Wednesday, June 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board by Kristen Gudsnuk

Hey! Remember when I said that I thought Kristen Gudsnuk's middle-grade graphic novel Making Friends was a lot of fun, but that I missed the random background goofiness in the world that Gudsnuk brought to her previous book (for adults, as much as any book about superheroes is) Henchgirl? Sure you do!

Well, Gudsnuk had a sequel to Making Friends a couple of years ago - I just found out about it recently, since I guess I don't spend as much time keeping track of comics for middle-graders as I should - and I'm happy to report that Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board shoves the Weird Stuff meter way over into the red zone before it's done, in a very integrated and fun way. So I do hope to keep using Gudsnukian as an adjective and looking forward to the day when everyone does.

Making Friends followed seventh-grade motormouth Dany - seriously, she's one of those people (I was intermittently one of them at a slightly later age) who cannot shut up to save their lives even though she knows she's saying things the wrong way - as she adjusted to life in middle school, where her old friends had a completely different schedule. She thought her life would be perfect if she just had one really good best friend, so, when a magic sketchbook fell into her life from her deceased Great-Aunt Elma, she made herself the perfect friend, Madison Fontaine.

(See my post on the first book for more on where it went from there.)

It's now a little later in the school year: there's still a gaping hole in the gym ceiling from <event in book one>, and Dany has been using her reality-warping powers in lots of ways, none of which could ever backfire on far as she's ever foreseen. But Madison is now even better friends with Cara McCoy, another cheerleader, and Cara is not Dany's biggest fan. Cara isn't a "mean girl," though she does get mean in the ways middle-schoolers do. Honestly, it's pretty clear than Dany can be annoying regularly, and is exhausting nearly all the time.

So Dany thinks: I just need to use the notebook again, to make things better. I'm too busy and too lazy to get everything done - what if there were two of me? So she uses the notebook to create "Cloney," a version of herself with a ponytail who lives in a "Pikkiball." And it actually seems to go OK at first: the two Danys get along with each other, Cloney is happy to take original Dany's place at school, and nobody is an evil twin or from the dimension of death.

But there's other stuff going on in the background. Dany's parents have mysteriously won the lottery. Her mother has lost a lot of weight suddenly. Some other relatives, we see later, have had equally surprising life changes. All soon after Great-Aunt Elma passed and her stuff was bequeathed to her family - interesting!

Gudsnuk doesn't underline that; the reader has to pick up on it. Or maybe it's that Dany doesn't pay much attention to it, since she's self-absorbed in the ways only a twelve-year-old can be, and the book is from her point of view.

But Back to the Drawing Board is a book where things get even nuttier than in the first book. It builds slowly at first, but the back half of this one is full of all kinds of weird magical powers and events: it is (he said approvingly) deeply Gudsnukian and lots of fun. There is an even bigger magical conflict at the end of this book, and, this time, it's not all Dany's fault - though she and her friends do need to be the ones to make everything right.

Gudsnuck has a slightly looser line here than in the previous book, as if she's drawing at white-hot speed and trying to get to all of the good stuff in her head. I found it a bit too loose here and there, but it works almost all the time. And her people are energetic to a fault: she's particularly good at a cartoony open-mouth pose when they run into yet something else bizarre and unexpected.

Obviously, the core audience for this book is middle-school girls. But I'm about as far from that demo as you can get, and I'm looking forward to Book Three later this summer, so take that as a recommendation. If you're an adult, I'd still start Gudsnuk with Henchgirl, but, if you like that, you'll get a hoot out of these books, too.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 6/28/02

No new books this week, so I'm diving into the reading notebooks again. The RNG points me to 2002, so here are the books I was reading at this time that year:

Isaac Asimov, The Stars, Like Dust (6/22)

See below.

Isaac Asimov, The Currents of Space (6/23)


Isaac Asimov, Pebble in the Sky (6/24)

So I'm pretty sure this is the first and only time I read these minor Asimov novels, and it was to decide if we at the SFBC should offer them. (Reader: we did, in the 2002 omnibus The Empire Novels.) I've always found Aimov's writing colorless to the point of being immediately forgettable: I've enjoyed some of his nonfiction, but his fiction is OK at best and usually deeply dull, with long, long stretches of colorless people doing colorless things in colorless words.

