Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

You can know, intellectually, that other people think in ways different from you. You can have what you think are good models of other people in your head. You can even find you predict their actions and concerns and ideas a lot of the time.

But that doesn't mean that you understand how other people actually think.

Ever. Anyone. At all.

And sometimes you come across a big wodge of someone else's thought processes, and it stops you right in your tracks. "This doesn't make any sense," you may think. "How can you get to X from that G? Who would actually make those connections?" But you know someone did: you're reading the proof.

Allie Brosh is really good at clearly depicting the way she thinks. She did that brilliantly in her book of illustrated essays (semi-comics? what do we call what she does?) Hyperbole and a Half, nearly a decade ago. And she did it again, in the extended sequence of essays that form her new book Solutions and Other Problems.

The difference is that Hyperbole was a like a hot band's first record, collecting all of their hit singles - things you may have already heard, or heard parts of, in passing on the radio or in the background in some movie. It had a lot of great material, a lot of strong essays about how Brosh dealt with moments in her life, but they were generally separate pieces.

Solutions is a concept album, clearly designed as a single thing. It is a book telling a sequence of events, mostly true, selected and organized and contextualized and given weight by Brosh. It is a story organized inherently by the way she thinks about things, focused and precise in its Allie Brosh-ness.

And Allie Brosh thinks about a hell of a lot of things vastly differently than I do. I'm not trying to claim I'm the model of the world, or better at being neurotypical - but my mind is the only one I have, the only one I really understand, so it's the only measuring-stick I can use. [1]

Brosh doesn't diagnose or label herself in Solutions, so I won't try to do so here - there were pieces in Hyperbole about her clinical depression, but there's nothing that focused here, nothing specifically about mental states and diagnoses. Instead, it's a view of the world entirely from within Brosh's head - it felt to me a little like the essays in Hyperbole were Brosh trying to translate her worldview into, well, call it Average-ese, the broad consensus sense of reality, and Solutions is instead pure Brosh from the get-go.

And pure Brosh can be odd and disorienting. To me. I have no idea what you will think. Maybe everyone else in the world thinks more like Brosh than they do like me; that's entirely possible.

And I never would have thought that without Allie Brosh.

What is Solutions about? It's about being Allie Brosh, about her family and her childhood and the animals she knows and how she interacts with other people (or, a lot of the time, avoids doing so). I found myself being stopped short every few pages - sometimes multiple times a page - to say "What? Why? How does that even follow?!"

If everyone were capable of putting their thought processes down on paper like Brosh can, the world would be more comprehensible. Vastly weirder, too. But knowable in more basic way than it currently is.

I say that. But reading Solutions also teaches me that I really don't understand. Even after five hundred pages, if there was a quiz on the last page of "What Would Allie Do?" I bet I'd get most of the questions wrong. And that makes me think my models of everyone else are equally flawed.

But that realization is a good thing. We have to know what we can know first.

I often finish up, when I write about books here, by trying to describe who would or might want to read a particular book. The world is vast; we're all interested in different things. But Allie Brosh is something special. I'm sure there are other writers who can illuminate mental states as well as she can -- some academics, some science popularizers, some other memoirists in other formats. But Brosh combines that clarity with what feels to me like a unique viewpoint. I think we all need this. I think we all can benefit from this. And Solutions speeds by, for all its 500 pages.

So read it. Whoever you are, wherever you are, however you think. Maybe you will find yourself here. Maybe you will think she's weird in the same ways I do and maybe you will think she's weird in entirely different ways. Maybe we'll all think each other are weird in increasingly baroque ways.

We're all human: it's entirely possible.

[1] I'm not unacquainted with social anxiety, for example. I used to hide in hotel rooms at SF conferences, psyching myself up to go out and actually talk to people. It would even work, once in a while. Some of the worst moments of my life were trying to find someone, anyone to have dinner with at some random convention - and I was a guy with an expense account, which you'd think would make it easier for most people. For me, it did not.

I once physically refused to go into a restaurant at all, surprising my wife, sitting down on a curb outside once I realized it was family-style and I'd have to sit next to strangers and pass dishes around. And I made that reservation.

If anyone's mind is "typical" or "normal," it ain't mine. Even now, years after other things in my life burned out those fears and anxieties, I wouldn't claim to be anybody's icon of anything.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Cannabis by Box Brown

Nothing just is illegal. There's always a story, like the warning labels on small appliances - every single "thou shalt not" is because somebody thought "fuck yeah, I shall."

Some of those rules are so old - don't kill people, don't take their stuff - that they seem like they've always been around. But that's just because when you gather together a few humans in one place, at least one of them is going to try some of that shit. So everybody codifies the obvious stuff early, and then the ball of rules starts rolling downhill and gathering more and more to itself as it goes.

Eventually, a society starts outlawing things you put in your own body, for whatever reasons that makes sense to it at the time. And, since humans are never in agreement, there's usually nearly as many people violently opposed to outlawing that stuff as violently in favor of it. (See: Prohibition.)

Box Brown is telling a particular version of that story here in Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, his 2019 non-fiction graphic book. He starts off with some ancient dude on a beach grooving to the vibes of the universe, and continues with some historical scene-setting for the next fifty or sixty pages to show how various tight-assed Dean Wormer types in the Anglosphere kept harshing the buzz here and there. 

But the bulk of Cannabis is the story of Harry J. Anslinger, the man responsible, more than anyone, for cannabis being a Schedule I drug in the USA and all of the trouble and repression that flowed out of that. Well, he was against cannabis well before that point, and it was just one step on his lifelong crusade against the devil weed, but you get my point - that was the legal linchpin of the thing.

Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Treasury's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, holding the job for over thirty years. And he comes across, in Brown's telling, like a roadshow J. Edgar Hoover, a smaller, lesser version of the obsessed G-man who just wants everyone do do only the things he thinks is correct, because that will make the world right. Brown also makes it clear how racist Anslinger and the anti-cannabis movement was: it was largely a reaction to the fact that first Mexicans and then Black Americans were the ones using cannabis, and there was a lot of race-baiting to get the anti-cannabis laws passed. Brown also points out, repeatedly, how shoddy the supposed "science" was - Ainslinger and his minions started from a premise and declared it was true, even as actual researchers were unable to prove the things they confidently asserted. 

Anslinger was horribly wrong, Brown argues - and anyone reading this book will be inclined to agree with Brown - and the end of Cannabis shows the countermovement, which has only been picking up speed since Brown finished this book. (My home state, New Jersey, decriminalized cannabis via a ballot measure last fall, which apparently, as a large East Coast state, is a Big Deal.) But the bulk of the book is how this police state was assembled and what it did: that's the story.

Brown always strikes me as a meat-and-potatoes kind of comics-maker: he doesn't do flashy things with the narrative, sticking to declarative captions and a chronological presentation. His art is stripped-down as well: clean and crisp, full of chunky lines defining areas of black and tone. Cannabis is in that same mode, telling the story without having the creator get in the way. It's detailed, well-researched (there's a big list of sources at the end) and awfully serious for a book about Mary Jane.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/27/21

One book this week: I bought it online used, specifically choosing a copy that did not say "ex-library" from the seller, and picking one that was more expensive than many to try to assure that.

No guesses what arrived in the mail: of course it was covered in stamps and cellophane and stickers. When I am proclaimed Lord of the World, booksellers who neglect to correctly mark a copy as ex-lib will be swiftly executed, possibly after being drawn and quartered. I will be a stern but fair despot.

The book itself might be great - I certainly hope so! - but it looks like I'll have to buy another copy eventually, since ex-lib is fine for things to read and pass on but (for me) not good enough for anything you want to actually keep.

The book is Alternate Routes, Tim Powers's novel from 2018. I missed it at the time, and missed the sequel Forced Perspectives, and am just now coming to terms with the fact that Powers seems to be writing a contemporary supernatural detective series (?!) for Baen (?!). As happens so often, the world is not only stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Quote of the Week: Personally Inscribed

Because I have been doing this a long time, I have a backlist that extends halfway down the street and around the corner. During a tour in 1998, when a couple of Dallas suitcase dealers brought in cartons of the old stuff, I instituted a policy I've clung to ever since: I'll sign up to three of the books you bring from home for every copy of the new hardcover you buy at the signing. Most people figure this is fair, and the others - like the dame in Charlottesville the other day who frowned and said "If I do that, how am I going to make any profit on the deal?" - the others, all things considered, can go to hell.

 - Lawrence Block, "Writing My Name," in Hunting Buffalo with bent Nails, p.247

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

If there's an old lady living on the edge of town, she's going to get called a witch. Especially if she keeps to herself. Especially if she's odd in other ways. "Witch" is the word people use to put independent older women in a bucket - sometimes they get worse than words.

Snap lives in a town with a witch. Or, at least, that's what people say. The witch dresses all in black, lives by herself, gathers roadkill. People say she kills pets, too. So Snap goes to the witch's house when her dog, Good Boy, disappears. That's how Snapdragon opens. (Snapdragon is Snap's full name -- her family names girls after their mother's favorite flower. This will be a plot point.)

As usual, "the witch" is not a witch. Or, not a witch in the way Snap's schoolmates mean -- not a nasty, evil, crabbed woman cursing people. She may be a witch in some other way.

Snap is tough and strong-willed and pushy, which is good: she's an only child of a single mother who's very busy with work and school and everything else. And Snap is not the most popular kid in her school, to put it mildly. She has at least one friend we see, who was named Louis at birth but comes to want to be called Lulu and to present as a girl over the course of this book. But that probably is her only friend. She's ten or so, probably just starting middle school.

But back to Snap and the witch, back to that opening scene.

The "witch" actually saved Good Boy. Her name is Jacks, and she's the age of Snap's grandmother - more than just the age, actually, which is also a plot point - and she collects and articulates bones to sell online. She seems to revel in making people think she is a witch, though -- that she eats roadkill and reanimates it, that she abducts pets, all sorts of other nonsense. In the real world, she also does a bit of animal rehab: sometimes she finds animals that are road-damaged but not road-kill, as Good Boy was, and she fixes them up as best she can.

Before long, Snap needs her help with some animals, and Jacks gets Snap's help with her work in return. They come to learn more about each other, and about their connection.

Well, multiple connections.

Jacks did know Snap's grandmother, so that's one.

And Jacks is a witch, of a kind. And Snap could be, as well.

Snapdragon is the story of those connections -- most importantly the family and witchery connections between Snap and Jacks, but also the friendship and support connections between Snap and Lulu, the connections between Snap and her mother, and, distantly in the background, that connection between Jacks and Snap's grandmother. It's a book about family, in its way -- more about found families, or created families, but we also see that Snap's mom, and even Lulu's parents, are doing their best and trying hard to be the best parents for their particular quirky, changing children that they can be.

It's all by Kat Leyh, whose work I don't really know otherwise. (I did see her work briefly in Lumberjanes -- and I say "her" there only on the thin evidence that Lumberjanes has always been by and for female-identified persons.) There's no biographical note in the book: I don't know if this is Leyh's first major graphic work or the tenth. Either way, it's strong and fun and true and real, and I hope to see a lot more of Leyh's work in the future.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Cease & Desist: Inspired by the Music of They Might Be Giants, as illustrated by Todd Alcott

This gets a post because it is a book-shaped object, because it's a really neat thing, and because I "read" it and want to keep track of that. But it's not generally available and it's a coffee-table book if anything. So I'll try to keep this pithy.

Cease & Desist collects almost a hundred images made by the screenwriter and graphic designer Todd Alcott, all based on the lyrics, imagery, and ideas of the band They Might Be Giants. Apparently, he has some connection to the band -- maybe just that he knew a guy who knew a guy, or that they both were on the Internet doing creative stuff -- and started doing these images, some of which got posted to the band's official Tumblr account.

