Friday, July 30, 2021

Quote of the Week: I Don't Know What I Want But I Want It Now

Steve is troubled by a lot of things. He is twenty-three, was raised in Virginia, and has the idea that California is the beginning of the end. "I feel it's insane," he says, and his voice drops. "This chick tells me there's no meaning to life but it doesn't matter, we'll just flow right out. There've been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it's going to happen." He lights a cigarette for me and his hands shake. "Here you know it's not going to."

I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.

"I don't know," he says. "Something. Anything."

 - Joan Didion, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, pp.76-77

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

We all have books that we think we should have read already. If we read a lot, paradoxically, that list is much longer than that of people who read only a few books. If you read mostly Nora Roberts, you might be behind on a series or two. If you worked in SF publishing and got an English degree, there are entire sub-genres with big shelves of books that you haven't managed to touch yet, and a few dozen more authors you think of as just "being a little behind on."

So I'm not apologizing for finally reading Joan Didion's famous 1968 first collection of essays and journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I've had it on the shelf - as part of the Everyman's Library compendium We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, along with her next six nonfiction books - for fifteen years, and managed to read the first seven essays once before. This time I got to the end: I'm happy about that, and hope to get to The White Album (or maybe Play It As It Lays) sooner than fifteen years from now.

Didion is the master of New Journalism who didn't turn into a self-parody, who didn't become a persona rather than a writer, the one who kept writing and saying important things. I know that much, even if the only other book of hers I've read is The Year of Magical Thinking. But, either way, this book is the beginning: the stories she wrote for magazines, apparently mostly The Saturday Evening Post of all things, in the mid-60s. These were her first years in California, the years right after her marriage to John Gregory Dunne, the years when her only daughter was born. They were also years when the culture was changing, and Slouching is famously one of the books about that changing culture: Didion was in her early thirties, which feels ancient in the middle of youth culture, and the still-inchoate rebellion and drug culture and anti-capitalism and anti-war and anti-"straight life" world was massively a youth culture, made up of Boomers barely in their late teens.

This is not a book that will give you a history or an outline. It's made up of magazine articles written at the time, each one a story about a thing in a place, commissioned by some editor who thought his (almost certainly his, in those years) readers would be interested in that. But Didion was in Los Angeles, and came from Sacramento, and traveled more widely in California and elsewhere: she was in the right places to talk to the right people, and had the mind to put it into precise, often devastating sentences that make it all as clear as anything can ever be.

Slouching doesn't cover any major events. Didion, at least at this point in her career, wasn't that kind of journalist. She was more of the "go there and report back what it's like to be Joan Didion in this place" kind of writer, and being Joan Didion was a powerful lens to view the world through. It is mostly about California, as a collection of places, as an idea of itself, and as the dream of America. It was written and published before the major tumults we now think of as defining the '60s - those began in the hot summer and brittle fall of 1968 and continued on through about '71, and this book was published by mid-68.

So it's not dated in the ways you might expect. There's nothing of the museum about it. The young people Didion writes about in the title essay say different things than young people in 2021, are worried and incensed about different problems. But their passion and fire are entirely familiar: from now, from then, from our own lives.

I don't know that I agree with anyone's self-aggrandizing mythology of California, even Didion's. But I believe that they believe it, and Didion's mythology is deep and specific and rooted in particular lives, centered on her own experience, and has great explanatory power. I'm also not one to say that any specific book "must be read by everyone," but this is a great book about an important moment in this country: it casts a lot of light very precisely on a lot of things Americans should think about and understand. And it is essential for anyone studying that California dream.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Cave Carson Has an Interstellar Eye by Jon Rivera, Michael Avon Oeming, and Nick Filardi

When you have a superhero adventure comics character whose big thing is that he's a geologist and cave explorer, what do you think is the natural next step after you bring him back in the big phantasmagorical maxiseries and reset him to appeal to those hip millennials?

It's clearly sending him off into space chasing his previously-never-mentioned best friend and professional collaborator the rock star, right? Chasing through a succession of mostly ships and habitats, landing on actual planets only rarely and tunneling beneath them never? Living inside his mysterious alien eye much of the time since he doesn't actually have a, whadayacallit, spaceship handy?

If you answered "Hell Yes," congratulations! You are qualified to run circa-2018 DC Comics. You could have greenlighted Cave Carson Has an Interstellar Eye, written this time by Jon Rivera alone (Gerard Way was apparently sufficiently distracted not to demand equal credit) but with an intact art team of Michael Avon Oeming (lines) and Nick Filardi (colors).

The first series was silly, absolutely - see my post on it, which I will link again - but it was silly in hey-here's-an-old-DC-character, his-thing-is-caves, let's-do-some-crazy-cave-shit way. This one is silly in a...um, less definable way. It reads as if Rivera had a file of random story ideas, couldn't decide on any of them, ignored the people that pointed out that most of them aren't really Cave Carson ideas to begin with, and then just did them all in quick succession and high speed.

You can tell even DC had no idea how to handle this when their blurb prominently features the phrase "spelunking in a black hole," because, one, that totally sounds like an Urban Dictionary entry you do not want to look up, and B, it's not a black hole and he doesn't do any spelunking (then or at any other time in this story). There is a certain whiff of desperation that may have emerged when they realized they had Cave Carson in a deranged Space Cabbie story.

So, anyway, Cave and his teenage daughter Chloe and his rescued friend Marc Bartow (dead from suicide in Cave's world, plucked from an alternate world where he was not) are off to see their old friend Star Adam, who is basically if Bootsy Collins were Prince and also actually from space. But, alas! Adam is growing, Baldanders-style, and is already room-sized. For some poorly explicated reason, his growth will soon make him implode, which will kill everyone around him. So our heroes agree to truck him away from the civilized habitat where he lives off to the space equivalent of an empty field to let him die and wreck the local surroundings in relative peace.

As you do.

Due to poor planning, the implosion happens faster than expected, with unpleasant results for Cave and team. They do survive, as mentioned above, by fleeing into a pocket dimension manifested by Cave's (these days detachable) cybernetic eye, where they hole up in their normal vehicle, the tunneling Mighty Mole, which apparently is space-flight capable enough to get them to Adam's place and away just fine but now might not be up to interstellar flight?

Anyway, the eye eventually crash-lands on a planet, where two groups are having a conflict. Cave and friends solve this conflict, and go on their way to several other conflicts, which turn out to be (very, very loosely) linked and somewhat connected to the scattered remnants of Adam, who also turns out to be not quite as dead as "scattered remnants of" would have you believe.

Again, this is silly and bizarre and fast-moving and full of goofy details, as if Rivera was narrating it on some really good designer stimulants directly to us. It does not make a hell of a lot of sense, but it is flashy and exciting and a lot fewer people die than in the first series (well, except for the first planet, but those are mostly the villains sudden-and-inevitably-betraying each other, and played for laughs). I still do not recommend the Cave Carson books. I possibly recommend this one even less than the first story, which at least was a clearly hipster take on a cave dude doing cave-dude things.

But Oeming's art is lovely and lush, well-supported by Filardi's colors. And the story is...well, there's a lot of it, he said brightly! And some of it nearly makes sense! It will definitely not bore you, is what I'm saying.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Walt Disney's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Vol. 1 by Don Rosa

So I am not one of your fanatic Carl Barks fans. I've seen some of his stories, here and there - I think I even came across a few of them as a kid, as one was supposed to - and appreciate his skill and ability without going all nutty about what have always stuck me as decent comics adventure stories for kids. I've never made an effort to dig into his work seriously; it's been reprinted a bunch of times in my reading life but those seem to have been evenly split between cheap and random collections (for kids) and huge hardcover compendia (for people with more fanaticism than budgetary restrictions). I fit into neither of those categories.