So I don't have any good memories of these three novels, and I'm not inclined to remind myself of what they were about. I read a lot of this stuff because I was getting paid for it, and I'm not going to spend any substantial time on it now that I'm not getting paid for it. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys bland prose about '50s white men doing whitebread things in cardboard SFnal settings, well, have at it, but also know I am judging you, and not all that silently, either.

Gilbert Hernandez, Luba in America (6/25)

This was the first collection of the post-Love and Rockets comics of Gilbert, focusing on his major character of the time. Well, post-the first L&R series, but we didn't know there would be four of them at that point, did we? I've since re-read the whole series in a "I Love (and Rockets) Mondays" subseries as part of my 2018 Book-A-Day run: see my post on the larger omnibus that includes this material. And I'm not going to try to reconstruct anything of my 2002 reading, given than I've got a much more recent memory of the same stories.

C. Northcote Parkinson, Jeeves: A Gentleman's Personal Gentleman (6/26)

Parkinson was a mostly serious writer (British, naval historian) with a sideline in quirky ideas: he also wrote a "biography" of Horatio Hornblower and was best known for formulating his eponymous law. ("Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.") This was another oddball thing, from fairly late in his career - 1981, a few years after the death of P.G. Wodehouse and when Parkinson was just past seventy himself - and is a fictional biography of the world's most famous gentleman's personal gentleman. As I recall, it doesn't try to mimic Wodehouse's humor, and does try to tie off all of the loose ends for all the major characters, which is pretty anti-Wodehousian. But my memory is that it meant well, was interesting, and generally was pretty good: Parkinson was old enough and British enough to really get the point of an old-school butler, which was of central importance.

Alan Moore and Alan Davis, Captain Britain (6/27)

A big collection of comics stories about the big beefy guy, in the costume that covered his hair - I think Captain Britain, like most superhero IPs owned by major corporations, has been other people since, and has certainly had other costumes since - written by Moore and drawn by Davis. As I recall, they originally appeared in UK-only publications, and the trade paperback was the first time they were widely available to American audiences - so it was seen, at least potentially, as a lost gem or something similar. I'm doing a bit of googling, and it seems like the situation is still muddied: this book collected a big plotline that opened up the multiverse of Captains Britain (which is what I remember) to battle Mad Jim Jaspers (who I don't recall at all) to save all the worlds from him Anti-Monitoring them, or something. After this was another, mostly just Alan Davis collection of similar material, and then it all led into the Excalibur series. Maybe. If I didn't get that wrong. As I remember, this is mid-80s Moore and mid-80s superheroing, with all of the stuff that was bubbling up out of the stew: world living & worlds dying, heroes meeting versions of themselves and huge numbers of other random heroes from other worlds, lots of exposition and lots of explosions. My memory is that it was a bit scattershot, from appearing a bunch of different places, but basically held together as a story.

Gerd Gigerenzer, Calculated Risks (6/28)

Um, what? This is utterly unfamiliar on first glance. Let me google. OK. I think this was a pop-science book by a cognitive scientist, of the "people are horribly stupid about statistics" type. In other words: that the things people are frightened of are mostly really unlikely, and the things they don't worry about are vastly more likely to be troublesome. It looks like Gigerenzer was a big fan of expressing probabilities as absolute risks - x chances in 1000, for example, and keeping that consistent rather than talking about "25% increase" in this and "40% decrease" in that. Because, as you know Bob, for most risks, the absolute numbers are small to begin with, so minor shifts turn into big percentage shifts (from 2 in a million to 4 in a million - a 100% increase!!!!) and focusing on those percentages just leads to panic and bad decision-making. At this distance, I can't evaluate his argument, and I suspect there may have been some buried political points (in which direction,. and from which country, I can't say) in there as well: that era of statistics/economics books were riddled with them, usually in deeply coded language.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Current Song Obsessing Me

OK, "song" may be a little strong -- this is more of an ambient piece, more about mood and atmosphere and sound. But it keeps coming up on my playlist, and I stop dead to listen to the words at the end every time, and it hits me every time.

