Monday, January 28, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/26/19

Still nothing, I'm afraid. Low-content mode will continue for a while -- probably another couple of weeks, at least, since I've got some travel coming up.

But I've gone into low-content mode and come back multiple times in the history of this blog, so I expect I will be back, eventually, for the four or five people who are still out there. See you then.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/19/19

Nothing to report this week. No publicity books, no library books, no purchased books.

I mean, I've got three big bookcases directly behind me filled with books I haven't read -- about twenty shelves worth, call it 60 linear feet -- but they're not new. If this dearth of new books goes on, I might need to reconfigure this standard post -- maybe take a picture of a shelf and explain why I thought I wanted to read those books?

Anyway, nothing this time. And I haven't made any changes yet. Watch this space...maybe something will happen.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is the first book I read in 2019, after the end of my Book-a-Day run for 2018. And it took me until the 9th to get through a short book made up of short, quick-read chapters -- as I expected, the reading backlash hit hard.

(My hope, going forward, is to read one substantial book a week, a novel or similar-length non-fiction work, and to mix in comics around that as I can. We'll have to see if that happens.)

Gaiman is a excellent writer to read when you're not sure what you want to read...or if you actually want to read anything at all. His prose here, as always, is crisp and slightly wry, with sentences like potato chips -- it's always easier to just keep going on and read the next one. He's a writer whose depths can be missed by the unwary: each word is chosen precisely, and there's always an attitude and a viewpoint embedded in those words for readers who pay attention -- but, on the surface, he's telling a story cleanly and quickly, about larger-than-life characters and their quirky exploits.

Norse Mythology was his new book for 2017; I read it in the trade paperback edition that came out a year later. (The longer I'm out of the fiction publishing business, the longer I seem to wait to read things -- if I can't get bound galleys before publication, I guess, I'll wait until the next edition in a similar format.)

I'm calling it "Fantasy" for my tags, here, but it's more accurately myth -- these are stories that we think people took seriously, and believed in at least on some metaphoric level, which is not the same as a clearly fictional work of fantasy. But all of Norse myth that we have available has been through a number of ferocious filters of Christianity and time and a long oral tradition, so it is closer to literature than religious text to begin with -- as if all we had of Greek myth were half of Ovid -- and Gaiman's work here is to retell those stories, as purely and cleanly as he can, in modern language for the people who like Neil Gaiman books.

Gaiman has an introduction up front where he admits that his first encounter with this world was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which is probably common for a lot of his generation. (I think I first met Thor, Odin and Loki in the back of Edith Hamilton; I didn't read superhero comics much as a kid. But I'm also a decade or so younger than Gaiman.) His version, though, is directly from the original sources, the Elder and Younger Eddas, with the stories pulled out into individual named chapters.

As Gaiman notes in his introduction, we have lost most of this mythology: we know a lot of names and some representative stories, but that's about it. The core of the mythology seems to still be extant, the accounts of the beginning and ending of the world, but it's difficult to say if Odin and Thor and Loki really were the most important gods in the pantheon, or if they're just the ones whose stories happened to be most prominent in those two Eddas.

But that's what Gaiman has to work with, and he does it well, beginning with the first giant Ymir and the creation or discovery of the nine worlds and continuing to Ragnarok, the end of this set of things. (Not of all things: this is a cynical-destruction universe, in which a small piece makes it out of the total destruction to see the next cycle. You can call that optimism, if you like.)

Gaiman's tone, particularly in the initial chapter where he introduces the gods, can seem like he's talking to children, but I don't think that's his intention. Gaiman is aiming for a storyteller voice, one that is informative and teaching, but not necessarily teaching an audience that is new to the stories. It may be more colloquial than readers of Edith Hamilton or Bulfinch expect, but this is a new retelling for a new age: every age gets the eternal stories told again in its own words.

As usual, Gaiman's words are good ones, and his stories are told sturdily. These are things he cares about and is interested in and wants to do right. It is not a novel. But fans of Gaiman's fiction will probably find much to like here as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #381: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Yes, I did maneuver so that this would be the very last book of Book-A-Day -- what better than something called Exit Strategy?

This is the fourth and last book of Martha Wells's "The Murderbot Diaries," a series of excellent novellas in book form that have already won her one Hugo. All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, and Rogue Protocol were the previous books. A follow-up novel is promised, and I expect there will be a one-volume edition of The Murderbot Diaries in late 2019 or 2020 as well. But don't wait for either of those things: this is a great series of compelling page-turners narrated by a uniquely enticing voice.

That's Murderbot itself: a rogue SecUnit in a vaguely cyberpunky medium-future FTL-equipped setting. The larger human-inhabited universe seems to include areas with functional governments, but out on the Corporate Rim, where Murderbot has spent its career, everything is run by competing companies -- sometimes more-or-less decently, often very badly. What oversight there seems to be is provided by insurance companies and security outfits, and is entirely based on payments today and the prospect of being around to collect further payments later.

Which brings us to GrayCris, which has been doing some very nefarious deeds that Murderbot has been uncovering -- partially without wanting to -- for three books now. Murderbot was under contract to GrayCris and at the scene of a massacre: it went back there in Artificial Condition to find out why, and whether it hacked its governor module before or after that massacre. Along the way, it's accumulated a lot of data on GrayCris activities, mostly involving secretly collecting interdicted alien artifacts, the release of which would trash GrayCris's relationships with all of its counterparties and possibly even bring the company down. (Remember: this is an all-corporate environment: there are no "laws" as such to violate, only negotiated agreements among large profit-seeking entities.)

GrayCris, though, won't go quietly. Murderbot realizes that they have kidnapped Dr. Mensah -- head of the survey team it saved back in All Systems Red to start the whole thing -- and that they're trying to find Murderbot, too. Murderbot, through some combination of growing emotional attachment to specific humans, a sense of righteousness, and a faulty risk assessment module, decides to go to the station where Mensah is being held. And, of course, it gets caught up in an attempt to break her out.

As I said, a further Murderbot novel is promised, but that's as far as I'll go with spoilers.

Murderbot is a wonderful, deep character, and its voice is true and conflicted and immediately gripping. The Murderbot Diaries aren't about what it is to be human -- Wells is telling stories here, not making a sermon -- but Murderbot is a fascinating person, unique in its universe, trying to figure out where it fits in and what it can do with its life. (Besides watching The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon over and over again.) These are great books from one of our best SFF writers, and it's great to see not just how strong they are, but how much the SFF readership has grabbed onto them and celebrated them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #380: Royalboiler by Brandon Graham

This is not a comic. It's an art book by a cartoonist, featuring covers (from his own books and guest covers for others' comics), sketchbook pages, odd single-page comics from in-house Image newsletters, convention posters, a T-shirt design or two, some logos for porn companies and stars, a little bit of movie concept art, and other assorted stuff that Brandon Graham has created in the twentyish years of his comics career.

