Friday, April 30, 2021

Quote of the Week: Literary Forefathers

Gernsback was an extraordinary person: a self-made inventor, an entrepreneur, and what people of a later time would term a bullshit artist. Around town he wore expensively tailored suits, used a monocle to examine the wine lists of expensive restaurants, and ran nimbly from creditors. When one of his magazines failed, two more would rise up.

 - James Gleick, Time Travel, p.65

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 5 by Herge

I am still not your Tintin expert - I'm in the middle of my first reading of this series, seventy years or so after it was published and a good forty years after I was in the target demographic - but I did just read The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 5, the first major post-war chunk of the adventures of the Belgian boy reporter (ha!), so I can, I hope, tell you a few things.

I've previously gotten through the earlier omnibuses: one, and two, and three, and four. I have not yet found the first two, semi-forgotten books Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, which are generally considered to be racist and/or dull and/or not up to Herge's later level; I may get to them eventually, though the library copies I originally expected to read seem to have been quietly removed from circulation since I first thought about reading Tintin.

This volume starts off with Land of Black Gold, the story interrupted by WWII - Herge started it in 1939, was interrupted in 1940 by a small Nazi invasion of Belgium, and did six other books before getting back to this in 1948. [1] I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia a few minutes ago, so major props to Herge and/or his estate for smoothing that transition out. Then it dives into what I see is the last two-book story in Tintin's history: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, in which a pre-teen Belgian boy, his sea-captain buddy, and their absent-minded professor accomplice become the world's first astronauts in a program run by a random Eastern European country, because comics, that's why.

Black Gold does feel pre-war, with some vaguely escalating tensions in the background - mostly seen commercially, in oil prices - but the focus of the plot, as I think was always the case with Tintin, is on individual evil people rather than The Land of the Evil People or SMERSH or anything like that. Oh, the evil people are organized, and come from somewhere, but it's not the named, re-used Land of the Evil People, it's just a place where these particular Evil People came from. This one is also deeply colonialist, obviously - how could it be otherwise?

And then Professor Calculus has been recruited by Syldavia to run their space program, because a small Balkan monarchy of course has a space program in 1948. (Admittedly, everyone wanted a space program in 1948, at least on the V2 level, and fictioneers are not obliged to let reality impinge too heavily on their worlds.) A rival country - unnamed but probably Borduria, unless I missed something - attempts skullduggery both before the launch (in Destination) and during the trip to the moon (in Explorers), but, as always in Tintin, is foiled by the forces of good and right and spiky-haired Belgianness.

This series is still the same kind of thing: everything I said about the earlier books still applies. They are very wordy for adventure stories, which makes this small-format omnibus a less than ideal presentation. These pages should be large, to be savored and to let the word balloons be somewhat less overwhelming. The comic relief is deeply slapstick, entirely silly, and mostly successful. The plots aren't complex, per se, but they are complicated, full of additional wrinkles and problems as Herge rumbles through his stories and makes sure he has sixty-some pages of stuff for Tintin to overcome each time.

I expect I'll finish up the series, and maybe even find the old suppressed books if I can, because I am a completest. But if you didn't grow up with these, they're just OK. Solid adventure fiction for boys, yes. Deathless classics of any kind, no.


[1] It's all much more complicated than that, and I say "books" when I mean "serialized stories in a series of different magazines, which were then collected into books not always in the same sequence and then re-edited and revised multiple times over the next few decades, including but not limited to during different rounds of translation into English." But they're books now.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons edited by Bob Eckstein

Some books just have perfect titles: this is one.

Oh, sure, we could quibble about that "ultimate." But we have to allow some puffery, don't we? (And I mean that absolutely literally: "puffery" is a legal term of art, one of the many random things I've learned from my current odd career.)

Anyway, this is The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons, edited by cartoonist Bob Eckstein, who does indeed take the opportunity to include seven of his own cartoons in the book.

That seven is matched by Nick Downes and Bruce Eric Kaplan and Robert Leighton and P.C. Vey, exceeded by Edward Koren and Mick Stevens and Jack Ziegler, and nearly doubled by Sam Gross, by the way. Work from twenty-four other cartoonists is also included, with big names like Marissa Acocella, George Booth, Pat Byrnes, Roz Chast, and Liza Donnelly before I even get off the first page of contributor bios.

And, yes, all of them are represented by single-panel cartoons, each one presented on a single one of the roughly 140 pages of this book, in the way books like this always work. Those cartoons are in their turn all about books: usually in the general sense (book stores and book authors and book publishers and reading books and blurbing books and writing books) but, in some cases, in the specific sense of Moby-Dick and Poirot and so on.

Humor is subjective: I found this quite funny, but I worked in the book mines for over twenty years and have not entirely extricated myself even now. (I now work with the 21st century version, "content," which pays vastly better and has much more job security.) You may also find this funny. You may find it horrible and tedious and dull, which would only prove you are a sad loathsome little person, so please don't tell me if that's the case -- I would prefer to believe all of my readers all stalwart and true.

And I wrote this pointless, silly little blog post purely because I'm in the habit of doing this for everything I read, and habits die hard. So thanks for reading, and have fun going about the rest of your day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Time Travel by James Gleick

Is there a fancy literary term to say "review of the literature" (in the scientific sense)? Because that's what this book is: Gleick idly wanders through the fields of physics and SF to pick out interesting theories of time, and time travel, and related concepts, stringing them together in ways that seem most pleasing to him.

That's Time Travel: Gleick starts with Wells, as he must, and ends with...well, somewhat Gibson's The Peripheral, somewhat with the Internet in general, and somewhat with we-are-all-time-travel-theorists now, which is at least true of anyone who will read this book. Along the way, he hits every 20th century physicist you've ever heard of (Einstein and Kip Thorne and John Archibald Wheeler, Feynman and Hawking and Heisenberg), several major SF writers (Dick and Ballard, Bradbury and Heinlein, even Simak and Ray Cummings), and the big media properties most appropriate for a writer in the early 2010s (Doctor Who's "Blink," the inevitable George Pal, La Jetee and Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future).

It's divided into fourteen more-or-less thematic chapters -- each one starts with a particular vision of time travel, from a physicist or SF story, and then explicates that vision as best Gleick can until looping around to return to more or less where it started. Time loops are at least two or three of the visions, actually, so the book is something of a text-based test-bed for itself.

Time Travel is full of quotes, both from physicists explaining what is possible and what isn't (with regard to something that has never happened and quite possibly never will) and from SF writers gleefully making up their own rules and breaking them even more gleefully. At times, a cynical reader could even wonder if it is a book with an existence on its own, or only an extension of the notecards Gleick took during his preparatory reading. But that would be unkind. (And pointlessly snarky: this book was a bestseller at least twice, and probably sells more copies a year even now than the average new SF book.)

