Sunday, March 07, 2021

Books Read: February 2021

Like last month, this is going up at a random time, on a random day, about a week into the month. (Because weekends are the time I have to do blog maintenance; the weeks are too busy with the actual Dayjob and recovering from same.)

Here's what I read in February, linked (eventually) to posts about those books:

Mark Siegel, Alexis Seigel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun, 5 Worlds, Vol. 3: The Red Maze (2/6)

Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, Descender, Vol. 6: The Machine War (2/7)

Lawrence Block, Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails (2/10)

Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo, Trese, Vol. 1: Murder on Balete Drive (2/13)

Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics: Omnibus, Vol. 1 (2/14)

Graham Chaffee, To Have and To Hold (2/15)

Dean Motter + co., Mister X: The Archives (2/20)

Todd Alcott, Cease & Desist: Inspired by the Music of They Might Be Giants (2/21)

Bill Willingham, Paul Guinan, and Ron Randall, Proposition Player (in Bad Doings & Big Ideas) (2/22)

Kat Leyh, Snapdragon (2/27)

Box Brown, Cannabis (2/28)

Posts are actually written for every single one of those books, as of a couple of hours ago. But they're scheduled to post over the next month or so - thus, if I get hit by a bus any time soon, there will still be bits of my thoughts dribbling out into a world probably not as saddened or changed as I would hope.

Friday, March 05, 2021


Just because the word "icky" came up in conversation earlier this week, this song has been stuck in my head for days.

So now I'll inflict it on you as well:

Quote of the Week: Exactly This

 "You are wondering how I can possible know not only the one word, but, by implication, every word in every book in my office."


"I am old, child, old, and I have spent my life in the service of the Law -- writing laws, enforcing laws, interpreting laws, inventing ways to circumvent laws.... Also, I am cursed with a perfect memory -- that is a tale I may well inflict upon you another time -- and consequently there is very little that can surprise me anymore."

"But if you know every word in these books -- why keep them?"

"For the same reason a young woman such as yourself might know every inch of her lover's skin, and yet want nevertheless to touch it, taste it, luxuriate in its smell."

 - Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon's Mother, pp.126-127

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Time Pieces by John Banville

We read books for odd and idiosyncratic reasons, so we shouldn't be surprised that they get written the same way.

I came to Time Pieces, a miscellaneous memoir of novelist John Banville's life in the city of Dublin, because I've read a few of Banville's novels - not as many as I'd like, and not in a while - and middle-aged men like me find it easier to get through short books and non-fiction.

Why did Banville write it? My guess is that he had a couple of slightly overlapping requests for essays: parts of Time Pieces originally appeared in books called City Parks and Sons + Fathers. Working writers follow their heads, and look for ways to turn what they've already written into books: I think he did something like that.

So he realized he was writing multiple pieces about Dublin, and leaned into it. Time Pieces has seven chapters, or essays - they're all pretty separate. They're all about Dublin; some about his memories of the place and the later ones about wandering about it, in recent years, with a man he calls Cicero and might actually be named that. They're all discursive; they're all short; they're all as much about memory as about the thing remembered. Banville was about seventy when he wrote these pieces; there's a lot of looking back at that age.

Time Pieces is a short book: even shorter than it looks, since fifty-three of its two-hundred-odd pages are taken up by quiet classy photographs by Paul Joyce rather than Banville's words. The photographs were, as far as I can tell, mostly chosen to accompany the words, but not taken because of the words. There are a few photos of the back of Banville's head, such as the cover, but most of them are landscapes and still lifes. It's possible that Joyce wandered around Dublin after reading the manuscript and snapped pictures of all the appropriate things, but it seems more that Banville wanted Joyce for a mood, and the mood was already present in his past work.

Banville was not a Dublin boy: he makes that clear at the outset. He was born and grew up in Wexford; Dublin was the big city he got to occasionally as a boy and escaped to when he grew up. (And, before long, escaped on to other places, which he is never clear about here.) This is not a memoir in any conventional sense. Each essay is about an element of Dublin, a place or a time or a concern, and Banville brings in some personal details while waxing rhapsodic about those things, but he's writing about Dublin here, not himself.

And he's writing, I think mostly, for people who know the city decently well: this is an insider's reminiscences. He's a fine writer, and Joyce's photos are pretty if awfully minor-feeling. Time Pieces is a small thing at its core, the kind of book that sells best at a history centre in the place it celebrates. It's really just for huge fans of Dublin or Banville or, preferably, both.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Clifford the Big Red Dog: The Movie Graphic Novel by Georgia Ball and Chi Ngo

No media property is "real" until it becomes as big as it possibly can be, until it becomes a movie. Every novel, every comics series, every TV show, every webseries, every nonfiction book, every song, every TikTok sea shanty aspires to turn into a big budget motion-picture that will dilute and adulterate what was special about the original thing while making vast amounts of money for the same few global multimedia conglomerates and making the newly shiny, market-tested and subtly stupider thing vastly better known among people who would never bother to pay attention to the original thing.

This is yet another sign that our world is inherently flawed, and that, if there are any gods, they hate us.

Norman Bridwell wrote and illustrated over fifty books about Clifford the Big Red Dog, using first his own imagination, his wife's stories of her childhood imaginary playmate, and his daughter's name (Emily Elizabeth). As the years went on, those books were influenced by the generations of kids that grew up with Clifford between the original book in 1963 and Bridwell's death in 2014.

Those books still exist, and are the real Clifford. Nothing else will ever replace or tarnish them. (Though plenty of them are pretty minor: ABCs and other unexciting series entries. If there's fifty of anything, not all of them will be gems.) Since then, there's been a couple of animated TV shows, with either the usual gigantic Clifford or the equally canonical tiny puppy Clifford.

And, of course, people tried to make a movie at various times. Over the past two years, they finally succeeded: a live-action movie with a CGI Clifford was released this past November. Since line extensions are a thing, there was eventually a book of the movie of the books, Clifford the Big Red Dog: The Movie Graphic Novel, adapted by Georgia Ball from the screenplay and story, and drawn by Chi Ngo. It featured a more cartoony Clifford and a modern comics-rounded versions of the movie actors, rather than trying to be photo-accurate.

(I like cartoony, and think cartoons should be cartoony. So I'm inclined to like this better than the movie anyway.) 

I don't quite see why the movie exists in the first place, but I like what Ball and Ngo have turned it into here. There's a movie-level story here, as there must be, and they have to roll that out. But they have a light touch with character and Ngo in particular has a knack for open, expressive faces. So this is pleasant even as it hits all of the same kid-movie story beats that all of us will see coming from miles away.

In this story, there is a girl named Emily. Her middle name is Elizabeth, but she doesn't use it on a daily basis. She lives in New York City: her mother is a harried paralegal and her father is mostly out of the picture, forgetful and divorced and away. We're a far way from the nuclear suburban family of 1963; Emily is also mildly bullied at her fancy school, since she's the scholarship kid and clearly not rich like the others. And she's going to be in the care of her Uncle Casey for her birthday, as mom has to jet off to Chicago for a big case.

And, elsewhere in the city, there's a little red puppy looking for a home, and a mysterious man named Bridwell who helps and cares for animals. That latter is a very nice touch: I can forgive a lot of the generic plot of this story because it clearly has its heart in the right place.

I regret to inform you that there is also a rapacious corporation that wants to profit from big-red-dogness, since a Big Movie must have a Big Movie Villain, and this one is no exception. From the graphic novel, it looks like this element is handled about as well as one could hope, given that it exists at all.

This is the book of a movie for kids, so of course there is a happy ending. Everything must come out for the best in the best cinematical worlds. And I am deeply cynical, but this is a nice story that a lot of kids, I hope, will enjoy. Whether they need or want the story in graphic-novel form rather than the movie, I can't say: I have no interest in seeing what this story would look like with John Cleese as Bridwell (!!!!??? which I discovered while typing this), but I am not ten and have not been for a long time.