This is by Scarlet Season, a one-woman band who had an excellent, slightly more conventional record a decade ago and has recently released this and a longer, more deeply ambient piece called Meditation_01.

It's called "One Day I Woke Up." If the widget doesn't work, go to Bandcamp.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Bonus Quote of the Week: Twinsies!

What strikes me about it still is not how good she was at it, moving me almost to tears of pity in spite of everything, but how strange she was to me at that moment, and from then on, really. I know Abigail better than anyone else in the world, and if I were asked to explain this or that particular thing, I could probably give a fairly accurate account of her motivations. I can report that duty has never played an even minor part in her decisions; that she is moved solely by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain; that she derives pleasure from an astonishing variety of sources, and pain from astonishingly few; and so on. I can even predict her behavior, with a respectable success rate.

But I don't understand her at all. To understand you have to do more than predict and explain, You must feel some degree of empathy. I have a greater understanding of cats and internal combustion engines and Iranians than I do of my twin sister, Abigail.

 - Jincy Willett, Winner of the National Book Award, p.36

Friday, June 25, 2021

Quote of the Week: When Did You Know That You Knew What You Know?

I'm an old man writing about a young man, and about that young man's world. Who knows what I remember of the either the man or the world? For years I prided myself in a memory that I could trust, but I can no longer trust the memory I have, and I'm not sure but that my earlier trust may have been misplaced. In addition to a good memory, I also had a fiction writer's imagination - and I can't say with absolute assurance that there were no gaps in that memory, gaps plugged by my imagination without my being aware of it.

That's a little abstract, and I can't see that contemplating it can lead to anything more rewarding than a headache.

But what's a memory, and what's merely the recognition of a memory?

 - Lawrence Block, A Writer Prepares, Chapter 21

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

We readers can be nosy bastards, can't we? Oh sure, most of us are happy enough to just read the books, and don't even bother with fripperies like introductions and notes and original publication dates. But the people who are serious about books - meaning the ones authors come into contact with on a regular basis, collectors or editors or agents or booksellers or critics or just bug-eyed lunatics - always want to know more, and our questions are inexhaustible. 

Why did Author X name this philandering villain James - is it significant that is the same name as his mailman at the same time? Book Z was published under a pseudonym that author never used again: surely that must mean something? And why did this series run in paperback for ten years and then suddenly jump to hardcover, only to sputter out? Surely there's a story there!

Some authors enjoy explaining their process; some don't. Some like dishing dirt on their fellow writers and publishing partners: more, some are gleeful about it, he said as someone who has had lunch with Harlan Ellison. Some have good stories, but some, if they're honest, would mumble something like "well, I had the idea for this book, and wrote it, and then Joe Doaks over at Papillion offered me a three-book deal, and thirty years later I ended up following him to Mariposa for what became book twenty-seven of the same series."

Lawrence Block was traditionally one of the reticent writers. It was clear he'd had an interesting and often tumultuous early career: he wrote sex books on a monthly basis for a living for a couple of years and worked at the infamous Scott Meredith Literary Agency and was a SMLA client and got fired as a client by SMLA. That's on top of the usual life-stuff of going to college, having it not really stick, bouncing in and out of New York City a few times, getting married and moving way out to the sticks young, and briefly launching what could have been a brilliant corporate job in lovely Racine, Wisconsin. (And that's just the early career: his life and career seems to have stayed complicated through at least the 1970s, which is outside the scope of this post.)

But he only talked about a few pieces of that, and spent most of his career refusing to even discuss his sex books. That fueled a minor research empire among his fans, tracking down pseudonyms and searching for common phrases and trying to untangle something that was a pure tangle from the very beginning. Over the last decade or so, his stance changed: maybe due to the fuck-it attitude of age, maybe because he saw an opportunity to claim and republish his old books himself and make a few bucks, maybe just because enough water had gone under that particular bridge. So the sex books, and the other early, clearly apprentice work, came back, in new editions published by Block and with introductions that were not a million miles away from a fragmentary literary autobiography. (And that fragmentary autobiography has been collected since - I covered the first edition of Afterthoughts a decade ago, and there's a revised edition that came out earlier this year)

But, still, there was hope he'd write something in longer form, and he mentioned, now and then, that he'd written something like fifty thousand words towards a literary memoir back in 1994. A Writer Prepares, he said it was called, but it was so far in the back of a drawer it would probably never se the light of day.