Royalboiler is an oversized paperback with full-bleed art most of the time -- it's a great size and format for an art book, and really makes the covers (here presented without logos) show up well. That does mean, though, that text is minimal and mostly restricted to some captions on pages where they can be accommodated. The captions are also all in Graham's lettering font -- I can't say if they're all hand-lettered or not; does anyone actually still do that? -- so they look like they're part of the underlying art if you don't slow down and pay attention.

But the point of an art book is to slow down and pay attention, so I don't consider that a problem.

There is minimal text here, again: just enough to say what this piece of art is, maybe who worked on it with Graham or what year it was done. But there is enough, from those captions and a few semi-autobiographical strips and some collages of photos and artwork from conventions, to piece together a bit of Graham's life, or at least the parts of his life that he wants to present in his art in public.

So it starts out with covers from King City and Multiple Warheads and then goes into some of his odder, earlier, obscurer, or more collaborative projects -- Prophet and Perverts of the Unknown and October Yen and so on, and then into lots of art for conventions and covers for other comics. After that comes the Comic Lovers strip for Image Plus, other odd pieces about comics, and so on.

There's a lot in here -- the book has no page numbers, but informed sources claim it's 248 pages, and that seems about right. That's almost 250 big pages full of interesting art by a quirky creator -- the one thing I would note is that his cover/sketch work is often less dense than his story pages, so there aren't as many buried jokes or puns in Royalboiler as there are in his narrative comics. Or, maybe, they're buried even more deeply, so I missed them....

Monday, January 14, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #379: Emma by Kaoru Mori (5 hardcover 2-in-1 volumes)

Is it damning with faint praise to say of a painter that you love her brushstrokes but aren't crazy about her paintings? I hope not, because I'm about to say that about Kaoru Mori's first major manga series Emma.

Emma originally ran for 72 chapters -- 52 of the main story, and a follow-up 20 side-story chapters -- in Japan's Beam magazine from 2002 through 2008. It was collected into ten volumes, with the side-stories taking up the last three, then the volumes were translated into English. At some point, there were hardcovers, each collecting two of the smaller paperback tankobon volumes. And that's what I just read: 72 serial chapters, 10 paperbacks, or five hardcovers. (Links to Volumes One, Two, Three, Four and Five)

It's set in the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era in England, starting in what seems to be the late 1890s and continuing for a few years past Victoria's death in 1901. (There are no actual dates in the series, but Mori does contrast Victorian and Edwardian clothing styles in her afterwords without a whole lot of explanation...I don't think she believes that everything changed poof! all at once. It is also difficult to judge how much time is passing, since even the old characters are mostly drawn with young faces.) The central character is Emma, a young woman of uncertain parentage and no actual last name, initially working as the maid-of-all-work in the London home of retired governess Kelly Stowner.

Emma meets and falls in love with William Jones, scion of a rich and rising merchant family, who also loves her. But there are the usual impediments: their respective positions in life, William's engagement to the daughter of a Viscount, his stern father, blah blah blah and so on.

Reader, of course they get married in the end. We all know that. So I won't pretend otherwise.

My problem is that the problems in their way are neither fish nor fowl. I'd be happy with a Dickensian drama with melodramatic problems solved in melodramatic ways -- if one party were kidnapped to America by characters who look a lot like 19th century Jewish stereotypes, for example, and the other party had to chase her there and save her from durance vile -- and I'd also be happy with a more serious, sedate story of manners and closely examined social mores of the time. Emma is neither of those. This story instead throws in a couple of melodramatic moments for no clear reason (like that abduction by racist stereotypes), but generally steers a sedate course without actually closely examining the actual standards of the society it concerns.

Emma, frankly, is a caricature of circa-1900 English society as seen through the lens of circa-2002 Japanese society: the aspects that resonate with Mori and her audience are emphasized, and the ones that would be inconvenient to this story are ignored or changed or misunderstood.

Some of my major issues with Emma:
  • the narrative seems to have never even heard of a "breach of promise" suit
  • a "former governess" lives in what would be an expensive London townhouse, perhaps because she became a governess as something to do after her husband died
  • in general, money may exist, but the lack of it does not seem to harm or motivate a single person in the world
  • an honest-to-God kidnapping happens and is never mentioned afterward
  • the entire race of the "the Irish" seem not to exist in this world, or at least to have no connection to domestic service
  • it's yet another comic series whose narrative is apparently driven primarily by what the artist wanted to draw, and not any actual story purpose
  • fans of the series, and possibly even its creator, seem to be mostly interested in "stories about maids" and details of their clothing, rather than any actual story points
This is not an exhaustive list.

On the other hand, Emma looks gorgeous, and the character interaction on a scene-by-scene level is true and engaging. I might not always believe that all of Mori's characters actually are British people born in the 19th century, but they're interesting, distinct people no matter how ahistorical they may be. Their interactions are realistic, and if Emma had not insisted on its historicity, it could all be taken as the ways these people in this society interact.

I expect most readers won't care about any of that. It's a nice love story, sweet and totally innocent, as befitting the time-period. (Though there is quite a bit of female nudity in Emma, both of an older married woman and of a high-class prostitute, so it's not appropriate for anyone looking for absolute purity of the Christian Dominionist strain.) And, again, I'm quite happy with ahistorical melodramatic stories -- or solidly historical melodramatic stories, for that matter -- but if something pretends to be serious and grounded, it should actually be so, and not just pretend to it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/12

My regular comics shop had one of those post-holiday sales right around the New Year, and , well, how could I resist? So I bought the following books, which arrived in the mail exactly a week ago from the moment you're reading this. (Well, maybe a couple of hours before or after -- don't take me too literally.)

Nexus Omnibus, Vol. 7 and Vol. 8 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude -- Hey, remember how I read the first half of Nexus last year? Well, if I manage to get motivated, I'll do the second half sometime this year. There may be some small miniseries after these omnibus collections, though -- I need to investigate before I dive in.