This is a book for people who like the idea of time travel, who know a bit about the history of the literature of time travel and/or the physics theories that might allow time travel, and who want to spend time with a book that makes reasonable demands and leaves the reader feeling smarter than he started. It can also be a good engine to build an expanded to-read list, though Gleick makes some books sound more appealing here than I found them in reality. (Case in point: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which I was not a fan of a decade ago and still sometimes remember with grinding teeth.)

And it will make you, at least for a short time, feel smarter for having read it. But that's the point of a book published by Vintage, so maybe don't put too much weight on that.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/26/21

 

This week, one book that I bought came in the mail, so it will be a short post.

That book was Wicked Things, which collects a six-issue comics series of the same name by John Allison (writing), Max Sarin (drawing), and Whitney Cogar (coloring). It's set in Allison's usual shared universe, like his webcomics Scarygoround and Bad Machinery and the recently-ended comics series Giant Days, and, as usual, time keeps moving forward. (Allison has occasionally done flashback Bobbins strips online, but it doesn't seem to stick; there's something about his particular muse that always wants to tell the next story and move on with his character's lives. It's an admirable thing in a muse.)

I haven't read this yet, so the blurb could be inaccurate, but it looks like the story of a now basically grown-up Charlotte "Lotty" Grote, the terror and breakout character of Bad Machinery, getting caught up in some dangerous situations as she tries to become a real detective.

The world needs as many John Allison comics as it can get, especially those about his young, quippy, driven young women, and Lotty is the current champion of that in the Allisonverse. So I'm happy to see this, and hope there will be more soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Starport by George R.R. Martin and Raya Golden

Stories are inherently molded by their format. A novelization is different from a movie: it typically will include scenes and lots of interior monologues absent in its model. The same happens in any adaption - the original format has certain strength and structures, the new one does things differently.

Starport is a TV pilot: it declares that in every second the reader experiences it. I also found it to be a somewhat quaint TV pilot, in the '80s/90s vein, because George R.R. Martin wrote it as a script in 1993 and it's been mostly sitting in a drawer ever since. (It was published, as a script, in the GRRM collection Quartet nearly two decades ago.) But it was available, and, for whatever reason, it was dusted off and artist Raya Golden took that TV script (of what seems to be long enough for a three-hour TV movie, planned to launch a series, and that length may be a clue why it never happened), adapted it into a comics script (of about 260 pages, if I counted correctly). Golden keeps the TV beats and structure: Starport in its graphic novel form is divided into twelve chapters, each one just the right length to fit between commercial breaks.

In this universe, the inevitable Harmony of Worlds contacted Earth the day after tomorrow (Super Bowl Day, to be exact), and invited us to join the previous 314 species in intergalactic peace and prosperity. Starports were built in Singapore, Amsterdam, and (last and most troubled) Chicago. [1] That last one is the focus of the story, and smart people will realize all of that allows the production to use normal US exteriors and sets, with just a few skiffy specifics and a lot of rubber facial prosthetics and a few carefully-husbanded FX shots to sell the aliens.

It's a post-ST: TNG SF pilot, with no hint of X-Files, to place it in time -- DS9 and B5 were in development when Martin wrote the script, and he may have been able to see finished episodes before he turned the Starport script into Fox. Possibly more importantly, it's post-Hill Street Blues, and I would not be surprised if one of the pitches was "What if ST: TNG aliens were in HSB Chicago?"

This is a cop show, with a large cast. We have the new detective getting promoted and joining the precinct responsible for the Starport; we have his new partner, the Buntz character; we have two duos of uniformed cops; we have the tough-as-nails female sergeant and her tired-and-ready-for-retirement captain; we have the honor-obsessed alien cop whose anatomy is compatible enough to be fucking a human main character secretly; we have the womanizing, super-successful undercover cop; we have a harried and potentially corrupt alien starport overseer; we have a bar where all the human cops go to drink together and make sure the reader can keep them and the plot straight. I may be presenting them all as stereotypes; in my defense, they are stereotypes. The point of this script was to establish exactly which stereotypes each of them were, to slot them into a dependable American TV framework and allow the actual actors to start expanding those roles if and when it went to series.

It did not go to series; it was never produced at all. And twenty-five-plus years later, it's so much an artifact of its time that I doubt it ever could be. So this is the only version I expect we will ever get, with Golden's slightly cartoony art well-suiting the era and aliens but falling a little short on the moments of high drama.

Technically, Starport is a complete story: it sets up a conflict and resolves it. Several major characters have arcs as well. Realistically, it was designed to set up larger conflicts and concerns that Martin hoped would run for several years in a prominent hour-long prime-time spot nationwide, and give him a lucrative showrunning job for the mid-90s. That did not happen; after Starport, Martin felt burned out on Hollywood and focused his attention on what he planned as a fantasy trilogy, starting with the novel A Game of Thrones three years later. (You may have heard of it.)

So this is a road not taken, and, frankly, I think any Martin fan reading it will be happy about that. This could have been a decent TV series, maybe better than that. It could even have broken out and been a massive sensation, as X-Files was about to do at the same network Martin pitched Starport. But Martin's prose fiction is better than this, and we've gotten two-plus decades of that fiction since then in large part because Starport failed.

And now we also got something like the pilot of Starport that never happened, so I think we've gotten the maximum we could reasonably expect.


[1] That the backstory of Starport includes a Super Bowl in Chicago is the least likely thing about it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Book Tour by Andi Watson

Any author would agree that a book tour has the potential for horror. It could be wonderful, of course -- but what in human life is ever purely wonderful? There's going to be something that goes bad. And there's always the chance it could all go bad.

Which brings us to Andi Watson's graphic novel The Book Tour, in which things go wrong, first very quietly and subtly then more and more obviously, for journeyman author G.H. Fretwell as he sets off on a tour for his new novel Without K [1] of what seem to be minor cities in some unnamed European country. It could be today, it could be the late 19th century. Fretwell takes steam trains, he stays in hotels - shabbier and shabbier, dodgier and dodgier as the tour goes on. And the tour does go on - that's  one of the things that goes wrong, from Fretwell's point of view.

He sets off with high hopes, a nice suit, and a suitcase full of books. He comes to the first stop on his tour, a cozy and quaint bookshop, sets up at a table in a corner with a stack of books and a good pen, and waits for readers.

It's only the first of many bad experiences when he doesn't sell a single book that day, or interact with a single person who cares about his work. The hotel that night is good, but things don't go as well as he hopes. This is as good as its going to get for Fretwell.

There are shocking stories in the newspaper, which Fretwell does not read: he focuses only on the literary pages. There are dangers and surprises and troubles which he barely notices, even as they get closer and closer to him.