Well, time passes. Drawers get cleared out. And today, Lawrence Block's eighty-third birthday, A Writer Prepares is being published. It contains the original roughly 50k words from 1994, with a new foreword and introduction, and probably roughly as much new text afterward to continue the story and get it to a point Block is comfortable calling it complete.

It is not entirely smooth; Block was not trying to make it smooth. He has seemingly made only minor edits to the old text: it's what 1994 Block wrote in a white heat over a few days, and 2020 Block clearly wanted to preserve that. But this is the story of young Larry Block, starting in August of 1956 when he went to New York as part of a college co-op program to work for a semester in the mail room of Pines Publications.

But, before getting there, we have two veils: 2020 Block explaining how the original script came to be, and how it got into that drawer (and how it was actually part of a contract with Morrow for most of the '90s; it was a book he absolutely thought would become real), and then, further back, 1994 Block explaining why, after so many years of resolutely refusing to talk about his sex-novel career (and pointing out that he can't talk about his early years without getting deeply into the sex-novel career; one was the other), he was actually doing that now.

Well, maybe he hadn't managed to completely convince himself on that point quite yet. Or maybe a dozen other things. Writing isn't easy, and the flood can stop for a thousand reasons or no reason. This time around, spurred by the pandemic and a sense of his mortality - or maybe other reasons; I mention those possibilities only because Block does himself - he did finish up A Writer Prepares, covering what he thinks of as the early phase of that career.

So Prepares takes Block from that mail room to SMLA, first writing polite letters to suckers paying for useless writing-career help, and then becoming part of the stable of writers SMLA represented to a few bottom-tier publishers. And then expanding out from books about sex he knew very little about - Block wrote a whole bunch of lesbian novels; I'm not casting aspersions on his love life in the late '50s - he also wrote a bunch of books pretending to be a doctor, which were also mostly, at least at first, all about sex.

(If there's any lesson from that era of American publishing, it's that no matter what idiots tell you about the "good old days" of the post-war consensus, the country was obsessed with sex in the late '50s and early '60s just as much as any other era, but had to jump through horribly unpleasant hoops to scratch that itch. I don't know if we're healthier now, but we're at least clearer and more open.)

Along the way, Block tells stories about some fellow writers and SMLA colleagues - Hal Dresner, Don Westlake, Henry Morrison, and a number of other names less well known. He narrates how he went back and forth from Antioch College to New York to Buffalo, how he got married and had two daughters, and how he ended up in Racine. He ends the book at a point where he thinks he's become a journeyman rather than an apprentice: he's not writing sex-novels for a living anymore, and he's launching his first series character, under his real name, for a at least moderately respectable publisher.

(Don't kid yourself: publishers are never better than moderately respectable. Even Markus Dohle.)

Others have been in more depth about SMLA - Barry Malzberg, who can always be counted to give the most negative picture of anything he looks at, has some choice words in his Engines of the Night -- but Block gives a solid picture of the fairly early days. (I do wish it had been possible for some enterprising soul to record extensive interviews with all of the major players for an oral history of SMLA: it might have had to wait a hundred years to be published, but it would have been amazing.)

Much of what's in here will be familiar to people who have read Afterthoughts, but this is a deeper, more complete view of Block's early career than those inevitably piecemeal introductions for specific novels. And the palimpsest nature of 2020 Block layered on 1994 Block looking back at 1956-1965 Block is fascinating: we all look back at our lives and consider what we did and why, but most of us aren't as strong writers as Block is or have such rich material to work from.

If you've read this whole long post, you must be interested in Block and his life to some degree. If you're actually reading this sentence, you will want to read A Writer Prepares

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett

I probably should make it clear, as the author and publisher do on the copyright page, that this book did not win the National Book Award. (Or the Pulitzer, for that matter.) That is, as they say, the joke. If you don't see how that is, or could be, a joke, this is not a book for you at all.