But I always figured I'd read more of that stuff when I could: it was one of the great comics achievements of the twentieth century, right? (People I respected said so, at least.) And I'm at least vaguely interested in similar material.

Enter Don Rosa, who is, I gather, the closest modern equivalent to Barks, with the advantage that these days creators are actually allowed to have their names on stories most of the time. Thirty years ago, he did a big series of Scrooge stories to retell that skinflint's life history, based on random background details and minor plot points across all of Barks's work. (It was a very faanish endeavor, which is why, as Rosa explains in his introduction, it was first done in prose by a fan as a fan project...though that fan, amusingly enough, was Jack Chalker.)

Rosa's project stretched across twelve chapters, mostly about fifteen pages long, and those appeared in various Disney comics worldwide (the Disney comics are aggressively global; it's an impressive example of the power of aggregation) from 1991 through 1993. The stories have appeared in various reprints since then: what looks like the most recent edition was from Fantagraphics two years ago, in two volumes.

I got, from my local library, what I thought was the whole thing but was actually the Boom! Kids 2008 edition of Walt Disney's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Vol.1, collecting the first six stories and leaving Scrooge at the end still barely in his teens and not yet rich. It has extensive notes from Rosa, both the introduction I mentioned above and individual story afterwords detailing where he found many of the details in Barks's work.

This is extensively researched, carefully assembled, deeply considered, and well-presented - and Rosa also went through at least one editor (and probably many) on the Disney side as he was creating these stories. (Sharecropping is never done in isolation.) So this is as definitive as anything can be: this is, until some more important Disney personage sees a way to make more money with a flashy DuckTales prequel movie, the official version of Scrooge's life.

But they're also light adventure stories for children about a cartoon duck in a world of cartoon animals. That's inherently minor and light-weight, particularly since these are all prequels to other stories, and the whole point is that we know Scrooge will get fabulously wealthy and successful. So the years of struggle are already baked in. And a lot of the fun, presumably, is in seeing the callbacks to Barks stories - I caught "square eggs," because I am not an idiot, but only a few others, and I'm sure I missed most.

We begin with Scrooge at the age of ten in 1877 Glasgow, where he earns that famous first dime. The next three chapters send him to America, to be a riverboat pilot, cattlehand, and prospector, after which he returns to Scotland to save the ancestral pile and then set off on his first gold-hunting expedition, in South Africa. Various characters seen in Barks stories, such as the ubiquitous Beagle Boys, turn up, mostly to provide conflict and villainy. All of those stories are zippy and full of age-appropriate adventure: about what you would expect from a Disney product.

So this is nice and fun and pleasant but mostly for people who are not me. Those people are either not me because they care about this deeply, or not me because they're much younger and looking for just Tintin-esque adventure stories their parents won't complain about. If you are in one of those categories, or requisition reading material for someone who is, you are more likely to find this exciting and wonderful.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/26/21

So this is weird: I'm typing this a week early. I was on vacation the week of Independence Day, and decided to put up some extra posts while I had time on my hands. So I wrote a couple of Reading Into the Past posts, dated for the next two Mondays, and one of those is dated July 19.

Because of the nature of those posts, I can't move them: they're based on a specific date. Instead, I'm holding the one book that just came in the mail for another week. I may end up getting more books before this post actually publishes; if so, there will be a paragraph immediately under this one saying, in slightly more elevated language, psyke!

The Escapement is the new novel by Lavie Tidhar, coming in paperback on September 21 from Tachyon. I am not a Tidhar expert, though I've actually read a couple of his novels (rare these days for any active SFF writer; I'm reading very slowly this decade) -- Central Station and The Violent Century. My sense is that he writes across genres pretty freely: Station was a Mahfouz-style fixup about a space elevator and Century was a superhero epic across multiple decades. So Escapement should not be a surprise in general outline, though the particular elements may be: it's a surrealist fantasy Western, more or less, with a hero called the Stranger and some level of circus imagery and/or details. That sounds deeply weird, and I'm on board for it.

Psyke! I did get more books in the mail. Two of them, in face, and these are them:

OK, I think the correct order of the title elements of the next book (which is not how they read on the cover) is I Survived: The Attacks of September 11, 2001: The Graphic Novel. This is a line extension of the long-running "I Survived" series of middle-grade non-fiction books, each of which tells the (somewhat fictionalized) story of a kid  who lived through something dangerous and/or of historical importance. Lauren Tarshis originated and has written all of the prose books in the series; she's top-billed on this one as well. The cover mentions that Corey Egbert drew the graphic novel; creators' bios in the end also include Georgia Ball (a writer of comics; my assumption is that she put Tarshis's original 2012 9/11 book into a comics script and possibly was the one who worked with the artist) and Chi Ngo (another artist; maybe a finisher or inker or colorist, or some combination of all of them).

Now, this is one of my pet peeves. Graphic novels should be at least generally clear about what the people involved in them did - and that goes double for books for young readers. Thousands of kids who like to write or draw will read this book. Knowing that Ball and Ngo got jobs doing...whatever, specifically, they did...could be useful to those kids as they plan their lives. That should be called out here.

The story itself follows a boy named Lucas, who was visiting his father and Uncle Benny - they both work at a firehouse in Manhattan - on the day in question. My guess is that even though the title gives away that Lucas survives, I would not expect the same for both dad and Benny. It also looks like this is a pure adaptation of Tarshis's original book, so fans of the series should expect color and comics format but not otherwise something new.

This is coming from Scholastic and will be available on August 3. (I'm glad to see they resisted the temptation to publish on the day itself.)

And the last book I have to tell you about this week - unless something arrives unexpectedly in today's mail - is a new SF novel by Alex J. Cavanaugh, published by Dancing Lemur Press in April. I will do my best not to make fun of the capitalization in the title, which I'm sure is for a good in-story reason: CassaDarK.

This is a MilSF novel, and the front matter mentions three other books with titles that start "Cassa," so my finely-tuned editor's brain detects a series here. CassaStar is listed first, so my guess is that would be the best place to start. It looks like the series hero is a guy named Bassan, who commands spaceships or something like that, whose father is a higher-level commander now about to retire, who has saved the galaxy at least once, and who is afraid of public speaking. This time out, he speaks at a conference and then goes to a prison planet - the description is slightly coy about what status he has there.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Quote of the Week: Life Paths

Eustace "Fingers" Fogelheimer  had grown up with your usual disadvantaged background leading so often to crime, as it had done in this particular instance as well. That his father was a drunk was Fingers' first clue to his probable future, and his mother's improbable sweetness, endless patience, and voluminous bromides served as a strong confirmation. Still, Fingers hoped he might yet be the exception that proved the rule - as his mother might have put it - until that fateful day when he'd come home to discover his brother had become a priest. From that moment, Fingers Folgelheimer knew his doom was sealed: the very next day, he went and joined the Flatbush-Canarsie mob.

 - Donald E. Westlake, Comfort Station, 6:15 PM chapter

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes by North, Charm, & Renzi

The ninth volume collecting The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl collects five issues from early 2018 and came out in late 2018, with yet another lightly modified "funny" song lyric for a title: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes.

As usual, I got to it three years late, after the series ended. (See my post on Vol. 8 for similar tardiness, and links back to even earlier tardiness.)

This time out, regular series writer Ryan North and colorist Rico Renzi are joined by a new artist: Derek Charm, replacing Erica Henderson. Henderson had drawn the first thirty-one issues of the series, the short previous series, and an original Graphic Novel, which were probably as many Squirrel Girl pages as all previous artists put together. (She defined the look and style of SG for this era, at the very least, and seemed to work very closely with North on stories & plots, too.) So this was kind of a big deal, especially since the SG audience was proverbially heavily pre-teen and female, which as an audience is often not happy with change.