He meets with an editor: not his editor, who is unavoidably detained somewhere else. He is invited to a literary event verbally, but is unable to enter without a printed invitation. He finds the shops and hotels getting less appealing, and his itinerary getting longer and more onerous.

And then it gets much worse.

This is a different kind of book for Andi Watson: he's spent most of the past decade and a half making fun, light adventure stories for younger readers, and close to a decade before that making resonant stories for adults that were not necessarily romances but centered on personal and family relationships. This is a more literary book, a book of quiet depths, where he implies much more than he shows, and shows vastly more than he tells.

The art is quicker-looking as well, with rough panel borders and lines that have a feeling of speed. Watson's mid-century character designs - I always see a lot of UPA in his people's faces - are precise and expressive while still being deeply caricatured, always in a style that fits the look of the book. The panels are tight, mostly in a grid - he does open up, here and there, but the overall feeling is tightness, closeness, with a lot of vertical lines for looming buildings and rain and grim functionaries and towering stacks of books and other ominous things.

The Book Tour can read quickly, but there's a lot that happens in the gutters between panels and a lot that is implied by what people mention to Fretwell. So don't read it quickly: this is a book to linger over, to think about, to enjoy the drawings and think about what may really be happening while poor Fretwell is distracted with his ever-worsening book tour.


[1] In-universe, this is a reference to Fretwell's wife's name, Rebecca (without a 'k'). Doylistically, it could also be a subtle Kafka reference.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson

No one's story is as smooth and clear as it looks from outside. It might seem like someone has had only success after success, rising quickly, winning awards and conquering worlds at a young age. But you'd have to ask that person what it was really like.

The Fire Never Goes Out is a "what it was really like" book, covering roughly the past decade in Noelle Stevenson's life. That was a decade where she went through art school in Baltimore, was discovered by an Internet audience, got a literary agent and a book deal, published a graphic novel that was a bestseller and an Eisner winner and a finalist for real-world literary awards too, graduated and got jobs writing and producing in Hollywood, was showrunner for an acclaimed popular TV show, fell in love and got married.

The comics collected here are about what that all felt like to Stevenson, how she was driven and tormented and felt like she was both on fire and had a hole straight through her body. (Comics are an ideal medium for this kind of personal reflection: Stevenson can just draw herself the way she feels, burning or covered with spikes or with a gaping hole in her chest, talking with her younger self or changing looks and style from drawing to drawing. And she does: she makes great use of the freedom comics gives her.) From the outside, it looks great: that rising arc of a career and life that we all think our twenties will be or should have been. From the inside...my guess is that Stevenson was both driven by her passions and demons to achieve what she did, and that those passions and demons made it all much harder and the crashes worse than it would otherwise have been.

But she did get through it: this is the story of getting through it. Assembled from the comics she made at the time, starting in 2011 in that first year of art school and running through her marriage in 2019. Much of the book is made up of long year-end posts she did - I'm not sure what social platform, or if they're still available there, but they were stories made to be told in public and shared with her regular audience immediately - on her New Year's Eve birthday every year from '11 through '18.

This book is triumphant, through adversity. It is true. It is aimed at the generation coming up after Stevenson, living their own complicated lives and feeling their own fires and holes in their chests, and I think it will help a lot of them, either directly or by telling them it's OK to ask for help.

She has the fire. I believe her when she says it will not go out.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of April 19, 2003

No new books in the mail (or otherwise) this past week, so instead I fired up the old RNG to pick a random year when I was keeping track of what I read but not yet writing about every last thing here. The first time the RNG first gave me 2009, when I was keeping track of everything. So I tried again, and ended up in 2003.

(After wasting close to an hour reading my own archives, which sounds naughtier and more productive than it actually is. Does anyone else do that? Looking at what I wrote a decade ago always fascinates me, even when I think that guy was totally wrong.)

Joe Sacco, Palestine (4/12)

This was Sacco's first big book, in 1996 -- he won an American Book Award for it, and it launched the career he's had since then, where he goes somewhere where something is going wrong (generally not as horribly now as it was back in his early days), spends a long time there, and then puts out a big book of comics trying to make sense of that thing going wrong. By 2003, he'd done the same thing again with Safe Area Gorazde and (on a smaller scale) with The Fixer -- so I think I probably came to one of those books first, and was catching up on Sacco's backlist here.

I think this is still relevant, unfortunately. His Balkan books probably less so, but Palestine has been stuck in the same horrible rut for about three generations now - I'm not going to try to characterize that rut, or claim that one side is responsible, but I hope we can all admit it is horrible and shows no sign of getting any better.

Charles de Lint, Spirits in the Wires (typescript, 4/13)

I read this for work: it was de Lint's new novel for 2003, coming out that summer and set in his usual fictional city of Newford. Even at the time, all of de Lint's books tended to blur together in the mind, and I definitely can't separate them now. The Newford books were not overly plotty: they were books about people and places, and their relationships, in that vaguely countercultural way that was feeling more and more quaint by the early Aughts. I see from online reviews that this is the one with two new female characters who may or may not be "real," interacting with a whole passel of established de Lint folks. And I'm afraid I have no opinion at all eighteen years later on its literary merits: until I started typing this, I'd entirely forgotten that I ever read it.

Peter David, One Knight Only (bound galleys, quit unfinished, 4/14)

I probably shouldn't say anything here: it's not fair to write about something I didn't finish two decades ago. But I liked David's writing - most obviously in comics, with his long run on Incredible Hulk around that time and on other titles as well, plus his writing about comics in places like CBG, and his generally light and fun fantasy novels - so I'm going to at least say that, and then try to figure out what this book was. Aha! This was the sequel to Knight Life, with King Arthur appearing in the modern USA and the hijinks that ensued. I know I read and liked that one, but I'm not clear at this late date whether I was reading the sequel thinking about doing it as a single book (because the SFBC had an edition of Life) or if it was a potential 2-in-1. For whatever reason, I stopped partway through: something (sales, or the book itself, or maybe something more important to read quickly for work) stopped me, and that was that. But David's novels from around this time are light and fun, for those looking for books like that.

Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (4/15)

Winchester, of course, is of The Professor and the Madman fame; this, I think was his follow-up book, taking another obscure British eccentric who did something useful (William Smith, the first major geological map) and building a big edifice around that and allowing millions of book-readers to feel educated and cultured and smart. I'm pretty sure I grabbed this free from work - I can't imagine a world in which the BOMC of circa 2003 would not have had this book available - and read it on my commute because I, also, wanted to feel educated and cultured and smart.

And I do. I do.