Grendel Tales Omnibus, Vol. 1 by a whole bunch of people mostly not including Matt Wagner -- This is the first of two books collecting the various stories about Wagner's Grendel universe by other hands, mostly in the '90s. As I recall, those were mostly good stories, though full of the usual darkness of that universe, and I just re-read all of the Wagner Grendel material, so this is an obvious next step.

Beanworld, Vol. 4: Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l by Larry Marder -- Now this may have been a mistake. I've read the first omnibus, which collects the first two volumes, and Vol. 3.5, which stands sort-of on its own, but Vol. 3 is out of print, and I think this one is, too. And I swear that I couldn't find any listings for the now-upcoming Omnibus, Vol. 2 the last time I looked, but it's there now -- coming in July. So this may sit quietly until I get the second omnibus once it's published, and then go away.

Elric: The Balance Lost, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 by Chris Roberson, Francesco Biagini, and Stephen Downer -- these were quite attractively priced, and I just read the first volume, so why not?

Descender, Vol. 6 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen -- I believe this actually ends this story, though I vaguely remember that the creators are doing a somewhat related follow-up as well. (Very vaguely, as I recall --I'd need to check, but I thought it was fantasy rather than SF.) I've read and liked the first five collections: this is a good space opera in comics form.

Berlin: City of Light is the final volume of the trilogy by Jason Lutes, completing the story he's been working on for over twenty years. (I reviewed the middle book for ComicMix more than a decade ago -- that's how long it's been.)

And last is Perdy, a Western from France by a creator called Kickliy. It's gotten interesting reviews: the main character is a woman who looks as rough and range-worn as the usual male heroes in Westerns, and has the sexual and criminal appetite of many of those heroes as well.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #378: Bacchus by Eddie Campbell (2 Vols.)

Bacchus was Eddie Campbell's first taste of comics success, his "American-style comic book" about idiosyncratic versions of the Greek gods, in an idiom occasionally congruent with crime and/or superhero stories but often just focused on the joys of storytelling, camaraderie, and the pleasures of the vine (and, somewhat more darkly, the things one might do while under the influence of that vine).

He made stories about the aged god Bacchus and the rest of his milieu for more than a decade, starting in the spring of 1987 as a regular comic from the British publisher Harrier and eventually built his own minor self-publishing empire (out of the front room of his house in Australia, as he put it), with a Bacchus comic mixing reprints of the early stories with the new end of the saga, ending in 2001 after sixty issues.

And then, a decade and a half later, Top Shelf collected all of those stories -- which had previously been collected into ten storyline-focused books from Campbell's own Eddie Campbell Comics -- into two big fat books to match the design of their earlier Alec: "The Years Have Pants". Each volume collects five of those earlier volumes, and the two books end up almost exactly the same length, as if it were all planned that way from the beginning. (As far as I can tell, Campbell hasn't done any recent tinkering: these stories were finalized for the Eddie Campbell Comics volumes, and they're going to stay in that final form from now on.)

This is one of the great quirky comics of its era, maybe of any era. The way it swings back and forth from nearly-farcical action to languid retold mythology to occasional moments of stark drama to actually farcical action is distinct and wonderful: whatever kind of comics you like, Bacchus has a moment that will delight you. And if you like comics in general, Bacchus has hundreds of those moments.

Bacchus, Volume One has most of the more overtly "American-style" stories, starting with Immortality Isn't Forever, a crime-drama set in the nonspecific American city preferred by Scotsmen who haven't made it across the pond yet and with a plot set in motion explicitly by the mythological underpinnings. (Bacchus is still pissed at "Joe Theseus" for abandoning Ariadne all those years ago, even though he never would have met her if Joe didn't abandon her.) Immortality starts the standard whipsaw plotting, jumping back and forth from all-out action, mostly with Joe and the Eyeball Kid (more on him later), to quieter moments of Bacchus, and occasionally others, retelling myths with his own spin on them. As the series went on, those two modes got more separated, landing in different storylines, but they were both there from the beginning.

The rest of Volume One mostly bounces between those modes -- The Gods of Business is more all-out action, bringing Hermes into the mix, Doing the Islands With Bacchus is a long series of retold myths with a light frame story of Bacchus and companions wandering the Greek isles and causing trouble with those they meet, and Eyeball Kid: One Man Show is an even bigger-scale action series with the Eyeball Kid and Hermes fighting again for other characters' amusement.

(The Eyeball Kid, by the way, is a twenty-eyed grandchild of Argus -- he of the hundred eyes -- who was Hera's lover and revenged her death at the hands of her husband Zeus by killing the old man and stealing his power. He's also the only straightforward, non-conflicted, centered main character, undercut by also being wackily random and prone to malapropisms.)

Volume One ends with the epic Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, which connects the Bacchus-plot of Islands with the Joe-and-Hermes-and-Eyeball plot of Show in Sicily. It also brings in a couple of Haphaestus-created magical/mechanical eyeballs which will be important for several later stories -- by this point, Joe and Bacchus and the Kid are all missing eyes.

During that first half of Bacchus, Campbell was the originator and central creator but not always working solo. Appropriately for these "American-style" comics, some of the superhero stuff was art-assisted by or just drawn by Ed Hillyer, and much of the mythological stuff was co-written with Wes Kublick, until the two had a falling-out over plot points.

That separation of the two modes continued at the beginning of of Bacchus, Volume Two: 1001 Nights of Bacchus is another group-of-retold-stories roundelay, set in a pub in England where the patrons can drink past closing time if they tell stories that keep Bacchus awake. The superhero material comes roaring back in the next two stories, Hermes Versus the Eyeball Kid and The Picture of Doreen Grey, which close out that strand of the overall story. And then the focus turns back to Bacchus as the focus first of that pub seceding from England in King Bacchus and then his subsequent incarceration for related crimes in Banged Up, the final Bacchus story.

It changed a little towards the end -- Bacchus got a new girlfriend, Collage, and even a baby -- but he was a remarkably passive title character for most of the run of his comic. Bacchus talked a lot, but he never did much. Things would happen with him around -- bacchanals are spurred by his mere presence, and license flourishes when the god of wine is near -- but Bacchus himself would mostly sit and drink and talk. That's a very unlikely thing for the hero of an "American-style" comic, but Campbell made it work for more than a decade, stringing out his own takes on actual mythology and superhero-style "mythology," plus the kitchen sink of every other kind of storytelling he felt like tackling at the moment.