Charm is a cartoonier artist than Henderson, which is a nice change-up. SG is a bit cartoony story-wise (if that makes any sense), so it's appropriate and gives a different energy to the pages. I'm sure some people hated it; some people hate everything. But it works for me.

As always, we have an epic four-part story and a single-issue story in this volume. The epic story has possibly the lamest villain in SG history, on purpose, but is mostly a Kraven the Hunter story about redemption and what it means to be a good person. (Well, it aims at that, but it's about a comics character whose characterization is dependent on the needs of random stories and editors over the course of multiple decades, so I don't actually buy any of it.) Also: the Power of Friendship!

The single-issue piece is mostly-silent, an exercise in North writing something the youngest end of the SG audience can entirely read themselves. It's fine, too.

Squirrel Girl is, as always, relentlessly positive, so the fact that the trade paperbacks are pretty slim is appropriate: a bigger dose of this would be too much. I also have to admit that my eternal favorite character is the mildly nihilistic Brain Drain, not the perky Doreen or any of the others. This is still very good at what it does, and what it does is still a good thing to have in the world: the transition to Charm gave it a different look, but the essentials stayed exactly the same.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Black Hammer, Vol. 2: The Event by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, David Rubin, and Dave Stewart

The thrilling pastiche continues! Everyone who cares read this series four years ago: I think I'm just catching up now because I'm a fan of Lemire's indy work and (possibly incorrectly) classified this as such.

Black Hammer: The Event collects another six issues [1] of the then-ongoing series Black Hammer, written by Lemire with art mostly by Dean Ormston. David Rubin draws one issue for a change of pace, and Dave Stewart colors it all in what I think of as the Dark Horse house palette.

This is all the same thing as the first volume: the story doesn't actually move forward at all. A shocking moment that was completely obvious and that I called out in my post on Vol. 1 actually finally happens on the last page of this book, which presumably will allow the actual story to start moving in the next volume.

What we do get, instead, are flashbacks. Flashbacks to the big fight with Darkseid the Anti-God, flashbacks to random eras in our heroes' lives, flashbacks to Black Hammer's career, flashbacks to things we saw in the first volume. We learn that Black Hammer is basically Thor as a member of the New Gods (Black Racer, more or less, I guess), to continue to show that every single character here is deeply unoriginal. We learn that Gail had a fulfilling sexual relationship with her super-nemesis, which is nice for her, I guess. We get Talky Walky's origin, and get it confirmed that Barbarlien is gay. (Well, that he prefers human men, I suppose - are sexual preferences necessarily consistent across different sapient races?)

It has become clear that "the event" was the Crisis-equivalent for this superhero universe, so that happened in the mid-80s and it's "now" the mid-90s. None of that is actually important to the story; it's all for being-like-the-source-material reasons. I am also amused that its name is the incredibly generic "the event," as if an overworked team of assistant editors couldn't be assed to think of anything better.

Maybe in the next book we will learn why two of the team members are keeping Shocking Secrets! from the rest, and maybe if they are actually keeping the same Shocking Secrets! as each other, too. (It will be funnier if they are keeping totally different Shocking Secrets!, since they seem to not talk clearly to each other, but I don't hold out much hope for that.) I'm sure it will turn out to have been ostensibly for everyone's own good, but that the secret-keepers will have been wrong for some subtle superheroic reason.

This is perfectly cromulent superhero yardgoods. If you're looking for vaguely '80s DC stories, and have already read all of the ones actually from DC in the '80s and/or prefer those vaguely '80s DC stories to be told in moody art and a modern, non-cringey writing style, this is very much up your street.

For anyone else, it looks a hell of a lot like masturbation.


[1] Seven to eleven, and then thirteen. My guess is that twelve is even more of a flashback and/or even more of a fill-in issue than Rubin's contribution here. I think it turns up in a later volume.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Comfort Station by Donald E. Westlake

Sometimes a parody can work even if you don't know the original, or don't know it all that well. If the parody is good enough, and the thing parodied was culturally important or major enough in its day that the reader has vague ideas about it through general osmosis, that can be plenty of common ground.

So I'm here to tell you that you don't need to be a connoisseur of the '60s and '70s potboilers of Arthur Hailey (Airport, Hotel, and so on) to find Comfort Station incredibly funny. I've never read Hailey - and that's unsurprising, since I'd estimate no one has read Hailey in twenty years, and not many did in the '90s when he was still cranking out his last couple of novels, either. (I was working in the field in those years, for a company that had exactly the Hailey audience, and a minute ago is when I first heard he had any novels published during those years.)

But, in 1973, Hailey was coming off HotelAirport, and Wheels - all #1 Times bestsellers - and his brand of dull endless details about ordinary people doing boring things until disaster strikes was already becoming a cliché. The movie of Airport had come out in 1970 and was a huge hit, and both Hollywood and New York publishing were churning out similar stuff, trying to replicate that success with the-same-but-different.

Donald Westlake, as usual, didn't want to do the same but different. He wanted to make fun of the whole silly thing. And so he wrote a quickie short paperback parody, originally published under the name J. Morgan Cunningham - billed in the book itself as the author of such tomes as Carport and Waiting Room and Big Liner and Hot Shaft (get your mind out of the gutter; it was about a stuck elevator). This was it: Comfort Station.

Hailey had casts of dozens working at a hotel or airport or auto manufacturer; Westlake had eight people whose lives intersected in the Bryant Park Comfort Station - the public bathroom for men behind the Main Library in NYC. He tells their intersecting stories in deliberately turgid prose, full of repetition and thuddingly obvious detail, writing right on that line to show the writing is bad but also is bad in a precise, deeply funny way on purpose.

And those eight people, as described on the first page, were:

FRED DINGBAT–omnibus operative, proud of his position in interurban transit. Too proud?

MO MOWGLI–custodian of the Comfort Station. What was it about his past that haunted him? 

ARGOGAST SMITH–plainclothes patrolman. In responsibility he found anodyne–and the testing of his strength

HERBERT Q. LUMINOUS–bookkeeper on the run. What happened to him was almost a cliché. 

CAROLINA WEISS–onetime Russian countess now A & E mechanic. In the arms of another man she sought forgetfulness.

GENERAL RAMON SAN MARTINEZ TORTILLA–deposed dictator. What was it he wanted to get off his chest?

FINGERS FOGELHEIMER–mobster. Out of the thrilling days of yesteryear, he returns for vengeance. 

LANCE CAVENDISH–Black. With him and thirty-five cents you can take the subway.

They are clichés. They do cliché things. Westlake runs them through their paces in chapters following the hours of the day, from 6 AM through early evening, in prose ever-so-slightly overheated and just that bit dumb-bestseller flatfooted. It is all very silly, and I found it laugh-out-loud funny multiple times.

Now, I've been to the Bryant Park Comfort Station, though, so maybe it's just that I know the territory and am simpatico to Westlake's aims. (Though the BPCS I've utilized is not the same one Westlake rhapsodizes about here - the one in the novel closed down before I was born and the current one was built twenty years later.) If you have no personal knowledge of Bryant Park, this may perhaps be less funny, in some odd way.

I do have one complaint: the cover. It is important to the novel, and part of the actual truth of the real world that tedious bestsellers like this spend a lot of time emphasizing, that the Comfort Station for men is the locus of this action, and a similar venue for women is on the other side of the park and forms no part of our mise en scene. So the image chosen for this recent reissue seems OK, but is deeply wrong. Oh, well.