Robert B. Parker, Back Story (4/16)

This was the thirtieth of the forty novels about the Boston PI Spenser that Parker wrote during his life; other people have written more since, proving my theory that people are stupid and easily led. (Do I mean the readers or the writers? Why not both!) The Spenser books were once excellent mysteries, but by this era had been stripped down to the tightest possible essentials: laconic dialogue, enough description so the reader knew these people exited in places, and events that basically followed from each other and added up to a story. A couple of years later, I described a book from this period as "Parker whittled his prose down to the absolute minimum number of words necessary to tell his stories; there's not an ounce of fat anywhere in these books."

I'm not sure now, a decade after Parker died, if that was necessarily a good thing, but it was a thing, and it was a thing for roughly the last twenty years of his career. So if you want to experience that thing, there are a lot of options. And the first half-dozen or so Spenser books are more conventional, well-regarded PI novels, too.

Robert Byrne, compiler, The 2,458 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (4/17)

Not just a big quote book: an omnibus of several big quote books, shoved together between two covers in a cheaper package for people like me who wanted their witty sayings sold by volume. I had a small notebook of quotes I liked - started it in college, had it in my desk when the 2011 flood destroyed all paper in my basement - and I read quote books on and off for twenty-some years finding things to add there and to post here as "Quotes of the Week." This was a good 'un.

Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (4/18)

I'm assuming this is exactly what it says it is: I don't remember it well, and I don't think I still have it, post-flood. I always liked Chandler: he was a tricky, meaty writer whose work rewarded careful reading, and I gather that his ephemera (like this) was also worth reading.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Dune: The Machine Crusade (4/19)

The second book in an unnecessary - but very popular! - historical trilogy set in the universe of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, written by his son with long-time pro Anderson. Herbert and Anderson did three trilogies over about a decade, if I remember correctly, all of which were genre bestsellers and probably real-world bestsellers as well. They belong to a category of book that I like to call "things that paid my salary for years," and I try not to criticize them unduly, because I am not ungrateful. A lot of people read this and thought the time was well-spent; I was happy to provide it to them through the SFBC. It was not then and is not now my thing, and I've always thought Herbert and Anderson could have spent their time writing books that were much better than their Dune trilogies.

But those nonexistent books would never have sold anything like the Dune books they did write, which is the real point. Consumers want more of the same, over and over again - and, in a consumer society, they will get it. Might as well let people like Herbert and Anderson make good livings out of it along the way.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Giant Days, Vols. 11-14 by John Allison, Max Sarin, & Whitney Cogar

I go on a lot here about endings: how important they are, that it's not a story without an ending, and especially that comics have been allergic to endings for several decades now, much to their detriment.

But that still doesn't mean I'm happy to see a long-running story that I like come to its ending. I get that "what do you mean, there isn't any more?" feeling. It's just that I know it has to happen.

Giant Days is now over. It was the story of three young women at a particular point in their lives, while they were undergraduates at the fictional Sheffield University, and undergraduate life in the UK only lasts three years. Writer John Allison and his artistic collaborators - originally Lissa Treiman as the primary artist, then Max Sarin for most of the run, and Whitney Cogar on colors the whole time - spun out fifty-four issues of the main series and a handful of one-offs over the course of four years of comics, so the comic took more time than the actual life would have.

Now, some artistic teams would have kept Esther, Susan, and Daisy in college for decades or longer - if it was an American comic book or syndicated newspaper strip, they could still be in their first year until at least 2050, or the heat death of the universe, whichever came first. But - and, again, this is important - stories don't work like that. You can put out product in which nothing important ever changes, in which no one ever grows or learns, but you're a hack and you know know it. Allison and Treiman and Sarin and Cogar are not hacks, and they want to tell stories that matter about real people that change.

So this was inevitable: they would graduate, their days at Sheffield would end. It doesn't mean we won't get more stories about some of them, in some permutation, in the future: remember that Esther was a major character in Allison's webcomic Scarygoround for nearly a decade even before Giant Days. But this time is over.

For most people, it ended a couple of years ago. I'm just catching up on the back quarter of the series now, since I finally gave up waiting for more of the Not on the Test hardcovers to emerge. So I read Volumes Eleven and Twelve and Thirteen and Fourteen all together, a year's worth of comics in a day or two. It's not a bad way to read an episodic humor comic, I have to say: stories based on characters get better with familiarity with the characters, so reading a big chunk all at once can be really resonant.

I'm not talking about the specific issues here, because there's more than a dozen of them, and that's really not important. Each one is a small story, one moment in this larger story, and they add up together to Giant Days, all fifty-some of them. They're all good, they're all stories, they center on various parts of the cast - mostly Esther and Susan and Daisy, but some McGraw and even enough Ed and Nina to make me wish I got a lot more of that. (Hey, John Allison! If you randomly read this, Ed & Nina in the Big Smoke together could be fun, at least for a short-run thing. Maybe other people than me would even like it!)

I read these because I wanted to know if Giant Days ended well, and it does. (Well, also because I was enjoying it a lot, and why give up in the middle on something you like?) If you've managed to avoid Giant Days for the last six years, I don't know what I can say here to convince you: it might just be not to your taste. But it's a smart, fun, well-written, colorful, amusing, true, real, occasionally laugh-out-loud series of stories about people I think you will recognize and like, and if that's not what you're looking for I frankly have to worry about you.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 8: My Best Friend's Squirrel by North, Henderson, & Renzi

I'm trying to figure out how far behind I am on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and it is surprisingly difficult, since this is a Marvel comic. The series ended in late 2019 with issue 58, but the trade paperbacks are still dribbling out, since they're all slim. I believe Marvel has only managed to emit Vol. 12, which probably collects issues 47-51, meaning there's one or two more books yet to come.

But none of this is simple, and places like Wikipedia and the Grand Comics Database and the Marvel Database fail to list those trades at all. But, I am behind, though the series has now ended, so I won't get any further behind from this point.

Anyway, I'm here to talk about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 8: My Best Friend's Squirrel, written by Ryan North, drawn by Erica Henderson, colored by Rico Renzi. It collects issues 27-31 of the second series (let's not get into that) and Not Brand Ecch #14, which appears to be a 2018 one-shot continuing the numbering of the 1967-69 series, which is exactly what you want to do for a story about a girl who likes squirrels and computer science and whose core audience are six-year-old girls. (Marvel, once again: there's nothing they can't make more complicated and difficult for no good reason.)

It follows the previous collections one and two and three and four and the OGN and five and six and seven; see my posts on those if you're feeling particularly bored today.

Squirrel Girl is still Doreen Green, second-year computer-science student at Empire State University, and her super-powers are (most obviously) being super-strong and talking to squirrels and (most usefully) actually being a thoughtful, friendly person who can talk out problems, unlike every other human being ever extant in the Marvel Universe. And this volume, as usual, collects a big four-issue plotline in which she defeats a Major Threat (less Major this time, since she's already run through all of the big Marvel supervillain names) and then a single issue in which odder things happen.

