Friday, November 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #334: Will Not Attend by Adam Resnick

Once again, a book was completely different from what I expected. And I find myself wishing the book I expected actually existed -- if it does, I don't know what it's called.

Adam Resnick's 2014 memoir Will Not Attend is a collection of stories from his life. From that, and the title, and some review I now only half-remember, I thought it was the story of someone painfully shy and how he walled himself off from everyone his entire life.

But Adam Resnick is not painfully shy. As he presents himself in this memoir, he's kind of an asshole: he hates people, and social interaction, and work, and pretty much everything else in life, as far as I can tell. (The one possible ray of sunshine: in his telling, he's the only halfway human being in his family. his father is vastly worse, a thoroughly horrible man who Resnick presents as having no redeeming features and doesn't even pretend to like, let alone love. His brothers -- never given names, and their number barely mentioned -- are nearly as bad, horrible violent hooligans as kids and blissfully distant as adults. He doesn't even seem to like his mother much, which I think is a hanging offense most places in America.)

So what this book actually is is a series of stories from the point of view of a terminally obnoxious kid who turned into an only slightly better (but more neurotic) adult. Kid-Resnick hated people, hated doing what anyone else told him to, hated school, and hated every possible kind of work. Adult-Resnick additionally was constitutionally incapable of doing anything to make any other person in the world happy.

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

Resnick grew up to be successful, somehow starting off by writing for David Letterman's really old show and then moving on to co-create Get a Life, writing several movies, co-executive producing The Larry Sanders Show and creating The High Life. The book gets into absolutely none of that.

Will Not Attend has two kinds of stories: the ones in which Resnick is a snotty obnoxious kid, and the one where he's a snotty, obnoxious married man with a young daughter. The fact that someone married him and willingly created a new human being with him is just as unbelievable as his career, from the evidence here. It's technically a "memoir," but of the definition of that word that means "a bunch of random stories" rather than the one meaning "the chronological story of a life."

Now, Resnick is pretty funny, as you might guess from his comedy pedigree. But the material here feels like it would more naturally be stand-up comedy, if Resnick liked humanity enough to stand up in front of a bunch of it and try to amuse them.

Now, I suspect my standards of a likable-enough protagonist may be more strict (or just different) from others', since I just read a couple of graphic novels today with an absolutely appalling set of young heroines who I think I was supposed to root for. So you may sympathize with Resnick more than I did -- and this book is definitely funny, though often in the cringe-laugh manner.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #333: Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison, Richard Case, and others (3 and/or 6 volumes)

More time has passed since these stories per published than had passed for the whole history of the Doom Patrol to that point. As with so many things in corporate comics, in 2018 we're now deep in second- or third-order nostalgia, memories of particular revised versions of things that have been around, and generating income for some corporation, for five or eight decades.

I tend to think Grant Morrison, and his Doom Patrol characters, would be just fine with that: they already think the world is random and bizarre and mostly unbelievable, a thin scrim over chaos and madness and conspiracy theories and various kinds of unlikely mysticism.

Doom Patrol was always pretty weird, right from the initial '60s version by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani. Introductions in the current editions of the Morrison run lean heavily into that: the idea that this team was always "freaks" and "misfits," the ones fixing weird and surreal problems that more conventionally superheroic characters couldn't handle. I haven't read much of the Drake/Haney/Premiani run, so let's say that's correct: it sounds a bit like special pleading to me, but clearly it was weird by the standards of the time.

Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, on the other hand, is weird by any standard. A hundred or more years from now, if people are still around and reading comics, they'll still think this stuff is really out there. And it is.

Morrison took over what was a more-or-less conventional superhero team with declining sales in early 1989 and bet all of his chips on the freaks -- it worked out, with the Morrison Doom Patrol  becoming an immediate success and eventually becoming one of the core books of the new Vertigo line a few years later. Morrison's issues ran from early 1989 (#19) through early 1993 (#63), plus a piss-take of the then-popular X-Force called Doom Force.

The Morrison run has been collected twice in the last decade: first as six volumes from 2000-2008, and then as three double-sized books in 2016 and 2017. (There's also, as there must be, the single big-crushing volume for those who must own something larger than anyone else.) For various quirky reasons that are very Doom Patrol appropriate, I read the first two big books and then volumes 5 and 6 of the previous series -- all of the Morrison stories, in order.

It begins, very much corporate-comics style, in the aftermath of a crossover: Invasion! in this case. The members of the old team are dead (Celsius, Scott Fischer) or retired (Tempest) or comatose (Lodestone) or depowered (Negative Woman). Left standing alone is Robotman (Cliff Steele), who, maybe because of that, has since become the iconic character who is in every version of Doom Patrol. And the Chief (Niles Caulder) who originally formed the DP, is back to run it again.

Cliff is in some kind of psychiatric facility -- modern and rehabilitative, so I won't call it an "insane asylum" -- where he meets Kay Challis, a woman who was systematically abused in childhood and developed sixty-four personalities from that abuse. And, from the "gene bomb" in Invasion!, all of those personalities now have independent superpowers.

Meanwhile, Larry Trainor, once Negative Man before the "Negative Spirit" left him, is also recuperating from his own problems when that spirit returns and forcibly merges Larry, itself, and a doctor named Eleanor Poole into a single entity that starts calling itself Rebis.

The three of them will be the new Doom Patrol team -- Robotman, Kay as Crazy Jane, and Rebis. The former Tempest, Joshua Clay, becomes the team doctor but isn't active even though he still has his fire-energy-beams-from-his-hands power. And they're soon joined by Dorothy Spinner, a pre-teen with a deformed face who can bring her dreams and ideas to life (sometimes even on purpose), who is also what the Chief calls "the support team."

They battle weird existential menaces for a few years of comics time -- the Brotherhood of Dada, trying to drag the world into a painting; the Scissormen, foot-soldiers of a rapacious metafiction; Red Jack, who claims to be both God and Jack the Ripper and abducts the former Lodestone as his new bride; the Brotherhood of the Unwritten Book, in a semi-parody of Alan Moore's post-Crisis Swamp Thing story about a magical apocalypse; the inter-dimensionally warring Geomancers of the Kaleidoscape and the Orthodoxy of the Insect Mesh, who also have plans for a now-awake and -transformed Lodestone (who is called by her real name, Rhea, throughout); the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., who want to make the whole world "normal;" and a few more variations of the same themes.

Along they way, they meet the sentient dimension-hopping Danny the Street, who becomes something between their new HQ and a member of the team. And they meet the long-lost Flex Mentallo, man of muscle mystery, who wandered off for his own mini-series and I don't think has been seen much since. (Or maybe he's in the Teen Titans now; stupider things have happened in the DC Universe.)