This is a deeply silly book, conceived and created entirely as a piss-take, and I use that term very deliberately. Westlake was an expert funny writer, and he gives us some of his best stuff here. Comfort Station is hugely of its time and place, a goofy soufflé made for a specific, really pointless purpose. But that's just fine as long as it's still funny: and it is.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/19/05

No new books, so let the winds of randomness waft us back to 2005. Here's what I was reading that week:

Kage Baker, Mother Aegypt (7/14)

This was a miscellaneous story collection - as I recall, it did have a Company story or three, but that wasn't the point of it - from one of my favorite writers of the Aughts, whose career was cut vastly shorter than it should have been. According to ISFDB, it (appropriately) has a baker's dozen stories in it, and according to Amazon, it's still available. Baker wrote great novels, but her short fiction, especially her novellas, are even better. (Many people, including me, have said that's the hallmark of the best speculative fiction writers: that they write great novellas.) So I recommend this, or The Best of Kage Baker, or any other story collection published during her too-short career.

Suzanne Lloyd, Harold Lloyd's Hollywood Nudes in 3-D! (7/15)

Holy crap! What a title, and what a book to forget it entirely existed! Yes, the Harold Lloyd, the silent film star. Yes, classy large nude photographs of young ladies - happy ones, as I recall, well-paid for the work - from the '40s through the '60s. And, yes, in 3-D, with glasses and all. And, to top it all off, yes, edited and assembled by his granddaughter, who has also produced a documentary on his more-famous pursuits. I don't remember it, and it was lost in the flood, which is a shame - this is something I would run over and pull out right now if I still owned it.

Bill Willingham, et. al., Fables, Vol. 5: The Mean Seasons (7/16)

In this era, I was really bad at listing the full credits on comics, even though that "et. al." mostly means "Mark Buckingham." I mean there are the James Jean covers, and I'm sure someone colored it, but the Amazon listing is just Willingham/Buckingham, so why couldn't I have done the same? Truly, our past selves contrive to disappoint us again and again.

This was fairly early in the fantasy-characters-in-the-real-world series, and followed up the prior book's major attack on Fabletown (the NYC pocket neighborhood where most of the characters lived at that point) with a couple of flashback stories to "Bigby" Wolf during WWII. I'm getting this from other people's plot synopses, mind you: those details are vaguely familiar once I see them, but I couldn't tell you unaided what happened in, say, Vol. 7.

Allen M. Steele, Coyote Frontier (7/17)

Third in an alien-world trilogy by a dependably meat-and-potatoes SF writer. Is that faint praise? I thought Steele was always readable, usually a lot of fun, and occasionally - especially in some of his better short fiction - really strong. There were dozens of writers whose work I read semi-regularly in the SFBC days that I would not give that much praise to.

I don't remember this series well, but I enjoyed it at the time. I think it had the inherent trilogy problems: the first book was the best and most original, and the latter books mostly worked up variations on the American-frontier-in-SPAAAACE! idea.

Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (7/19)

Not sure why I was reading this: possibly as a potential Special Collector's Issue book for SFBC (we did two magazines of all "classics" twice a year in those days, and I put "classics" in quotes because we made up the definition as best suited us at that moment, though it usually did include some decade-old stuff) or possibly just for my own entertainment and to read backward in the field. Mythago was a winner of the World Fantasy Award for Novel in 1985, and I do periodically threaten to read all of those, so that could be it.

This is a well-known, excellent novel that starts somewhat thornily and has an odd central conceit: there's this one ancient wood, somewhere in Britain, and all the mythic stuff that matters comes from there and lives there. I liked it, but it didn't send me to read more Holdstock, so perhaps I didn't like it as much as I might have.

I will note that I was tempted to start this list a day early, since on the 12th I read the utterly unlikely combo of Tom Perrotta's story collection Bad Haircut and Toni Bentley's paen to being taken anally, The Surrender. But I don't think I actually have anything to say about either of them: I was running through all of Perrotta, and don't remember that book at all. And the Bentley was a big deal that year, selling very well for the clubs, and I am not without prurient interest, particularly when said prurient interest is lying about the office in stacks of bound copies.

The latter did eventually lead to a very early post on this blog. That past self is also mildly disappointing, though the post is not quite as cringeworthy as I thought it would be.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Quote of the Week: Here, There, and Everywhere

Yes, life is the opposite of rare and precious. It's everywhere; it's wet and sticky; it has all the restraint of a toddler left too long at day care without a juice box. And life, in all its infinite and tender intergalactic variety, would have gravely disappointed poor gentle-eyed Enrico Fermi had he lived only a little longer, for it is deeply, profoundly, execrably stupid.

- Catherynne M. Valente, Space Opera, p.3

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Folklords by Matt Kindt, Matt Smith & Chris O'Halloran

I am exactly the kind of person who would say "I never metafiction I didn't like," and actually mean it. Bad puns, metafiction, fussy literary forms - all right up my street.

So I'm surprised that I didn't like Folklords more than I did. Oh, it's fine: it's an entertaining story. But it seems rushed in spots and not entirely baked, like there was going to be (or may yet be) more to it than this. I do wonder if it was originally planned or envisioned to be a longer series, and ended up as just these five issues somewhere along the way. In any case, it's fun and professional, written by Matt Kindt with line art by Matt Smith and color by Chris O'Halloran.

Ansel lives in Generic Fantasy Village. It's not called that, but that's what it is. Everyone bustles around town carrying baskets of stuff, there's one elf and one troll, there's no larger polity or world (just dark forests and the like), and there doesn't seem to be nearly enough fields and farmers around it to feed everybody. Oh, and there's also a treetop village across the river which is not terribly well explained: it could be the home of some subgroup (it's where I'd expect the elves to be if there were more elves), but it seems to instead be just an overgrown tree-fort that the town's kids use for all of their gatherings and carousings. (All entirely PG-rated, as far as we see, which is also weird and surprising.)

Ansel's story is narrated, at least the first page or two of each issue. Someone not in this story is telling us this story, and we assume we will find out who that storyteller is, and that the storyteller's identity will be important. (Spoiler: no and no.)

Ansel is about to turn eighteen, which is when everyone in Generic Fantasy Village goes on a Quest. There are a lot of kids about to turn eighteen - looks like a dozen or more - which implies a village size and/or an infant-mortality rate and/or a population growth rate that don't entirely match the small, cozy, unchanging vibe. And Ansel, who has been having strange, vivid, troubling dreams (of our modern world, it is heavily implied) his whole life, wants to do the Forbidden Quest: to seek the fabled Folklords, who the reader will assume run the whole world.

(There's a bunch of things in Folklords that seem to be aiming to be mythic or folkloric but just seem generic: mythic is actually much harder than it looks to pull off.)

Ansel is an appropriate hero: he has experiences (his visions) and skills (he can build stuff he sees in his visions, at least some of which really works, which is superhero-tinkerer-level power) and is driven to learn the truth of his world no matter the cost. So it's all set up for a picaresque adventure across different lands, probably picking up allies and enemies along the way, before he finally discovers who and what the Folklords really are.

Oh, but first! First he must be denied the quest.

The authorities in this world - or at least this part of it, as usual with semi-mythic fantasy, the political structure is deeply hazy - are the Guild of Librarians (wink wink nudge nudge!), who are, as they must be, a militaristic masked order of humorless bastards who mete out summary executions at their whim. And they interrupt the Quest Ceremony at the first mention of Folklords, instead giving all of the kids dull Stasi-esque local quests to investigate various things.

Ansel will not stand for that, obviously. So he's off. And the plot I alluded to above - picaresque, episodic, gathering new characters as it goes - does begin exactly like that. But the series is only five issues long, so it goes quickly and Ansel, along with a few new compatriots, quickly meets a Folklord with a very signposted name.

And there's a flurry of confused activity and exposition, including what may be the reveal of the narrator on the very last pages, and what seems to be a sequel hook...except it's presented like, "OK, we did X, which was necessary but not sufficient, and now need to head off to do Y, which is vastly more important...oops, wait, here's THE END."