To all of that he brought a scratchy, expressive line -- perfect for the banged-up faces of his multi-thousand-year-old main characters, and adaptable enough to shift to suit many modes of storytelling that he explored along the way -- and a seemingly bottomless enthusiasm for both story and wine. Bacchus is a great comic of myth and modernity, of the things people get up to when their inhibitions and tongues are loosened, and of the trouble they all can get into.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #377: Scout and Scout: War Shaman by Tim Truman

These aren't books, exactly. The first two-thirds of Tim Truman's mid-80s Scout series was reprinted in two trade paperbacks by Dynamite, a little over a decade ago, and I reviewed them a couple of years ago.

That's not what I read this time.

Truman recently kickstarted the long-delayed third Scout book, Marauder, and I backed it, since I'm another one of those people who have been waiting since 1989 for it to appear. (No complaints: I spent many of those years in publishing myself, and know just what can stop an idea from turning into a finished book -- there are millions of ways for a book to die and only a handful for it to thrive.)

As part of that project, Truman provided digital collections of the two original series -- covers and story pages, without most of the original backup stories, ads, and whatever other editorial matter was in those comics. [1]

That's what I read: the stories from Scout and Scout: War Shaman. Not the comics themselves, but the biggest pieces of those comics. And not books, because this world isn't good enough to have all four of those pieces as actual books. But Truman organized it as four volumes, and that's what it would be, in that better world where they all were published as books. So that's how I'll think of it, and write about it.

I'll illustrate it with some appropriate covers -- the Dynamite books for the first two volumes, and the covers of the first issues reprinted there for the last piece of Scout and for the shorter War Shaman series. And I'll hope that Marauder is enough of a success to turn all of those other things into real books, again or for the first time.

A man can dream, can't he?

Scout is set in a dystopian then-near-future world: the far-flung future of 1999, as seen from a deeply Reaganite 1986. Emmanuel Santana is a young Army Ranger deserter, of the Apache people, and he's been having apocalyptic visions. A spirit guide called the Gahn comes to him and tells him that the mythic "Four Monsters" of his people's folklore are alive and in charge of what's left of America -- and it's his job to kill them all. I went into some more details of the worldbuilding in that 2015 post: go there for more details.

The important thing is that the Gahn is real and what he says is true. Scout is both SF and fantasy: there are supernatural monsters that prey on mankind, there are wild talents that some people have, and there are giant bipedal mechs for war. (It's also of the strain of SF that saw the Warsaw Pact as being more stable and economically sound than they really were: in Santana's world, the US collapsed more comprehensively than the USSR did in ours, under pressure from an expanding communist bloc.) Death is real and common, the US has all gone to rack and ruin, and what leadership is left to the US is corrupt or confused or just wrong -- and barely democratic, even at the beginning of the series.

Scout was Santana's code-name as a Ranger: I don't have the expertise to judge if that's a thing that Army Rangers actually had or have. But this was the '80s, and a comic needed to follow the superhero model as closely as it could to succeed: the title had to be the short, punchy, semi-superhero version of the main character's name. (Badger, Nexus, Grimjack, Zot!).

The first Scout series started with the "Four Monsters" storyline, in which Santana killed those monsters, who all also happened to be powerful men closely connected to the corrupt Houston-based US government. That led to a certain amount of turmoil, to Santana being wanted as an outlaw, and to the second storyline, in which the followers of a secondary character in "Four Monsters" took over NORAD as part of a Biblical-slash-Tolkienian apocalypse by fire foreseen by their literally visionary leader. Santana was drawn into that conflict as well, and solved it in a violent way.

Santana is at the center of all of the Scout stories, but he's not the mover of the stories. He would much rather live quietly somewhere, but there's nowhere quiet to live. He's a wanted man from before the series starts, and forces much greater than him keep intersecting with his life or deliberately dragging him back in.

The third major storyline in Scout, which doesn't have an overall title as far as I know and has never been collected in a physical book, starts with Santana being captured by the government and tossed in a psychiatric facility. (They don't give him a show trial and stand him up to be shot because...well, there's no in-story reason, so the reader is left to  make up her own mind about forgetfulness and bureaucratic inefficiencies and plain incompetence.) His path intersects with that of Monday the Eliminator, whose back-up stories prior to that point are not included in this package. (My guess is that Monday's world was originally separate from Santana's until Truman had a better idea.) Monday brought a conspiracy-theory sense of history to Scout that doesn't entirely gel with everything else Truman had already thrown into the mix -- if were his editor, way back when, I would have suggested leaning into more mythology, either Apache or other Native tribes or even European interlopers.

Anyway, Santana teams up with Monday, breaks out of the asylum, and heads to a very SFnal conclusion to the first series, which has a lot of strong points but is mildly unsatisfying in the same ways as a lot of other SFnal Sword-of-Damocles endings.

In the real world, there were two short miniseries following the end of Scout -- New America and Swords of Texas -- which covered the next ten years of the timeline and extended the stories of various secondary characters. Those books have never been reprinted, and I think they were mostly by other people, so they probably never will be, unless Scout gets inexplicably popular.

War Shaman picks up Santana's story that decade later, in the early twenty-teens. The crapsack USA of the first series has been through a devastating civil war and essentially torn itself apart: there seems to be no government over large swaths of the country, Mad Max-style. One remnant faction from the civil war, led by Santana's old Ranger compatriot/one-time lover/nemesis/ally Rosa Winter, has survived and is now expanding more violently than the reader is likely to be comfortable with. Santana spent that time getting married, having two young sons, and seeing his wife die of an environmental cancer. He still wants to live quietly, away from the world, but the world finds his quiet hideaway, and he's back on the road looking for another quiet place -- supposedly, though he does get caught up in a lot of trouble that he could have avoided if he kept his head down and didn't try to fix things.

But this time he's responsible for those two boys: Tahzey and Victorio. They're about five and three: old enough to run and hide, but that's about it. And Victorio has the same kind of visionary powers as the religious leader in "Mount Fire" did, which attracts those religious lunatics. And Santana has plenty of specific enemies left. And this is a dangerous landscape to begin with, full of bandits and raiders and would-be despots. It will not end well for Santana.

At the time, Truman promised that the Scout saga would run for four major comics series -- the original Scout, War Shaman, Marauder, and Blue Leader. Other things intervened, and Truman is only now working on Marauder, now that the real world has overrun his fictional timeline. But SF is never prediction anyway: every world is a potential world, and not being true doesn't change that potential.