The four-issue story sees Doreen's best friend, Nancy, and her sidekick, Tippy-Toe, whisked away to a world on the other side of the galaxy where a race of intelligent squirrels (well, squirrels on Earth seem intelligent enough when Doreen talks to them, so maybe I mean civilized?) are under threat from a shakedown from Galactus's herald the Silver Surfer. The SS says he and his similarly-shiny buddies - all of whom are stereotypically "surfer" types - will leave this planet along if they give all their valuables to the SS and compatriots.

Long-time readers of Marvel comics may well be confused, since the actual SS is more prone to zooming around on a surfboard, emoting at great length in bad pseudo-poetic prose about how sad his life is and how anguished he is and how he desperately needs to find a nice snackable but uninhabited planet or else his master will slaughter billions yet again, oh the misery. They may suspect this is an impostor, and they would be correct.

Eventually, Doreen makes her way to the squirrel planet, along with some allies, and there is a series of confrontations, which all end peacefully, because this is Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. (Doreen does fight the actual SS on sight, which I think is the first time that very hoary superhero trope actually happened in this comic.)

The one-off story is a kind of timeslip tale: an accident with a villain's weapon strands Doreen and Nancy in hypertime, living much faster than everyone else in New York City. So, over the course of one weekend, they live the entire rest of their lives, leaving written messages for their friends, saving everyone in the city from everything for three whole days, and working on a time machine to save themselves before they die of old age. And maybe doing something else, which is hinted at but not spelled out in this book larger for pre-teens.

Squirrel Girl by North and Henderson was dependably fun and positive and kid-friendly and just about every appreciative adjective I could think of: it was nice down to its core, creating a world that was equally nice, which has never been common in Marveldom. I think these were the last Henderson-drawn issues, so, if I continue, I'll get to see if whoever came next was able to maintain that sweetness.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis

Every book wants to be read in the context it was created. Every book is read in the context of the reader. And that gulf can be huge, because of the specific reader, because of time since creation, because of shifts in the world.

Eleanor Davis conceived The Hard Tomorrow, I would guess, in 2018, or maybe a little earlier, and finished it in early 2019 for publication in October 2019. I didn't read it until March of 2021. That's not much time, but the protests in Hard Tomorrow, and the tactics of the police responding to them, now resonate much differently after all of the 2020 protests and, as the massive counter-example, January 6.

So Hard Tomorrow is already an alternate future, I guess. Davis shows rather than tells this very mildly SFnal story, but it's clearly set after a different 2020 election, and maybe also a 2024 election. 2030 is still in the future, but the president is named Zuckerberg -- yes, that one. Literal killer Facebook drones sweep the skies. Protestors are loud and passionate, and, as far as this story shows, utterly useless and ruthlessly suppressed, they way they would be in a dictatorship.

Our main character is Hannah, an activist with Humans Against All Violence (HAAV). She's a regular, but not a leader: passionate and devoted to protesting against war. There seems to be some level of US-backed chemical warfare going on in the middle east - probably using those killer drones as well. Again, Davis never stops to infodump or give background; we see events and guess at the background. Hannah lives in a camper and pickup truck with her boyfriend, Johnny, a minor drug dealer and would-be farmer who is (far too slowly for her) building a house on the land they own. They're in Louisville, Kentucky, or a town on the outskirts, I think: the book never says so, but the local media are the Courier-Journal and WLKY.

Hannah may be part of HAAV in large part because of Gabby, a woman she is fascinated with and may be quietly in love with. Davis implies this - or has her characters hint and joke about it - but doesn't really let us see what Hannah thinks about that. Is Gabby just a model to her: a woman of the kind she wants to be? How real is that sexual tension?

Hannah's day-job is an in-home health aide for an elderly woman she calls Miss Phyllis, who is sick and tired in multiple ways and wants to die but can't. Hannah is positive and helpful: her job is to be positive and helpful, and she's good at it. She's a good person, as we see her: in all areas of her life, she's as good a person as she can be. She's also trying to get pregnant: Hard Tomorrow, in its quiet, unshowy way, is about building a good future for the next generation. I think it mostly comes down on the side of "God, no! It's horrible to bring any new life into this crapsack world," but the last few pages go in the exact opposite direction. Maybe Davis is conflicted herself.

Hard Tomorrow follows Hannah, and to a lesser extent Johnny, for a few eventful days in what I think is the spring of whatever year this is. Call it 2023 or 2025: the protests feel like off-year protests, aimed at the President rather than at anyone who will be facing voters that year. Things are not good for HAAV to begin with; there's no sign that anyone is or ever will listen to their protests, that their voices will or could change anything. And then it gets much worse, in multiple ways, very quickly.

And then...the whole book shifts tone and ends on a quiet note of uplift. I'm not sure I believe it. I don't think that moment is earned from the events beforehand, frankly.

Hard Tomorrow is a book that mixes the personal and political, but prioritizes the personal. It's somewhat hampered by the time Davis created it: protests became much more personal, and the matter of protests in particular, the year after she finished this book. Protesting chemical warfare on the other side of the world is a very different thing than protesting police violence in your own community. If the protests in Hard Tomorrow were more personal - maybe about anti-Semitic attacks, since anti-Semitism does get mentioned a few times - it might have welded those concerns together more tightly.

As it is, this is a beautiful, thoughtful, almost meditative book that comes from an entirely different historic moment. That moment was only two years ago, but it feels like ages now. Davis's art is gestural and evocative as always, with a deep energy and swiftness. But this doesn't feel like our tomorrow -- not that ours will be necessarily better, or even that a lot of the details couldn't be the same.

That's the splendor and danger of near-future SF always, though. The world moves. At times, it can move much faster than any of us. It did this time. Hard Tomorrow is still worth reading, worth thinking about.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/10/21

Four books this time out -- one from the library and three from the Gods of Publicity. As my religion demands, the latter must be praised first:

Unity is the first novel by Elly Bangs, post-apocalyptic SF in a world that seems to be rumbling fitfully towards another, even more definitive apocalypse. Its main characters live in what's left of civilization, an underwater city (what seems to be one of several, parts of new polities with their own struggles potentially leading to that second apocalypse), but leave that to explore what's up above on the land. I suspect there might be some kind of hive-mind thing going on, too, but I'm allergic to that, so I hope not. It's a trade paperback from Tachyon, hitting stores on April 13.

How to Mars is also a SF novel, this time by David Ebenbach. It may officially be a debut SF novel, but Ebenbach wrote one previous novel (Miss Portland), several collections of stories (including the amusingly titled The Guy We Didn't Invite to the Orgy and Other Stories), non-fiction, and several poetry collections. This one looks lighter, and I just accidentally read the first five pages, so it's fun and easy to get into. It's the story of a scientific expedition/reality show on Mars, and the six scientists stuck there for the rest of their lives, as told by the one of them who learns in sentence one that his scientist girlfriend is pregnant, a thing which was supposed to be impossible. It also looks to be told mostly in first person and partially in quirky ways, which I am a sucker for, so I'm going to try to get to this one quickly if I can. It's also from Tachyon, publishing on May 25.