I want to believe this was not planned to be five issues, because it's really not structured well for five issues. The stuff Ansel builds should be more important, and used more. How this world actually works needs to either be explained or not teased at all - if you have Folklords, you need to show how they lord over folk, and what gives them the power to do that. If there's ever a second Folklords story, I'd want to check it out: there's a lot left on the table here. But, if this is the whole thing, it's more than a bit disappointing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956 by Charles M. Schulz

This is, as far as I can tell, the last of the books collecting Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts comic strips that I've never written anything about here. I read the hardcover soon after it came out in 2005, just before this blog existed, but did mention the 1957-58 volume early the next year. (I believe all of my other Peanuts posts can be found through a post on the first book from 2016 and from a 2017 post on the final odds-and-sods volume that collected the odd bits of string from the whole history of the strip.)

So I have thrown around a lot of words about Peanuts over the past decade and a half. And not just me: Schulz is one of the towering masters of the form, so plenty of other people have been pontificating about his work (mostly positively, I think; is there anyone who hates Schulz?). There's no dearth of discussion of the ol' round-headed kid, is what I'm saying. You don't actually need me here to say anything about this book.

But I am here, and I did just read The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956. And it's...just fine, actually.

This is a middle period: any strip that runs for a really long time will have at least one of those, where it was one thing, and will someday become something slightly different, but right now is just running its gag every day, trying some small tweaks as it goes and starting to speciate. In the mid to late '50s, Peanuts was as general as it was ever going to be: the kids basically were kids, doing kid things in a kid world, and occasionally even seemed to be specific ages (just old enough for school, generally).

So the initial shock had worn off. Charlie Brown had settled down into a sad sack rather than a trickster, but all of the ritualized humiliations were still gathering. This book sees him lose kites to trees, but not gloating trees. Lucy pulls away a football maybe once. The whole baseball team loses, but it's not all on his head yet. He was the central kid in a world of kids, in that imagined green and glorious '50s suburbia full of other kids just like himself. Franklin was still a good decade off; even Peppermint Pattie wouldn't appear for a while - these are all the white kids in the relatively nice neighborhood, for all Original Pattie teases Charlie Brown about the relative poverty of his barber father.

The kids tease each other in kid ways and do goofy kid things. Sometimes surrealistically, as comics can: Linus can blow square balloons. But mostly naturalistically. Pig Pen gets more page-time here, and is still as one-note as he was in the previous book.

On the other side, Snoopy is getting odder, more specific and less realistic. He doesn't have thought balloons yet, but he clearly doesn't think like a dog anymore. Not only does he think he's people - lots of dogs think that - but he can convincingly act like people, more and more.

Peanuts would become magnificent in a few years. But strip comics rarely become magnificent immediately. (Counterexample: "'ja think I'm a cowboy?") Schulz was, at this point, writing a Zeitgeist strip, about the consensus best possible life in the best possible nation in the best possible moment in history, for an audience that loved to hear that. He was good at that, but he was better than that - you can see how he got better in later volumes of this series.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez

I've tagged this book fantasy, but that's overstating it. This graphic novel has two storylines, in two different times - 1856 and 2016, in the same place, wherever that is - and the first scene has a mysterious character appearing in 1856.

I probably shouldn't say more than that. But that character's appearance is the fantasy element. It's not otherwise a fantasy story. I say that in case it helps calibrate expectations.

That's A Gift for a Ghost, the first full-length comics story by Spanish cartoonist Borja Gonzalez. This edition was translated by Lee Douglas. The character I alluded to is the ghost.

Well, maybe. That's one way of interpreting it. There are many ways to give a gift to a ghost.

Teresa is the oddball sister in an aristocratic family in 1856, the one not named after a flower. She's coming up on her debut, but would much rather write Poe-influenced poetry and spend time in her own head than practice her piano and brush up the other skills that will get her a proper husband. She likes to sneak out to walk in the quiet at night; she meets what looks like a talking skeleton in the first scene. Her story is about what happens next in her life: what her family demands and expects, or what she actually wants, if she can figure out what that is.

In 2016, there are three girls - probably about the same age Teresa was in 1856, sixteen to seventeen. Gloria, Laura, and Cristina. They hang out, wander around, try to figure out life. They're forming a punk band, the Black Holes, and one of the girls is writing songs - they squabble about that, maybe, a bit. Their story is about secrets and their interactions: there's less at stake, maybe. 

The two stories - they are both quiet, subdued stories, for all the teenage angst in both of them - intertwine, in ways that one would not expect across a hundred and sixty years. Gift is subtle and will not make itself obvious: if you're looking for something flashy and obvious, you will not enjoy it.

Gonzalez's art is equally subdued and quiet: he draws all of these young women (and all of the characters are young women) without faces. Does that make them unknowable? Or just distanced that much father, so the reader has to spend more energy to figure them out? That will for each reader to decide.

I found this book deep and resonant; I don't think I got all it had to give, but I got enough to want to see what Gonzalez does next.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/12/00

Nothing in the mail again, no new books purchased. And I haven't been listing digital things when I get them - for example, last month I got Comfort Station by Donald Westlake from the library via Hoopla and slightly earlier I got Lawrence Block's new memoir A Writer Prepares directly from the publisher. (That is the tiniest of jokes: Block self-published.) I've already written reviews for both of those, but never said "hey, this is a new thing I am now reading."

And I'm currently digitally reading Kij Johnson's The River Bank - a sequel to The Wind in the Willows, somewhat authorized I think - which will turn up as a post here someday after I finish it. But I've mentioned my troubles keeping track of digital books before, so I'll keep them excluded until I actually read them.

So, instead, back to the random number generators of the Internet, and let's see what I was reading this week in the fabulous Year of the Future, 2000!

Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics (7/6)

This was the middle book of McCloud's "Comics" trilogy, after 1993's still-classic Understanding Comics and 2006's more meat-and-potatoes Making Comics. I suspect it's the most dated of the three now: either this or the third had a lot of material on possibilities for micropayments and new forms of comics on the web, which mostly turned out not to happen the way McCloud predicted. I haven't read it since then, and I'm neither a serious student of new kinds of comics or an actual maker of comics, so I could well be wrong. McCloud is always interesting about things he's enthusiastic about, and he's enthusiastic about comics in a way few other people can match.

Martin Amis, Experience (7/8)

I don't remember if he used the Wilde quote ("...the name everyone gives to their mistakes") as an epigraph; that might have been too on the nose, even for Amis. This was a general memoir of his life, up to that point. (It was published that year, when Amis was fifty.) My memory is that it felt deeply honest, full of emotions dredged up and explained clearly, out of a long, messy, tumultuous life - no one on the outside can ever say if a memoir is really honest, but we can say it feels that way. I always like Amis as a writer of prose, and I usually like him as a thinker of thoughts: he's smart and disciplined and usually unsentimental. As I recall, this is one of his better books.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Wheelers (bound galleys, 7/9)

This was a SF novel by the two British scientists who collaborated with Terry Pratchett on the "Science of Discworld" books, and who each wrote a shelf of popular science books separately. They later wrote a sequel, but I think that was the end of their SF career. This was a first contact novel, set in the solar system, of the imminent-danger-to-Earth subcategory: Jovian creatures nudged a comet so it wouldn't hit them, which unfortunately sent it towards a certain inner-system planet you and me hold dear. I think we did this in the club, so I must have liked it at the time and/or thought it was the kind of thing a lot of other people would like. But I don't have any independent memory of it.

Jerry Oltion, Abandon in Place (bound galleys, 7/10)

This was the expansion of a novella that I think I also read, so I will likely have only confused memories of the two versions twenty years later. It's also one of the burst of Space Nostalgia stories that popped up like fungus around the turn of the century: I disliked them at the time, and possibly dislike them even more in retrospect. This is the one with a phantom Saturn V taking off immediately after Neil Armstrong's death, and that makes me shudder just to think of it.

