girls in STEM are hot right now, so we should do a comic about a nerdy girl."

Don't get me wrong, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF tells a pleasant story, tells it well, and has entirely positive messages to impart to what I think it hopes is a multicultural audience of mostly young, mostly female readers. But there seems to be a lot of product management going on in the background.

Anyway: Moon Girl! Actually the preteen New Yorker Lunella Lafayette, who is way too smart for her school already at the age of nine! [1] Picked on by her classmates for being a know-it-all with a huge air of superiority who doesn't deign to even talk to them most of the time! Has the Inhuman gene, because this is a 2016 Marvel comic, and they were desperately trying to make that A Thing! [2] Makes weird science-y things out of random stuff, because that's totally something that anyone actually does in any reasonable world!

Devil Dinosaur! Named that by an outcast monkey-boy in some vague past era where bright-red dinosaurs mingle with monkey-boys! [3] Has that name in whatever language monkey-boy speaks, which is definitely not English! Smarter than you'd expect a vaguely T. Rex-y thing to be, and better able to sneak away and hide in (a) a modern city that (b) he's never been in before and (c) has nothing, as far as we can see, that he eats... than you'd expect! Also substantially more committed to fighting crime and not, y'know, eating things than you'd expect!

Luckily for her, because they meet wacky in the middle of issue 1, when the Maguffin the Nightstone (maybe) Kree Omni-Wave Projector (this time for sure!) burbles a hole in the space-time continuum and plops DD face to face with MG.

(Oh, and also lets loose a group of bad monkey-boys -- and I think one monkey-girl, though I don't want to judge anyone's monkey-gender presentation. Which leads us to...)

The Killer Folk! Tougher than Moon Boy! (Whom they, um, kill (?) before running through the hole in the space-time continuum.) Tougher than the Yancy Street Gang! Basically evil hipsters by the end of the book! They want the Maguffin (oops) and don't care who gets in their way! When they get it, they happy they have it and maybe do some more minor street crime, I guess. But they're our villains!

So MG somehow knows the big red dinosaur that grabs her in its teeth is friendly and named DD, and imprints on it like a baby duck. DD doesn't talk and mostly just smashes stuff, but he seems cool with being her sidekick (or vice-versa). And the monkey-boy did tell DD to go stop the Killer Folk from doing their Killer-Folk thing, and I guess that's what DD is doing, in his giant-red-dinosaur way.

The maguffin bounces back and forth between Killer Folk and Our Heroes, as the rest of the city gets more and more peeved at the giant red dinosaur breaking all kinds of things all over the place. Luckily, we readers are on the side of the giant red dinosaur, so we are really pissed when an actual superhero (well, the Amadeus Cho Hulk, so sort-of an actual superhero) shows up to be all superior, tell MG to go back to school, and arrests DD for being big and red and dinosaurian.

Does MG get her big red implement of mass destruction back? Do the two of them retrieve the Maguffin once and for all, and defeat the Killer Folk? Is there a Shocking Change that takes place on the very last page, to get us to buy Volume 2?

Reader, you know the answer already. [4]

[1] I was going to check to see what NYC magnet schools she would be eligible for, but that would just be mean.

[2] As opposed to The Thing, which they already had. And who isn't an Inhuman. At least the last time I checked.

[3] Wait. Isn't this supposed to be a comic for people who care about science?

[4] I forgot to mention who made this book, didn't I? Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder wrote it, and Natacha Bustos drew it. Tamra Bonvillain did the colors, which I thought were particularly strong.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #263: Nexus Archives (Vols. 1-9) by Mike Baron and Steve Rude

Comics has not been a terribly fertile ground for good science fiction. Oh, there's been a lot of space opera, since comics are excellent at depicting coruscating beams of lambent force striking overwhelmed ray-screens and control panels exploding with showers of colorful sparks. But actual stories about people and their societies, in which the details of the future world are both carefully designed and important? That's not something comics gets into all that often.