In fact, you can see a lot of this book there now. All the fake ads and book covers and magazines and random street ads that seem to be from 1963? That's all Alcott's work. In the book, it's often even more contextualized -- not just the cover of a fake book, but that fake book on a table, with the cover slightly curled and a pair of glasses in the foreground. The book is vaguely organized, but it's really just a nicely-designed package of those images.

Alcott is good at this stuff: both the technical making-pictures-convincingly-old-looking and the clever picking-the-right-image-and-song-to-mash-up stuff. Obviously, you do need to know the band's work to "get" most of the jokes -- turning lyrics into cover lines on a magazine doesn't work if you don't realize they're song lyrics.

If you don't know They Might Be Giants, this is not a book for you. And that's good, because I don't think you can get it at this point: it was part of a big annual package that closed last fall, part of our new direct-artist-support world a la Patreon and Indiegogo.

Alcott does similar stuff for other bands. Bands (he said, peering over his glasses as if in disdain) that you may find somewhat more familiar. These live in his Etsy shop, where you can buy posters of them for the walls of your groovy 20th century pad.

Anyway, this book is fun and very inside baseball. But I've been listening to TMBG since they showed up on late-night MTV randomly around 1982, so it's right up my alley. And maybe some of Alcott's other stuff will strike a similar chord for you.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Mister X: The Archives by Dean Motter + co.

There may be comics that are more 1980s than Mister X, but it's up near the very top of that list. You could definitely make an argument for it as the epitome of '80s comics: small-press, huge ambitions, gorgeous design, confused backstory (both in-story and publishing), coming out of nowhere and bringing a whole passel of interesting creators along with it.

It was teased before it launched, with poster-like ads by Paul Rivoche that highlighted that magnificent design sense (from Rivoche and, even more so, original creator, designer, often writer and occasional artist Dean Motter). And it came from somewhere unexpected: the small Canadian press Vortex, run by the...let us say colorful...Bill Marks. It maybe did not live up to its promise, or didn't do that consistently. But it was compelling and a beautiful object, every other month or so for several years in the mid-80s, until, like anything so quintessentially '80s, it randomly blew up and ended. It featured work from a whole lot of people who later did other great work: the Hernandez Brothers did the first few issues (mostly Gilbert writing and Jaime drawing, I think), then Motter took back writing and Klaus Schoenfeld & Ty Templeton briefly drew it before Seth settled in for basically the back half of this book. There's also a Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean story: a lot of people were interested in being part of Mister X.

Mister X: The Archives collects that initial burst of Mister X stories, that first fourteen issue run and a few related short stories, including one from the almost-equally '80s anthology series A-1. It has a foreword by Warren Ellis and an introduction by Jeffrey Morgan -- no, probably not the guy you're thinking of, he's the long-time Canadian editor for CREEM magazine and wrote Mister X for a few years after this series. There's also notes from Motter throughout, to explain some of the twists along the way. All in all, it's about the best presentation of this material you could hope for: crisp, authoritative, cleanly designed and as visually exciting as the original comics.

So that's a lot about what's around Mister X and what it looks like. But what's the story?

Radiant City was built a generation ago, more or less, to be the perfect city. Designed by visionary architects and psychologists so that everyone living there would be happy and fulfilled in all things. But something went wrong, or was made wrong. And one man -- call him Mister X -- is returning to that now-damaged city to fix it. At first, we think he is one of the two architects who created that city. He may be another one of the founders of the city, or otherwise important in its creation. His identity will never be clear: or, rather, at any moment it will be asserted that Mister X is this person, and he will agree...and that will then change again, in twenty or forty pages.

He does want to fix Radiant City. He doesn't actually spend any time doing so in these stories. His time is caught up in schemes and plots, and with his own concerns -- he's addicted to powerful drugs that keep him from sleeping, which may also affect his perceptions and sanity.

So the stories here swirl around Mister X, giving him different names and backstories and motivations and girlfriends and ex-wives, as if he's trying them each on in turn like hats. Maybe that's because of the changing creative teams or just the way each storyline rips apart the status quo of the one before it, even where the writer stayed the same. Mister X is about construction, about building, so it's always tearing down and reconstructing everything about itself.

I don't think this really adds up to one story. By the end, we still don't know who Mister X is, and he hasn't even taken a single step towards fixing Radiant City. He has managed not to get killed, though a series of gangsters, nightclub owners, politicians, and general sharpies has tried -- and succeeded in killing a long series of people who we learn definitively (at least in the moment) are not Mister X.

But it's a lot of story stuff, all of it fizzy and exciting, full of ideas and exploding out in all directions as much. This is a comics series by young people who wanted to do everything, right now, even if it didn't all fit. That's still energizing and amazing, and still worth celebrating now. And there's good work in very uncharacteristic styles from people like Seth and the Hernandezes, which is of interest to their fans. And it is oh so very 1980s, which is of interest to more than a few people.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/20/21

Three books this week: I'll start with two that I bought from a predatory monopolistic online retailer (use my links! at least until the antitrust authorities finally get off their butts!) because I was already getting some birthday presents for my older son (aka Thing 1, now 23). The third is yet another one from the library, because those are still free.

The Book Tour is the first new graphic novel for adults from Andi Watson in more than a decade -- my guess is since 2005's Little Star, but I could be miscounting. (He did a book or two for Minx, which was fuzzily YA; that could count, or maybe not, as adult.) Anyway, he's been making books for younger readers, and they have been awesome, but I am an adult and I'm a huge fan of the burst of GNs he did in the early years of this century (Breakfast After Noon, Love Fights, Dumped, Slow News Day). So I'm really happy to see him get back to his old stomping grounds, and looking forward to reading this.