Robot Artists and Black Swans collects Bruce Sterling's "Italian Fantascienza" stories, which he wrote "as" Bruno Argento (this looks to have been an, at best, Nora-Roberts-as-JD-Robb thing rather than a solid pseudonym). The nine stories here were published various places, a few of them only in Italian, and this is the first time they're all collected together. I think these stories are not set in a shared universe -- what they share is "being Italian," in some sense I don't quite understand yet -- but are all "by" this alter-ego of Sterling and their SFnalness is particularly Italian. This is also from Tachyon, and has already been loosed upon the world, hitting stores at the end of March.

And from the library is The Adventures of Tintin, Vol.5, collecting three of Herge's stories from the 1950s, including the two most obviously SFnal entries in the series. (The ones with "Moon" in the title, because Tintin goes there. Because a moon mission obviously needs a Belgian boy reporter who has never filed a story in his life.) Anyway, I never read these as a kid, so I've been getting to them slowly in my middle years: so far, I'm finding them well-done adventure stories that are thoroughly of their time and place, but still enjoyable. Let's see if these strike me any differently!

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Money for Nothing by P.G. Wodehouse

I regret to inform my readers that P.G. Wodehouse's novel Money for Nothing does not also provide, as all of my generation would expect, "chicks for free." This is largely due to its having been published in 1928.

It is also devoid entirely of color TVs, microwave ovens, and Hawaiian noises. It does feature some characters who "ain't dumb" and have various schemes to obtain what Wodehouse was often wont to call "great wodges of the green stuff" without needing to get more than maybe a blister on their little fingers.

I trust this disappointment will not be too much of a shock.

Money for Nothing is a standalone Wodehouse book, set mostly in and around stately Rudge Hall, jewel of Rudge-in-the-Vale, "in that pleasant section of rural England where the grey stone of Gloucestershire gives place to Worcestershire's old red brick." It features two men of the older generation who have fallen into a tiff due to a trifling disagreement about who pushed who in front of a minor explosion one day, two different strapping nephews of the local squire, the local girl one of them hopes to wed, a can't-miss investment opportunity in London in the form of a retail establishment, and, inevitably, assorted American confidence-artists who are seeking the title payoff. Several of the confidence-artists, devotees of Wodehouse will be happy to learn, are acting as impostors while visiting a country-house during the course of this novel.

As usual with Wodehouse, the plot leaps and canters and races about once he's established his characters and locations -- I should also mention the Healthward Ho facility nearby, run by one of those Americans, a man pretending to be a doctor and known to his confederates as Chimp Twist -- as Wodehouse throws in complications from his usual bag of tricks and stirs until it all fizzes up.

I'm not going to describe all of those complications: with Wodehouse, doing so is either superfluous or silly. Or perhaps both. The point is how he maneuvers his characters through his situations -- both sets from his robust stock company -- in this particular permutation, making the reader smile often, laugh occasionally, and enjoy throughout. Wodehouse's world is entirely artificial; that's the point. Money for Nothing is a sunny concoction, from his prime interwar period, and may be lesser-known to most of his readers, since it isn't part of a series. But it's as much fun as Summer Lighting, which he wrote next, and would be a treat for any Wodehouse-lover who hasn't gotten to it yet.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

What's the opposite of a romance? Is there a word to describe a story about realizing you're not in love, and that you need to get out of a relationship?

We could call it "anti-romance," but that misses the point. It would be a useful word. Maybe someone will comment to let me know it already exists.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is that kind of book: it's a graphic novel, in that nameless opposite-of-romance genre. Francesca "Freddy" Riley is in high school in Berkeley, and is in a relationship with her school's most magnetic and compelling figure, the titular Laura Dean.

Laura is a jerk, in the way that massively popular and attractive teenagers often are: no matter what she does or how she acts, everyone accepts it, even loves it. So, as we see her, she's practically amoral, a monster of need who does whatever she wants at any moment and everyone else swoons at how awesome she is.

Freddy is not happy with this. But she is Laura's girlfriend. That's good, because being Laura's girlfriend is exciting down to the ends of her nerves all the time, often even in good ways. They have some level of a physical relationship -- Laura is very physical, with Freddy and other girls, as you would expect -- but Breaking Up keeps it school-library friendly by showing the girls in bed or kissing without getting into details of how physical these seventeen-year-olds are getting. [1]

Being Laura's girlfriend is also good socially, to some degree: everyone in school knows who Freddy is, and she gets reflected glory. Of course, Laura is mercurial and capricious, so everyone in school also knows when Freddy is no longer Laura's girlfriend, which has happened at pretty much every holiday over the past year.

So being Laura's girlfriend is also bad. For that reason, and because Laura's massive neediness keeps Freddy focused on her all the time, rather than on her friends and own life and plans and goals. (Especially friends, in this graphic novel's case. Most seventeen-year-olds would be worrying about their futures and planning for college, but that's not happening here.) Those of us who are further along in adulthood will see it as all bad: even the supposedly good stuff is tending to erode Freddy's sense of self and empowerment. 

Breaking Up is more of a character study than a book of plot: things happen, and time passes, but they're mostly accumulating moments, each giving Freddy a little more perspective and distance, until she can finally stop being the person Laura Dean keeps breaking up with. She's got a circle of friends at the beginning, and a new friend she meets along the way - and a girl she kisses impulsively at a party - but this does not turn into a romance. This is not the story of how Freddy dumps Laura and finds Tru Wuv.

It's the story of how Freddy dumps Laura because it's what she needs, which is a more honest and true story. And it does take her a long time to do that, which may make some readers of my age start yelling at her through the pages of the book, but the book would be much shorter if Freddy were quicker to realize what she needed to realize.

I've gotten this far without stating the obvious: Freddy and Laura are both women. (Girls? Seventeen is so in-between. But let me give them the benefit of the doubt.) [2] That will be important to a lot of young readers looking for stories that represent their own lives -- Freddy's friend group also is a good diverse collection of people you can see someone like Freddy gravitating to in a place like Berkeley. But that they're both women is not important to the story being told, or the genre it's told in. And that's a good thing.

Romances, and whatever anti-romances should really be called, are about people. Two people, typically, though I don't know if I need to be dogmatic there. They need to have an attraction to each other. Their gender and sex and presentation, though: that can help shape a specific story, but it's not genre-defining. It's still romance. These two people are women. That's what this story is. But a thousand other variations are possible, and exist out there.