Winner of the National Book Award was Jincy Willett's first novel, published in 2003 after a book of stories, Jenny and the Jaws of Life. Willett has since written a couple of subsequent novels, and seems to be still around, and still just as acerbic and sardonic as this book shows her. (Her website leads with a cover page that more-or-less-dares the reader to go farther and is bylined "Professor Twitmore F. Twatface," for one example.)

This is a literary novel, I suppose. That means it's about real people in a real world, and that the joy in reading it is as much in the words themselves and how the story is told as it is in the events narrated. (Non-literary fiction is entirely about the events. Some people prefer that, which seems bizarre to me. Why deliberately avoid good things? It's like only eating plain hamburgers without sauces, cheese, toppings, or buns.) There is nothing genre in this book. Well, I suppose there is one murder, but it's not a mystery or a surprise.

Often, literary novels are told in quirky, complicated ways. That's part of the appeal, again - it's not just the list of things that happened, but a story told in a particular way by a specific character. In this case, we're hearing it all from Dorcas Mather, the middle-aged librarian of Frome, Rhode Island some time in the mid- to late 1980s.

A hurricane is heading for Frome, so Dorcas is battening down in the library. To spend the time, she has a brand new book, In the Driver's Seat: The Abigail Mather Story, by Hilda DeVilbiss and Abigail Mather. Abigail is Dorcas's twin sister; her opposite in nearly all things. The book is true crime. The accused criminal is Abigail. The circumstances, as the book and an extensive publicity campaign are currently arguing, are extenuating.

Dorcas really does not want to read this book, but it has to be cataloged, and it's in front of her (along with a bottle), so this is how she will spend the day.

Winner is the book Dorcas wrote - or would write; Willett isn't being all 19th century about it - that day, as she reads Driver's Seat and explains what really happened and what it all means. We do get some snippets of Driver's Seat along the way, of course. We get much more Dorcas, which is vastly better: her voice is strong and determined and deeply self-assured.

The actual murder only comes in at the very end, but the reader knows it's coming: it's the point. And we know why: by that point, we're ready to commit that murder ourselves. I haven't mentioned the murderee, or explained why Hilda DeVilbiss as author of the book is important, or even said anything serious about the differences between Dorcas and Abigail. There are other characters in Winner, Hilda and Abigail and the murderee and a few others: we see them all entirely through Dorcas's eyes, and Dorcas is not someone with a whole lot of positive opinions about other people.

More importantly, I've neglected to mention how funny Winner is. That's the real point - it's one part lit-world takedown, one part attack on sexual psychobabble, at least one part insult to true crime, several parts mocking New England pretention, all wrapped up in Dorcas's voice, which mocks itself nearly as much as it mocks everything else. It 's scabrously funny: mean and satirical and wonderfully cruel throughout.

It's oddly timeless, set twentyish years before it was published and now nearly twenty years old itself. That might make it feel more literary to younger readers - it's a world without cellphones and Internet, like all the other crap they had to read in school. For those of us who lived in that world, it just feels like a little longer ago - still a world we remember.

But, really, in the end, this is a really funny book told in a great voice. Again, it's literary, which means it's about people. As long as you are people - and I hope you are, if you're reading this - that should not be an issue.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Kent State by Derf Backderf

Comics has not traditionally been full of historians. It's a field that tends heavily to the fantasy end of fiction - the more fantastic, the better - with the details of actual life and people far behind in the race. Maybe that's getting better in recent years, and there have been people like Larry Gonick working seriously in non-fiction comics for decades, but comics have mostly been synonymous with escapism. 

Derf Backderf's Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio is the opposite of escapism, coming at a cultural moment when widescale protests, mostly by young people, against the government are once again splashed across the news and right-wing responses to those protests are again violent, intemperate, and murderous.

It was originally scheduled to be published just about a year ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of what we now call the Kent State Massacre. (The archival collection at the college itself is more tastefully dubbed the May 4 Collection; our standards for how many deaths constitute a "massacre" may also have inflated in the years since.) But one crisis delayed publication to the fall, and another crisis - sparked by the murder of George Floyd the way a lot of anti-war activity in 1970 was sparked by the Kent State shootings so long ago - made it horribly more relevant and immediate.