Speaking of old stomping grounds, it's been nearly two decades since Steven Brust last wrote in the voice of Paarfi of Roundwood, but he's back in The Baron of Magister Valley. The original burst of Paarfi books transmuted Dumas's D'Artagnan romances into Brust's fictional world of Dragarea, in an arch, affected style heavily influenced by the first Dumas translation Brust read. (The style could take some getting used to, but I loved it - and Brust fans are likely to be looking for stylistic tricks and fine writing to begin with.) Those books came out from 1991 through 2004 in three "novels" and five volumes. (The third D'Artagnan book, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, is massive and typically published in at least three volumes, so Brust followed that model closely.) Magister Valley is Brust's Dragaeran transformation of the other major Dumas work, The Count of Monte Cristo. I am so far out of the SFnal loop that this book managed to be published and live in the world for several months before I even knew it existed, so it was a happy discovery.

And the library book is The Fire Never Goes Out, a collection of memoir comics from the past decade by Noelle Stevenson, best known as a cartoonist for Nimona. I say "as a cartoonist," because she's also show-runner for the current She-Ra TV show, which has a somewhat higher profile than any mere book, and she's also written Lumberjanes stuff, which is pretty well known. She's also still ridiculously young, but she can't help that.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Quote of the Week: The City and The City

A few years ago I was in San Francisco on a book tour. In conversation with a local I said that I lived in the City. "Oh, you call it that?" he said. 'That's what we call San Francisco. The City."

I reported the conversation later to my friend Donald Westlake, whose house is around the corner from mine,. "That's cute," he said. "Of course they're wrong, but it's cute."

 - Lawrence Block, "Introducing Manhattan: A Dark Duet," in Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails, p.169

Thursday, March 18, 2021

To Have and To Hold by Graham Chaffee

I feel like I say this a lot, but: the comics world is big. There are entire countries full of people making comics that I pay almost no attention to -- probably the same for you. And even in our own countries, there are almost separate industries side-by-side: Big Two, Small Press, YA, Self-Pub. And, on top of all of that, comics take a long time to make. So many creators are like comets: they only come around once a decade or so, long enough that we forget about them, or almost, in between.

So I don't mean any insult when I say that I don't know Graham Chaffee's work. To Have and To Hold was his 2017 book; as far as I can tell, it's still his most recent. Before that, he had a couple of graphic novels (The Big Wheels and Good Dog) and a book of shorter stories, over almost thirty years. I haven't read any of them, that I remember. I haven't been to his tattoo shop in LA, either, but it's interesting to see a cartoonist also working in that very specific art form. I feel like I see a lot of comics-makers who also do advertising art or spot illustration -- all the things you can do at a drawing board in your own house, the same place you make your comics -- and fewer who are doing art on people's bodies and mural walls and gallery paintings out in public.

So I come to this cold. To Have and To Hold is a dark, noir-ish tale set in 1962: we see the Cuban Missile Crisis stirring in the background on the opening pages, to set the scene. That's not actually important for the story, and doesn't really come back it, but it does effectively set a time and place and mood. We're in a city somewhere in the US: if Chaffee says where, I didn't catch it.

Lonnie and Kate are married. Not well, at this point. We see quick flashbacks to their happy days, soon after the war, before life soured and aged both of them. They're now both on the edge of middle age and deeply unhappy with the choices they've already made and the choices they have in front of them. Lonnie used to be a cop, with a rising career, before some unsanctioned activity knocked him off the force and into private security work. Kate works in an bank, where she's having an affair with the manager. We know most of that almost immediately: not all the details, but the signposts of failed career and secret affair.

Lonnie finds out about the affair, and makes plans to get even. Not in any obvious way, but in the sneaky way of a man who always thinks he can figure out an angle to come out ahead and hasn't yet realized that his angles have not worked for him once yet. There will be crime, there will be violence, there will be sex.

No one will come out of this well: not Lonnie, not Kate, not any of the other people he pulls into his schemes or she enlists to keep her affair quiet. And it all ends the way a noir story needs to, with a confrontation and sudden action and immediate departures. It ends well. It's a strong noir. Chaffee draws it all in an inky style that nods at the mid-century world but is modern and clean. He's good with expressions, both faces and bodies -- I want to say that's the tattooist in him, always watching how people move and react.

You should read it. I should maybe keep an eye out for Chafee's other books.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics: Omnibus, Vol. 1

You might not know you need this book: but you do.

If you like superheroes because they battle evil to save the world, the Flaming Carrot is for you.

If you think superheroes are silly and bizarre, the Flaming Carrot is very much for you.

If you think the world is meaningless and random, full of things that never can and never will make any sense, the Flaming Carrot is the dose of dada you never realized you were missing in your comics.

Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics: Omnibus, Vol. 1 collects thirteen issues of the series written and drawn by Burden, out of about thirty-eight total issues over a twenty-five year period. It has the first two issues of the 1984 main series (we all now quietly don't talk about the one-off in 1981; I don't know if I ever read it, it's never been reprinted, and it's now hugely expensive), skips a flashback issue from #3, and then finishes up that first epic storyline as it ran through issue 11 in 1988. Then, almost as a lagniappe, there's a three-part storyline from a few years later - the Dark Horse years; 1991 in particular - in which our hero the Carrot meets the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and they team up, very oddly, to save New York City.

There are two Flaming Carrot sequences that should be on the Internet somewhere - they're probably in one of the earlier collections, somewhere upstairs in one of my sons' rooms -- that I want to put here to demonstrate better than I can explain. But I can't find them. So here are the raw quotes, which isn't as good: 

Am I a killer?...Yes.

Am I a monster?...Perhaps.

Am I wrong?...Hardly Ever!

I am Flaming Carrot! Even best friends fear me a little!

I am grim... and harsh... and ripe with fury! I fight and kill and howl and get all bloody! I go bowling whenever I want!