Emmanuel Santana's world is a vivid one, anchored in the Southwestern deserts and in Truman's faithful, careful evocation of Apache folklore. Santana himself is a great character, and is surrounded by many others -- most of them drawn more broadly than he is, but all still real people in a dangerous, dark, real world. Scout is one of the great comics dystopias of the '80s, along the better-known American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin, and it deserves wider recognition. Maybe Marauder will make that happen.

[1] I owned copies of all of these comics before a flood in 2011 destroyed every floppy comic I did own. So I can't now check the digital collections against the originals. But I do have memories -- and the cover blurbs for some back-up features -- to tell me there was some other stuff in those comics.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #376: Poochytown by Jim Woodring

Here I go again, trying to eff the ineffable. I admit up front that it will either not work or be stupid for any one of a dozen reasons. But, if I'm reading books and writing about them, I need to do it even when it's doomed to fail.

Jim Woodring is a unique comics creator who makes wordless comics set in a world apparently called The Unifactor -- we know the names of many of his characters from his descriptions and occasional notes, but that's about it. Those worlds are full of nightmare-like transformations, full of organic forms growing and consuming and splitting and combining. I don't think anyone other than Woodring really understands any of it. I certainly don't.

I've written, badly, about Woodring books before: Fran and Weathercraft. And now I will write badly about his newest book, Poochytown.

From the flap copy -- supposedly a letter written to Woodring by "Walter Foxglove, The Smartest Artist" but I believe actually written by Woodring -- and from the odd subtitle "Discontinuing Congress of the Animals and Fran," I think Poochytown is something of a reboot. Woodring seems to be arguing that those two previous books were him trying to mold the story, and that the godlike Unifactor has since smacked him down in some way and forced him to tell the "real" story.

None of that actually makes much sense to me, but, then, neither does the actual story here, so that's fine.

So, two minor (unnamed?) characters have a squabble on the first few pages, which leads to various luggage being strewn across the landscape. Frank, the central character of the series, finds that luggage, along with his housemates/friends/pets Pupshaw and Pushpaw. Among the stuff is a tuba-like device that, when blown, generates an organic mass. The mass, for the first few blows, is interesting and falls to the ground to dissipate, but then one mighty breath makes it even larger, buoyant, and self-sustaining. That thing is filled with other creatures like Pupshaw and Pushpaw, and those two climb up into the thing to fly away with it. Frank, as happens so often, is left behind, alone.

Frank goes back to his house to find Manhog there, and initially drives him out before the two of them fight a horse-monster (?!) together and start to live in that house together. Manhog is a slob and Frank is randomly histrionically sad. They have some minor explorations together, and then find a steering wheel coming out of the ground (?!) and drive that (?!) into a crash (??!!!) which leads to some phantasmagorical stuff I can't even characterize.

Eventually, Frank finds and saves (?) Pupshaw and Pushpaw from the flying land of things like them, since they were being mutated/transformed by being there (?!). Everything goes back to the way it was in the end, and Manhog is kicked out of the house.

My sense is that Woodring's work is something like a classical allegory, based entirely in Woodring's own dream-logic and imagery: every character and object stands for something in his private schema, and each book presents a fable of how those elements of mind, or society, or life, interact in various ways, and provide positive or negative object lessons.

I've never managed to figure out the key to those allegories, though -- never quite figured out what Manhog or Frank or the tuba represent. So reading a Woodring book is like scanning a poem in an unfamiliar language -- well, more that it's like reading a language that re-uses all of the words from English but means entirely different things by those words.

There is no one else like Jim Woodring; his books are marvelous in their unique, inexplicable power. But I don't understand them, and I've never found anyone else whose understanding of them is explicable to me.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #375: Five Rings, Six Crises, Seven Dwarfs, and 38 Ways to Win an Argument by John Boswell and Dan Starer

A lot of supposedly new things have been around for a while. For example: that quintessential piece of Internet content, the listicle.

Those used to appear all of the time in magazines -- some still do. And people would actually pay money for large collections of listicles in book form. This right here is one of them.

Five Rings, Six Crises, Seven Dwarfs, and 38 Ways to Win an Argument is a 1990 book, late in the flourishing of listicle books that followed the great modern originator, 1977's The Book of Lists. This particular version was compiled by John Boswell and Dan Starer, who have no biographies in the book itself, and organized into the usual thematic chapters.

Those chapters are organized in a lazy alphabetical list, from American Culture to Sports and Games with stops at Christianity, Eastern Religions, European History, Literature, Military, New Age, Philosophy, Politics, and Psychology along the way (along with more than a dozen others). Each chapter is arranged in ascending order, so, for example, Judaism begins with "The Four Questions" and runs up to "The Thirteen Articles of Faith."

Much of this book is still applicable and true. Some sections, though -- particularly those dealing with the then-current world -- are now outdated or superseded or just counting things no one cares about anymore. (In one of my areas of knowledge, they list the Big Eight accounting firms, which is now down to a Big Four.) Almost all of it is trivial, obviously.

One piece which is not trivial is called out in the title: Schopenhauer's Thirty-Eight Stratagems, excerpted from the 1896 English translation of his Art of Controversy. It's a depressing list for several reasons, primarily because it shows people have always tried to bamboozle others; these are all end-runs around logic and clear argumentation, and all will be very familiar to anyone who has followed the politics of any nation in any era. It's eye-opening to see them all laid out, one by one, as options to the unscrupulous arguer -- many of us could provide contemporary examples of most of the stratagems. And being able to identify them by number could definitely be useful in life: it's one way to point out bad-faith arguments. Luckily, you don't need to dig up a long-out-of-print minor book of lists: Schopenhauer is well out of copyright, so I can just link to an online version of the list. (You're welcome.)

Other than that, this is solid book of lists: full of minor quirky facts that the reader might remember for a little while or that might accidentally lodge deep in the brain to come out at some random time later. That is the joy of random facts, so this definitely does its job.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #374: You'll Never Know, Vols. 2 & 3 by C. Tyler

Carol Tyler's father was a US GI in WWII -- that's the fact at the core of all three You'll Never Know books, and his experiences in that war are the central things that she, and all of the rest of us, will never know.

He was a grumpy, demanding, obnoxious man for Tyler's entire life. She loved him because people love their fathers, but, as she presents him in these books, he didn't make it easy, and didn't give her anything really to love. This may be because the focus of her story is on her relationship to him, and the other things going on in her life at the time -- Tyler has been an autobiographical cartoonist for a long time, and is focused pretty tightly in her own head. Chuck Tyler is a very different person, and she doesn't seem to have ever tried to interview him to get his story; she instead went to third parties and independent records to work it out herself.