Backderf had a long career as a weekly cartoonist in alternative papers, making comics that zigged and zagged between reportage and fiction for a couple of decades, but has more recently transitioned to being a maker of serious book-length stories. So far, it's all been connected to his own life and experiences: he's an Ohio guy, and they've been Ohio stories, with more blue-collar ambiance than usual for most serious comics-makers these days. (The big breakout was My Friend Dahmer, because Backderf really did go to high school and was vaguely friendly with Jeffrey Dahmer; he followed that up with the fictionalized Trashed.)

Kent State is on more substantial level than Dahmer and Trashed; this is a deeply researched book, with long pages of notes in the back to detail exactly what is known and what is postulated, and to signpost where Backderf comes down on some questions that will probably always be open. It tells the story of the massacre in comics, focusing on the four people killed, starting just before the previous weekend on April 30 and running through the end of that fatal day of May 4.

Backderf's people are lumpy and rough-hewn: I like to think of them as Ohio people. Salt of the earth, real...whatever phrase or euphemism you want to use. They're not pretty: this is one of the few recreations of a story about college students where they look less attractive than they did in real life. But Backderf isn't here to make things pretty; he's here to tell the truth. And he's really good at that.

This is a big, detailed book. Even if you don't read the notes at the end as you go through it - I did; I always end up reading like that, if a book has extensive endnotes - you will be struck at the level of detail and precision Backderf brings to his work.

A lot of people in power made really stupid decisions in 1970 for several days for this to happen. (Backderf makes that all very clear here.) Worse, they pretty much all were rewarded for it: the Ohio public was not so much shocked that four young people were murdered by soldiers as they were happy that "those hippies" were put in their place. There's an unpleasant lesson for today in all of that, obviously. The children of those horrible Ohio bystanders are still out there, with the same toxic opinions, in Ohio and elsewhere. Maybe there are fewer of them than there used to be. We'll have to see.

As Neil Young put it, "Should have been done long ago." And it's still not done. I don't know if it ever will be done. But books like Kent State can at least make it more likely. That may be all we can hope for.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/19/21

This week I have seven books from the library that I'd reserved knowing I was taking time around the 4th of July holiday and would have more physical-book-reading time than usual. (We'll see if this is what I end up reading on those days.) This is what I got:

A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez -- this is a graphic novel from a Spanish creator that came out last year. It got some good reviews, it's one of those two-intertwined-stories-in-different-time-period things, and my library had it: that's about the sum total of my knowledge.

Folklords is, I think, a full story - at least, I'm not seeing a "volume one" on it anywhere - that collects a five-issue series written by Matt Kindt with art by Matt Smith and Chris O'Halloran. And it seems to be about a kid in a suit in a fantasy world, and where he really fits in. That looks quirky, and I generally like quirky.

Ascender, Vol. 2 - as I said when I wrote about the first one, I think I'll keep reading these as long as I can get them free at the library; this one and the next are currently available. The series is written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Dustin Nguyen, and this one is subtitled "The Dead Sea." Given how non-subtle the series is turning out to be, the deadness of the sea will definitely turn out to be vampires, or zombies, or something similar.

Black Hammer, Vol. 2: The Event is the second collection of the collection about the superhero team written by Jeff Lemire, drawn by Dean Ormston, and colored by Dave Stewart. (This time, it looks like some of the art is by David Rubin; I'm not sure if he does some of the pages or works with Ormston.) I've already read the first book and written up a post, but it hasn't quite gone live as I type this, so I can't link to it. In short: this is a well-written but vastly more conventional (DC-style) superhero series than I expected, so I find the gushing praise from the usual nerd-lebrities a little much. But I'll keep reading it, since apparently we can never get away from superheroes no matter how much we try.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominos - this the the transition book, the point where co-creator Erica Henderson stepped down and a new artist took over. So this volume has a team of writer Ryan North, new artist Derek Charm, and continuing colorist Rico Renzi. And it looks like the story is pretty much the same thing as before.

Cave Carson Has an Interstellar Eye - pretty clearly, this was the follow-up to Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, part of the hip "Young Animal" line at DC a few years back that was pretty transparently an attempt to re-do Vertigo all at once without Karen Berger but with a minor rock star. (Narrator: it did not work as they hoped.) I read Cybernetic earlier this year, and saw my library had the follow-up too, so I figured, what the heck? This is once again by Jon Rivera, Michael Avon Oeming, and Nick Filardi, without the minor rock star even getting a "kibitzing" credit the way he did the first time.