So: this is a thing. It exists. It is derivative of the movie, which is probably somewhat derivative of the John Ritter TV show, which was clearly derivative of the Bridwell books. But it's pretty nice, for all that. You could definitely do worse.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Maria M. by Gilbert Hernandez

If you are me, you will have noticed that this post is not tagged "I Love (And Rockets) Mondays," and that it is not appearing on a Monday. If you are not me, you did not notice and do not care.

But that tiny, silly issue of nomenclature is at very central to this book -- Gilbert Hernandez's full-length graphic novel Maria M. is not a "Love and Rockets" story. But it is a meta-Love and Rockets story, a comics version of a movie from his L&R world, like his previous stories Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows. (And then there's Speak of the Devil, which is really weird -- supposedly the "true story" of the events that inspired a movie of the same name within the L&R world, so the true fictional version of something that we previously half-saw a fictionalized fictional version of.)

So this is a version of the story we've already seen part of in Poison River - but Hernandez is specifically telling us it is a packaged story, designed for a purpose, turned into fiction and cleaned up for a particular audience. I think it's meant to be a '90s movie set mostly in the '60s, something from the Goodfellas era, in a world where that gangster era was more Latin than Italiano.

And, of course, all of Hernandez's graphic novels are fictions. But the level of fiction in them is clearly important to him: that some are the "real" story and some are the sensationalized movie version. This one is a movie version, but Maria M. looks to be a relatively big-budget, moderately prestigious picture - probably not made with serious expectations of Oscars, but one that would be reviewed well and remembered fondly, that was a strong stepping-stone for its cast and crew and a sturdy, dependable, engrossing piece of entertainment for its era.

It is is that: Hernandez is good at making fictions that resemble other fictions. (Though, this time out, he isn't deliberately trying to ape wide-screen images with his panels, the way he mostly did with the earlier movie-books; Maria M. is laid out like a "normal" Hernandez comic, with standard panel progressions and lots of variations in size.)

And the story itself? We are somewhere unclear. From Poison River, we know it's an unnamed Latin American country, but here it's left entirely unspecified. It's probably that same country; it's probably not the US. We begin in the late '50s; Maria is a voluptuous eighteen and has no daughters. Unlike Hernandez's Palomar and Luba stories, Maria M. is not about family - not about that kind of family, not about Maria's family. It is about family in the way that all gangster stories are.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, she weaves in and out of the lives of a group of pornographers and gangsters, many of whom become obsessed with her. She never accomplishes much, never gets rich and famous the way she wants to be, never really gets out. But she does come to be happy with what she gets, as far as we see, which is not nothing.

The later parts of the story are largely about her relationship with the fictional version of Gorgo - I won't spoil any of that, but I mean "relationship" in an expansive sense that is not at all equivalent to sitting-around-talking-about-our-feelings. This is a Hernandez book about gangsters, and a crime movie presented on the page: there will be gunplay and ambushes and torture and various horrors along the way. But Hernandez means this to be a movie, and he knows how movies are supposed to be structured: he knows how audiences want movies to end.

Maria M. is the most successful of the Hernandez movie-books, which is unsurprising. It was designed to be the capstone of them to begin with: the book that was actually based on a good, successful movie, with the biggest dramatic sweep and the strongest story. We should not be surprised that Gilbert Hernandez can make a strong, crowd-pleasing story when he sets out to do it; we should remember that he usually sets out to do different things each time.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/27/21

This week, a few books arrived from the library -- I'd ordered another big batch because my shelf of graphic novels to read has dwindled to practically nothing. (Literally: there's barely half a shelf right now, including several books that are "comics" by courtesy and are mostly text.) So these were the first round of stuff that the mighty SirsiDynix was able to provide me:

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh -- I can't remember where I first heard of this, so it's probably a good example of that old saw, that you don't read a book until you've heard about it ten times. I do know Leyh's work from Lumberjanes (which I think I have stopped reading at this point, since it kept feeling like it really was Not For Me and I always felt like I was intruding on something). It's a YA story about a girl and an old woman -- at least one of whom is a witch -- and seems to be one of those stories in which stuff now has to untangle a whole lot of events from the past.

Cannabis by Box Brown is subtitled "The Illegalization of Weed in America," and take another look to make sure you didn't miss the IL there. It's a nonfiction graphic novel roughly tracing the history of what I want to call marihuana in the best old-timey manner, starting off with some prehistoric fellow on a beach and jumping to the ancient Hindus pretty quickly. From the subtitle, I imagine it settles down to the New World not too much later. Brown has made a bunch of nonfiction books like this before: I've seen Tetris and Andre the Giant, and his career, I think, is roughly in that space: pop-culture stuff of interest to people around my generation and his.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh -- You may have heard of this one; Brosh is kind of a big deal. Her first collection, Hyperbole and a Half, was a major bestseller and critical success nearly a decade ago; this book has been announced several times since then and finally came out this past September. Brosh's work is often painfully personal: pseudo-comics essays about how she interacts with the world (or, far too often, avoids doing so). I think a lot of us are worried about her, in a low-key way: she's good enough at making her stories that we almost understand her pain and that makes us want to be able to fix it. Of course, there are millions of other people we should be worrying about at least as much, who haven't written bestsellers. I don't have a good solution for that problem. But caring more, for whoever, is a good start. Anyway, Brosh's work is deep and resonant and powerful in its quirky MS Paint way, and makes you think about important things even before you read it.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut that you may have heard of; Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics and Squirrel Girl) adapted it into a graphic novel drawn by Albert Monteys. I re-read the novel about a year and a half ago, and keep thinking I should re-read more Vonnegut -- but this is here and this is short and I remember this story well, so I can compare it in my head and write possibly interesting stuff here. And it's one of the most important novels of the 20th century, in my mind, so new versions of it for new audiences are a good thing. There are a lot of people who haven't read Slaughterhouse-Five even once yet.

Paying the Land is the new book by Joe Sacco. As usual for him, it's reportage in comics form, but he's been slowly moving away from warzones over the last decade or so. He's still concerned with the downtrodden, with ethnic groups displaced and disenfranchised, and with systemic inequities, of course: he is still Joe Sacco. But he's less often writing about places where bullets are currently or recently flying. This time out, he's looking at the Dene people of Canada's Mackenzie River Valley, and how well their traditions and lives are holding up in a land that was always cold and dangerous and now is deeply appealing to quick-buck resource-extraction operations who would be happy to ruin mountains and meadows and rivers just to yank out a few tons of valuable minerals. I suspect the answer is "not all that well."

Friday, February 26, 2021

Quote of the Week: All I Want Is What's Coming to Me. All I Want Is My Fair Share.

"...You're not a fugitive anymore, but mighty among the Powers of Faerie. There are forty thousand individuals in this world who are above the law, and you are very nearly at the top of the pyramid. Everything you did is now as legal as the April rain. I do not pretend it's a fair system. But its unfairness if now weighted in your favor." With a rascally wink, he added, "So I believe I have well earned my fee today."

 - Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon's Mother, p.348

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

The thing to remember about young readers is that they're young. Maybe not everything in the world is new to them ("Wow! Breakfast is oatmeal! I've never seen that before!"), but they're seeing and experiencing new ideas and concepts and situations all the time.

It can be hard for those of us who haven't hit that concentrated dose of newness for years to remember what that was like, but the best stories for young people embody that sense: they're stories for people who are living newness all the time, building their selves day by day and figuring out what they think and feel about lots of things all the time.

So I try to keep that in mind with books for that audience: to think they way they would, and not the way I do. I'm probably not as good at it as I think I am, of course. But you always have to try.