And here's one panel sequence I could find, since everything Cerebus is lovingly cataloged online by Dave Sim's devotees. (The joys of monomania: you will always have at least a few fanatical followers.) This is authentic Carrot dialogue, embedded in someone else's story. The Carrot can go anywhere. He already is anywhere he needs to be.

The Flaming Carrot is a superhero. And an idiot. And a lunatic. And the main character of stories set in a surreal, bizarre world. And the hero of stories told absolutely straight. And not.

He is clearly heroic, in the old swashbuckling, womanizing style. But he's also childlike. Creator Bob Burden is not contrasting different aspects of the Carrot: he is one man, one crazy, contains-multitudes man, and this is all him, all the time. His world is equally as crazy and bizarre; he is a man deeply of and part of his world.

Flaming Carrot is the pure Bob Burden superhero - Burden is also the guy behind Mystery Men, though you might guess the original comics versions (Flaming Carrot secondary characters, to begin with) were much odder and quirkier than what got into the movie. Everything about Bob Burden is like that: it's all much weirder than you suspect, and fractally weirder, where the weirdness continues down multiple levels.

Anyway: there is nothing else like this. Burden writes and draws like no one else in the word. Buy this book, read it, incorporate it into your psyche. And then, if you are lucky, there will be one or two more books to collect the rest of the Flaming Carrot stories.

At that moment, you will be enlightened.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Trese, Vol. 1: Murder on Balete Drive by Budjette Tan & KaJo Baldisimo

Thirteen years ago, I saw this book for the first time (in an earlier edition). I was fairly late: it was published in comics form several years before that, but I did have the slight disadvantage of being on the other side of the world.

I was impressed then; I'm equally impressed now. The Trese stories are great urban fantasy in comics form: taking a lot of the standard furniture of the genre (attractive young female protagonist with a mysterious past, powerful protectors, and a complicated relationship with the local supernatural powers, plus a lot of the mystery-plot aspects) and using them well, while also centering on very specific supernatural elements that we non-Filipinos are unfamiliar with. (See also my post on the third volume; that's as far as I've seen so far.)

It didn't have to be Philippine mythology: there are probably dozens of places in the world that could support a similarly new and energetic series, from Vietnam to Nigeria to Chile to Nunavut. (Not the Lake District or Transylvania or Bavaria.) But these creators were Filipino, so that was the world they knew, and they have been making great use of it.

The good news is that you can find Trese now, which you mostly couldn't for the last decade. (After I lost my copies in the flood of 2011, I didn't have them, either.) The American comics company Ablaze published an edition of this first collection, Murder on Balete Drive, late last year, and the second one is scheduled for June. There's an animated series on Netflix, though some googling hasn't gotten me to any solid information on the date it will be (or was?) released. With any luck, the rest of the eight books published in the Philippines will come here (and the rest of the world) as well, and creators Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo can spend more time making these stories and less time being high-powered global advertising guys.

Balete Drive collects what were the original first four issues, all standalone stories. Baldisimo has redrawn the art, so it's even stronger than it originally was: stunningly inky and atmospheric, in a style immediately accessible to Americans but still inherently Filipino. (Remembering how many Filipinos have done great work in American comics for the past six or seven decades, this should not be a surprise.) Tan has added short sections after each story to give a little more background on the supernatural entities in each section - these aren't necessary, but they're useful for us non-Filipinos. So this is the best possible edition of these stories: possibly annoying to Filipinos who have been supporting it for a decade, but gratifying to those of us elsewhere in the world who finally get to see it for ourselves.

All of the stories are about Alexandra Trese. She's young, she's called in when the Manila police have a weird case that they don't know what to do with, she has skills and knowledge and contacts that can solve those problems - usually in ways that at least do not add more violence. But the supernatural is a dark and dangerous place, for anyone caught up in it and and possibly even for Trese. Her father, Anton, was respected and powerful but does not seem to be around now - and she's very clear she is not her father. So there are story hooks for later, set carefully and with skill.

These are the first four cases of hers we know about. They clearly were not the first cases of her life: Tan and Baldisimo may some day go back and tell those stories. (They may already have.) They are dark and dangerous cases, with various monsters causing trouble and relationships that need to be carefully talked back into place. Luckily, Manila has Alexandra Trese to do that for them.

And, luckily, you have the stories of Alexandra Trese to look forward to.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/13/21

These books all came in from the library, some of them as long as a week and a half ago. And I'm already reading some of them as this post goes live, which is a good thing.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a graphic novel written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell; it's showed up on a lot of "best of" lists for last year. Tamaki wrote the graphic novels Skim and This One Summer, which I have read, and several Lumberjanes novels, which I have not. (And probably other stuff, too - I don't know that I've paid enough attention and she does this for a living.) I don't know Valero-O'Connell, but I'm always up for a creator with a double-barreled name.

The Hard Tomorrow is the most recent full-length graphic novel from Eleanor Davis, author of You & A Bike & A Road and How to Be Happy and Why Art? I think this one is at least mildly SFnal, or I may be just getting that from the title. Anyway, Davis is excellent, this got good notices, and I finally got my hands on a copy.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 8: My Best Friend's Squirrel is another one on the series of books collecting the series by Ryan North and Eric Henderson, with color by Rico Renzi. (And, as of this book if not earlier, cover credit as well, so I'm making sure to mention him.) I think this series has since ended - this book came out in 2018; I'm running behind - but as far as I've seen SG has not yet been rebooted into a grim & gritty gun-toting pneumatic blonde with a boob window. But it is only a matter of time: Marvel owns her, and Marvel will do something else with her eventually. When it comes to corporate IP, we must always prepare ourselves for the pointless and inevitable disappointment. I've written about the previous collections here over the past few years.