In the end, the last villain of Morrison's Doom Patrol run is inside the team, of course, and he gets to run through one more level of deconstruction before ending his Doom Patrol stories with a bang. (And then, to close out all of these books, comes that Doom Force one-shot, a deliberately ugly and dumb takedown of the stupid comics from the people who would very soon found Image and get rich very quickly.)

There's not much else like this Doom Patrol: it's the first major flowering of Morrison's tropism towards metafiction and superhero-as-mythic-figure and a strong example of a case where his magpie gathering of every last random thing he reads or experiences really works well. And he's ably assisted on art through this long series -- primarily by Richard Case, who pencilled the majority of the stories, with other contributions by Simon Bisley (most of the iconic covers), Kelley Jones, Jamie Hewlett, Ken Steacy, and Sean Phillips.

For me, this is the quintessential Grant Morrison Big Two comic. I like to pretend that these are the kinds of characters and stories that his career focused on, that he didn't turn to telling ham-handed episodes of superhero porn. Remember: we all create our own canons in our heads; we don't ever need to let anyone else tell us what matters.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #332: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova

Some media are better for some stories than others. I'd like to think that's obvious, but the way mass culture obsesses about adapting everything into movies and TV shows makes me think it's either a minority opinion or that a lot of people are just dim.

For example: you can do a strong, mostly silent type in a filmed format (moves, TV, animation), and give him hidden emotional depths by turning his thoughts into a voiceover. But a novel is a much more natural and obvious way to tell that story. Comics, too,  has less obtrusive ways to incorporate narration -- the old thought bubbles, or the more modern narrative captions.

Which brings me to Jorge Ruiz, narration and central character of Svetlana Chamakova's third graphic novel about the kids of Berrybrook Middle School, Crush. (It follows Awkward and Brave). He's the kind of kid who's better at doing than talking, who doesn't entirely understand his own motivations and feelings -- and that's all very normal, since he's all of thirteen.

He's just started crushing hard on Jazmine Duong, a girl in his class -- I don't know exactly why, and Jorge certainly doesn't, like most crushes. That makes him even quieter when he's around her, because he's so tongue-tied hardly any words can even come out.

Worse, she has a boyfriend. And she's the BFF of Olivia, one of Jorge's two long-term best buds. So she's always around, occasionally with that boyfriend.

It gets more complicated -- bullies, Jorge's role as "sheriff" of the school to stop same, preparation for an Athletics Ball thrown by the Athletics Club [1], and several imploding relationships (friendly and proto-romantic) leading to a very nasty group chat with added hacking-fakery sauce. But, as the title promises, this is mostly the story of Jorge's crush on Jazmine, and how it turns into more than that.

Jorge has a steadier moral compass than many of the people in this story, and a better one (as far as I can remember) than the protagonists of the first two books. But he's also a tongue-tied thirteen-year-old mush-head, which is totally endearing.

As before, Chmakova makes books that I think actual middle-schoolers like and find to be reflective of their own lives. But Crush is also great for older people who remember being at the opening curtain of puberty, being totally into someone, and having no clue what to do about that.

[1] Neither of which, in my experience, are Things in American schools. The places that are particularly sports-nutty don't have one club for every jock: each different sport has its own season and structure and teacher-coach and attitude about why their sport is the best possible one. I suspect Chmakova writes Berrybrook as so club-besotted because a) she's not American by birth and 2) she really likes manga, where the club is an overwhelming trope.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #331: The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell by Michael Moorcock & Howard Chaykin

Michael Moorcock has "ended" his Eternal Champion cycle many times over the past decades -- I think he did it for the first time back in the late '60s, when it was still almost entirely Elric and just a bit of those other guys. But none of those endings have taken; he's come back time and time again for more stories of Elric in particular and other incarnations as well.

One of the earlier endings was in the mid-70s, after two "John Daker" novels, about an incarnation of the EC that remembered all of the other incarnations. Those felt like summings-up, and were a little heftier than some of the EC novels (Dorian Hawkmoon, I am looking at you). But of course a working writer will work, and he'll come up with more ideas -- particularly for the central project of his career.

So, in 1979, Moorcock, in whatever way and for whatever reason, wrote a treatment for a third Daker story, which he gave to Howard Chaykin, then very early in his career, to adapt and illustrate and turn into a graphic novel. (I don't think that term existed yet, or at least wasn't in wide use, but this was one of the first created-as-a-book comics in that first burst in the late '70s.) It was published as The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell, missed its market almost entirely, and has been a sought-after collector's item for Moorcock completists since then, but little-remembered otherwise.

But Titan is doing a big series of all of the Moorcock EC comics, in more-or-less uniform editions, so earlier this year they reissued Swords of Heaven into a market where it actually could find the intersection of Moorcock and Chaykin fans.

The best Eternal Champion stories have quirkier, less obviously heroic plotlines -- particularly the Elric stories. But a whole lot of them from the '60s and '70s take that essential sword-and-sorcery plot -- evil forces are threatening {insert place}, which is generally where {hero}'s love {hot girlfriend} lives, and often where he's from, too, and so he must battle their {fiendish weapon} against overwhelming odds and win out in the end despite great losses to his forces and/or allies. Better versions of that story turn up the woe and bleakness; what made Moorcock's epic fantasy stories distinctive was the attitude of his stories and protagonists -- they're depressive and tormented and unlucky and nearly incapable of happiness.

Doing the same story in comics form means less of the woe-is-me narration, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view. But it does tend to make Swords of Heaven a little flatter and less distinctive than an equivalent Moorcock novel. By this point in his career, Moorcock's language was stronger, and often more of a draw, than his epic adventure plots. (His plots outside of epic adventure had gotten substantially better -- this book came out only a year after one of his best novels, the World Fantasy-winning Gloriana, and just before a burst of interesting early-'80s novels including the Von Bek books.)

In this case, the transform table goes thus:
  • {insert place} = The Dream Marshes, a lush and rich land about to be invaded by the barbarians of the desert realm Hell on their way to invade an even richer land called Heaven, ruled by aristocratic assholes
  • {hero} = Urlik Skarsol, bodily dropped into the body of Lord Clen of the Dream Marches
  • {hot girlfriend} = Ermizhad, the wife of Erekose, which was our hero's name three or four books ago, and who he's trying to get back to in the sense that he pines for her and has no way to actually control his travels
  • {fiendish weapon} = mostly human-wave attacks, though they're also the usual mix of inventively bloodthirsty and maniacal
So Swords of Heaven does have a faint whiff of the generic to me -- not as much as the first Hawkmoon series, luckily, but less distinctive than the first two Daker novels The Eternal Champion and Phoenix in Obsidian. The names in particular are a bit on the nose, aside from the odd "Lord Clen." Clen does not have a sword that steals souls, does not massacre his entire race, and does not lose his homeland or One True Love. He's a smartish guy who wins a brutal war against an overwhelming enemy, though only after his side takes horrific losses. So, not entirely devoid of woe.