Robert Park, Voodoo Science (7/12)

This was a book of essays by a noted physicist (chairman of the department at U of Maryland, ran an office of the American Physical Society) about how science actually works, some recent potentially groundbreaking discoveries, and how to tell which new surprising scientific claims are likely to be true, which are likely to be exaggerated, and which are likely to be fraudulent. It was new at the time, and I think it was one of the better entries in that skeptical genre: sadly, we need new books to debunk the new frauds and exaggerated claims almost weekly these days.

Right before that week I finished Jo Walton's novel The King's Peace (the first of her Sulien books, more-or-less historical Arthurian works with, as I recall, only the tiniest bits of fantasy). And immediately after I read J.G. Ballard's Myths of the Near Future, his 1982 short-story collection.

I think of the days after my sons were born (the first in early 1998, the second at the end of 2000) as when I slowed down reading, but the evidence suggests I was still chugging along in mid-00, even with one toddler in hand and a new baby on the way. I guess it all went to hell slightly later.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Books Read: June 2021

I could pretend that I waited a week-plus to type & post this because I wanted the last of the books I read in June to have their posts published, so I could do this all in a neat and tidy fashion. But the last post on a June-read book won't publish until the 22nd, so that would be a lie.

No, I just forgot that I usually do this. But I remembered now, and so I'm doing it now. And it's almost entirely for me, anyway. But here's what I read in June of 2021, the month where I passed the full-year total for 2020:

Kristen Gudsnuk, Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board (6/5)

Jeff Lemire, Dean Omston, and Dave Stewart, Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins (6/6)

Matthew Hughes, Barbarians of the Beyond (6/11)

Mademoiselle Caroline and Julie Dachez, Invisible Differences (6/12)

Rick Geary, Stories from the '90s (6/13)

Sara Barron, People Are Unappealing: Even Me (6/13)

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956 (6/13)

Borja Gonzalez, A Gift for a Ghost (6/19)

Lawrence Block, A Writer Prepares (6/19)

Jeff Lemire and Dunstin Nguyen, Ascender, Vol. 2: The Dead Sea (6/20)

Matt Kindt, Matt Smith, and Chris O'Halloran, Folklords (6/25)

Jeff Lemire, Dean Omston, David Rubin, and Dave Stewart, Black Hammer, Vol. 2: The Event (6/26)

Lawrence Block, The Burglar in Short Order (6/26)

Donald E. Westlake, Comfort Station (6/26)

Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominos (6/27)


One last note: I actually read three prose books digitally this month, and started a fourth. That, I think, is more than all of the prose books I've read in digital form in all of my previous life put together. So my adjustments to my reading life seem to be working.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Quote of the Week

The next day I attended my first after-school rehearsal., Directing the production was Ms. Manishevitz, the school's drama teacher. I didn't know how old she was - young enough for pigtails; old enough for pigtails to emphasize a bald spot - and I didn't care. I couldn't invest the time in trying to figure it out because I was too frequently distracted by her nostrils. A half-inch long and a millimeter wide, they looked like mail slots and were, by far, the most compelling set I'd ever seen. You could forget what day it was looking at those things, and until you got used to them, until they ceased to surprise you, it was easy to ignore the other offsetting facets of their owner. You could ignore the fact that judging by the rest of her appearance, Ms. Manishevitz thought she was heading out not for a day teaching drama to children ages eleven to fourteen, but rather to Burning Man or back a few decades to Woodstock. Someeplace for hippies to gather and swap rain stick and chlamydia. Her accessories featured an impressive amount of hemp and highlighted the obvious absence of a brassiere. A tie-died bandanna she felt naked without, an array of floor-length peasant skirts that turned transparent in fluorescent light. Underarms like lint collectors. How she got away with these sorts of fashion antics surrounded on all sides by tweens chomping at the bit for someone to humiliate? Faculty who knew enough to wear brassieres? I can only think it's because we were all too taken with her nose to notice.

 - Sara Barron, People Are Unappealing * Even Me, pp.20-21

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Ascender, Vol. 2: The Dead Sea by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

It doesn't count, since this book came out a year ago and I could easily have heard some facts about it and forgotten. But the two random predictions I made about this book both came true: the two "you think they're dead!" characters at the end of Vol. 1 were totally not dead, and even meet in this book. And the "Dead Sea" of the title is deeply literal.

I quote myself: "the deadness of the sea will definitely turn out to be vampires, or zombies, or something similar."

Werewhales.

I don't think it's meant to be a joke, but I chuckled.

One last point: I also gave the first book partial credit for, well, "the Big Bad is a vampire queen named Mother - I guess it's positive that she's of the old and morbidly fat style of evil vampires, not the slim and seductive type?"

I regret to inform you that "the slim and seductive type" of evil vampire does make an appearance here, as I must have subconsciously known she would. And she does pretty much exactly what one would expect.

So this is Ascender, Vol. 2: The Dead Sea, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Dustin Nguyen, the same creative team as the first volume and the preceding series, Descender. I thought Descender had serious ending problems, but was a relatively sturdy post-Star Wars space opera with some actual ideas and character development in it. Ascender, on the other hand, is a silly guilty pleasure.

Lemire is good at running adventure characters through travails and throwing in all of the generic plot furniture a story like this could need. Nguyen is game enough to draw it all, including werewhales that actually look creepy, and crafts strong action sequences. But I can't take more than one page of this seriously at a time, and often not even that much.

I don't know how long this series will run. It's so silly and kitchen-sinky that I can't imagine it can go that far, but on the other hand I bet Lemire wants to explore as much of this transformed universe as he can. (And the heroes haven't even gotten off their first planet yet.) Four volumes, maybe? Or six to be just as long as the first series? We'll see.

For me, the library has the third volume, and I want to see if it continues to be exactly this obvious and generically crowd-pleasing, and if the robots from Descender actually do ever show up and/or do anything. (Bandit, the robot dog, barely counts at this point: he's there and makes noise, but nothing else.) I don't recommend this series unless your criteria for reading are vastly different from mine, though.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

People Are Unappealing: Even Me by Sara Barron

Some books get better when you leave them on the shelf for a while before you read them. Or if it takes a few years to find them in the first place.

Some books, though, are ephemeral and best gotten to quickly. People Are Unappealing* Even Me is a book that was published in 2009, which I didn't buy until 2018, and didn't read until just last month. Sara Barron is an appealing, funny memoirist, but it's an inherently small book, and it's not improved by waiting a decade-plus to read it, and having the world shift under its jokes.

Barron is, I think, somewhere in that borderland between a funny memoirist (in the David Sedaris mode) and a stand-up comedian. This was her first book, collecting a group of pieces that add up to "who I am and how I got here." She was still in her mid-twenties and "here" was working retail and restaurants for close to minimum wage in NYC, so it was mostly funny stories of her childhood, college days, and short post-college life.

The stories tend to be bawdy, to use a roughly true but totally tonally inappropriate word. There's a bunch of sex stuff, including a cringingly horrible "porno" young Barron wrote, and some dalliances with men who turn out to be gay. There's also encounters with horrible human beings, both a famous customer of the celebrity-chef restaurant where she worked and some retail co-workers. The title sums it up pretty well, actually.

Again, this is funny, and was fresh and crisp in 2009. Barron has done other things since, which are probably equally fresh and crisp for their time. She's a funny writer; I'm sure she'll have a long career doing stuff like this. And I did like this book; it just made me feel that 2009 was a million years ago.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Invisible Differences by Mademoiselle Caroline and Julie Dachez

I tagged this as "non-fiction" and "memoir," but it's isn't, exactly. This is the story of Marguerite, a twenty-seven-year-old French woman who gets diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. It's written by Julie Dachez, who is now thirty-six and who was diagnosed with Asperger's in 2012.