I also got three Giant Days collections -- Volume 11, Volume 13, and Volume 14 -- all of which were written by John Allison and drawn by Max Sarin, with colors by Whitney Cogar. Well, actually, it looks like there are stories in two of the volumes actually drawn by Allison, so give that one an asterisk. This is most of the end of the series; I already have a copy of Vol. 12 on hand, and plan to read them straight through pretty soon. (It has to be "pretty soon," since libraries want their books back in roughly that timeframe.)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Your Bluesy Stomp of the Moment

The record's not even out yet, so there's nothing I can embed here.

But go right now to Bandcamp and listen to The Living Pins excellent song "Raven," which leads off their upcoming EP, Freaky Little Monster Children.

Trust me: it's awesome. Psychedelic guitar rock meets bluesy swamp-rock. I just listened to it three times in a row across two devices: that's how awesome.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Quote of the Week: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I was given to understand early on that the city was not named after the animal and that no bison had ever been anywhere near the city until the local zoo acquired a brace of them, The name of the city, I was given to understand, was a corruption of the French beau fleuve, "beautiful river." Presumably some English settlers ran into some French trappers and asked them where they were, and the French thought the question related to the Niagara River and responded accordingly.

You know something? I don't believe a word of it, I don't think a Frenchman would call the place beau fleuve in the first place, and I don't think an English colonist would hear beau fleuve and turn it into Buffalo.

When Buffalo was first settled, there was another town a few miles distant called Black Rock, which Buffalo later grew to absorb. I think Black Rock got its name from the presence of a rock in the neighborhood, and a dark rock at that. And I likewise believe that Buffalo got named after a buffalo. Someone either saw one hanging around, not a far-fetched notion, or thought he saw one, or something that looked like one, or something.

There's a place in Arkansas named Toad Suck. I haven't been there, not yet, and I don't know how it got its name, but don 't expect me to believe that toads didn't have something to do with it. I won't accept that it was named for an itinerant Rhinelander named Taussig or that there was a plague of tussock moths in the area. There's a toad at the bottom of this one. I'm fairly sure of it.

 - Lawrence Block, "Hunting Buffalo," pp.161-161 in Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails by Lawrence Block

It would be difficult to get a purer collection of miscellaneous nonfiction than this one. I may have found the platonic ideal of the odds & sods book.

First up, Lawrence Block is a novelist, mostly: he's written about seventy of them, almost all of them in the crime genre, more or less. (The early days were "less," since he started out writing sex books, but even those often ran on crime plots.) Plus a hundred-odd short stories: that's the mass of his career. Nonfiction is a sidebar at best.

When he does write nonfiction, it's mostly fallen into categories: he wrote a column for Writers' Digest for a decade or so, and that and other activities added up to six books of advice for writers. He also wrote a full-length book about racewalking, Step by Step.

This century, he's been republishing his old books, because he's got a devoted audience and a huge backlist. And why shouldn't he publish his own books and make the money from them? So he's put out editions of a dozen or three of his older, mostly genre-straitjacketed books over the past decade.

And, along the way, he's made a few new books out of the pieces that didn't get collected by external publishers: a book of his Matt Scudder stories, a book of his Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. And then some nonfiction: Generally Speaking, all of his columns about stamps. The Crime of Our Lives, with nearly all of his pieces about the crime and mystery-fiction world.

So he's done a lot of publishing before he got to Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails. This is very much what's left after he parceled out all of the other pieces that made sense to be collected together. (I don't want to say "bottom of the barrel," since it's not the same barrel -- it's like a storeroom full of barrels, and he's gotten back to the far corner, and the one marked "Stuff & Things, Various.")

Hunting Buffalo is explicitly the nonfiction pieces that didn't fit into earlier books. Even more so, it's those pieces arranged alphabetically by title, since Block didn't have a better idea, or want to be fancy about arranging them. So there is no elegant procession of topics, arranged according to some secret schema: no, we begin with ""Abridge This!" and run straight through to "Writing My Name," because it is an organizational principle everyone already knows, and Block hasn't written over a hundred books by being precious and wasting time.

So this book is random. It's all of the things that Block wrote about, for various publications, over several decades, that were not stamps or writing. (Well, some of them are about writing, since he's a writer and he forgot about some of these pieces the other times he was collecting stuff. 'Cause they were in that back-of-the-room barrel is my guess.)

All of it is in Block's mature voice: wry, thoughtful, discerning, amusing. A lot of it is about the two kinds of "how do you get your ideas" for writers -- going random places around the country for no clear reason, or sitting in a room reading and researching and thinking. But it's so varied that I'm not going to try to characterize the pieces -- there's one about collecting subway cars, for chrissakes.

This is inevitably a book for Block fans. It's published by him to include his rarest and quirkiest pieces; how could it be otherwise? If you're not a fan, try a Scudder or Rhodenbarr book first. But if you are a Block fan, and didn't know this existed, you probably want it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Descender, Vol. 6: The Machine War by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

I don't think I can avoid spoiling this book entirely, so leave now if you care. Know that I am very much not recommending it.

The Machine War collects the end of  the space opera comics series Descender: the big finale in which several space fleets and a scattering of giant anthropomorphic robots meet, the main characters yell and run around for a couple of hundred pages, and it all gets tied up in a bow. (For the story of how we got here, see my posts on volumes one, two, three, four, and five.)

And, on a single two-page spread at almost the very end, creators Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen blithely list the deaths of twenty billion sentient beings. In context, it seems to be primarily to clean things up so they can do a different story for the follow-up, Ascender.

But fuck that.

You do not make a story that just includes the deaths of billions of people as an afterthought. ("So I survived, which is nice, but everybody else died -- sucks for them.") There is nothing in your story that could be more important than those deaths; you've framed your story horribly from the beginning and focused on the entirely wrong thing. This is not a background detail. It is not a sad moment. It is not a failure on the part of our heroes. This mega-death is the most important moment in the entire history of this civilization, the moment of the end of that civilization: the only way to tell that story, especially in a popular-fiction context where the expectation is that the heroes will save the world at the last minute, is to announce it from the start.