Chaykin is working in fully painted pages here, without a lot of black lines. The characters look like Chakyin people, but the overall look aims for more of a classic-illustration look, vaguely in the Howard Pyle vein. And that's very appropriate for a very traditional adventure story like this one. It's difficult to tell what of the writing is his and what is Moorcock's, but it's all plausible and sturdy, with no major problems.

This is not a great lost Eternal Champion story. It's a pretty good late-70s EC story, that links Phoenix in Obsidian to 1986's The Dragon in the Sword. That's fine for me; it might be fine for you.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #330: The Children of Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez

Hey, remember what I said last week about Gilbert Hernandez's Julio's Day? Well, take that and reverse it, and it's the same issue with The Children of Palomar.

I waffled about counting Julio as part of Love and Rockets because it wasn't connected to any of Gilbert's regular fictional worlds or styles -- it was set in a Latin American country over the past century, but there was no connection to Palomar or any of his other works. But two excerpts from it did appear in Love and Rockets, so that was close enough for me.

The Children of Palomar, on the other hand, collects stories that appeared in a large-format three-issue miniseries called New Tales of Old Palomar. It appeared in between issues of the paperback Love and Rockets, so it's not really analogous to the late '90s Palomar/Luba's Family stories that appeared in other comics -- those were during a L&R hiatus; these could have been in L&R if Gilbert wanted them to be, and had space.

But they are stories of the Palomar characters, mostly in their younger days, so it would be crazy not to include it in a series all about L&R. And so here I am: once again ruefully shaking my head about the ways Gilbert Hernandez consistently confounds expectations and inevitably zigs when you expect him to zag.

The Palomar timeline has never been terribly clear: neither Hernandez brother has ever locked down any stories to particular years, and there's usually a vagueness about how long has passed between stories. But these stories are mostly at the same time as or somewhat earlier than that initial burst of Palomar stories in the mid-80s.

The first issue is about how two "demons" were discovered stealing food in Palomar: two tiny, dirty figures who could run at what seems like supernatural speed, and can only be captured when the young Pipo goes at her top speed to catch up to them. Those "demons" are the Villasenor sisters, Tonantzin and Diana, and they do get cleaned up, moderately civilized, and given to a foster family in Palomar to grow up (into the young women we've already seen them as).

The second issue takes place even earlier, with Gato (the older husband of first Pipo and then Guadalupe) as a kid of seven or eight, tormented by the local Black Shirt Gang as part of an initiation and in a surreal landscape we haven't previously seen anywhere near Palomar. There's a very symbolic "crack" -- a vertical gorge, shooting arrow-straight across the landscape, just a bit too wide to jump across -- for one example. The surroundings are more like Gilbert's surreal or odd-SF stories than like the more realistic (or magic-realistic) world of Palomar. There's also a group of "scientists" in some kind of environment suits, speaking an unknown language, who kidnap several folks from Palomar to experiment on them with a strange gas that gives kids perfect knowledge of their future deaths. This is all pretty weird, and I think it's supposed to connect with Gato's eventual death in a car crash, but it didn't really click for me: just more random Beto weirdness.

And then the third issue has two unrelated stories. It starts out with Tonantzin and Diana as teens, with a return of the Blooter Baby from one of the weirder Venus stories. Apparently, Blooters appear to childless women, and is an omen that they will never have children. Tonantzin goes to a previously unseen temple of some kind -- or maybe a magician's house? -- to learn how to contain the Blooter and make it go away. This kind of peters out, maybe supposedly ending with Tonantzin's coming to terms with her childlessness. And the last story is set in the modern day, or something close to it, with another violent encounter between Sheriff Chelo and the weird-talking scientists from the second issue.

I've mostly drawn a distinction between Beto's Palomar stories and his "weird" or surreal stories, but this collection combines all of those elements: these are stories with Palomar characters and the random violence, unexplained super-science, and supernatural transformations of his quirkier work. If you like all of the sides of Gilbert Hernandez, this will be a particular treat. If you preferred one or the other, it will be less to your taste -- but that's always the way it is, right?

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/24/18

This week brought three books from the library, as I'm trying to assemble the jigsaw puzzle that is the last month of Book-A-Day. (Current tally: posts written through December 8, posts planned and started through December 15, books to be read planned through December 11.)

So here's what you will probably see me write about the second week of December:

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 6: Who Run the World? Squirrels by Ryan North and Eric Henderson: the next one in the series. I still can't say "latest," since this one came out more than a year ago and there's a couple of later collections. But I'm catching up, I suppose. See my previous posts on Squirrel Girl for the full details, if you have no idea who she is or why anyone would want to read this.

Michael Chabon's The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan and various artists: I still haven't read the Chabon novel that these comics launch out of (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I tend to think of as a fictionalization of the Simon and Kirby story even though it probably isn't) but I've read other Escapist comics collections, since those are shorter and easier.  This one is metafiction about a young, modern team of comics wannabes whose dream is to make art on their own terms and tell new stories get rich quickly exploiting something they happen to own that was made up by someone else before they were born. Inspiring!

And then there's Batman '66, Vol. 1 by Jeff Parker and a number of different artists: this is a modern comics version of the Adam West TV show. That sounds awfully campy, but the reviews have been good, and Mike Allred's covers do a remarkably job of capturing the goofy look of the show -- so why not?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #329: Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius by Shannon Wheeler

Disclaimer No. 1: I'm not related to Shannon Wheeler, as far as I know. We both carry an ancient Anglo-Saxon name, and probably have at least one ancestor in common, somewhere in the misty dawn of time, but there are a lot of Wheelers in this world.

Disclaimer No. 2: Wheeler has a recent book about Our Current President, but this is not it. If that's what you're looking for, may I direct you to Sh*t My President Says?

Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius is a collection of Shannon Wheeler's cartoons, both comics-format and single-panel. The supposed connection, according to the back cover, is that these are all "personal comics," but I'm not sure what makes these single panel cartoons any more "personal" than, say, the ones in I Told You So or I Don't Get It or I Thought You Would Be Funnier.

The longer stories all are autobiographical in some way or other, so they're more obvious. But, if the single-panels all really do come out of Wheeler's life somehow, it would have been good to have an introduction, or endnotes, or something to make those connections clear. Wheeler does have a fair number of mildly political cartoons, mostly reacting to the frighteningly authoritarian bent of the current US administration -- but the majority are just regular single-panel stuff, from desert islands to couples (in bed, or on a couch, or out at a table) to kids to cocktail parties to crime (and superheroes) to death and cupids.

Well, we didn't get that, so any reader will just say "huh, this cartoon of a guy and his pet fish on a desert island is personal. Wonder what that means?" to herself without getting any answer.