So the reader's assumption is that Marguerite has been constructed to be somewhat different from the real Dachez. Some details are not what actually happened to Dachez, for whatever reason, and those changes were large enough that she changed the name of the central character, while still presenting it all as "my story" (though "my" here tends to attach to Marguerite).

That's Invisible Differences, a graphic novel published in 2016 in France and translated by Edward Gauvin for a 2020 English-language publication. Well, actually, I'm still simplifying. I originally thought Mademoiselle Caroline was purely the artist, but the book itself makes it clear that she also adapted Dachez's script - maybe it wasn't quite in comics-panel form to begin with, maybe it was but Caroline made changes for better panel flow and readability, maybe some other complicated working relationship to end up with these finished pages.

So it was written by Dachez and Caroline, to some degree. It's the story of Dachez, to some degree. It's accurate and realistic, but maybe not "true" in the purest sense of that word.

I know that people on the autism spectrum are often concerned with little details like that, which is one reason I go into such detail here. (The other is that I am concerned with those details, and fascinated by them, even though I'm not on that spectrum.)

Since I'm American, I'm used to seeing the competing "America is better than anyone in the world at X!" and "America is totally horrible at Y, unlike these other countries!" arguments. Invisible Differences is partially the same sort of thing applied to France. As Dachez and Caroline present it, Freudian psychotherapy still rules mental health in France, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is underdiagnosed and undertreated, particularly in women. There's an extensive section of notes at the end about what Autism is and how it's treated in France, which could be helpful to people newly diagnosed and their families and friends. 

I'm happy to note that my own son (diagnosed as various things on the spectrum in his first decade-and-a-half before the ASM-5 consolidated it all into ASD in 2013) had good support and care; it's rare to see some health-care thing that the USA actually does better than an EU country. This is more a book for people getting this diagnosis in adulthood, or maybe adolescence, than the typical US timing of early childhood.

There isn't a whole lot of "story" here; it's about who Marguerite is, how she learns there's a label and an explanation for some parts of her life that have caused her friction and anxiety, and how she transforms her life to align with what she learns and what she decides she wants to do with her new knowledge. It's a profound journey for her: she was unhappy in really central ways that she doesn't seem to have even thought were able to be changed until her diagnosis.

I'm going to see if my on-the-spectrum son is interested in this book; if he does read it and tells me anything, I may add notes here or later. But, for now, and speaking purely as someone who knows a person on the spectrum, this is a thoughtful, honest book that I think will be great for ASD-diagnosed people, particularly those coming to the diagnosis later in life.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of July 5, 2005

No new books this week, so I turn to the RNG. And the number is...2005!

Ivan Guevara and Atilio Gambedotti, Room Mates, Vol. 1 (6/30)

A European porn comic - I think the two creators are both Spanish - translated and lovingly published by NBM, in what turned out to be the end of the long wave of physically published comics porn. (Is it coming out in ebook form these days? Or is it mostly just individual creators with Patreons and on places like DeviantArt? I'm way out of the loop on comics porn these days.) I linked to the second volume, since the first one seems to be solidly unavailable, but all this stuff is basically the same. I believe the story was "several women are roommates, and they fuck." I mean, they fuck each other, they fuck other people - they fuck until the number of pages runs out and the book is over. That's the point of a book like this. As I recall, it was pretty hot for comics fucking, but I don't seem to have gone back for Vol. 2 or any other Guevara/Gambedotti joints, of which Amazon offers a plethora (mostly untranslated, as if that matters).

Stephen Baxter, Transcendent (bound galleys, read beginning & end, 7/1)

Third in the "Destiny's Children" trilogy.

I read a lot of Baxter back in those days, and his books tend to go in clumps: either specifically trilogies (the last decade or so has been like that, I think) or just three or four books in a row with similar style and concerns. I never found him a sparkling prose stylist, but he always got the job done, and his best books were exciting and visionary. (Anyone's worst books are not worth talking about.) As you can see, I did not read all of this one, and that was sixteen years ago. That's a reprint editor's dirty secret - and probably also the dirty secret of other people with similar jobs, like the people who do coverage for Hollywood - you don't need to read a whole book to understand it, know how to sell it, or get what you need out of it.

I have no memory or opinion whatsoever about this particular book.

Geoff Johns, et. al., Teen Titans: A Kid's Game (7/2)

I don't think I actually subscribed to the auteur theory of comics in those days, and, if I did, I definitely wouldn't have considered Geoff Johns an avatar of the type. But, from googling, I see the art credits for this are (deep breath) "by Mike McKone and Marlo Alquiza, additional art by Tom Grummett, Nelson DeCastro and Kevin Conrad, and a cover by Michael Turner." So I may have simplified for obvious reasons.

This was the first trade paperback collecting the then-new relaunch of the Titans, who were in one of the periodic phases of using Teen in their team name. I wasn't a TT fan back in the day: my brother was a big '80s X-Men fan, so I read his comics, and I guess I read more Marvels than DCs in that era to begin with, though not because of any particular decision. So I vaguely knew who the TT were - everybody's sidekicks, originally, and then everybody's grim and gritty sidekicks, and somewhat simultaneously a big '80s superhero soap opera. (I got my '80s superhero soap opera at the time from my brother's X-Men and slightly later from the Legion, so I'm not bad-mouthing the form.)

I can't tell you how this fits into anything, or even why I came to read it. It might have been sent to the SFBC as a possible submission, I suppose, though by 2005 I wasn't the official comics guy anymore. I can't imagine that I bought it, but maybe I did. Anyway, it is a slab of superhero stuff, and I read it, and until I started typing this here I had completely forgotten it ever existed.

Roger Zelazny, Changeling (7/3)

Oddly, I don't seem to have read Madwand later that year, unless I missed it poking through the reading notebook. I would think I'd read those two books together if at all, since they're pretty closely connected.

That was a two-book Zelazny series from the early '80s, originally published in trade paperbacks with moody Esteban Maroto art - which I think of as part of the essential package. At the time, a lot of us thought it would be Zelazny's next big series after Amber, but it turned out he wasn't going to do another big series after Amber, so the '80s saw a series of quirky, interesting books from Zelazny, then the mildly disappointing second Amber series, and then his much-too-early death.

Zelazny was one of those writers who are just smooth: every word leads into the next, his stories just flow, and it's easier to keep reading more and more of his words until you hit the end. (Of the book, of the series, of the Z shelf in the library.) It's the kind of writing skill that can be discounted, but it's not easy at all.

This series was a bit light and a bit obvious, with a lot of the usual Zelazny furniture: order vs. chaos, men who mirror each other, and so on. The big conflict was between the two guys switched at birth from two worlds: magic guy to tech world and vice versa - and, of course, they were each absolutely masters of the thing their birth world did, because that's how Zelazny books work. I liked it at the time, but I don't have a clear memory of it now. I should probably re-read some Zelazny.

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen, The Science of Discworld III :Darwin's Watch (7/5)

I liked the first Science of Discworld, was mostly amused by the second, but found this third one more tedious and thin. Since I was getting them directly from the UK (and paying appropriately for the privilege), I stopped after this one, and have never read the fourth book.

If you don't know what Discworld is, I can't give you that much background in a round-up post. But, assuming you do know Discworld, the Science books were one-half Pratchett novella, with a thin plot in which the wizards of the Unseen University discovered and explored something that turned out to be science-y, and one-half popular-science non-fiction by Stewart (math) and Cohen (biology) on topics related to whatever the wizards were doing.

This was the one about evolution. So I think there were the usual smirking oh-my-audience-is-still-assumed-to-be-ten-year-old-boys-named-Kevin references to sex from Pratchett, and somewhat more sober stuff from Stewart and Cohen. Whatever was in here, I thought it was OK but it did not entice me to come back for a fourth go-round. Take that as you will. 