Allergic is a graphic novel for young people. If you're dismissive, you could call it an "issue book." But everything's an issue book if it resonates with something in your life: an issue is just a thing that actually touches you. And this is a book that will touch a lot of people -- there are a lot of kids who suddenly realize they're allergic to something, when that something comes into their lives for the first time.

It could be peanuts or pollen or penicillin or a bee sting. It could be life-threatening, or annoying, or barely noticeable, or anywhere on that spectrum. It could be obvious, or sneaky and hard to track down. It could be something that kid loves, or something that kid wasn't that interested in anyway. 

So it's a big "issue," that a lot of people need to worry about on a daily basis.

Writer Megan Wagner Lloyd and artist Michelle Mee Nutter have taken those facts, and an understanding of that young audience, and built them into a story about one girl -- because we all respond better to good stories, we all want to see someone else working through things to understand how we could do it ourselves.

Maggie is young -- just turning ten as the book opens. She's wanted a puppy for a while: she's planning to be a vet when she grows up; she loves animals, though entirely from afar up to now. And you can guess that it doesn't go the way she wants. She has a strong allergic reaction to pet dander. After a few tests, it turns out she reacts badly -- rashes, swelling, itching -- to just about any animal with fur.

So she goes through all the usual stages: anger (at her parents, at the world), denial (which doesn't last long; her skin gives her away if she's near a furry animal), bargaining (as she runs through a list of non-furry animals and finds them all wanting), and finally acceptance. She meets other young people, at her school and elsewhere, who are allergic, to other things and in other ways. She learns what we all learn: you need to find the ways your life can go around the roadblocks and detours every life throws up, to make the life that's the combination of what you want and what you can get.

Maggie's in a good position; she should have a good life. She has a loving family, good medical support, a new understanding of this annoying way her body works. And her story will resonate with a lot of other young people, struggling with allergies or other issues -- Lloyd and Nutter tell her story well, and tell a wider story than I'm focusing on. Maggie has twin younger brothers and her mother has a new baby on the way; she has friends at school and other activities. She has a life, and Allergic is about her life, not just this annoying skin reaction she has.

This is obviously mostly for young people: that's what it's for, that's what it does well. But if you have the care of a young person with an allergy, or any medical/personal issue that could be similar, you might want to take a look at it for yourself, and for that young person.

Note: I'm actually ahead of publication on a review, for the first time in a long time. Allergic officially goes on sale this coming Tuesday, March 2nd. If you order it right now, your bookstore will probably be able to have a copy for you that morning. (Or you can use my link and have a exploitative hegemonic megacorporation deliver it directly to your home: your choice.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Peter Bagge's Other Stuff

Peter Bagge is a world-class grump, and I have to respect that. I tend to connect that to his libertarianism, but the direction of influence is unclear and it's not as if comics isn't full of grumpy loners outside of libertarians, either. But Bagge has had a long career both making comics about fictional grumpy, obnoxious people and making comics about how he is libertarian and so entitled to be grumpy personally about such-and-such, so he's been leaning into it for some time now.

Although, come to think of it, the last decade of his work, focusing mostly on biographies of strong-willed but not necessarily libertarian people of the past, might show him starting to walk down a path of slightly less grumpiness -- and I emphasize slightly.

But here I am looking at Classic Bagge, the man who spent more than a decade making a comic book called Hate and meant it the whole time. So expect every page to be pickled in bile, to mix my metaphors.

Peter Bagge's Other Stuff is the odds-and-sods collection from the Hate era, gathering stories he did with other creators (mostly as the writer) or for other purposes, most but not all of which appeared, first or eventually, in the quarterly or annual Hate comics of the '90s and '00s. It is absolutely chock-full of grumps and cranks and losers and weirdos of all types: you would be hard-put to find a single functional human being on any page of this book.

So this may be a book best read in bits rather than straight through. Bile and spleen can be fun, but too much will curdle. And there's enough here to curdle the strategic federal cheese reserve.

What you will find in Other Stuff:

  • four stories about young hipster Lovey and her horrible friends
  • the Musical Urban Legends series, and a couple of related rock 'n' roll stories
  • a large section of collaborations, with work by both Hernandez brothers, Alice Cooper (writing), Adrian Tomine, Alan Moore (writing), Daniel Clowes, Johnny Ryan, Danny Hellman, R. Crumb, Rick Altergott, and a few others
  • six single-page biographies of scientists
  • several other assorted "true" stories, some of them vaguely reportage
  • a dozen-and-a-half strips of "The Shut-Ins," early-Internet super-adopters and shunners of the outside world, created to appear on a website promoting Adobe products
  • and a couple of even weirder things
This is very varied and odd; the section with collaborative work is possibly even weirder than the stuff I gave more attention to above (a R. Crumb Cathy parody! Ack! Dilbert as a Muslim terrorist, offensive in so many ways I can't even catalog them!). Bagge is a creator seemingly unafraid of letting out every idea he has ever had, which is good for the breadth and depth of his work but also can result in some what-the-hell?! moments. This book has more than a few of them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Michael Moorcock's Elric: The Balance Lost, Vols. 2 & 3 by Chris Roberson & Francesco Biagini

There are trends in Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories. He started them out mostly separate, as different epic-fantasy protagonists in different worlds battling evil (or Chaos, or Law, or both in turn), starting in the 1960s. They started to meet in the '70s: I think The Sailor on the Seas of Fate was the first big crossover, and the one that solidified that they all were the same guy in different avatars. [1] That era saw Moorcock attempt ever-more-baroque endings for the whole super-series, none of which took - the point of an Eternal Champion is that there's never going to be the final ending. Then Moorcock mostly wandered off into other things, and had smaller, more hermetic stories - like the Elric tales of the '90s -- for a while. He seems to have turned back to the big crossover with the new millennium, though this time around he seems to be happy enough to let other people dig through his back catalog and assemble the crossovers for him.

One interesting thing to note, for comics fans: as far as I can remember, avatars of the EC never fight with each other. They don't meet on opposite sides of a battle and then forge alliances: they're always on the same side from the beginning, as if cosmic forces will always line them up correctly. What side that is this time can vary - sometimes they fight for Chaos, sometimes for Law, and, more and more in the current crossover era, they fight for the Balance itself, the vague principle or physical manifestation of moderation and centrism. (Elric as Third Way Democrat: discuss!)

About a decade ago, Chris Roberson wrote and Francesco Biagini drew a particularly large EC crossover story, as a twelve-issue comics series called Michael Moorcock's Elric: The Balance Lost. (Colors were by Stephen Downer and covers by Francesco Mattina.) I posted about the first third of the series some time ago, and I'm back now that I've gotten through to the end. It's been collected as three trade paperback volumes, so if you wanted to buy them you would need one and two and three.

There are four main EC protagonists this time: there tend to be three or four in stories like this. (Only two would be a mere team-up; more is too complicated.) For whatever reason - market considerations or consumer knowledge or brand identification or Roberson's personal love or Moorcock's diktat - three of them are the Big Three: Elric and Corum and Hawkmoon, the pale prince and the maimed elf and the dull German. The fourth is a new, pseudo-reader-viewpoint character, Eric Beck, who comes from an Earth-Prime-esque world and who is fated to fight with his evil twin brother with matching Law and Chaos swords as part of the overall festivities.

As usual, it's not particularly clear why things are screwed up across the multiverse at the beginning of Balance Lost, but we can all tell it has been screwed up. Mere anarchy is loosed on the world, the falcon cannot hear the falconer - that whole deal. On some worlds, Chaos is triumphing and collapsing everything into primal soup. In others, Law is triumphing and imposing endless stultifying conformity. As usual, one of these things seems much worse, and much more outside normal sapient life, than the other, but leave that aside. It is basically that some worlds are being ruled by Big Brother, and others are being scrapped for subatomic parts.