Also quirky and not entirely clear: the book is divided into a number of numbered chapters, without any indication of why or for what purpose. There may be a theme for each chapter, but, if so, I couldn't detect any of them. Or they may be excuses to run Wheeler illustrations on the chapter-title pages without those having to be jokes.

The longer stories start with the opener, "Camp Micro-Penis," about a boy with an unfortunately tiny male appendage who Wheeler knew as a boy at summer camp. Also included are the self-evident "My Meeting with Congressman John Lewis" and "How to Pack for a Trip" and "Paris '89" and "San Diego Comic Con!" and "The Dirty Little Secret Origin of Comic Books" and "How to Sell a Love Doll." Slightly less obvious are "Cubana" (about a 1996 trip to Cuba) and "Portugal" (ditto, year unspecified) and "The Urine Squirt Gun" (a Chekhovian story about Wheeler and his kid friends and a horrible weapon) and "Dog Bully" (A teachable moment with his kids) and "How to Choke Your Chicken" (in which Wheeler had to kill his ill egg-layer).

All of the long stories are amusing; all of the cartoons are at least amusing, and I laughed at a few of them. Wheeler has a nice cartoony style which works well in both formats, and a lot of this book is in color, too, which surprised me.

Given that he is a Wheeler, I was inclined to like this book anyway. But I can do that without any qualms: there's a lot of good stuff here. I can't judge the claims of "very stable" or "genius" from these works, but, what the hell! let's let him claim that. He's definitely not the worst person ever to do so.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #328: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

There was an era in books for younger readers where the standard message was to conform, to become just like everyone else was supposed to be, to follow the prescriptions of life and fit your feet to the path. And we all make fun of those books now, when we see them or think about them.

We're in the opposite era now: the standard story is that what a person wants must be right, because that person wants it. And putting it that baldly obviously shows up the inherent problems, but we generally don't worry about them. Tell kids they can do anything, we say. They'll figure out all of the ways that isn't true for themselves eventually; we don't need to crush their dreams directly.

Those stories are also regularly about exceptional, unique people -- coddled princesses and lost princes, prophesied heroes and fated liberators. Is that because we all believe we are princesses at heart, or because those are the people whose dreams aren't crushed in the end?

Don't get me wrong: it's good to tell kids they have options, that they can aim for the stars. But I don't think we're telling them that 99% of them will fail, that the stars are out of their reach, and that they'll, at some point, need to trim their sails to catch a wind that actually exists. And so I wonder about the diet of stories we're giving them.

Jen Wang is telling a "be who you feel you need to be" story in her new graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker. And, in that Oscar Wilde sense, it's fiction, so they can become those things. One of them, of course is a prince at the start, which gives one a certain leg up in the world: it's easier to find your perfect self when you're not struggling to put food in your belly and clothes on your back.

It's also easier when you're in something like a fairy tale, which this is. It's set in "Paris, at the dawn of the modern era" -- maybe the middle of the long quiet 19th century, maybe later, maybe earlier, but those "maybes" are the point. The Prince is Sebastian, of Belgium, who you will not find on the family tree of the actual Belgian monarchy. He's in Paris for the summer with his aunt, a French Countess, and will have the usual round of balls and events for his sixteenth birthday.

The underlying reason why he's in Paris: to choose a wife. His royal parents are fictional/modern enough to let him pick his own match (within reason, and from a carefully curated list of the right young European noblewomen), but they're traditional/realistic enough to want to get the betrothal settled before much more time goes by. Sebastian isn't terribly interested in this -- is any fictional prince or princess ever happy to engage in the round of who-should-I-marry? -- for reasons that will be very obvious very quickly.

Frances is a young woman from outside Paris, driven to become a dress designer. She's working, at what seems to be a low level, in a high-end shop, and gets her chance with a last-minute design for the Prince's first ball: the willful Lady Sophie Rohan ruined her dress riding and in a fit of pique asks Frances to make her "the devil's wench."

Frances is too green to realize actually doing this would be horrible for her fledgling career, and does it. The dress causes a scandal, and Frances is about to be fired when a mysterious man comes around, looking for the designer of the scandalous dress. He has an equally mysterious client who wants to hire that designer exclusively to design for her, and Frances jumps at the offer.

Of course, despite an initial attempt at anonymity, she soon learns her new client is Sebastian. But she wants to design, and Sebastian wants to wear exactly the kind of flashy, exciting dresses she wants to make. And, at first, it all goes well: Frances gets experience and confidence, and Sebastian gets to go out in public as Lady Crystallia and become a minor celebrity.

But Frances can't advance professionally as "Lady Crystallia's" dressmaker, because that would connect Crystallia to Sebastian. And Sebastian's parents are demanding he spend more time wooing all of those young women, who he has no interest in or time for. (He's spending his nights as Crystallia, and his days sleeping and recovering.) It all is going to smash, and it does.

Wang finds her way to a happy ending, and one that's more in keeping with the time and her protagonists' very different social positions than I expected. The Prince and the Dressmaker is much more successful than I was worried it could be; it is a book that tells the you-can-be-whatever-you-want lesson, but it doesn't skimp on pointing out the hard work and sacrifices needed along the way. (Plus a fair bit of luck, a sympathetic creator, and no small bit of wealth and position -- but that's what makes it fiction.)

I should have expected that from the author of Koko Be Good, which had a similarly complex central male-female relationship that didn't resolve in conventional ways and a more nuanced view of success and the pursuit thereof. Wang is also a fine cartoonist, particularly good here with crisp, openly emotional faces drawn with few lines and big expressive eyes. This is a book telling that currently-popular story, and in a way designed to appeal to young readers who want to believe that they'll get all of their dreams -- but it's a fine book despite that.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #327: The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

First up: you must never tell Han Solo this novel exists. Promise that before you go any farther.

(Yes, that is possibly the worst joke I've ever made. So what? It amuses me.)

Stewart O'Nan is a fine writer of novels, on the literary side, and I seem to buy more of his books than I read. (He's not that fast a writer -- a book every year or so -- but I've become that slow of a reader.) He sometimes wanders into genre territory, and does it well, and his books tend to be tough-minded even as they have a close, understanding eye on his characters: they're books where bad things happen, because bad things happen in life, and he doesn't flinch from that.

(So that may be why I don't read his books more quickly -- each one has an impact.)

In reverse order, I've written here about O'Nan's novels The Night Country, A Prayer for the DyingThe Speed Queen and Last Night at the Lobster.

And now I just got to his 2012 post-financial crash novel, The Odds, about a middle-aged couple at the end of their money and the end of their tether, having one last weekend at Niagara Falls before everything falls apart.

Art and Marion Fowler are hugely upside down on their house; Art lost his job and has no prospects of ever getting another decent one; and they're planning to divorce, supposedly to save some portion of their finances. Marion, though, seems to have deeper reasons for that divorce, and Art's expectations that it won't really change their relationship feels very self-deluding.