She made three big books -- horizontal format, like a scrapbook, growing out of an actual scrapbook that she made for him in the mid-aughts -- to explore who he was and how she came to understand and come to terms with him in his early eighties.

I covered the first book, A Good and Decent Man, back during my 2010 Book-A-Day run, and got the rest of the trilogy around the time those books came out in 2010 and 2012. But I only finally got to those graphic novels this year, almost a decade later -- mostly because I had book two, Collateral Damage, only in digital format, and I really don't remember to read comics digitally. (It doesn't feel natural or right, and I gravitate to the "real" printed books every time I have a choice.)

But this Book-A-Day run drove me to inventory everything I had, and plan out my reading, so I finally did read Collateral Damage and Soldier's Heart, the middle and final books of that trilogy, this past December.

Everything I said about the first book is still true here: Tyler's art and layouts, on these oversized pages, are lovely and carefully designed and draw the reader through the book. (Reading the middle volume digitally was a bad idea: You'll Never Know works vastly better on the large pages it was designed for, rather than an one-size-fits-all slab of metal and glass.) And young Chuck Tyler is a cypher who we never quite understand, while old Chuck Tyler is Generic Old Asshole, who we don't want to understand. You'll Never Know is about Carol Tyler; her father is just the focus of the effort she's putting in.

We do, in the end, learn about the trauma that made Chuck shut down, if we want to call it that. I tend to think he was a man of his era: never very good at talking about emotions, never given opportunity to do so, and over time losing any desire to do so. What his daughter wanted is exactly the opposite of how he was brought up and trained to react: that's why it took sixty years to get there.

And, as his daughter tells it, that trauma wasn't anything he did in the war: he spent WWII mostly in minor chicanery behind the lines, and only saw combat during the Battle of the Bulge, when every warm body was thrown at high speed towards the enemy. That was clearly a horrible, shattering experience, and I agree it was sad that his cozy behind-the-lines position meant that he didn't have a close crew of fellow soldiers that he could be really close to and watch die in horrible ways, but it seems to be vastly less traumatic than the life of Joe Average Dogface, who had a similar shattering experience on Day One and lived through that for months or years of combat afterward.

I'm being flippant here, but obviously shell shock -- or battle fatigue, or PTSD, or the Civil War-era term "soldier's heart" that Carol uses for a title -- doesn't carefully select only the soldiers with the very worst experiences. But Carol and Chuck explicitly say, in the book, that this is not what made him shut down: it was instead the death of her oldest sibling Ann in an appalling hospital accident soon after the war.

That's the climax of the whole trilogy: Carol and Chuck at the then-new WWII memorial in Washington, DC, when Chuck finally let those emotions free. But the central spine of You'll Never Know is more domestic: Carol saw her parents only off and on. Most of her time, and most of the pages, are about her daily life with a moderately surly teenage daughter and a semi-runaway husband (fellow cartoonist Justin Green, who ran off to fuck someone else for a while and then slunk back for what your cynical critic thinks was the usual kicked-out reasons). Now, I tend to think Carol didn't take a hard enough line with either of those people (or with her asshole father), but she's not me, and this is her story.

Carol Tyler is nicer and more forgiving and much more deeply focused on binding a family together than I am. You'll Never Know is the story of that, and of her: how she spent a long time to understand her father (and, almost as much, her mother, who is less demonstrative but just as closed off in her own way), and how she was trying to bind her own immediate family back together at the same time. It's a closely-examined life, told on beautiful pages, of one American life and family, and it's worth your time.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #373: Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder

OK, since I looked at the first Beanworld omnibus a couple of weeks ago, I've done a little Bean research. That big book collected the first two smaller Beanworld collections, and there are two more books out since then, continuing to collect the main series.

All good news for me! But my recent trip to a comics shop did not turn up either of those books.

What it did turn up is the lone full-color Beanworld book, which took some random pieces from other publications and wrapped them into a frame story. Larry Marder calls it "Beanworld Vol. 3.5" -- all of the pieces are in-continuity, real stories of his characters in their world, but they're not part of the main sequence.

That sounded good enough to be the next thing to read, so I grabbed Tales of the the Beanworld from the shelf.

This is much shorter than the other Beanworld books -- only 64 pages, with everything else running close to 200 for the regular books and double that for the Omnibus. It collects "While We Wuz Eatin'" from the mid-90s Asylum anthology from Maximum Press -- which I expect most Beanworld readers would not also own -- plus two short stories from the online MySpace Dark Horse Presents and one from a Beanworld Holiday Special.

Normally, that would make the usual odds and sods collections -- the pieces that didn't get integrated into the main storyline -- but Marder instead reorganized them, set them into a single framing story, and entirely re-did the color from those Asylum pieces (which apparently were in very Image-style '90s hues originally). So Tales is a story of its own: an episodic one, true, but Beanworld is episodic anyway.

The Asylum story is another one where something strange visits the Beanworld from the wider corners of this universe -- Marder calls it a Red-Hatted Gangster Racketeer in his afterword, but it's unnamed in the story itself. It makes threats, but is driven off by Mr. Spook and the rest, leaving some pieces behind. Tales, as it turns out, is all about pieces left behind -- the rest of the stories are about toys that the "Cuties" (juvenile Beans) have outgrown, and what to do with them.

Marder's Beans, in these stories at least, come down on the side of saving everything, since it will be useful later. That's not necessarily the best advice in the real world, but I'll take it -- I tend to that direction myself.

Tales is not the place to start with the Beanworld. And it might be better read after volume 3, which I haven't done myself. But I think as long as you've to the point where the Cuties are introduced, it'll be just fine. And Beanworld is unique and special: you should check it out, eventually.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #372: House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

You know how some genres are massively unrealistic, all tied up in their specific tropes and expectations?

Some people see that as a limitation. Nicholson Baker sees it as a challenge.

House of Holes is his post-modern porn novel -- well, Vox and The Fermata were also porn novels, of a kind, but House of Holes is a porn novel for our Internet-steeped, all-kink-all-the-time world, where everything is fine as long as you don't do it in the road and scare the horses.

(Note that I am not saying it is a good novel. It isn't. But let's see where my typing fingers take me.)

Porn, like improvisational comedy, relies on the "yes, and" reaction. In the fictional world of a porn, everyone is happy to have sex with the people who want to have sex with them, and everyone magically lines up perfectly in interests and kinks. If one person in a sex scene suddenly wants her toes sucked, her partner loves the idea.