Each of the four is pulled into that conflict in their own worlds, sometimes with devoted sidekicks as well. Each one has a whopping big chunk of metal with which to hit things, and hitting things with whopping great chunks of metal is a proven way to make things better in the Moorcock multiverse - as long as it's the right chunk of metal, and the right guy doing the whopping.

So, early in the second volume, they finally meet to join swords against whatever-it-is-this-time, after meeting in smaller groups previously. And it is a problem with the Balance itself this time: there is a gigantic physical set of scales in the center of the multiverse (not the same center where the city of Tanelorn is; this is a plot point, and infinite realms across infinite dimensions can have multiple centers if they want to) and is is actually broken, which is a thing that four guys with big swords can fix.

And that's lucky, because no one else can. When your multiverse is broken, the EC is your only option, so it's good if you have four of them spare at the time.

The four avatars make their way to various centers of the universes, battling foes old and new, gaining and losing important puissant magical artifacts, and being aided and guided by a whole lot of other Moorcock characters, to the extent that I wonder if Jess Nevins has made a concordance for this series.

They do make it to the capital-B Balance, see and learn why it is unbalanced, and the miscreants responsible for said lack of balance. They then Voltron up into the usual super-EC - several mountain-height guys pasted together at the back, so they can swing their swords in all directions at once and battle similarly statured enemies, of which there are always a plethora - to battle the baddies and make things right again.

We know that Elric survived this to die elsewhere, and so presumably know that his multiverse similarly survived. I trust that is not a spoiler; it's about the first thing anyone ever learns about Elric. And the point of an EC story is to save the multiverse, so of course that is what happens. It happens zippily and well here, with Roberson weaving in huge swaths of Moorcockian mythology and Biagini drawing endless bizarre things in ways that make them all look reasonable and realistic.

All in all, it's a good modern Eternal Champion story, of the usual multiple-EC style. It's a bit more baroque than the older versions, but a decent introduction to multiple flavors of Moorcockian adventure fantasy, and the only thing it's conceivably missing is an index to tell new readers what other books to find all of the various characters in.

[1] Aside from a few footnotes, they're still all guys. Female ECs exist, but they don't get to be part of the main action -- mostly there to die to motivate some male EC.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of February 22, 2006

This is what happens here on Mondays where I don't have any new books: instead I dive into a random old year in my reading notebook to see what I can remember about some old books.

This week, the RNG gave me 2006. So here's what I was reading from February 16-22 of that year, most of which I covered only glancingly at the time:

Dav Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain Underpants (2/16, read to the boys)

In February of 2006, my older son was about to turn eight, and my younger son had just turned five. So they could read things themselves, and were -- but it was still the prime years for bedtime reading. Thing 1 was an and out of the nighttime reading in this years, but back in for this stretch, as I went back and forth between picture books, especially a shelf or three of big favorites, and reading longer books over multiple nights. (We did at least one Harry Potter, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and I forget what else - maybe The Hobbit?) But what they loved more than anything else, since they were boys of that age, were Dav Pilkey's massively popular Captain Underpants books, and here we see the beginning. I read them over about three nights each. There's one more later in the week; I'm pretty sure I bought that at a B&N in the city one of the nights in between to jump right into it - and I read more of the series to them, finishing books on Feb 24, Feb 27, Mar 2, Mar 5, and Mar 9, so I definitely bought a bunch of these quickly. This is a very silly series, not quite comics - heavily illustrated, but prose with pictures - about two wacky kids and their nasty principal, who also turns into a superlatively goofy superhero. I don't actually recommend these to read for adults for their own pleasure, but if you have young boys in your life - and possibly some girls with the right sensibility - this are a joy to read to together. They are dumb and silly and juvenile in all the best ways, and Dav Pilkey is a national treasure.

Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl? (2/17)

I liked Powers as long as it kept the courage of its convictions: cops, without powers, in a world of superheroes, with real death and pain and danger. It lost those convictions somewhere along the way, with both of the main characters getting superpowers and the danger of the early volumes somehow never quite affecting the main characters quite as strongly as the secondary personages. And Bendis's very affected pseudo-Mamet dialogue often got to me: see my parody on Vol. 3 for my take on it. Powers did start out well, and Oeming delivered strong art the whole time. But, like all "real world with superheroes" books, it started off more "real world" and eventually saw itself dragged all the way to "superheroes." Nothing avoids the Great Attractor of American Comics: all will be assimilated if they come anywhere near it. It's best to just studiously avoid superheroes from the beginning and avoid heartbreak later.

Greg Rucka et. al., Queen and County, Vol. 7: Operation: Saddlebags (2/18)

Last week I tried to remember the second collection of this gritty comics series about British spies, Operation: Morningstar. This one was the seventh, with art by Mike Norton, and I can't remember which was which at this point. But I'm pretty sure the heroine, Tara Chace, was getting pretty battered and damaged by this point, since that's what Rucka does. Nothing else has stayed in memory.

Raymond Briggs, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (2/19)

Briggs' love story to his parents, or maybe their love story, if you prefer: the story of nearly fifty years of their lives (from their meeting in 1928 to their deaths in 1971), in a quiet undemonstrative British way. Briggs made this graphic novel more than twenty-five years after their deaths, in his own sixties, so it's very much a book looking backwards nostalgically. It's a national treasure in the UK, at least among a certain kind of people much like Briggs and his family - and I don't intend to characterize them any closer than that, since I don't really know - but not as well known in the US. It was turned into a movie that I never saw. As I recall, it's very small and quiet and British: all about making do and getting on with things.

David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, editors, Years's Best SF 11 (2/20)

That decade, there were two major American Year's Best books covering science fiction: Gardner Dozois had the gigantic bug-crusher, in trade paperback and hardcover, which was about twenty years into its life by 2006 and came out from St. Martin's Press. (Not its sister Tor, as some might have thought.) Hartwell, by this time joined by his wife and regular co-anthologist Cramer, edited a smaller mass-market paperback series for Harper, more specifically focused on science fiction - not always Analog-style flying slip-stick stories, but avoiding the more literary stories Dozois often included. It was a good choice to have, and they gave different views of the field -- I tended to like Dozois's book best each year, since I'm a literary guy, but Hartwell/Cramer always dependably dug out more sciency stories, and the stories that were pushing the ideas of SF the furthest. I have no memories of the stories in this particular one, but there's the ISFDB list.

Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (2/21, read to the boys)

See above; this was the second book in the series.

George R.R. Martin, A Feast For Crows (2/22)

This I read for work, which may not be obvious -- most of the rest above was personal reading. (Not the Hartwell/Cramer, but everything else.) And I would not try to have any opinion about it on the internet fourteen years later, not having re-read it since then. I liked it, but thought Martin was losing control of his story -- well, I thought that more with Feast, but had thought that for portions of the book or two before this. This is not a wild or unusual take by any means. After fourteen years, I remember that it was about sixteen hundred manuscript pages of middle -- generally well-written middle, with interesting things happening on most of those pages, but all middle, and much of it middle that the larger story didn't actually need.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Quote of the Week: Apology

I knew I'd been an asshole and I owed Amena an apology. I'd attribute it to the performance reliability drop, and the emotional breakdown which I am provisionally conceding as ongoing rather than as an isolated event that I am totally over now, and being involuntarily shutdown and restarted, but I can also be kind of an asshole. ("Kind of" = in the 70 percent-80 percent range.) I didn't know what to say but I didn't have time to do a search for relevant apology examples. (And it's not like I ever find any relevant examples that I actually want to use.) I said, "I'm sorry for...being an asshole."
 - Martha Wells, Network Effect, p.106

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Paul at Home by Michel Rabagliati

I don't know what it is about Canada and autobiographical cartoonists. Obviously Joe Matt, Charles Brown and Seth knew each other and influenced each other, but others (Kate Beaton, for example) came out of completely separate worlds. And Michel Rabagliati isn't even working in the same language as those English Canadians, so I'm left just assuming it's something inherent in maple leaves or youth hockey.