But both Art and Marion are good at self-delusion: that's how they got to this point. And that's why they're smuggling in $40,000 US to bet on a European-style roulette wheel (with only one zero) in a carefully planned but awfully shaky method to double their money. It's a fool-proof plan, Art says: the only thing that can go wrong is if they have five losing bets in a row.

Five isn't all that many. You could count up all of the losing bets Art and Marion have made in their lives recently, and their streak is already far longer than that.

The Odds is a quiet novel, told in short chapters that mostly alternate Art's and Marion's points of view. O'Nan is a careful, precise writer, starting each chapter with an epigraph about the odds of something happening -- and of course that thing is directly relevant to that chapter.

And it's -- I hope I don't have to say it this baldly -- a novel of character, focused on these two people and their marriage during one eventful weekend that might just be their last happy time, or their last time together as a married couple, before the end. O'Nan is really good at books like this: Art and Marion are real living people and their foibles and faults are entirely true. If you don't read books like this, you should, at least every once in a while. The world is full of people like Art and Marion.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Who We Are

I did this once, somewhere -- I think the Straight Dope Message Board -- but I lost or forgot that. So I am re-creating it here, on Thanksgiving, because why not?

This is who we are:

And what do we want? We want to save:
  • Donald Duck, vaudeville, and variety
  • Strawberry jam in all the different varieties
  • Mrs. Mopp and good old Mother Riley
  • The George Cross and all those who were awarded them
  • Fu Manchu, Moriarty, and Dracula
  • Little shops, china cups, and virginity
  • Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards
This is why:

Book-A-Day 2018 #326: Lumberjanes, Vol. 5: Band Together by Stevenson, Watters, Leyh, Allen, Nowak & Laiho

There's a point where, as a reviewer and critic, you either need to engage fully with your material or just walk away from it. Holding it at arm's length doesn't do anyone any good.

And I'm very aware that all of my posts about the great female-centric comic Lumberjanes -- see my posts on volumes one and two and three and four -- are about how I really can't engage that deeply with a comic that is so centrally about being a girl and having friendships with other girls in a very girl-positive environment.

So I think this is the last time I'm going to read a Lumberjanes thing: they are good, and entirely a positive thing to have in the world, but I really don't have a way into this material, and five books of searching is long enough.

Also, the stories collected in Lumberjanes, Vol. 5: Band Together see a big shift in the creative team -- Noelle Stevenson leaves as co-writer, to be replaced by Kat Leyh, and Brooke Allen hands over illustration duties to Carolyn Nowak. So this a a transitional moment anyway, which makes it better than most moments to transition myself quietly in the other direction.

Band Together starts with a single-issue flashback to the first day of camp, showing all five of our intrepid campers arriving, in the company of their various families, and pretty much immediately becoming best friends. It is fun and nice and sweet and very fluffy.

The rest of the book collects the three-issue story that introduced Leyh and Nowak as creators, in which our five intrepid best friends discover that there's an entire civilization of mermaids in their local lake. (Lumberjanes has a lot of the qualities of a good animated TV series, primary among which is that the world is big and full of wonders, including ones that really should have been honkingly obvious before the point they appear.) Since Lumberjanes is about all-friendship-all-the-time (for female-identified persons), this story must of course be about our heroines mending a broken friendship among the hard-rocking merwomen.

That longer story is less fluffy, but it's still very Lumberjanean (Lumberjaneite? Lumberjaneicious? Lumberjane-aroonie?) in its core positivity and sunny disposition. Even when one character becomes obsessed, she can be talked down (and mildly shamed) by her friends by merely mentioning that she wasn't thinking enough about everyone else's feelings.

Again, I think I'm going to leave Lumberjanes behind at this point. It is a very good thing with almost no points of congruity with my life or interests, and I'm trying to teach myself that I don't need to worry about everything. Let's see if I can learn.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #325: Promethea, Book 1 by Moore, Williams & Gray

Alan Moore famously has a love-hate relationship with superhero comics. Well, I mean, a lot of people love or hate superhero comics, and plenty do both. The difference is that superhero comics hates and loves Moore back.

In the late '90s, after he'd cast a magic incantation cursing DC Comics and all of its wares, swearing never to work for them again under any circumstances, Moore started his own line of superhero comics, under the not-at-all-self-aggrandizing label of America's Best Comics. And then his publisher sold the entire company to DC anyway, pretty much simultaneously with the launch of the ABC line.

(It's almost enough to make one believe that deep Northamptonian magic doesn't actually do anything!)

One of those ABC books was Promethea, with art by J.H. Williams II and Mick Gray. I read the first collection sometime in the early Aughts, and didn't remember a whole lot about it. (I do remember that nothing I saw of America's Best Comics, then or later, impressed me all that much. But I can be hard to impress when it comes to superhero stuff.) Since I'm reading giant stacks of comics-format books this year to feed the maw of Book-A-Day, I figured I might as well try Promethea, Book 1 again.

(I'm still not that impressed. This is not a surprise.)

Promethea the character is a legacy hero, one of many in Moore's work -- he's been very fond of having his main character be one of a million versions of the same thing, from the Captain Britain multiverse to the Parliament of Trees. This time, the original of Promethea is a fourth-century girl in Egyptian Alexandria bodily transported to the realm of story by the god Thoth-Hermes, and somehow because of that gets to be the template for a series of mystically-powered superwomen starting at the end of the 19th century in the US. Since Moore always has miles of notes, I'm not going to ask what Promethea was doing for the intervening thirteen centuries, because he'd probably tell me in great detail in some tedious end-of-book text feature.

Our brand-new Promethea is Sophie Bangs -- that name sounds much more like a camgirl than a superheroine, but OK -- in a mildly science-utopian 1999, a slightly alternate comic-book-universey version of the real world her story was published into. She's a college student researching the legend of Promethea, providing both the natural opportunity for a lot of infodumping and the reason why she gets saddled with the glowy caduceus staff and form-fitting bronze armor.

There are, of course, equally mystical evil people who want to snuff out this new Promethea before she comes into her full powers, and they try to do so. But most of the story here, from the first six issues of the Promethea comic, is an extended tour of the Immateria, the lands of story and myth, in the company of each of the recent dead Prometheas in turn.

That tour is not over at the end of this book; nothing is actually resolved by the last page here and Sophie/Promethea is heading out into a promised two more sections of the Immateria to learn more lessons from more dead predecessors. Why this is where the vast and cool intelligences of DC chose to end this particular book is beyond me; I suspect they believe that their target audience doesn't understand the idea of stories "ending" anyway, and so don't bother wasting time with such things.

But I am a well-known cynic.