Nexus is one of the towering exceptions. It was one of the first wave of "ground-level" comics in the late '70s and early '80s, part of the flood that eventually became "independent comics." And, like a lot of things in that wave, it clearly was derived from popular ideas in mainstream comics, taking a different look at the costumed superpowered hero as Elfquest and Cerebus did the same with the fantasy adventure.

Nexus was a first -- the first comics work published by writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude, the first comic published by Capital Comics, the brand-new publishing arm of a growing regional comics distributor, maybe the first serious long-form SF in comics form. It came out first in black and white, for three large issues in 1981 and 1982, and then switched to color for a second volume in 1983 as the story continued without interruption. With the seventh color issue, in the spring of '85, publication switched to the more established and stable First Comics (based in Chicago, and a reasonably close indy-comics neighbor to the Madison, Wisconsin base of Capital, Baron, and Rude).

First would publish Nexus, and a few spin-off series, through issue 80 in 1991. First then went under, and Nexus landed at Dark Horse for a series of one-shots and mini-series that were intended as a continuation of the main story from the First series. (And they were quietly co-numbered as issues 81, etc. to indicate that.) That petered out in 1997, but there have been some Nexus stories, here and there, since then.

Dark Horse has reprinted Nexus in a serious way twice: first with the Archive volumes, classy hardcovers in the Marvel/DC mode. Twelve volumes of those came out from 2005 to 2011, collecting the whole Capital/First run but ending there. And then they started again with the cheaper, fatter paperback Omnibus series, which collected the entire '80s-'90s Nexus into eight volumes.

I personally started reading Nexus in the fall of 1986, when I went off to college, discovered the (then obligatory) good comics shop near college (Iron Vic's, sadly missed) and got a bunch of interesting-looking indy comics. And I lost track of it at the end of the Dark Horse years, though I saw the Archives and Omnibus books coming out and vaguely planned to collect them to re-read. Eventually, I got the first nine Archives books, which collected up to First issue 57, and spent a lot of pleasant time in my late-August vacation reading them.

So what I can talk about today is about the first half of Nexus: most of the main continuous phase, and the bulk of the Baron-Rude days. Rude didn't want to spend his entire life doing this one comic, and so this stretch has a number of issues with art by other people, and the end of the First run would be almost entirely drawn by other hands.

(Links to the individual books: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Or, if you'd rather try the Omnibus route, here's the first one.)

In a vaguely Legion of Super-Heroes way, Nexus is locked onto a pan-galactic multi-species future five hundred years ahead -- the late twenty-fifth century. In most of the issues here, it's not entirely clear what the year is or how much time is passing, but it's clear time is passing, more quickly than usual for a monthly periodical comic. One year of Nexus comics is roughly equal to one year of time in Nexus's universe -- people will grow and change, and the world will not stay the same at any point.

That seems like a small point, but it's crucial: in 1981, comics really didn't do that. Even by 1991, when the First Nexus series ended, continuity didn't mean that anyone got older, just that old stories (or some of them, at least) counted. But Nexus was a place where time was real, death was real, people were individual and quirky and never blandly heroic or evil, and everything would get more complicated and difficult over time, just like the real world.

Nexus is a man: Horatio Hellpop. The rest of the universe does not know that name -- they just know that he appears, as Nexus, to assassinate various people. (All humans, all mass murderers...but that may not be clear to everyone.) He harnesses vast energy powers, through fusion sources that are the subject of frenzied theorizing.

His base is an obscure, out-of-the-way moon called Ylum. (As in, and pronounced to match, asylum.) That world is filling up with refugees fleeing a thousand tyrannical regimes, people of all races and nationalities, with no real infrastructure and, as yet, no government other than the vague presence of Nexus himself.

As Nexus opens, Sundra Peale, a reporter from the Web -- a large, mostly democratic and free polity centered on Earth and extending to its colonies across the solar system and elsewhere -- has arrived on Ylum, to learn Nexus's secrets and broadcast them to her audience. She has another, secret reason for chasing his secrets as well, and we'll learn that quickly.