Rabagliati is a native of Quebec, who worked as a graphic designer for decades before turning to cartooning in mid-life. His books are about a man named Paul Rifiorati: Rabgaliati has generally admitted that they are mostly autobiographical, but there's also some element of fictionalization, or just of cleaning things up to make a better story. As of 2020, there have been eleven Paul books published in Quebec -- not all of them full-length -- and eight of them, more or less, have been translated into English. The titles sometimes shift in translation: for example, I believe Paul a Quebec became The Song of Roland in English. All of them are in a similar loopy art style with bold black lines -- I think of it as UPA-influenced; I don't know if Rabagliati would agree -- though this current book mentions that he tried different looks for the book I know as Paul Joins the Scouts but went back to his usual style midway through development. [1]

Paul at Home is the most recent book in the loose series: published in 2019 in French and 2020 in English. Previous books had moved backwards and forwards in time, but had mostly seen Rabagliati turning decade-old events in his life, most often from his childhood and early adulthood, into comics. But Paul at Home is more immediate: it opens in 2012 and Rabaligati started work on it in about 2016. And it's the least happy of the books.

Paul is fiftyish as the book opens, living alone and unhappy with it. His marriage has fallen apart: we don't get all the details, but it seems to be roughly mutual, and they're pleasant to each other when they have to meet now. Their one daughter, Rose, is nineteen and has moved out of Paul's house -- and will soon move to England for vague reasons, against the advice of both parents. His health isn't great, either -- there's major dental work, general malaise, ongoing damage to his drawing arm and neck from years bent over a drawing board, and a series of tests and appointments for what is probably sleep apnea.

So Paul isn't happy, and doesn't have much to be happy about.

His widowed mother, though, has it even worse: living alone in a small apartment. And her health problems will be much larger, and entirely insoluble, before the end of Paul at Home.

This is a book about the downhill side of middle age, that time when endings are coming much more quickly than beginnings ever seemed to. Paul does seem in danger at times of tipping over into being a stereotypical grumpy middle-aged guy -- swearing at parking tickets, complaining about French tourists, and endlessly grousing about bad fonts (because he's a graphic designer to the core) -- but it's more that Rabagliati is not afraid to make his stand-in less than heroic and entirely real.

This is the saddest, most depressing Paul book, because life does tend to get sadder and more depressing. As we get older, that's clearer and clearer: Rabagliati has seen it, and shows it well here. But it's not all sad, and it's only depressing if you let it be.

In the end, Rabagliati would likely agree with a certain porcupine's advice: "don't take life so serious, son -- it ain't nohow permanent."

[1] This is also as good a place as any to mention that I've tried to figure out which books are which, to the point of making a Google Sheet based on Rabagliati's bibliographie page, and that there are still things that confuse me. 

  1. Is Paul dans le métro the same book as Paul en el campo? Why hasn't that book (or those two books, if they're different) appeared in English?
  2. Or is Paul en el campo an expanded version of Paul à la campagne? (Which makes more sense.) In that case, why didn't that collection come out in English?
  3. Did Paul Joins the Scouts really appear in English and Spanish but not in French? That seems deeply weird. Or is that Paul au parc? If so, why is that one book eight pages longer in French?
Not on the same level, but I deeply wonder what the deal was with the title The Song of Roland. It's so far out of the series title structure and it was Rabagliati's first book with a new English-language publisher. Having worked in the content mines for my whole adult life, I have cynical guesses about some of the factors, but I bet that would be a great story at a convention bar some late night.

And as long as I'm rambling, I'm impressed at how consistent the French naming convention has been: Paul + conjunction + details. I kinda wish the US publishers had the courage of Rabagliati's convictions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation by Wilson, Ottaviani, and Butler

When you're talking about people who have an inordinate fondness for insects, you probably mean either God or E.O. Wilson. And only one of them is a person you can actually have a conversation with. (Well, Wilson is 91, and probably still busy enough that it would be tough to get some of his time -- but you know what I mean.)

Actually, you can differentiate them a bit more than that -- God is said to like beetles better, and Wilson was always an ant guy. Just in case the distinction becomes important in your life.

Edward O. Wilson is the towering biologist of the 20th century, which is particularly impressive since that was such a physics-heavy century. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for books he wrote, is responsible for hundreds of scientific papers and possibly the foundational biological theory of the era, and is one of the pillars of the conservation movement. Naturalist was his memoir -- the story of how he grew up, got interested in ants, got into science, and navigated most of his career. That book came out in 1994, when Wilson was 65, and just a couple of years before he retired from active teaching at Harvard -- but, as I said above, he's still going strong now at 91, and has published as many books since Naturalist as he did before it. So the idea probably was that Naturalist was going to be basically the story of his life, but he may need to add a second volume at this rate.

Naturalist has had a strong life, and has been particularly influential on young readers interested in science -- obviously those kids who like bugs, but also the ones who end up going into chemistry or physics or possibly even (gasp!) engineering. [1] So clearly someone -- maybe even Wilson himself, since he's obviously a smart guy with a lot of ideas -- thought it would be good to do one of those new-fangled "graphic novel" versions of Naturalist, since all of the kids love them these days.

(I may be deliberately making this sound silly for comic effect. But it was a good idea.)

However it happened, Island Press -- the nonprofit that publishes the prose edition of Naturalist -- found Jim Ottaviani, the premier and almost only writer of science in comics form, to adapt Wilson's book into comics and cartoonist, illustrator, and cartoonist C.M. Butzer to draw it. Colors are by Hilary Sycamore, but the pre-publication proof I read only features color for the first seventeen story pages, so I can't really speak to her work here as a whole. The graphic adaptation came out last November, and is widely available now -- so now there are two versions of Naturalist available to be handed to a budding scientist, one of which features lots of pictures of ants to go with Wilson's words.

As usual with Ottaviani's work, there are lots of caption boxes and dialogue -- he likes to get in as many of the real words of the books and scientists he's adapting as possible. So this will be a denser graphic novel than many readers are used to: I'd say that's no bad thing, since science is demanding and full of details that require close attention. Anyone looking for something quick and surface-y is not cut out for a life in science to begin with.

And, of course, this is the story of a life, and one intertwined with field exploration, collaboration with other scientists, and writing -- some of it is about external action, but most of what was important in Wilson's life happened in his thoughts, as he examined ants around the world, thought about them back in Massachusetts, scribbled ideas on a board with colleagues, and bounced their theories off the real world to make sure they actually worked.

I wish there were more graphic novels like this, and fewer about punching people, but that's the world we live in. Intellectual activity is always less popular than punching. But this one is out there, and it's really good at what it does. If you know someone who could be a scientist eventually, this would be a good book to give her.

[1] Note: your present writer's son is a budding engineer, in the second year of a five-year undergraduate ChemE program, and so he kids because he loves.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

A note to copyeditors of the future: the radio story from 1946 is "The Clan of the Fiery Cross," styled in roman within quotation marks and spelling Clan with a capital C. The 2020 graphic novel loosely based on that radio play is Superman Smashes the Klan, in italics and spelling Klan with the K used by its namesake.

One suspects the relative political power of that real-world Klan, and possibly of the corporate entities that owned (then) National Periodical Publications and (now) DC Comics, are responsible for the switch from C to K. But that's outside my remit here.

That radio story has been mentioned as a major factor in the waning power of the real-world Klan in the post-war years. I'm not a historian, but it makes sense to me -- they are not generally called out as strongly active during the main civil rights era beginning the next decade, so the timing, at least, makes sense. And it's a comforting message to superhero fans: See! we can do good work in the world, and not have to make any effort at all! Just being a fan of Superman makes the world better!