Promethea is a perfectly adequate superhero comic, with powers and characters that make more sense than many of its competitors. Williams and Gray draw well, and get some inventive page designs out of it. You could certainly do worse than this.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #324: Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk

When I snagged this book from the library a few weeks ago, I had a snarky comment about "I don't think it's about a group of teen girls who decide to build the perfect best friend in science lab, but it would be awesome if it was." Well, guess what: I was more right than I expected, and Making Friends is more fantastic than I thought.

(Yes, "fantastic" can be taken two ways: either one works here.)

It's not a group of girls, but one: Dany. She's in seventh grade, early in the year, and is finding the transition to middle school tougher than she expected. Her old friends have a completely different schedule, and making new friends is not working like she hoped.

But she has a sketchbook from her recently deceased Great-Aunt
Elma. And when she draws in that sketchbook, what she draws appears in the real world.

That obviously makes more sense than my confused snark: who needs to make a friend the most? Not people who already have them. Someone who feels all alone, overwhelmed in a new place and wishes things would go back to the way they used to be.

So Dany draws Madison Fontaine, who will be her best friend, does all of the things she wishes she could (quick with a retort, expert at hair and makeup, cool and fun and comfortable with herself). Madison just moved from NYC, and will be in all of Dany's classes.

(Before that, before she knew what the notebook could do, Dany sketched the head of Sailor Moon Solar Sisters villain Prince Neptune, and so she also secretly has a manipulative, sneaky superpowered head lurking in her backpack and calling her Princess. Let's not forget about him, giving Dany advice that sounds good but will only turn her into another cruel bully.)

At first, Madison is perfect: she is Dany's best friend, and having her around helps Dany fit in better at school. But Madison starts to wonder about the things she can't remember -- surely she must have parents somewhere, and isn't supposed to stay at Dany's house forever, right?

Making Friends doesn't belabor the lesson. But Dany does learn that doing things the easy way isn't always right. Oh, and she also learns to turn her friends into a Solar Sisters team to stop a supervillain intent on destroying the school and conquering the world (in that order, obviously).

Kristen Gudnsuk has the same kind of sly humor and love for semi-cheesy media tropes here that made her supervillain story Henchgirl so much fun. In Making Friends, it's pitched at a younger audience, and she's pulled back on some of the random goofiness of the world (which I kinda miss, actually -- I found it a distinctive Gudsnukian [1] touch in Henchgirl) -- but it feels like the same kind of story, and Dany could grow up into a henchgirl herself, if things went really badly for her.

Luckily, things do not go really badly for her, though it looks dark a few times.

Making Friends is another one of those books designed and marketed right at an audience of middle-school girls. But, as I find myself saying a lot these days, that doesn't mean the rest of us need to ignore it -- and we shouldn't.

[1] I want to live in a world where Gudsnukian becomes a commonly used adjective for certain kinds of comics. And it could happen!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #323: Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez

I spend more time than is reasonable worrying if I'm doing things right. Even worse, often what I mean by "right" is "fitting the rules I made up myself, which I haven't bothered to clearly codify."

Obviously, a healthy person would not spend time on anything like that, but I am a blogger, and so clearly not that healthy.

So my first question after reading Gilbert Hernandez's standalone 2013 graphic novel Julio's Day was whether it really counts as Love and Rockets. Oh, sure, two excerpts from it appeared first in the New Stories paperback series, but most of this story didn't, and it has no connections with any of his other L&R work. (On the other side of the argument: a lot of his L&R work has no connection to the rest of his L&R work; he's been more likely to go off on tangents than his brother Jaime.)

Since I'm writing this here now, you've probably already assumed that I decided it counted. And I did. But I had to worry the issue for a while first.

The next big question is whether it's way too reductive to call Julio's Day the story of the hundred-year-life of a completely closeted Mexican gay man. And that's a nice label, but it doesn't reflect what the book is actually about. Julio himself isn't really all that central to his own story to begin with: he's pretty colorless for a Gilbert Hernandez protagonist, overshadowed his entire life by the more vibrant members of his family.

As usual for Hernandez, "vibrant" is not at all the same thing as "positive." Julio's uncle Juan is one of the most distinctive characters here, and he's a deeply damaged person, compelling to sneak away with baby boys and do unspecified things with them. The rest of Julio's family, and the few others they interact with, are quirky in similar Gilbert Hernandez ways, but Julio himself remains transparent, the void at the center of his own story.

Like Palomar, this town is somewhere in Latin America. Also like Palomar, Hernandez will not be any more specific than that. Julio's life matches pretty closely to the twentieth century, from small bits of internal evidence, but that's all background: Julio is not involved in any great issues, and barely any small issues. He just lives here, for a long time, while other things happen around him, mostly far away.

There's a hundred pages of incidents and no real overall plot: this is a story of episodes, moments over a hundred years when Julio was there to witness them. (Or was somewhere else: the two pieces published in L&R follow other members of his family on journeys, first his father and then his grand-nephew.)

In typical Hernandez fashion, there are bizarre, horrifying diseases and deaths, and many random, mostly unhappy events -- a long life in a Gilbert Hernandez story is a sequence of sad and shocking moments, ended only by death.

The title is ironic at best, as well: not only is this the story of a hundred years, not a single day, but Julio never really had a day, either literally or metaphorically. His grand-nephew poses that question to him near the end, and that's the source for the title -- but Julio was never in the right time or place to seize that day, and maybe was never the person who could have seized that day.

Does that make Julio's Day a cautionary tale? It's not focused enough for that, and I think Hernandez would deny that impulse -- he's never been one to make a single lesson with a story. Gilbert Hernandez stories aim for the complexity and confusion of real life: too many things happening to too many people to turn it into a single narrative, and all of the lessons possible in there somewhere.

And I suspect Julio's Day is the kind of book that rewards multiple readings, to trace the connections, personal and visual, over this long century, from the moment Julio opens his mouth to be born until the moment his mouth hangs open in death.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/17

Another week, another single book from the library -- honestly, I really don't plan it that way. I regularly request half a dozen or so books from the library; it just takes 3-4 weeks (or longer) for them to all trickle in. And right now I'm carefully planning the end of the year, so I can read as much as possible of what's on my shelves, still have posts to write everyday, and end Book-A-Day the way I want to.

But here's what I got this week: some comics I haven't read in about thirty years.

Justice League International, Vol. 1 collects the first seven issues of the 1987 series written by Keith Gifdfen and J.M. DeMatteis and drawn by Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon. As I recall, it wasn't in bwah-ha-ha funny mode to begin with; it started out to be a serious reboot of the JLA but Giffen and DeMatteis realized, bit by bit, that these characters, in their hands, wanted to be funny and just went with it. I'll see if that memory was correct.