You don't get to fucking back into a tragedy after six hundred pages and say, "Oh, well. It's so, so sad. Come back next month for the thrilling adventures of a girl in a eerily depopulated universe of magic!"

Descender was a strong story up to this point, with good characters and interesting moral dilemmas and thorny conflicts and striking art from Nguyen. But this is bullshit, and it does not work at all.

I may have been the person who coined the phrase "Backswing Fantasy," [1] about post-apocalyptic stories where the authors kill off the vast majority of humanity so that the mightily-thewed hero will have a little more room for the backswing of his sword, so that his struggles are more meaningful.

I hate those fucking stories. I waste a lot of energy hating those fucking stories. This turned into one of those fucking stories at the last minute. Again: fuck that. Fuck all of that right down to the ground.

You can kill all of your characters: that's not a problem. You can even blow up all of the military ships they're on (OK, I did have some good friends on that Death Star), and it'll only be a minor reader quibble. But when you oops! an entire civilization as a thrilling plot twist five pages from the end and have your protagonist survive but be very, very sad... Fuck. That.

[1] It was more likely James Nicoll, though. He's both more quotable and more prolific.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

5 Worlds Book 3: The Red Maze by Siegel, Siegel, Bouma, Rockefeller & Sun

I am bad at reviewing books in a timely fashion. And that can lead to being bad at reviewing books, period. I'm going to keep this post short, but I reserve the right to decide it's pointless to begin with and delete it all.

(If you're reading this, I didn't.)

5 Worlds is a young-readers graphic novel series, coming out roughly annually. I missed the first book, The Sand Warrior. If any of what I type below sounds interesting, go check out that book. I did look at the second one, The Cobalt Prince, during my 2018 Book-A-Day run. I've now just read the third book, 2019's The Red Maze. Last year there was a new book, The Amber Anthem. And the finale, The Emerald Gate, is coming this May, but doesn't seem to be available for pre-order yet.

I didn't remember Cobalt well when I dove into Red, and I obviously never went back to Sand, and won't move on to Amber or Emerald. So most of what I could say about this book is beside the point - and that pains me, since a publicist actually sent this to me, back in the spring of 2019, in the hopes I would give a little attention to it when it was new and shiny and looking for an audience.

The five worlds are an interesting, mildly complex soft-SF universe, with five habitable spheres (I think four are actually moons, though it's not super-clear if they're moons of the same thing or not) and different governments and people on each of them. It's all pitched at a level for young readers, but these stories are about ecology and corruption and believing in yourself and doing the right thing and finding the people who can make things better. All good things, obviously.

I read this too quickly, and I'm not going to get into plot details. There is a mild case of Chosen One-itis in our heroine, Oona Lee, and maybe almost as much in her friend Jax Amboy. Actually, the third major character, An Tzu, might be equally chosen for other things.

This isn't really a book for me: I try to engage with YA graphic stories, since I love their energy and the sense of possibility in great books for young readers. But I somewhat bounced off of this, after not quite clicking with Cobalt. So all I can do is point to it, say that it looks to be quite good for what it is, but that I've been reading it half-assedly, and that's not good for me or the book.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/6/21

This week, I got in a big box of books from the remainder dealers at I spent money on these books, but not very much money, and, as always, I recommend them highly. I've been ordering big boxes from them irregularly, but at least once or twice a year, since the early '90s. If you like buying books in volume, and particularly if you have wide interests and are willing to try out books because they're cheap, Hamilton is for you.

(End of commercial.)

I also got a few books from the library, but I'm going to hold those to next week's list. One, just because I can, and I revel in my power. And two, because I'm expecting more library books in the next few days, and that feels tidier. And three, because the Hamilton list is already really long to begin with.

Swearing Is Good For You is a nonfiction book, based on real science (so it says here) by British scientist and journalist Emma Byrne. And it's published by Norton, who tend to be on the slightly more serious, stodgy side, so I'm inclined to think it's not quite as frivolous as the Crown-published version of this book would be. (Yes, more than a decade out of trade publishing, I still stereotype houses. I bet I'm not wrong, either.) It is, as the title implies, a layman's wander through behavioral research about usage of the word "fuck" and its best friends.

Flesh is an early Philip Jose Farmer novel, republished in this edition in 2013 by Titan Books as "A Grand Master Novel," and I bought it at least in part because it's a bonkers choice for a series like that. Admittedly, Farmer's work is full of similar bonkers choices; he was a bonkers writer nearly all the time, and I say that with admiration and affection. I'm not sure I ever read this one; it was originally Framer's second novel (from 1960), but this edition is copyright 1974, right smack-dab in the middle of his explicit-sex period, with Lord Tyger and Image of the Beast, so I suspect he hotted it up for the re-issue. (And Farmer was not shy about writing about sex even in his earliest days, though he had to hide it more when writing for Campbell and crew.) So this is the story of a spaceship that returns to Earth eight hundred years later to find - no, not apes, this is a few years before Boulle - a tribal society riven by fertility cults and other shocking behavior.

Stuff Brits Like is by Frazer McAlpine, lead writer for BBC America's Anglophenia blog, and I suspect it is something of a brand extension (though it bears no official connection to the blog or to Auntie Beeb.) McAlpine is actually British - from Cornwall, which he seems to insist on specifying, which is terribly British of him - and that's a good sign. He's also still resident there, another good sign - sometimes books like this are written by expat screenwriters in Hollywood pining for the home soil, but McAlpine is still stuck in that home soil and so presumably ready to complain about it as the natives do. For a taste of the humor included, the first chapter is entitled "Pedantry."