This graphic novel is not driving that message. Stories themselves generally don't; stories are about action, not feeling good about yourself for liking those stories. The active verb in the title is there for a reason: this Klan of the Fiery Kross needs to be smashed, and it will not go away quietly by itself.

And, while Superman is the subject of the title sentence, he's not alone here: Superman alone cannot smash the Klan. That takes more people: a Black police detective, some familiar reporters named Lois and Jimmy, the members of the Lee family at the center of this story, and even a local white kid at first hostile to his new neighbors. One might even say it takes a city, or a village.

The Lee family are moving to a leafy Metropolis neighborhood in 1946 at the beginning of Smashes the Klan, moving out of Chinatown largely because the father, Dr. Lee, is taking a job as chief bacteriologist of the Metropolis Health Department. They meet their new neighbors, who are mostly friendly -- especially once it's clear son Tommy will be a big asset to the baseball team fielded by the local interfaith Unity House. But our viewpoint character in the Lee family is daughter Roberta, who is less sure about their new neighborhood and home.

Tommy's rocket arm dislodged Chuck Riggs, previously the star pitcher, from that position, which does not leave Chuck happy. Chuck's Uncle Matt is also coincidentally -- this is a Superman story -- the local Grand Scorpion of the Klan of the Fiery Kross, so he seizes Chuck's grievance and the Lees mere presence in their neighborhood as reason for an old-fashioned cross-burning and fire-bombing.

The Lee's house is saved by quick action by Tommy and by neighbors, including that Black detective, Inspector Henderson. (Whose help Dr. Lee at first does not want, when he thought Henderson was just a random local Black man.) Daily Planet reporters arrive the next morning to report on the situation -- of course it's Lois Lane and Clark Kent, since the Planet has never had any other reporters in seventy years of operation.

But Superman is dealing with assimilation issues of his own. The day before, he fought a Nazi would-be supervillain, Atom Man, and kept him from destroying the Metropolis Dam. But Atom Man is powered by a strange green crystal -- anyone who has ever consumed any Superman story is nodding right now -- and that gives Superman first a strange wave of nausea and weakness, and then continued hallucinations of two figures who claim to be his real parents, aliens who rocketed him to Earth from  the doomed world Krypton. (Well, they're not that succinct and specific to begin with. But we know the story, and it is the same story.)

Tommy gets in more danger, the Klan continues to foment violence, and that green crystal will of course come back. Dr. Lee's employer, and some of his co-workers, turn out to be quite different than what we had expected.

In the end, Superman Smashes the Klan. But he can't do it alone. And he can't do it without confronting his own past and understanding who he is: without publicly claiming his place as an immigrant and alien. His story -- an immigrant, coming to a new place, and wanting to be friendly and helpful -- is explicitly twinned with Roberta's, and with all of the other people the Klan hates.

This is a story for younger readers, and a story about Superman, so you can be assured everything will work out for the best, and only the most unredeemable will be smashed -- anyone who can be brought around will be. Writer Gene Luen Yang will make sure of that, as he also makes his story deeper and more resonant than a Superman tale for pre-teens had to be. Art team Gurihiru gives it all a modern, clean, manga-lite look -- easily readable and dynamic.

This is a book a lot of Americans should read: there are far too many Chuck Riggses out there, unthinkingly racist and led by family members or friends or media to believe evil things and, in far too many cases, to do evil things. This story says that most of them are redeemable; I would like to believe that. But they have to want to be redeemed. They have to want to smash the Klan.

For those who do, this book is there for you. And if you're in a position to put this book in front of a Chuck Riggs, someone who might be amenable to it but does not, right now, want to smash the Klan -- doing that would be a very good thing. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of February 15, 2003

As usual when I do a "Reading Into the Past" post, I run the random number, type it in here, and then look things up in my old reading notebooks to see if I can remember the books I was reading then.

This time out, the old RNG gives me 2003, and these are the books I was reading this equivalent week eighteen years ago:

Greg Rucka, et. al., Queen & Country: Operation: Morningstar (2/8)

I see I hadn't yet become enlightened about comics credits: I was still running on the book-world assumption of the writer being the most important person (or maybe the only important person). Let me say for the record that is wrong; artists bring at least half of the storytelling to the table in comics. This was the second collection of the Queen & Country comic; art was primarily by Brian Burtt. Q&C was a gritty spy comic, focused on wetwork and similar ops, with lots of blood and gore and horrible things, done to and by the main characters, in various locations around the world -- as the title implies, our spies worked for the UK. I don't remember details at this late date, but I liked the series for a long time, though I thought it got bogged down in its own misery- and trauma-drenched backstory as it went on. I think Rucka has a tropism for damaged characters, and he's honest enough not to magically fix the damage, so they just keep getting worse and worse, which can lead to diminishing returns in a long series.

Mike Mignola, et. al., Mike Mignola's B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth and Other Stories (2/9)

Ditto: this was written by Mignola with Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegowsi and drawn by Ryan Sook with some inks by Curtis Arnold. It was the first B.P.R.D. book, the moment where Hellboy left the team and Mignola or his editors realized they could do comics about both sides of that split, and so did. A lot of mythology spun out of the B.P.R.D. stories starting here, with multiple achieved or only slightly averted apocalypses, and there probably was diminishing returns there, too. But a lot of it was really good, and this is still a decent entry point, if people are still looking to enter the Mignolaverse.

Alastair Reynolds, Redemption Ark (2/10)

I see this is now billed as the second book of "The Inhibitor Trilogy," but I thought of it as a standalone at the time -- sure, Al has a common universe, and some elements come back in multiple books, but each book is an individual novel. My memory of the Reynolds books of that era are that Revelation Space was a hugely impressive first novel, Chasm City was even better, and this one was a bit of a plateau. Reynolds is still in my head as one of the better current Hard SF writers, but I haven't gotten to one of his books for a decade or more -- I have several on the shelf, and want to read them, but haven't pulled one down recently. Maybe I should check to see if he has any recent novellas-as-books; his novellas are always awesome (Diamond Dogs, Galactic North, "Troika," "Slow Bullets"), and I get to short books much more quickly these days. Anyway: read this, read something by Al Reynolds. I should do that, too. He's damn good.

P. Craig Russell, Isolation and Illusion: Collected Short Stories, 1977-1997 (2/11)

I have no memory of this as a thing that ever existed in the world. According to what I can google, it's what the title says it is: a big collection of his collected works, from the first twenty years of his career (he's had another twenty since then, obviously). Looks like it's split between mostly early personal work, which is odd and spiky, and later mostly adaptations, which are individual and show his exquisite taste. All of it is in Russell's marvelous art, obviously, though some of the early pieces might be more oviously early. But, again, even the cover doesn't look familiar once I found it, so this has dropped out of my memory entirely.

Dave Barry, Tricky Business (2/12)

Barry was a longtime humor columnist for various US newspapers (syndicated, so probably most of them at his peak) who retired from that a decade or so ago and kept writing the same kind of books that used to collect his columns, only at a slower pace. He also wrote three humorous novels along the way: this was the second one. (Big Trouble was the first, and it could be the best Carl Hiaasen novel ever written by anyone else. Insane City is the third, and it's still on my to-be-read shelf.) As I recall, this was not quite as strong as Big Trouble, but still damn good -- though it clearly took more time and effort than Barry's usual collection-of-columns books. (And that may be why there were three of these in about a decade, and then no more: we all do the things that are easier and more profitable for us.) This is good, but read Big Trouble first if you haven't.