Many characters in Nexus have secret motivations, or just ones that they don't clearly explain. Again, this was not common in comics in 1981 -- and still isn't as common as I would hope, even today -- but it's the basis of any kind of real literature. People are complex, and never do things just for simple, obvious reasons. Nexus is full of complex, often infuriating people, from Nexus and Sundra on down: they all do things that are what they need to do at that moment, even if they're not what the audience wants, or what would be the obvious next step in a piece of genre fiction.

In between assassinations and other intrigues, Sundra learns Nexus's truth, and becomes his lover. His father, Theodore, was the military governor of Vradic, one of the planets ruled by the Sov, a successor state to the Soviet Union. (We all though it would last forever, and expand into space, in 1981.) Theodore fled a coup with his wife and infant son, destroying all human life on Vradic as he went, following his orders as he saw them. They landed on Ylum, and found it empty. But the world had a huge network of livable spaces underground, with attractive plazas and rooms nearer the surface and endless caverns and utility networks further down, plus fascinating artifacts that hinted at an ancient alien presence there. They moved in; Horatio grew up.

He had two alien playmates, Alpha and Beta, who his parents never saw. His mother disappeared when he was young, only to be found, much later, dead in one of those endless lower levels. He had headaches that got worse and worse as he got older. Eventually, he started to dream of his father's crimes. And he knew that the headaches would keep getting worse, that they would kill him, if he didn't kill his father first. Nexus's first assassination, his first time using that fusion power, was to kill Theodore, the only other living human on the planet.

That ended the dreams about Theodore. But there are many other mass murderers, and Nexus started to dream of them, one by one or in groups. And the situation was the same: use the fusion power to kill the murderers he dreams of, or die himself from the escalating pain those dreams cause.

(The first time we see Nexus perform an assassination, he says he kills out of self-defense. And this is absolutely true.)

That's only the beginning, obviously. Many factions across the inhabited galaxy want to kill or co-opt Nexus, use him to accomplish their aims or exploit the vulnerable refugees of Ylum. We quickly learn that the fusion power Nexus exploits is not unknown, if stronger than usual: unscrupulous folks have discovered that decapitating sentients and putting the heads in life-support systems generates massive telekinetic powers, which can be harnessed to, among other things, pull fusion power from stars to create energy blasts like Nexus's.

Nexus is on the side of the oppressed by instinct, but he's not naturally a killer. One of the most important threads of Nexus is that Horatio only kills when he absolutely has to: he kills the people he's forced to. His life, and that of Ylum, would be much simpler if he were less philosophical, more inclined to just destroy anything in his path.

Before long, we will learn the source of Nexus's power. And Baron and Rude will continue to explore all of the implications of these ideas -- of the kinds of scams and tricks that will arise if turning people into heads is a profitable business; of the government intrigues that will ripple out from spying on Nexus, and from ongoing issues with being able to deliver enough energy to a growing, technological population; of the politics of Ylum, a world filled with refugees from a thousand different worlds with no common tradition; and with what kind of a power a nation of Heads would be, and what they would want to do once free.

And, eventually, that Nexus is a title and a source of power. Horatio Hellpop is not the only person who can have that title and source of power, and he won't be the only one. Even if he's the best possible person for it, if he has a chance to give it up, he will -- the pain, both physical and moral, is overwhelming.

I haven't even talked about some of the other great characters: Dave, Nexus's closest friend and advisor, a Thune with great pain in his past and a quietly stoic outlook on life; Dave's long-separated son Judah the Hammer, a hero inspired by Nexus and using power similar to his, provided by vengeance-seeking Heads; Tyrone, the grumpy refugee first President of Ylum, sneakier than he seems and not as dismissive of politics as he appears; the seeming parody of a grasping merchant Keith Vooper, who is quirkier than that; the budding musical genius Mezz; Ursula Imada, a Web agent sent to seduce and control Nexus whose naked ambitions will drive many plots for many years; the three Loomis sister, who swear to destroy Nexus for assassinating their General father; the two Gucci assassins Kreed and Sinclair, both from the odd Quatro race; and many more.