So this is a good anti-romance, that happens to be about two seventeen-year-old high school women in Berkeley. I'd expect that from Mariko Tamaki, writer of Skim and This One Summer. I probably should have expected it from Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, best known for Don't Do Without Me, but I'd never read her work before this.

If you're in the mood for anti-romance, or just a story about complicated teenage relationships, check it out. If you're in a complicated teenage relationship, I feel for you, and hope you know that life does go on and will settle down in time. Maybe Freddy can help show the way for you.


[1] Having been a seventeen-year-old, my bet is as physical as possible, as often as possible, all the time. Laura seems that type, for one thing.

[2] As I type this, I realize that I don't have a tag for LGBTQ+ books, and suddenly wonder if I should create one. But my tag style is so arch and sarcastic that anything that "fits" here would be a bad idea for multiple reasons. So, unless I just use "LGBTQ+," it will be without a tag. And, frankly, who cares what this old white guy thinks of LBGBTQ+ books, anyway?

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Paying the Land by Joe Sacco

What does it mean to be aboriginal -- to be living in the place your ancestors have for so long it fades into legend and myth? And how does that intersect with living in the modern, global world -- should it? Can it?

Joe Sacco's recent big nonfictional graphic account, Paying the Land, is about that, if you want to say it's "about" something. Sacco is a journalist, though, so it's more accurate to say this is the story of how he went to this place, talked to these people, and learned about their lives and issues.

This time around, the place is Canada's Northwest Territories, specifically the Mackenzie River Valley. The people are the Dene, a group of First Nations people who are aboriginal to that area -- Sacco talked to dozens of them, from elders and chiefs to young activists, across many towns and areas and tribes over what seems to be a few years. Their lives and issues make up this book, but the core, if I had to boil it down, is that question of history and modernity, most immediately in the clash over resource extraction and engagement with the various (white-dominated and -controlled) governments that rule Canada and the Dene people.

Again, Sacco is our viewpoint. He keeps himself in the story; this story only exists because he is telling it. He's not trying to translate the Dene concerns, and pretend that he's some pure mirror of their world. He knows he has biases and preconceptions, and that he's also getting pieces of complex stories and histories from multiple sides, all with their own agendas and preferences. There is no "Dene viewpoint" on anything - there's what this one person thinks, and what this other person wants, and a rough consensus in some other village on a third topic.

So this is not the story of how heroic First Nations people are fighting the evil rapacious oil companies, who are trying to poison their sacred lands. It's also not the story of how smart First Nations people are using demand for natural resources to provide economic development and opportunity to their communities. There are people in the book who believe in both of those stories, and are trying to make those stories true - sometimes the same people in different circumstances and places. But the reality is more complex and mixed: there will be some development. Some of it will benefit the Dene. But how much, and where, and who, and when, and, most importantly, how the agreements are structured and who has a hand in them? Those are all in dispute, and things are always in dispute among humans when big changes and big money is at stake.

As always, Sacco combines all of a cartoonist's skills: close observation of faces and body language, careful notes on what people say and do, endless hours spent over a drawing board making the pictures and words line up as closely and as clearly as possible. Paying the Land is a big, messy, dense story about complicated people in a complicated world. I know of no one else in comics doing anything like this, certainly on this scale. This is big, serious, in-depth journalism - just in a format we rarely see.

It's an impressive book. If nothing else, it will push readers out of a complacent, simplistic view of "Indians" or "aboriginals" and easy Facebook sloganeering. Sacco engages as deeply as he can with these Dene leaders and their concerns, and I believe he's presenting it all as clearly and truly as he can, as best he understands it. And I'm sure that means that multiple Dene leaders, probably including more than one person depicted in this book, thinks he got some major things totally wrong: that's how journalism works.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of April 3, 2006

There were no new books coming into the house last week, which means that I fill the Monday slot on this blog by digging into my old reading notebooks and seeing if I can remember the books I read at the same time in some random year from 1990 to 2010. The RNG this time gave me 2001, so here I go:

Matthew Hughes, Fool Me Twice (bound galleys, 3/28)

I read Fools Errant, the first book, the day before, and eventually turned the two into an omnibus for the SFBC (as Gullible's Travels). Hughes at the time looked a bit like the second coming of Jack Vance - which itself would be an amazing and wonderful thing, since he really did live up to that - and has since broadened his palette and written a lot of great books that not enough people have bought.

These two are Hughes in his most purely Vancean mode and his lightest, funniest style - I think they're wonderful and I really should re-read them one of these days. They're books set perhaps an era before the Dying Earth: the Earth is not yet on its deathbed, but is definitely getting up there in years, needing regular colonoscopies and winded by going up a short flight of stairs. The hero is a young man with a good heart, bad luck, and perhaps not quite as many brains as he needs, doing the will of his uncle, the utter master of this depleted, bizarre world.

You all need to read more Matt Hughes, and so do I: I have an electronic proof of his authorized sequel to "The Demon Princes" that I could be reading instead of typing this.

Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf & Cub, Vol. 7: Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger (3/29)

Every so often I get pissed off all over again about my 2011 flood: when I realize I probably would have re-read all 28 volumes of Lone Wolf & Cub at some point in the past decade, straight through, is one of those times. I obviously have no idea what happened in this particular volume: I assume Ogami Itto slaughtered a whole lot of people in slow-motion beautifully, but the context is what matters. Someday I hope I will have an excuse and a chance to re-read the whole series, but I doubt it will be this decade.

Jim Mullen, It Takes a Village Idiot (bound galleys, 3/30)

Before I google for it, I'm going to guess it was a quickie humor book - maybe related to the 2000 election - and that I got it from the groaning giveaway shelves at what I think was called Bookspan at that moment in time.

Nope: I was wrong. (Well, it probably came from the giveaway shelves, but that's a gimme.) This was a "I moved to West Bumfuck, and was way out of place there" humor book, written by the guy who did "The Hot Sheet" for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade and other funny stuff (including a column named after this book) before and since. I started out in suburbia, never managed to live in any city, and have remained stuck in the same small starter tract house for twenty-seven years, so the "selling a Village apartment, too small but convenient to everything in the world, in order to move to a big interesting house in the land of Colorful Rustics" is appealing to me from both ends of the equation. This was a finalist for the Thurber Prize and I tend to remember books I hated, so my guess is that it's both good and pretty funny - humor often doesn't remain long in the memory.

Loren D. Estleman, Sugartown (4/2)

I miss reading mystery novels the way I used to. I miss reading as much as I used to, but working in a business does really help prioritize doing things related to that business. This one was the fifth in Estleman's series about Detroit PI Amos Walker, originally published in 1984 and reprinted in 2001 by ibooks. (Which had a great design sense and some real editorial flair, especially on the reprint side, though Byron Preiss, the founder and animating force, was always...um, should I say divisive?)