"Tucker Coe" (Donald E. Westlake), Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death (2/13)

Westlake was a very prolific writer of mysteries and related books -- how do you genre-type Kahawa or Smoke? -- nearly all of which were good in one way or another, and a large number of which were sublimely wonderful. He was both the author of the incredibly funny Dortmunder series of crime capers and the incredibly taut Parker series of crime capers (as Richard Stark), and at least a half-dozen great one-off novels, of which I'll point to The Ax as possibly the best. He also wrote under a lot of pseudonyms: Tucker Coe was one of them, with a five-book hardboiled series about a former cop turned PI in the early '70s. (Some people confused this series for Larry Block's Matt Scudder series at the time, since the two series do have elements in common, but Scudder pulled away over time.) Kinds of Love was the first one, and I think this is as far as I got. This series has not been consistently reprinted, and old Westlake books are expensive -- I see a paperback of this now runs about $900. So I intend to read the whole thing, but I'd need to start over at this point.
 Sean Williams and Shane Dix, Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Force Heretic I: Remnant (2/14)

See below.

Chuck Dixon, et. al., Robin: Year One (2/15)

Yeah, I was still neglecting to list artist: bad 2003 Andy. Art was by Scott Beatty and Javier Pulido. I don't remember this well at all, though I do remember the impulse to do lots of "Year One" and "Year Zero" and "Year Two" stories, so all of the third-generation artists could fix the stories of their youth and do them all the right way. Or maybe just to insert more stuff into continuity, since we all love that about superhero comics. I am substantially more cynical about superhero comics than I was eighteen years ago, and I was already reasonably cynical then. So my opinion on this is probably not a unbiased one, or useful for most purposes. Plus I barely remember it.

Sean Williams and Shane Dix, Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Force Heretic II: Refugee (2/16)

Oh. Shucks. I thought this was a two-book series -- my memory is that "New Jedi Order" had a lot of two-book series within it, from various writers -- but it is actually a three-book series. (I did read the third one, Reunion, a little later, finishing it on March 3rd.) So I stretched this week in "Reading into the Past" to include Refugee for no good reason. Because I don't remember this series terribly well, and I don't want to say much about the depths of the Extended Universe at this point anyway. It's all out of continuity, so the excesses and odd storytelling choices -- which were myriad and sometimes baffling -- are all beside the point now. The only reason to come to this would be if you wanted to read the whole bizarre Yuuzhan Vong saga, and frankly there are much better things you could do with your time. There are some gems within that mass of books, but the ones that still stick in the mind almost twenty years later are by Matthew Woodring Stover. Williams and Dix did a couple of non-sharecropped trilogies before this -- both good, both worth digging out -- and Williams has gone on to a longer career afterward.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Quote of the Week: Like an Elbow to the Ribs

A certain magazine famously -- notoriously, you might say, and I do -- would have you set a diaeresis -- the double-dot thing you might tend to refer to as an umlaut -- in words with repeat vowels, thus: "preëxisting," "reëlect." That certain magazine also refers to adolescents as "teen-agers." If you're going to have a house style, try not to have a house style visible from space.

 - Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer's English, p.60

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Line editors are architectural planners; copyeditors are finish carpenters. You need both of them to make a building -- and the writer who actually does the construction, obviously -- but what they do is very different.

Benjamin Dreyer is that unlikely thing, the famous copyeditor. I think he was only mildly famous, in the usual literary circles, a few years back -- he was the copy chief for Random House, so authors would fight to have him work on their books. (Or, equally, fight to have him not work on their books -- authors and editors of all stripes are specific and quirky, and often do not get along with each other for very particular stylistic reasons.)

But then he wrote Dreyer's English, a compendium of his copyeditorial tricks and standards and notes. And the people who make strong, particular books about language into bestsellers -- remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves? It happens once or twice a decade -- did that again for Dreyer's book. So he is now at least somewhat famous.

As I said, Dreyer is a copyeditor. He will not give you advice on how to structure your novel, what voice to use, or how to sustain suspense across three continents and four generations in your family saga. He will tell you that you're using too many adverbs, that you should be more consistent in your treatment of numbers and punctuation, and that there are certain words (spelling and meaning thereof) that you just need to look up every single time to be sure. Names of people and places also benefit from being checked, he would add. In general, he will give finish-carpenter advice: these are the things to do to polish a manuscript of whatever kind once you have the general words down on paper, not things to worry about when you're staring at a blank page waiting for the blood drops to form on your forehead.

Dreyer is punchy and acerbic and deeply opinionated, like the best editors: you should never be confused where you stand with an editor, and you never are with him. There are things that may be style questions, but he will definitely have an opinion as to which style is right. (Did I mention that some writers will go out of their way not to work with specific copyeditors? That's one big reason: a writer needs a partner who believes she's doing things the right way for her piece of prose and will clear out the roadblocks on that path rather than trying to hack a different road through the jungle of words.)

If you are a writer on any level, you will find a lot of interest here. You will also find at least a few things you disagree with, mildly or violently -- for me, it was mostly on the mild side, since I haven't been a working editor for a decade and have mellowed with age. The core of Dreyer's advice is right for everyone, though: a piece of prose should be clear, and there are lots of grammatical and usage tricks you should know to help create that clarity. In the end, that's what he's all about -- a copyeditor's job is to make a piece of prose "the best possible version of itself it can be," as Dreyer puts it on page xi.

You have to care enough about words to read a book like this in the first place. If you have heard about it, and you think you might want to read it -- you do. If this is the first time you've ever heard about Dreyer's English, it is less likely to be for you, unless you are of tender years or recently emerged from a fallout shelter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

I'm no more the obvious audience for this book than Gene Luen Yang was the obvious creator for it: neither of us cared all that much about basketball. The difference, I guess, is that Yang got interested in sports because of his community and a specific story at a specific time, and then created this graphic novel to tell that story and his involvement in it. [1]

Yang was a math teacher at Bishop O'Dowd, a respected private Catholic high school in Oakland, California. The men's varsity basketball team there, the Dragons, had a strong program: they'd been among the best in the state (and California is a big, competitive state) on and off for a couple of decades. But they'd never won the state championship -- coming into the 2015 season, there were 0-8 in that big game.

Yang was coming off his previous graphic-novel project, 2013's double-barreled Boxers & Saints, and was still semi-aimlessly casting around for his next big personal comics project a year later. Of course, at the same time he was also negotiating to do more writing of other people's properties, which Yang puts into this story as a secondary plot or background flavor. [2]

So my guess is that this was a more general period of "what do I want to do with the rest of my life." Yang shows himself with four young children, and dividing his time in three: comics, teaching, and family. Turning comics into a day-job allowed him to simplify that down to just two divisions, which has to be appealing. His soul-searching over the Superman job is connected in this book to his being a teacher at the school: this is a book about the school and its basketball team, with Yang as the viewpoint character, rather than a story essentially about Yang's career and life, with the school as a main setting.

But that's what was behind it all. Yang wanted new projects, was probably already thinking on some level about needing to quit teaching to focus on comics fully, and wondered what the big deal was about the Bishop O'Dowd Dragons. So he went to talk to a fellow teacher, head coach Lou Richie.

And out of that conversation, and the events of the next year, he made Dragon Hoops, the story of primarily the 2015 team and secondarily about Yang learning about the history of the Dragons, about the players on the team in 2015, and about Richie. And then, tertiarily, about Yang himself and his career decisions -- those are the least connected to the team, so Yang keeps them appropriately less important. (There's also a minor thread about how Yang tells the story: there's one loose, unfinished thread of this story that he didn't want to include -- but the fact that he mentions possibly not including it tells we sneaky readers that he already has included it.)

Again, Yang is the viewpoint character, and our lens into this world: this is a sports book largely for an audience that doesn't deeply care about sports a lot of the time. But it's not his story, and he's not trying to make it his story. It's the story of Richie and his players: superstars Ivan Rabb and Paris Austin, younger players like Arinze Chidom and Jeevin Sandhu, and a half-dozen others. It's a book organized by the rhythms of a season: preparing ahead of time, early practices, the games of the season in order, and then (of course) the post-season, culminating in that big championship game again.