Ironically, porn is frictionless. The world in which porn takes place is one where it's always easier, preferable, and more pleasant to just have sex. That's not any real world, but when so many stories take place in patently unreal worlds, why should we balk at this one version?

There are a lot of names in House of Holes, but none of them are really characters. Like a lot of porn, there are a lot of names so supposedly different characters can do different things with different people over time -- it would be boring if there were only two names, even if nearly all of the scenes here are deeply conventional one-man-having-sex-with-one-woman sessions.

The title House of Holes is a mildly extradimensional realm, run by a woman named Lila. It seems like anyone can go there, through various mystic portals found in various holes here and there, but there's clearly some kind of sorting mechanism: only those people who match the porn paradigm (at least relatively young, attractive, and having the mindset I described above) make it through. For some undefined "season" -- which is only mentioned at the end, in a slightly awkward way an unfriendly reader might characterize as Baker suddenly realizing he has no plot and no characters and has to make up some way to end the damn thing -- those people gambol and cavort in various sex-themed resort-type activities.

A few of them are employees. Most of the women are allowed in free, or nearly free, for the obvious reasons. Men pay through the nose, gladly. It's not clear if Baker means this as some kind of metaphor for sex in general, but House of Holes is generally too sunny for cynical interpretations.

Each of the first eight or ten chapters shows a new character, mostly alternating between male and female, stumbling upon the House of Holes and looking for fun there. These scenes all have something in common with portal fantasy, but none of the new arrivals are particularly surprised by their new surroundings, and all are thrilled to get down to the serious fucking. After a large cast -- or at least a large number of names with a couple of attributes each -- has been assembled, Baker begins to mix and match, and to return to some of the thin plot-like threads he has set up, but new characters continue to arrive until nearly the end: endless novelty is an absolute requisite in the land of porn.

The sex these names have is generally very conventional: the major real-world fetishes are vanishingly rare in the House of Holes. (Nothing in the vast realm of BDSM, surprisingly no serious group action, partner-swapping, or anonymous activities, and so on.) Baker seems more interested in sex as masturbation, so there's a lot of couples manually pleasuring themselves or each other, and some mild bukkake related to that -- the old "woman is sexually excited by seeing a man obviously sexually excited" porn trope. He does make use of his mildly SFnal setup for some body-part swapping and similar stuff -- warehoused heads, runaway arms, dick swaps, and one super-shrunk woman. So if your fetishes happen to head in that very particular direction, you may be in luck.

There's a little mild situational lesbianism, as I recall, but no male-male activity. This is disappointing, even for me as a deeply straight man -- most of the other sex-positive stories I've seen (mostly in comics) make a point of including non-straight sexualities across the QUILTBAG spectrum. Baker, on the other hand, is pretty much locked into a somewhat old-fashioned Tab A into Slot B porn paradigm. (Even when a male-female couple swap bits, that's what they then do with their borrowed bits.)

So the plot isn't the point of House of Holes. Nor the characters, nor even (maybe surprisingly) the sex itself. Baker is a literary writer, so the appeal here is his invented thesaurus of sex. Let me pick some random pages for examples: titboobs, "his purple cameroon," "her cuntal hand," crotchy holders, the pornmonster, dickybird, Monsieur Twinklestump. He uses the standard Anglo-Saxon terms a lot, too, but gets into silly flights of linguistic fantasy regularly when describing what the body parts are doing in this scene.

I found the language often painfully goofy, and regularly distracting, but I think "distracting" is the point. Baker doesn't want the reader to have the usual reaction to porn; he wants that reader to keep being pulled out of the porn-world by his strange terms, and keep dropping back in again. In fact, I think House of Holes is exactly the book Baker wanted it to be: mildly arousing, entirely superficial, arguable as a commentary on porn by a writer who clearly hasn't been particularly engaged with porn for a few decades at best. It's a fine book for vanilla people who want something a little naughty, but it can come across as pretty thin to anyone looking for more than that.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/5/19

Ain't got nuttin.

...I was tempted to leave it at that. But that would be rude. To expand slightly: I didn't get any new books this last week. So there's nothing to list here. There's still a week of Book-A-Day rolling out, though, so there's those posts to read. See you next week.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #371: Saga, Vol. 9 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

If you know anything about Saga, you know there's a big change at the end of this book, and that the series is now on a longer hiatus than usual. If you know nothing about Saga, you might just have been living in a hole for the last seven years, and nearly anything I could say would be a spoiler for the first fifty-some issues and nine volumes.

But that's always the issue with writing about a long-running media thing: there are the people who follow it passionately, who know everything you could possibly tell them, and the ones who have ignored it, who won't get any of the backstory. What I try to do is write down the middle -- for the people who know the thing exists but aren't uberfans, who might be caught up or might not, since life is complicated and this media thing isn't going to be everyone's biggest priority.

That brings me to Saga, Vol. 9 today. It's written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated -- pencils, inks, colors, the whole deal -- by Fiona Staples, as all of the issues to date have been and all of the issues to come are supposed to be. If you want to remind yourself of how we got here, you could check out what I wrote about the previous books: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

It's a soft-SF epic, set in a a universe influenced by Star Wars but full of its own quirks and specifics. Two soldiers from opposite sides of a very long-running war -- their people are set up to be opposites in as many ways as Vaughan could manage -- met before the series began and fell in love. The first issue depicted the birth of their daughter Hazel; Saga is meant to be her story, and she's been narrating the comic more and more as she's gotten older. Now she's somewhere in the middle of what we'd call her elementary-school years -- maybe six, maybe eight. She and her parents, and various helpers, have been on the run her entire life, and have been chased by various others, on and off, the whole time. There are a lot of moments of peace, but the war is always in the background: both sides would very much like to capture and/or kill both parents, and do that or worse to Hazel.

Vaughan and Staples have been clear from the beginning that Saga is Hazel's story, not that of Marco and Alana, her parents. But she was a baby for the first twenty or thirty issues, so that message wasn't as clear as they might have thought. And, frankly, even now she's not old enough to have a story really separate from her parents and keepers -- the emphasis on Hazel in the interviews around the most recent issue and hiatus seem to me to be signposts to say "Saga is going to run for a lot of issues -- well over a hundred," given how long it's taken to get Hazel to this age and how little agency she has had so far.

I don't mind long stories, as long as they are stories. Saga has a lot of serial comics in its DNA, but I think it still has the bones of a single story. I wouldn't be surprised to see Saga come back after the hiatus with a time-jump, bumping Hazel up to an age when she really can affect events. Maybe not, though: maybe I'm just trying to hurry along something that will continue to go at its own pace.