There's no way I can tell you what the plot is after twenty years: Amos investigated some mystery, probably some people got killed and Amos was hit on the head at least once, femmes did some fatale-ing but Our Hero was stalwart, and all was made right in the end: that's my best guess. This is a solid series, and there's a lot of books in it, so I do recommend it for people like me who like that kind of meat-and-potatoes American PI style.

Eric Garcia, Casual Rex (bound galleys, 4/4)

Surely I didn't read this for work, did I? I guess it counts as speculative fiction, but I thought it was published way out of genre and the SFBC would have looked down-market and declassee to the publishers. (Although: money is never declassee.) This series - this is the second of three books - was published as mysteries-slash-mainstream, and were about the secret society of dinosaurs living in the modern day in complicated human-suits, focused on our PI hero. They were deeply goofy, in a way I appreciated, but were not books to be taken seriously in any way, shape or form. I vaguely remember that Garcia had Hollywood ties and...I just deleted two lines about how crazy the idea of filming these would be once I realized it happened in 2004, with a backdoor pilot for a Skiffy Channel series that never happened once the adults woke up and realized what they had done. My god: a movie of this book exists. I will never, ever watch it.

So what happens in this book? I dunno. It's the second published but chronologically first, and it has a bunch of secret dinosaurs living in modern LA in meat-suits: wacky stuff, I assume. Totally wacky.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Books Read: March 2021

Three months in, I think this is the model: I type this up the weekend after a month ends, and then mostly fill in the links the next month. As always, it's mostly for my own use, as an index of this blog. Here's what I read last month:

Allie Brosh, Solutions and Other Problems (3/2)

Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North, and Albert Monteys, Slaughterhouse-Five: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (3/6)

Joe Sacco, Paying the Land (3/7)

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (3/13)

P.G. Wodehouse, Money for Nothing (3/13)

Eleanor Davis, The Hard Tomorrow (3/14)

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 8: My Best Friend's Squirrel (3/19)

John Allison and Max Sarin, Giant Days, Vol. 11 (3/19)

John Allison and Max Sarin, Giant Days, Vol. 12 (3/20)

John Allison and Max Sarin, Giant Days, Vol. 13 (3/21)

John Allison and Max Sarin, Giant Days, Vol. 14 (3/21)

Noelle Stevenson, The Fire Never Goes Out (3/27)

Andi Watson, The Book Tour (3/28)

Friday, April 02, 2021

Quote of the Week: Bed, No Breakfast

Because the last thing we wanted, after a hundred miles of bad road (or a few hours on the back of a mule, or walking a trail, or in a museum), was to spend a night up to our ears in quaint. I didn't want to worry, before dropping into a chair, that I might turn a museum piece into kindling., I didn't want a bathroom down the hall, its plumbing fixtures as faithful to the period as the creaking canopy bed. I didn't want a talkative host and hostess and a slew of chattering guests, their company a civilized alternative to television.

On the contrary, I wanted television. I wanted a large-screen color set with cable reception, and, for preference, a Mets game on it. I wanted air-conditioning and hot water and a bare minimum of human contact., I wanted to be able to skip breakfast and get an early start, or sleep through breakfast and get a late start, without feeling that I was Missing Something Important. (The people who tell you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day are the very same people who try to make you feel guilty for watching television.)

- Lawrence Block, "Cheers for the Much-Maligned Motel," p.39 in Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Ryan North and Albert Monteys from Kurt Vonnegut

So this is how it goes: two years ago I had the urge to re-read Slaughterhouse-Five, possibly Kurt Vonnegut's best novel [1]. And I did. It was still a great novel; it was still deeply sad about humanity. 

About a year later, a graphic novel adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five came out. It was adapted by Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics and longtime writer of the current, popular version of Squirrel Girl. It was illustrated by Albert Monteys, a Spanish cartoonist who has worked mostly in satire. And now I've read that version, too.

So, this time, I need to talk about the pictures, and the transformation of Vonnegut's words on a page into a visual format. I've already said what I had to say about the story itself, about poor Billy Pilgrim's fate - many of the things I wrote here two years ago I thought again while reading this version; I still agree with all of that. My favorite line is still "Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future."

I have the sense that North has fiddled a bit with the structure and timeline, but that's a dangerous assumption to make: Vonnegut told the story sideways to begin with. Remember: Billy is unstuck in time. Slaughterhouse-Five, in any version, follows him that way, skipping from moment to moment across decades. It may well be that this is exactly the same structure as Vonnegut's original. But I don't think so.

I think North has tweaked things a bit to make better visual transitions: to turn Slaughterhouse-Five into something more purely comics, and not just prose poured into a new form and illustrated. He has to do that just to make Kurt Vonnegut a character in this version. Well, Vonnegut was a character in the novel: his voice was omnipresent, his viewpoint was consistent, his actions were mentioned more than once. But he was the omniscient authorial voice, without a name, mostly not taking human form. North isn't pretending to be Vonnegut to tell this story - that's another choice he could have made, or Vonnegut might have made if he'd adapted it himself  - but he wants to tell the same story, and include the Vonnegut bits. So we see Kurt on a plane flying back to German years later with an old buddy. We see him in the distance at the POW camp, at least twice. We see the famous scene where he admits all of the soldiers were babies and agrees to the subtitle of "The Children's Crusade." He's there throughout.

He's just not our point of view, the way he is in the novel. The graphic novel is less personal to Vonnegut, and maybe more for us: we are the ones watching Bill Pilgrim, directly. We're not watching Vonnegut put him through his paces. He's front and center, blinking, confused, trapped in amber. Unstuck.

Monteys has a lightly caricatured style: Pilgrim is probably the least "realistic" looking character, with a very long face and a gigantic nose. It's an open face, one for showing details of emotion: it was a good choice. It works well. Monteys also varies his panel layouts a lot, dropping into a grid only rarely and breaking out splash pages and huge expanses of white multiple times. He and North have thoroughly turned Slaughterhouse-Five into a visual representation; this is not some Classic Comics template with all of the words shoehorned in.

Listen: I can't tell you this is just as good as the original. I don't know how to compare art works across formats like that. The original is a towering masterpiece of 20th century literature. It's one of the great anti-war novels of all time. That's a lot to live up to. But this version of Slaughterhouse-Five is beautiful and heartbreaking and sad and true and wonderful and magnificent and engrossing. There is no part of it that I can imagine changing to be better. It's worth reading if you know the original. It's maybe even more worth reading if you don't. That's what I can tell you.


[1] I haven't re-read them in decades; my opinion is outdated. I want to read him again; maybe I will.

And I say I had the urge. Maybe I didn't. Maybe I always was going to re-read it in 2019, and just got to that moment in my own personal mountain-range. Who can say?