Let's Start a Riot is a memoir of some sort by Bruce (Kids in the Hall) McCulloch, a book I never even suspected existed, even though it was published in 2014. (What can I say: the world is big and books are many.) It seems to be primarily designed to contrast his KitH life and stories with new stories (well, new for 2014) about his grown-up life as a Hollywood multi-hyphenate (screenwriter, director, etc.) with the requisite wife and family. McCulloch was always the quirkiest of the KitH kids, the ones whose monologues headed off the deepest into the territory the quickest, so I'm hoping for some of that here. (I still love "An Open Letter to the Guy That Stole His Bike Wheel," and, maybe even more so, "An Open Letter to the People Who Watched the Guy Steal His Bike Wheel.")

Astounding is a history of the magazine of the same name, more or less, by Alec Nevala-Lee. Well, maybe it's more of a biography of Astounding's founding editor and towering figure, John W. Campbell, along with three of his most important writers in that early era (Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard). To know exactly, I'd have to read the book, and I haven't done that yet. Nevala-Lee is himself a SF writer who has been published in Analog, which probably shouldn't be a requirement for writing this but will be in some circles. And I guess I still haven't given up on SF, since I think I want to read this.

Reynard the Fox is a famous - well, in medievalist circles - trickster narrative from 12th century Europe, known previously in an English translation by William Caxton from 1481. James Simpson provides a new translation here, though I'm not clear if he's translating Caxton into Modern English or starting from the underlying tales (or even what languages those tales were in; the book's flap copy and other descriptive bumf vaguely says "Europe" most places). This is not a book I previously knew about, or thought I had any interest in, but it had me at "medieval trickster narrative."

Go Figure is a book from The Economist, written by Economist deputy editor Tom Standage, and subtitled "The Economist Explains" [1] So it is very Economist-y, for those seeking such things. Standage has previous written other breezy histories, such as A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which I read more than a decade ago (and his name was still vaguely familiar, for whatever reason). It is indeed a book full of short sections explaining things that most people do not know, mostly on questions that they would want to know and might not know how to research themselves. It is, in short, a bathroom book, but a terribly classy, Economist-grade one.

Perfect Circle is Sean Stewart's 2004 fantasy novel, which may still be the last full-length SFF fiction he's made. (Assuming you don't count the artificial-realty games, and other ludic writing, he's done since -- and I do not.) I may have bought it for the SFBC at the time, but I haven't read it since, and didn't have a copy. And this is the nice, classy Small Beer edition, which implies that is now out of print. (Sad, but it happens. All books go out of print, eventually. The thought comforts Alan Moore in his warlock's mansion.) I hope to read this again. When, who knows? But I couldn't read it if I didn't have it, could I?

Space Opera is Catherynne M. Valente's SFnal version of Eurovision, to be really reductive. And I've read some of Valente's "Fairyland" YA books, but not for a while, and none of her adult fiction, despite having a couple of my shelves. So, clearly, the way to remedy that is to buy another book and put it next to the ones I haven't read yet, because that will make me read one of them. Let's see if that works.

Captain Cuttle's Mailbag is a collection of miscellaneous queries and answers (sometimes even in that order) from the Victorian magazine Notes and Queries, as  edited by Edward Welch in the modern day. It sounds incredibly random and odd, and so probably another interesting bathroom book.

The Praxis is the first book of the original "Dread Empire's Fall" trilogy by Walter Jon Williams. I understand the series has grown additional sequels since then, and is sometimes called "The Praxis," because every series will eventually be called by the name of its first book. (David Hartwell taught me that - he was actually more fatalistic and definitive about the subject - and I do mostly believe it myself.) I used to have the trilogy in their original mass-market paperbacks, back before my flood. But this is a nicer, newer, "Author's Definitive Edition" so clearly my delaying reading it for more than a decade is a good thing, right?

Now we get into the comics -- more than halfway done! My notes may also get shorter at this point, out of weariness or lack of material.

The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons is edited by Bob Eckstein, and it is what it says it is: a bunch of cartoons about books, arranged into a book of cartoons. It looks like they're mostly New Yorker cartoons - because who else runs a lot of cartoons about books, unless you are Tom Gauld? - but this was actually published by the Princeton Architectural Press, which is a bit odd. (I suspect that a deal fell through elsewhere, and somebody knew somebody, and hey! let's put on a show!)

Showcase Presents Jonah Hex, Vol.2 is one of those big fat black-and-white DC collections, and it gathers 27 issues of Weird Western Tales and Jonah Hex from 1976-1979 between two covers, mostly written by Michael Fleisher and drawn by a whole bunch of people, including Rich Buckler, Vincente Alcazar, Ernie Chan, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. I don't think I've ever read any of this stuff, but it's always sounded like an interesting corner of the comics world -- and, hey, this was cheap.

 is a standalone SF graphic novel based on a George R.R. Martin screenplay of the same name, adapted and drawn by Raya Golden. (And guess whose name is big and whose is small on the cover? But it's not about credit - it's about what will get people to pick up the book and spend money on it, which is what everyone actually wants.) I have no idea if this is any good, but you takes your new GRRM material where you finds it.

The next three will get lumped together: The Complete Peanuts series by Charles M. Schulz, the first three books in paperback format: 1950-1952, 1953-1954, and 1955-1956. I had copies of the hardcovers in the pre-flood days, and I guess I'm now planning to rebuild that shelf, maybe in paper. I also had a blog post about that first volume, some years ago - well after I wrote about the middle books, since the beginning of the series started before this blog did.

Rusty Brown is another big, complicated, difficult-to-read graphic novel by Chris Ware, whose name can only be discerned on the cover through the use of high-powered instruments.  I kid, I kid. I still haven't read his previous gigantic book, Building Stories, maybe because that was not so much a "book" as "a collection of printed objects stuck in a box to be sifted through in a search for meaning." I mean, I bought the thing, and plan to read it, but it always feels like more work than I want to jump into at any particular moment -- and a normal Chris Ware book is already more work than almost anyone else's graphic novels. So, I might end up reading this first, and see if that gets me into the Big Box.

[1] OK, sub-subtitled. The primary subtitle is "Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know."

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.