The book I have is a nice hardcover, published in 2008. Looks like this reprint series continued to a sixth volume, which seems to be the point where the book fissioned into Justice League America and Justice League Europe -- both went on for a few years after that, but I don't think those are reprinted. (There's also the inevitable Omnibus, but it's "only" a thousand pages, so at best it has everything in the smaller Vols. 1-6 and still nothing later.)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #322: The Martian Confederacy, Vol. 2: From Mars With Love by Jason McNamara & Paige Braddock

I read the first volume of Martian Confederacy nine years ago, around the time it came out, but clearly didn't love it enough to jump into the second book any time quickly.

But time wounds all heels, and, during a business trip recently, I remembered that I had The Martian Confederacy, Vol. 2: From Mars With Love on a device, and so read it to keep the Book-A-Day streak going. (If you think that "streak" is filled with the book equivalent of a lot of bloop singles, well, you're not wrong.) As with the first book, it's written by Jason McNamara and drawn by Paige Braddock, and both of them will probably be very surprised to see this post pop up if they have the usual Google ego-searches active. (I'm sure they've done plenty of other stuff since this, and I like to believe that everyone gets better, too.)

Martian Confederacy has a veneer of seriousness and drama, but it's a loose, ramshackle construction that fights against that seriousness every step of the way. (I called it "the Dukes of Hazard on Mars" the first time around, and I stand by that.)

As the cover gives away, central this time is a love story between our somewhat lunkish (but good-hearted) hero Boone and Lou, his android roommate (platonically, up to this point). They set off to investigate the abduction of the children of a friend of Lou's -- there's a big hole in the side of their trailer and everything -- and end up being shanghaied by the Alcalde into investigating a wider problem, and breaking his rules to get off the planet and find the culprits.

You see -- and you'll want to be sitting down for this -- there's a planet-wide child theft ring, which nobody has heard about for some reason, and the Alcalde (corrupt, the only law/government on the entire planet, no apparent thugs to actually enforce his edicts but he acts like someone will do what he decrees) tells Boone and Lou that they need to solve the problem before he (the Alcalde) comes back from his honeymoon. Oh, and they're specifically ordered not to leave the planet, though the instant they start to think it about, it's clear the kids were all kidnapped to somewhere other than Mars.

That's how From Mars, With Love is the whole way: superficially plausible as long as you don't think about anything for even a second, and full of very durable cliches mixed with random oddities. (The Alcalde's new wife is two women, connected upside-down at the torso, and they flip around semi-randomly, taking over the personality and activity of the single person they seem to be legally.) The universe is pretty crapsack -- slavery (at least of non-human sentients) is legal, kidnapping kids is pretty common, and everything is pretty beat-up and junky. And the plot is the usual combination of fighting and let-me-tell-you-what's-really-happening, with the kind of ending you'd expect from a story like this.

I have a feeling the creators took it a bit more seriously than I did, but that's OK: you should commit to the things you're doing. As far as I can tell, this is where the series ended -- two collections of outlaw medium-future adventures, sticking it to The Man on the red planet. It's unique, I'll give it that: it's definitely one of a kind.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #321: The New York Four by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Hey, remember Minx? (Don't worry, a lot of people don't.)

DC Comics launched that imprint in 2007 to great fanfare, with a raft of interesting creators (many from outside the comic-shop) world and a focus on fiction for teen girls that was unusual for comics of the modern era. It flopped in barely a year, though: that's why you might not remember it.

Other companies, before and since, have published plenty of very successful books for this audience -- I need only mention the name Raina Telgemeier. But DC didn't manage to do it: maybe because they were too locked into their usual distribution channels, maybe because "DC Comics" turned off those girls, maybe because the stars just weren't right. But it did flop.

I've covered most of the Minx books randomly here -- Re-Gifters and ClubbingThe Plain Janes and Good as Lily, Janes sequel Janes in Love, Kimmie66, Water Baby, Confessions of a Blabbermouth, and Emiko Superstar in a quick way during my Eisner-judging frenzy. But one of the Minx books I didn't manage to read at the time was The New York Four, a graphic novel about four young women, all first-year students at New York University, by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly.

But somehow, without realizing the connection, I had a publicity copy (in electronic form) of the Dark Horse book The New York Four, from 2014, which also included the aborted sequel The New York Five, which was done for Minx but never published by them. (And I mean literally not realizing; I figured it out while starting to type this.)

But now I've knocked off one more Minx: I think the only ones I haven't seen now are Burnout and Token.

The New York Four (the original graphic novel) was also, in a way, a follow-up to Local, a Brian Wood/Ryan Kelly comic about an aimless young woman from a year or so before. But this one is more obviously made for the teen set: every one of these four women has A Problem, presumably one that some segment of the target audience would relate to. (I don't think it was that mercenary, but we do have The Catfished Girl, and The Stalker, and The Sugar-Daddy Chaser, and The Outer-Borough Slut, if you want to be reductive.) The first story focuses almost exclusively on The Catfished Girl, Riley, who is also said to be a bookworm (we don't see this) from a demanding family whose older sister ran away for mysterious reasons seven years before. The other three are supporting characters in the Riley story in Four, though the slightly shorter Five is more balanced. A different structure, one that let each woman have an independent story that the others supported, might have been better, but even this structure didn't make it out into public unscathed, so I'm not really complaining.

The characterization is thoughtful but tends to be one-note -- each of the Four is mostly her issue, which is underlined by one of the organizing principles of both Four and Five: they're all taking part in an unlikely get-college-kids-to-take-high-school-exams-regularly program, which is also inexplicably well-paid, and they have to meet regularly with a psychiatrist as part of this program. It's entirely possible that Wood is basing this fictional program on something similar or identical in the real world, but it seemed incredibly bizarre and unlikely to me, a convoluted way to get his characters into reality-TV style "tell your story into the camera" moments.

Kelly's art is lush and detailed, with all of the people distinctive and real. He gives this book a lot of depth, down to body language -- look at main character Riley on the cover! can't you tell a lot about her just from that? -- and facial expressions.

But it feels like there's just too much here, and Wood ends up giving short shrift to the fact that these women are in college -- we barely see them in class, and they don't interact with other students at all. I suspect that he had a novel's worth of ideas for a novella-length story. And I can't help but compare it to the John Allison-written Giant Days, which started slightly later and was in pamphlet-format comics originally, which let it give each of its (only three) young women the spotlight in turn.

There's a lot of good in The New York Four, and it could have been better if it and Minx had been a success: I expect Wood and Kelly would have done further stories, and maybe even followed these women all the way to graduation. Oh, well. Failure is the way of the world...and that's a lesson you can also get by reading The New York Four.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #320: Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me by Peter Bagge

In the first decade of this century, Peter Bagge did a lot of cartooning for Reason magazine. (He might still do so; I don't know. As far as I know this book doesn't have a sequel, so I vaguely guess that he moved on.) It was all more-or-less topical stuff, since Reason was a topical magazine with a Libertarian slant, and eventually there was enough of it to make a book.