Saga is still a very strong, humanistic work of SF, a story of people in danger and how they react to various stresses and demands and threats. Not all of them do what we'd hope they would, just like life. But they're all real, and they're what keep Saga worth reading.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #370: Paper Girls, Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Hey! The time-cops finally get named in this book! They're called WATCH -- we don't know what that stands for, but baby steps, man, baby steps -- and the old guy who runs them is Jahpo Thapa.

And our heroines learn more than his name, which I won't spoil: they learn who he is and how he matters to them.

So, just maybe, Paper Girls Vol. 5 sees this series moving on from throwing out ideas at random and is now finally starting to knit them together into something coherent that can move towards an ending. I'm not holding my breath, but the signs are getting better.

(See my posts on the earlier volumes: one, two, three, four.)

As always, this story of a complicated (and not actually explained, even now) intergenerational time war focuses on four tween girls who were delivering newspapers early in the morning of November 1, 1988 when one piece of that war erupted into their home town of Cleveland. They've been to prehistory and several versions of the future -- including the amazing world of Y2K! -- but this time they're in an actually futuristic future some fifty or sixty years up the line.

(Bad news for me: this locks down the stupid leet-speek future talk to that era, which is even more stupid than when I could pretend in my head that it changed over a few centuries. But it's still Wicked Rad Kewl, which is the real point.)

So Erin, Mac, K.J., and Tiffany -- plus the Y2K version of Tiff they picked up in the last volume -- are stranded in dystopian future Cleveland, with a population in stylish jumpsuits and headgear and the occasional flying murderous police. But they head to the library, and actually piece together a few bits of the backstory in between fighting library golems, being shot at by the aforementioned flying cops, and interrogating senile old women.

They learn that they're considered criminals, maybe because of the kid terrorist time-travelers we've seen before and maybe just because everybody is completely confused about the real origins of the time anomalies and war. That doesn't help much, since they're still a bunch of twelve-year-olds stranded in a city with no way home, among people who talk like particularly stupid members of the gang from Dark Knight Returns.

And, in the end, there's another big problem for the four of them, and they're all stranded in time again. I hope it won't take another five volumes to learn what's the vague deal of the junior combatants in the time war, but I'm not going to hold my breath. My sense is that Paper Girls, like any good serial comic, is going to spin out its central conceit for as long as the audience is willing to keep paying for it. Since I like time-war stories, I guess I'll just keep giving it one volume at a time, and keep up with it as long as there's still something new and interesting in each volume.

But I'd still rather have a real ending rather than endless recomplication.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #369: Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 1 (or maybe 5) by Matt Wagner

Kevin Matchstick is supposedly retired from the nasty-hunting game, to protect his family. He and his wife Magda have two young kids -- Hugo is in third grade and Miranda is in pre-school -- and they seem to be moving around more often than they'd like, to keep a low profile and stay one step ahead of the big nasties that would be after Kevin.

(What does that mean for the metaphor, in that Kevin is transparently a stand-in for creator Matt Wagner and nasty-fighting the equivalent of his comics career? I don't know of a period when Wagner was semi-retired, but maybe I wasn't paying attention.)

If you don't know what any of that means, you probably need to go back and see the first two stories about Kevin -- The Hero Discovered from the mid-80s and The Hero Defined from the late '90s. He's a supernatural hero in a world with both heroes and villains -- plus some others around the edges, like the witch he married -- and the usual mass of humanity unknowing about any of them.

Kevin is The Pendragon: the reincarnation of King Arthur, more or less. And of others, too -- there's a moment in this book where a major nasty calls him Gilgamesh, and that fits about as well. All of the avatars -- we saw a bunch in Defined, and may see more before this series is done -- are mythic figures, and myths are tricky, changing things. They show up, fight something bad, and often win in the end. Often, not always. A lot of hero-myths end with the tragic death of the hero, after all -- Beowulf, Hercules, Theseus.

And, more pointedly, King Arthur.

I don't think Wagner is planning to kill off his fictional avatar for the climax of Mage: The Hero Denied, but I could be wrong, and it would be appropriate.

This book, Vol. 5 [1], collects the front half of the Hero Denied series -- the first eight issues. We see Kevin, living quietly and trying to stay retired but not doing a very good job of that. The Umbra Sprite is back, still seeking the Fisher King: now in a female form, with a new group of children, the female Gracklethorns, who are just as cruel and dangerous as their predecessors. The Umbra Sprite also seems more organized and focused this time around, more in control of herself than the male version was in Hero Discovered, more able to summon major supernatural entities to find and attack Kevin.

Let's not forget that Kevin is much more vulnerable now: he has a wife and children to protect. Magda may be a witch, but her power doesn't have any combat applications -- she can help them stay quiet and safe and protected, but there's no sign she can do anything once the nasties arrive. And the kids are...well, kids, though Miranda may have some budding power.

Worst of all, the third conflict is rising and there's no sign of a third mage. The magic ATM card still works, but no matter how much Kevin talks at the machine, there's no response.

So: the nasties are more organized, and more focused on Kevin. They learn he has a weakness, a family. And there's no one to help him -- Joe Phat is out of the hero business, Kirby Hero is dead, the new breed of avatars are self-obsessed light-weights, and there's no new mage anywhere to be seen.

It is called The Hero Denied, after all.

I still think Wagner will pull out a triumphant ending, but the hero's journey must be difficult and fraught with dangers -- that's the whole point. At the end of this book, we're in the middle of the third, climactic story of Kevin Matchstick, which should be, by all laws of fiction, his lowest point.

Well, it could get worse before the end. There's always more low points.

Hero Discovered started a little shakily, with too-overwrought dialogue, but settled down quickly. Hero Defined was crisp and professional, but a little surface-y, particularly in its inconclusive ending. It remains to be seen how Hero Denied will end, but, so far, Wagner's building a strong story and avoiding any cheap outs. And his art is strong and expressive, particularly well-supported by his son Brennan Wagner's colors. We're not at the end yet, but it's in sight.

One last consumer note: oddly, this book does not include the individual issue covers, unlike every other comics collection I've ever seen. I have no idea why, but don't be surprised if there's a bigger, full-Hero Denied hardcover collection later in 2019, with the covers and some additional bells and whistles.

[1] The current reprinting of the three Mage mini-series uses overall numbering, which is confusing for anyone who wants to come in with this book. Vol. 5 is the first book of Hero Denied.