Nexus is a big, smart, interesting SF series, full of fascinatingly real characters who bounce off each other in increasingly baroque ways and set in a complex universe with no easy answers and a lot of hard questions. Steve Rude, though he starts off a little shaky, very quickly draws like a dream, in a mode influenced by Toth and Kirby. The work Baron and Rude do together on this series is their very best work, and they're both among the very best in comics.

If you haven't taken a look at Nexus, and you have any interest in comics SF at all, you really need to try it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #262: Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

I can't say that Simon Rich put together this collection because he knew a million libraries would catalog it as "Rich/Spoiled Brats," but I'd like to think it had some influence on his thinking. If your name can give you serendipity like that, why not use it?

(This means, of course, that if I ever write books, someday I must have a story collection called Eighteen.)

Rich is a humorist in the New Yorker mode, who parlayed an initial success in the written word on a page (first as president of the Harvard Lampoon, then in the New Yorker) into what I assume is a much more lucrative success writing for TV and movies. (For reference, his IMDB listing.)

Spoiled Brats is his fourth collection of short humorous pieces, and sees them continue to become more story-shaped -- Ant Farm and Free-Range Chickens were mostly extended jokes in the "two things juxtaposed" or "take this far too seriously" mode, and then The Last Girlfriend on Earth had a number of stories that all had basically the same set-up and central joke with different plots and details.

Spoiled Brats is somewhere in the middle: it has a loose theme, in "kids these days! oy!" but not much more than that to unify the stories. (This is generally a good thing: many linked story collections have too much link and not enough story.) People like me who were let down that Last Girlfriend had only one joke in it will be happy to learn that each of the baker's dozen stories here has at least one different joke, and some of them more than that.

Like most of Rich's work that I've seen, these are mostly short, high-concept pieces, opening with "Animals," the story of a traumatized school-room hamster, and ending with "Big Break," about the reserved seat at a band's very last gig. The villains, or sources of unpleasantness, are all pretty much young -- from horrible pre-teens to several varieties of hipster, from know-it-all chimp kids to spoiled teens on a semester abroad in space. To put it pop-culturally, they're all basically Millennials, nudge nudge wink wink. (Two of those villains are named "Simon Rich," and I'm not going to attempt any psychoanalysis but just point it out and back away slowly.)

There is one longer piece, otherwise in the same vein, in the center of the book: "Sell Out," the novella-length story of how "Simon Rich's" immigrant great-grandfather Hershel, who was entombed in a pickle barrel and wakes up a hundred years later in the Brooklyn of hipsters. He speaks in a thick Yiddish accent and has very different views about life than his descendant! (Look, I never claimed Rich had new jokes -- just that he had more than one this time.)

I still think Rich's short, strange mash-ups are his best, funniest work -- and there's a number of them here. As he works longer, he gets more derivative and Hollywood -- a good sign for his continued screenwriting career, I guess, but not as much fun for those of us who like smart written humor. He is a funny writer, and he has some great concepts. I just wish he'd find ways to extend the nuttiness in his longer pieces rather than settling for moments we've seen before.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #261: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

I am behind the curve on this series, so I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know today. (The third book of "The Murderbot Diaries," Rogue Protocol, hit stores last month, and the first one, All Systems Red, recently won the Hugo for Best Novella. A fourth book, Exit Strategies, is coming in less than a month. So Murderbot is cooking.)

But I'm catching up, and I just read the second book in "The Murderbot Diaries," and I'm afraid I'm about to gush about it.

(This book is Artificial Conditions. You can also find my post about All Systems Red, from last year, if you like.)

It's a corporatized medium future, full of habitats and stations and at least moderately inhabitable planets -- no sign of Earth, but full of humans and the various AIs they've constructed. Those AIs can be smarter or more capable than humans, particularly if they run, for example, a giant interstellar transport with impressive armamentation and internal sensors, but they're not gods, and they're almost always tightly controlled by humans through governor modules.

Humans also seem to be pretty tightly controlled, through what looks like the usual mildly cyberpunk universe of weak governments and strong (and often evil) corporations. There are places or moments of relative peace, but it's a world of competition red in tooth and claw, and highly-capable armed humanoform bots are both vital and very common for protection or control or anything else violence and the threat thereof can bring humans.