This is that book: Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me, collected those Reason strips (single-pagers and longer pieces) in 2009, organized into a number of thematic chapters about the general kind of thing that Bagge is complaining about there.

Now, don't get me wrong: Bagge may be a libertarian, but he's not a crank. Well, not fully. My guess is that he's lived in liberal-wonderland Seattle for so long that he had to react to that somehow, and standard conservatism came with things like god, guns, and war-mongering that he never was interested in. And Libertarianism is one of those beautiful political philosophies, like Communism, that devotees can both argue the permutations of endlessly and claim that it's never been tried in practice, so it will obviously be perfect if we would only try it.

Bagge is also not always clear about exactly what he does believe in. He's clearly annoyed by the "libertarians don't like roads" ideas, but...libertarians often do say that all activity now run by the government (fire and police protection, ensuring safe food and water, the military, social programs, and, yes, roads and infrastructure) should instead be done only by private industry. Maybe Bagge isn't that kind of libertarian, but it's a little like saying you're a Communist and then complaining when people bring up Karl Marx.

Anyway, Bagge hated the Gulf War, bans on contraception (though he was also skeeved out by reporting on swingers), modern art, Christian rock, malls, the kind of people who he finds in casinos (though, as a libertarian, he's fine with gambling being legal), Seattle's monorail project, public funding for sports stadiums, Amtrak, the war on drugs, the hard-core homeless (he calls them "bums"), and, of course, politicians, particularly the liberal ones running for President in 2008.

In general, he's against governments spending money on things, or any taxes he has to pay, or anything else that might interrupt his life or make him think about things he doesn't care about. Libertarianism tends to be a philosophy of selfishness at the best of times, but Bagge really leans into it.

He generally avoids grumpy-old-man mode in the stories here, partly because he's of the my-opinions-are-so-nuanced-it-will-take-several-pages-of-text-heavy-panels-to-explicate-them and partially because he still has a lurking tropism to want to let people kick out the jams and go crazy. (Potential topic for discussion: young punks turn into old libertarians.)

This book is very topical, and all of these topics have moved on from where they were in 2001-2008. So reading it today can be quaint -- oh, how precious that he thought that worrying about healthcare was absurd! And some of those politicians were not always completely truthful when they carefully answered reporter's questions! Oh, shock, let us all clutch our pearls.

The world has gotten vastly more stupid since this book came out. You can't blame Bagge (or libertarians) for the stupidity, though it is more-or-less his end of the political spectrum that has blown up everything in American society for no good reason and with no actual solutions.

But at least we can keep complaining about the government spending money on people we don't like!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book-A_Day 2018 #319: Ghastly Beyond Belief by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman

Every time I do a Book-A-Day run, there's at least one Bad Day. That's a day when I'm just too busy to read a book, or write about one, depending on what my rubric is that time around. Some years have more of them, some have less -- some bad days are minor, some are major. But it's impossible to avoid Bad Days entirely.

Today, I'm sorry to say, is probably my worst Bad Day in the history of this blog. I'm down in Austin, Texas for the amazing annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel. (As I write this: I'm so far ahead that you won't read it for over three weeks. But the whole point of Book-A-Day is to get it done that day.) Today is Monday. Saturday I got up at 5 AM, flew here from Newark, and then worked seven or eight hours setting up a booth. Yesterday was another twelve-hour day, finishing setup, doing normal work, and overseeing the opening reception. Today I was over in the exhibit hall at 8 AM and stayed there until it closed at 7 PM, went to a cocktail hour with a lot of other TR employees and then a dinner with just a few of them. I finally got back to my room at 11 PM, after what I count as a 15-hour day. (I might have also had a couple of whiskey sours during the cocktail hour that I'm surprised to still feel three hours later: I'm not as young as I used to be, but still young enough to keep being surprised at how not-young I am.)

When I got back here to my hotel room [1], I hadn't finished a book, and I certainly hadn't written anything. That is as close to a Platonic Bad Day as I can imagine.

Luckily, I had an out. I'd been reading Ghastly Beyond Belief -- a collection of quotes from SF and horror novels and movies that are more entertaining than good -- for a while this year in a desultory way, starting with my last business trip. Between that, and a couple of hundred words of bullshit about how busy my last few days have been (woe is me!), I could bash out a not-totally-horrible blog post by midnight and redeem myself.

How well did that work? Well, I finished Ghastly and got this far, and it's now 11:40. So I'm pretty sure I can make it, though I do need to apologize for anyone still reading for the toxic levels of self-indulgence at play here. I sincerely hope this post will never be anyone's first impression of Antick Musings -- really, I'm not usually this lousy, I promise.

(How lousy am I usually? Further deponent sayeth not.)

So: Ghastly Beyond Belief. Published in 1985 in the UK by Arrow Books. Inspired (I assume) by Bill Pronzini's masterful Gun in Cheek from 1982, the first of two amazing collections of "differently good" writing from the mystery-novel world. Collated by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman, when both were still young and grabbing for any opportunity to be in print and get paid for it.

I'm sorry to say that Ghastly is not as good as the Gun in Cheek books. I don't think that's because there is less bad writing in SF/horror -- I might be tempted to argue the opposite, actually. But Gaiman and Newman, even working in tandem, did not have the encyclopedic overview of horrible writing in their fields, the single-minded focus to gather it all and put it on the page, and the gleeful joy in calling out every last cliche that Pronzini brought to the task. Maybe that's because SF is more collegial than mystery, maybe our editors were younger than Pronzini was and thus less steeped in the culture of the bad stuff, maybe they weren't as obsessed with old lousy stories, maybe the yoking of books and movies was an unfortunate choice -- maybe your own maybes here.

Ghastly is fun, certainly. It's somewhat outdated, thirty years later, and feels less focused since it's divided in half: Gaiman apparently tackled the prose in the front half, and Newman the cinema in the back half. There are a lot of really horrible quotes in it. (Even if I think picking bad quotes from lousy horror movies is like shooting fish in a barrel: of course they're lousy!)

This book has been long out of print; it's hard to find and very expensive when you do find it. Gaiman had a fundraising thing a year or so back -- I forget, now, exactly what good cause it was for -- and this was one of a host of minor and/or old Gaiman books thrown in for the backers at whatever level. (That's how I got it, and how practically anyone reading it these days got it. If you missed that and really want to read Ghastly: sorry, but sucks to be you.)

So I guess my point is: this book that you probably can't find is fun, but not as good as you hope it is. Go read the Pronzini if you like that sort of thing, since it's easier to find and somewhat better. And know that Bad Days, however they manifest in your life, can always be overcome as long as you define the rules for "overcoming."

[1] Not to be That Guy, but my hotel is about a mile from the convention center, and I threw out my back crawling around on the floor on setup day. So I'm not just still mildly drunk and deeply tired, but in minor pain as well. Truly I am an Hemingwayesque figure, what?