Friday, July 02, 2021

Quote of the Week: Seating Protocols

Chairs were scattered around and Indah waved me toward one, so I sat down, Again, it was a little, more than a little, weird. I was in a Station Security office, sitting down. (Non-rogue SecUnits aren't allowed to sit down on duty, or off duty, if there's any chance of being caught.) 

Farid, Tifany, and three other officers stood back in the doorway to watch. (I will never figure out how humans decide who gets to sit where and do what, it's never the same.) (There were more cups and small plates with food residue on the table. They're always eating.)

 - Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry, p.86

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Stories from the '90s by Rick Geary

Self-publishing can strip out a lot of the standard bullshit of publishing. If this book had been published by a Fantagraphics or Dark Horse, it would be called something like Prairie Moons and Night Drives, or maybe True Stories and Other Lies.

But, since Rick Geary assembled it himself out of his archives and published it himself, it can be exactly what it is: Stories from the '90s. Simple, clear, true.

Geary has been assembling his shorter stories into various books for a few years now; I think this is the most recent one, but I hope there's at least one book's worth left of newer work. Already available are Early Stories (pretty self-explanatory), The Lampoon Years: 1977-1988 (mostly single-pagers from National Lampoon in its declining years, though Geary's work was excellent), and Rick Geary's Book of Murder (stories about murder, more and more straightforwardly as his career went on, over a roughly thirty-year span). Older Geary fans may remember At Home with Rick Geary (from 1985) and Housebound with Rick Geary (1997); I think most of those pieces have been collected in these four books now, along with a lot of other material.

Stories from the '90s is even bigger than the previous books - they all landed in the 80-90 page range, while this one tops out at 120. (And is slightly more expensive, though slightly cheaper than his more recent individual Kickstarted books - as usual, pricing is complicated and based on multiple factors.)

And, of course, the whole point is that its full of oddball Geary stories. There are some long ones, like "Prairie Moon" and "Tragedy in Orbit" and "Mr. Nickelodeon" and "Our Illustrious Visitor of 1959," but that's only "long" in context: there are a passel of three-pagers and a half-dozen longer than that, but most of the work here is in single-page form. Geary was always deeply quirky in his short comics, full of strange transformations, matter-of-fact narration of bizarre events, random juxtapositions, and a sprightly, conversational tone no matter the style or matter of a story. This book has one Mask story - yes, the  same character the movies were about; it was a comic first, with work by a whole lot of different people - a couple of Geary-esque retelling of unlikely historical events, and a whole bunch of one-pagers on topics like "Desperate Clergy," "Secret Places of My Shameful Past," "Transgression Hotline," and "Yes, It Happened."

Geary's art is mostly softly rounded here, full of people pulling faces during their madcap antics. His lettering is precise and lovely, either in bigger stories or framing those tiny little boxes of enigmatic objects he did a lot early in his career.

This is one of the most Rick Geary books possible, and it is wonderful. The only way I know of to get it is directly from the author, but don't let that stop you: he uses one of the major amalgamators for merch (Storenvy), and it all works well. Hornswoggler says check it out.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Black Hammer, Vol. 1: Secret Origins by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart

So this is much more of a conventional superhero thing than I thought it was. Oh, it's pretty good - Lemire is a strong writer, as always, and Ormston does that pseudo-horror look that is nearly a Dark Horse house style (or maybe just rules the Mignolaverse). But I was expecting something quirkier. (Note that Black Hammer is four years old. I had plenty of time to get more details; I just didn't bother.)

It's not clear if this was really a team. No name for the group is given in this first collection. But a half-dozen of the superheroes who used to defend Spiral City have been stuck on a farm somewhere in the middle of nowhere for ten years, after a battle with Darkseid "the Anti-God". They saved the world, and ended up here. The creators don't tell us how or why in this story - I'm sure it becomes clear later.

None of them are Black Hammer. Black Hammer isn't the name of the group either. Black Hammer was another guy, the one who died as part of the whole saving-the-world thing. (Or maybe afterward, discovering that they really can't get out of this small bit of farm landscape with one small town.) The actual hammer he used - this is a superhero comic, so obviously "Black Hammer" is a large Black man who carries a hammer to hit things with until evil is vanquished, because superhero comics are still written for the particularly stupid children of 1938 - is lying on the ground in a field, as if to shame Chekhov into thinking a gun on a mantlepiece could ever be sufficiently obvious.

Black Hammer, the series, is not exactly a pastiche - it's not "doing the favorite superhero stories of my youth, only as if written by a functional adult" like Astro City has generally aimed for, or "I want to tell stories of these existing characters, but the IP owners haven't hired me to do so, so decipher this really transparent code" like a dozen others. The characters are pastiches, though -- most of them very obviously so:

  • Golden Gail is Mary Marvel, with the serial numbers crudely altered
  • Abraham Slam is the standard WW II strong guy, powered by gumption rather than magic or superscience
  • Barbalien, Warlord from Mars is J'onn J'onz lightly run through a Edgar-Rice-Burroughs-inator
  • Madame Dragonfly is Madame Xanadu with details changed, your standard '70s horror host with weird and mysterious powers (and a tragic backstory involving accidentally creating a muck-monster boyfriend and eventually losing him)
  • Col. Weird is an '80s-style reimagining of Adam Strange, transformed by his journeys through the Anti-Zone into a distracted, ghostly, transitory presence
  • Talky-Walky is Weird's robot sidekick, more or less an equal member of the group on the farm
Black Hammer: Secret Origins collects the first six issues of the main Black Hammer series, beginning when those six have been living on "The Farm" for ten years. Some of them may have been aging, such as Abraham (though this is unclear: we don't know when this story takes place and he's been around since 1939 without any powers to keep him young), while Gail has definitely not been aging, which is a plot point.

Speaking of the unclear timeline: Gail and Abe are clearly WWII heroes, with forty or fiftyish years of history behind them. That puts us in the '80s or '90s. Weird and Barbalien are '50s characters with some history as well, Weird specifically a '50s character with a later ('70s or '80s) spin put on him. Dragonfly was probably the "newest" character if we think of them as being part of an established universe. But all of them probably had at least a decade's worth of adventures behind them, and most of them multiple decades.

This is a combination "introducing the team" arc - they each get an extended flashback to show their origins and life back in Spiral City - and examination of how well they're all getting along here on the farm. Abe is doing best: he's making time with a local age-appropriate waitress (ex-wife of the unpleasant local sheriff) and finally gets into her pants during this story. Gail is doing worst: she's stuck in the superhero body of her nine-year-old self and has been repeating the same grade in a crappy rural school every year. Barbalien might be becoming a churchgoer. Dragonfly is mystical and detached, and clearly has Deep Secrets that readers will need to wait to learn. Weird is barely sane at the best of times, fading in and out of reality. Talky is just keepin' on keepin' on.

Near the end, there is a Shocking Event from Outside, and everyone who has ever read a superhero comic will immediately see the next three or four plotlines coming out of that. (Most obviously: Black Hammer II! The sensational character find of whatever-the-hell-year-this-is!)

I'm being pretty dismissive here, because this is all very deeply derivative stuff. Lemire makes that clear in the sketches and other materials collected after the story: there are even '80s DC Universe-style character sheets for all of the major characters (and several who didn't make it in). The derivative-ness is the point. This is a story for people who want more stories about superheroes like these, written by someone who understands how actual human beings talk and drawn by someone who has experienced actual cast shadows, studied the ways clothing actually drapes, and experienced the touch of actual human women.

That is not my particular jam, but I've started this, so I think I'm going to try to read it far enough at least to see how they get back to Spiral City. (And how long Black Hammer I stays dead: my bet is not all that long.) But know that this is very much a "wouldn't it be cool if Jeff Lemire could write <insert character here> without those suits at DC screwing it all up?" book.