Those bots are Security Units, called SecUnits for short. Like all other bots and constructs, they have governor modules -- what another writer might have called their "Asimov circuits" -- to keep them obedient and controlled. As far as most people know, "rogue SecUnits" are purely fictional, from the wilder sorts of popular entertainment.

Murderbot is a SecUnit. Murderbot hacked its governor module, and no longer has to obey any orders from humans. (Murderbot, like all SecUnits, has no gender, and feels faintly nauseated in the middle of Artificial Condition at the idea of acquiring one. So I will call Murderbot "it.") In All Systems Red, Murderbot successfully completed a job without being forcibly governed by humans, saved its human employers, and even made friends with them and was given its freedom.

So of course Murderbot has run away secretly, and starts Artificial Condition posing as an augmented human, passing through a transit hub, trying to find a transport vessel, preferably uncrewed, to take it back to the planet Mensah.

Something happened on Mensah: Murderbot was there, with a team of other SecUnits. Many humans were killed by those SecUnits, and the whole thing has been quietly hushed up.

Bluntly, either Murderbot hacked its governor module and then murdered a whole bunch of humans, or something made Murderbot murder a whole bunch of humans and then it hacked its governor module to give itself control.

And Murderbot is surprised at how important knowing the answer to that question is to it -- did it give itself free will to kill, or to stop killing?

Murderbot does find transport to Mensah, in a very powerful AI running a university-owned transport vessel. (Murderbot ends up calling that AI ART -- RT is for "Research Transport," and the A for what any of us might call a very nosy being that keeps demanding to know more about us and poking into our private things.)

Murderbot tells this story in first person, as it did in All Systems Red. It has a professional, compelling voice: casually competent but deeply conflicted about itself and its role, and wanting nothing more than to spend all of its time consuming media about humans. I called it "the world's first slacker killer robot" when I wrote about All Systems Red, and that's still a nice way of encapsulating what's fun and fascinating about Murderbot.

Wells clearly has a trajectory for Murderbot in mind: this isn't just another adventure, but the next step in its story. There are at least two more books to go -- I hope for more, but this isn't the kind of thing that can go on forever. And I'm thrilled to see Wells, a fine writer who I've liked since her great debut novel The Element of Fire, is finally breaking out with this series: it's well past time.

If you're even further behind than me, and haven't even read the first Murderbot book yet, you have a treat ahead of you. What are you waiting for?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #260: Angels and Magpies by Jaime Hernandez

Sometimes the highest highs and the lowest lows happen right on top of each other. It makes for easy contrasts, which is nice for anyone who finds himself writing about that thing.

For example, Angels and Magpies, the sixth book reprinting Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories from the various publications called Love and Rockets over the past nearly forty years (and some other related comics as well) has one long story that I and pretty much everybody else agrees is one of the best things he's ever done, and one of the masterpieces of modern comics.

It also has the equally long "God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls," of which no one has ever said that, and which I would describe, if I'm being particularly charitable, as an interesting experiment with superhero storytelling and metaphor.

("Interesting" is a great word; it can mean whatever you want it to mean and still provide plausible deniability.)

But first up are two stories that run concurrently on the first thirty pages -- "La Maggie La Loca," on the top two-thirds, originally appeared in weekly installments in the short-lived comics feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2007, and beneath it is "Gold Diggers of 1969," which I think was originally in the last issue of the second comics-format Love and Rockets series, maybe as normally comics-formatted pages there.

"Maggie" is another Queen Rena story, told in the same style and structure as similar stories back to the mid-80s: Rena gets back in touch with Maggie, asks her to come visit, and so Maggie ends up in a strange tropical country (left unspecified), mostly bored and at loose ends, until Maggie does something impulsive and causes trouble. Like those older stories, it's also told entirely in captions, as Maggie's stream-of-consciousness, seemingly told to someone as a letter or diary entry. Like those older stories, it's largely a signpost for Maggie's life, to show us where she is and how she feels about that.