Yang was lucky in his story: teams fizzle out everywhere, every year. The Dragons could easily have ended up out of contention. It's the danger of starting to write about a story before the ending is clear -- Yang was something like a reporter telling this story, building blocks of how he wanted it to go while never being sure it would end the "right" way.

I won't tell you what the ending was, or even the middle: the Dragons played a lot of games that year. And the women's team, also called the Dragons, had some games that come in here. The story of whether or not the Dragons won is important, but more important (to Yang, at least, if not to many of the readers) is who these players were, how they worked, what they accomplished together, and how they came from different backgrounds to be part of something larger while still staying specific people.

Yang has always been interested in representation -- most obviously with Chinese-Americans like himself -- and Dragon Hoops is a book where he broadens that view to look more deeply at other ethnic groups in America. Most obviously, since this is about basketball and Oakland, Black Americans are central to Dragon Hoops. It was published in March of 2020, and so finished months before that -- the specifics of the American racial-justice landscape have shifted hugely since that point, though not in any way that damages Yang's story and understanding here. He is on the side of hyphenated Americans and ethnic Americans of all kinds, wanting them to have secure, real places in the world that are not reliant on the good will of white people.

Dragon Hoops never says the words "white supremacy." But Yang writes about it nevertheless: from his own point of view, and from the lives of the Black young men who make up most of the Dragons. There are several scenes of bigotry here, directed at the Dragons -- mostly trash-talking audiences at road games -- and Yang picks up the way hate grabs onto anything to demean and attack, that there will always be something that those bigots use, no matter who they're yelling at this time.

Because this is a real story. And a real story about a real basketball team of mostly Black teenagers in 2015 America is going to include some racial slurs. Maybe there will be a year when that won't be the case. Yang hopes so. I hope so. The Dragons players hope so. But we'll have to see.

[1] I frankly still don't care that much about basketball: even when I did care about sports, it was the one I never got into. But I liked the book, he said brightly!

[2] Everybody's got to eat, and everyone wants to do work that personally excites and speaks to them. So, if what Yang really wants to do with his life is write a bunch of stories about Superman punching things better, that's great. I generally have very little interest in punching-things-better stories, though, so those background negotiations can feel to me, and readers like me, like he's getting pulled into a sadder, lesser world after making personal stories and teaching for a living. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Maggy Garrison by Lewis Trondheim and Stephane Oiry

I'm not sure how old Maggy Garrisson is. She's not just out of her teens, but she could be twenty-five or she could be close to forty. She's not old, yet, though -- she still has a lot of time in her life.

Well. Probably. If nothing else happens.

Maggy Garrisson collects three graphic novels about the title character in which a lot of things happen, all on the seedy side of London in the mid-teens. It all starts when Maggy gets a job, after a couple of years of looking, as secretary for a local detective, Anthony Wight. 

Wight is beaten up and ends up in hospital almost immediately, but not before Maggy meets a couple of people in his world and gets caught up in some of his not-entirely-legal activities. It turns out Maggy has a real knack for detective work -- for social engineering and inventive problem-solving in particular -- which alternately gets her deeper into that world and helps her survive it.

She finds a new best friend in a female cop, Sheena. And a new boyfriend in Alex, a trained IT expert working as an enforcer for a minor local crimelord. And a lot more money and trouble than she knows what to do with...or how to hide.

The three original albums follow on from each other, covering in all a few weeks or maybe a month, and this might be the end of the story -- maybe not, but it could end after any of these three without any trouble. These are crime stories, about small-time people in a small-time world who dream of more but scramble like scorpions in a pit to stab each other over the little they have. Maggy is a smarter scorpion than most, and possibly not entirely a scorpion at all -- but, still, she ends up in that pit, and has to sting her way through it.

The three Maggy stories are written by Lewis Trondheim, and this is yet another very different kind of book from him -- unlike the kid's stories like A.L.I.E.E.N., unlike his autobiographical comics like Little Nothings, much more serious than the light adventure of McConey, and maybe closest to the darkness in the fantasy Dungeon series he wrote with Joann Sfar. But this is a real-world darkness: these are crime stories set in a country he knows but doesn't live in, a world he can make a little exotic and different for his original audience, like a thousand French noir comics set in a dark version of America.

The art is from Stephane Oiry, whose work I haven't seen previously. He draws a lot of detail, working from mostly a twelve-panel grid, full of dialogue and tight rooms and close-ups of faces. It's art drawn for album-size, taking advantage of the large pages to do a lot of story-telling in small spaces, and I'm glad to see that this English-language omnibus (from the fine folks at Self-Made Hero in the UK) kept that size.

Maggy Garrisson is a pretty dark book: darker than you'd expect from Trondheim. But he and Oiry navigate the darkness well, and  keep the story in unexpected territory -- it's not a thriller, or even pure noir, but more of a slice-of-life story about a woman who falls into this world and finds that it both thrills and frightens her, that it gives her scope to use skills and insights that might have lain dormant before.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Tonta by Jaime Hernandez

Jaime Hernandez spent thirty-five years mostly making comics stories about pretty girls (to be extremely reductive about it). Some were chubby, some were skinny -- and they got older over time, though he tended to introduce new younger characters as well. But even latter-day Hopey, as sour and grumpy as she can be, is still pretty darn cute...maybe because we remember who she was back in the day.

Those characters were often confused or wrong or lost or heading at high speed in entirely the wrong direction. Frankly, I could even argue that they were almost always at least one of those things.

Tonta, though, was Jaime's first non-cute protagonist. He draws her round-faced and gap-toothed, cross-eyed and eternally gawping, with a face that he previously reserved for old ladies. She's just as confused and wrong-headed as any of the other women in his stories, maybe even more so. But people take her less seriously, though there's still at least one boy lurking around, trying to get with her. (There always is, for everyone. In some rare cases, it's even mutual.)

Adding to the goofiness, Tonta is not consistently the main character of the stories in Tonta. Her older half-sister Vivian (aka "The Frogmouth," who is too pretty and too pushy for her own good) drives a lot of the stories here, and the rest of Tonta's complicated family is the engine of the underlying central plot. Tonta is the second youngest of a gaggle of half-siblings, who seem to be spread over something like twenty years, with the youngest in the mid-teens. They all have the same mother; most of their fathers are different. Most of their fathers are dead, frankly, and more than one has died in suspicious circumstances that seem to lead back to that mother.

That all comes out as the stories go on: when we first meet Tonta we know she's related to Vivian, but several other siblings show up in subtly different roles first and then seem to be retconned into the family story, as if Jaime thought of it after a few of the stories were already published. (Or maybe he was just being more subtle than I paid attention to; that's always possible.)

Tonta, the character, is somewhere in her high school years: she knows how to drive, but probably isn't supposed to be doing it. She's loud and goofily exuberant and crazy about punk and a boy or two. She wants to have fun and isn't all that clear about what's actually going on within her family -- again, she's a pretty typical Jaime protagonist, except his previous versions of that character tended to be drawn as femme fatales. Tonta is very much not that, though she's like to be, intermittently (at least for the right punky guy).

I'm not sure if the tone shifts entirely work in the Tonta stories: there's serious drama, with lots of family secrets, and then there's Tonta being super-goofy, making faces and being deeply confused. They're mostly not in the same stories, but Jaime works with lots of short stories building up to something bigger, so the goofy is right next to the serious, over and over again.

I don't think this is the end of Tonta's story; I think we'll see more of her and her family, and that she will continue to be the way into that story for readers. So, for now, I'll say that she's an interesting departure for Jaime, and that it's good to see him stretch in that direction...but that I'm not sure if the mixture is fully baked yet.