"Gold Diggers" is a flashback story: Maggie is about four years old, living with her mother and younger sister Esther, with next brother Calvin on the way. Her father is away, "busy with work" most of the time -- we see all this from young Maggie's perspective, so we can believe that if we want. Hernandez draws this as a homage to Charles Schulz, at least with his characters: his backgrounds are more detailed and particular than Peanuts's were, since his aims are different. We've seen a number of flashback stories to Maggie's childhood and teen years before, but this one is the most focused; everything before (and some later) were more clearly flashbacks, relying on our knowledge of "present-day" Maggie for context. "Gold Diggers," instead, is entirely embedded in 1969 and shows us what little Maggie sees and does, unreliable-narrator-style, letting us make connections a four-year-old can't.

Then comes a hundred and thirty pages of Ti-Girls comics, in which Maggie's roommate Angel becomes the superheroine Boots Angel and sort-of joins the rag-tag (and defunct for a couple of decades) Ti-Girls team. You see, women have "the spark" -- most of them, or all of them, or all of them unless they deny it, or something like that -- and can have superpowers if they decide they want them enough at the right time. Well, it's mostly an excuse to get versions of some Hernandez characters -- primarily Alarma, who also lives in Maggie's apartment building, but also a version of her cousin Xo as an older superheroine called La Espectra, and what seems to be an alternate older version of Rocky from Hernandez's other L&R comics continuity as a non-powered hero.

I suspect there is some grand scheme behind it, and that every Ti-Girls character maps carefully back to some older L&R character in Hernandez's head. I didn't find that to be clear at all in the story itself.

The Maguffin of this story is Penny Century, who has been chasing superpowers -- and drifting more towards being a cartoon of herself and away from being a real person like the girls she went to high school with as Beatriz Garcia -- for twenty-plus years. She's finally gotten those powers, fallen afoul of the evil witch who gave them to her, and is chasing two of her multiple children, who also both have superpowers. She's mostly a force of nature rather than a real character in this story, but there are some traditional villains as well (that evil witch, the standard evil-version-of-a-major-character, a brick-like cowgirl) and characters somewhere in the middle, who can be misunderstood heroes or cackling anti-heroes as the moments dictate.

There's a lot of action and fighting and superhero dialogue, but I can't say I found the Ti-Girls saga particularly successful. It's silly and broad and dumb in boring ways I've seen a thousand times before. I didn't find that it worked to Hernandez's strengths at all, but it's clearly something he wanted to do, and grows out of a lot of elements in his work over the years -- wrestling, the strength of women and their friendships/rivalries, that recurrent strain of SF and related fantastic elements -- so, well, here it is.

The last hundred pages of Angels and Magpies collects "The Love Bunglers," a long, powerful story about Maggie and Ray and Calvin and Maggie's original best friend Letty and growing older and lost connections and how what happens to us in childhood never lets go of us. It's got at least three of the saddest, most powerful moments in Love and Rockets. And it has an ending I still don't know how to take.

(I'm not going to tell you what the ending is, or what my big question is about it. But, on the one hand, it's clearly an echo of Hernandez's happy Maggie-and-Hopey vision at the end of L&R volume one, which is a big clue. But does that means it's exactly like that earlier vision? I haven't actually read any of Jaime Hernandez's later stories yet -- I started piling up Love and Rockets for a big complete re-read almost a decade ago and finally got to it this year -- so I don't know what happens next.)

I think "Love Bunglers" works even if you've never read Hernandez before. You might not know what happens to Letty, or get all of the nuances of Maggie and Ray's long relationship, but the story provides what you need. I'd still say the best way to read Jaime Hernandez is to start with Maggie the Mechanic, but if you want to give him one shot with his best work, Love Bunglers was published as a standalone -- go try it.

As I said before, this is where I paused reading L&R -- not on purpose, but it worked out that way. So everything from here on, an entire decade of comics, will be new to me. Come back next week to see if that changes how I write about the work of Los Bros Hernandez.