And last is The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Vol. One, the American collection of the stories Don Rosa created almost thirty years ago for the vast Disney comics universe worldwide. I'd thought this was the whole thing, but I see by looking for closely that this book only has the first half, and none of the libraries around here have seen fit to get the second book. I don't think that will matter much, but it's what I've got.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Quote of the Week: The Eternal Question

They agreed on several matters of importance, and set a schedule for the steps to follow.

"We are compatible in most of the ways that matter," she concluded at the end of their conversation. "But there is the issue of intimacy."

Kronik said, "There is no better way to determine compatibility than a full field test."

"Agreed," said Morwen. "Come to my house. I will make dinner and we will conduct the test."

That evening, they did so. Next morning, both declared the test a resounding success.

 - Matthew Hughes, Barbarians of the Beyond, pp.173-174 (see yesterday's post)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Barbarians of the Beyond by Matt Hughes

There's nothing wrong with pastiche. The Aeneid was pastiche; Ulysses was, too. Even officially-licensed pastiche only has one more hurdle to leap than any other book, that being the approval of the owner. One of the best books in the world, John Gardner's Grendel, is absolutely pastiche.

I just read another book of pastiche, of the officially-licensed sort. And I have to say it's deeply enjoyable and entirely delivers on its promise. That promise is a bit more sideways than we often see in officially-licensed pastiche - which tends to focus on yet more adventures of the same people in exactly the same mode - but that's just an indication of the skill and ability of the pasticher and the perspicacity of the licensor.

The book is Barbarians of the Beyond, by Matt Hughes. It's set in the universe of Jack Vance's Oikumene, during the Demon Princes era, and is largely set in a place once known as Mount Pleasant before those Demon Princes raided and sacked it. As far as I can tell, it's set in the middle of the timeline of those novels - it's pretty clear that Kirth Gersen has at least dealt with Attel Malagate the Woe, the first of the five, but the rest is obscure.

It's a short novel, closer to the model of the first three in Vance's series, and does not feature quite as much random fictional quotation as Vance did - though Hughes does cite Bodissey and Navarth. And it is entirely its own story: it's been a long time since I read the Demon Princes books, so I won't say definitively that no characters are shared, but that's not the point. This is a new, separate story in that universe, one that could not have happened except for events from those novels, but not "Kirth Gersen goes off to find & kill a previously unknown sixth Demon Prince!"

So: what does happen in Barbarians?

Morwen Sabine lands on the world Providence, for a purpose initially unclear, and travels to the town of New Dispensation. It's the place once known as Mount Pleasant, now inhabited by a religious sect following the Doctrine of the New Dispensation, who are called Dispers by everyone else.

Well, they started as a religious sect. And the religion is still important. But the core sacrament is chewing a drug called maunch, and, more recently, it has been discovered that maunch can be refined into a much more powerful drug, which is a valuable commodity back in the Oikumene, though not precisely legal everywhere. So the Dispers are also, in part, a criminal gang, run by the relatively new second head of the religion, Jerz Thanda.

Criminal gangs are not fond of outsiders. Frankly, hardly anyone in the Beyond - this mostly-lawless region of space outside the Pale, the borderlands of the Oikumene - likes outsiders, since outsiders are assumed to be agents of the Oikumene's police force, the IPCC. Those agents, called weasels, are assumed to be secretly everywhere, and are killed wherever found. And they are likely found much more often than they actually exist.

Morwen insists she is no weasel: she is returning to her parents' home. Her story is good enough to convince both Thanda's Protectors, the armed wing of the Dispers, and the local law, a force of Scruitneers led by one Eldo Kronik. At least at first. They're watching her, as she settles into a life cooking at the local inn and eventually moving back into her parents' old home.

But of course she does have a secret plan. Of course she did not come back to this place randomly. And the powers that currently run New Dispensation might be happy, or not, with that plan when she comes to execute it. And, again, simply having a secret plan will make Morwen look very much like a weasel.

And the one thing all of the "barbarians" of the beyond agree with is that weasels must be stopped: immediately, violently, directly.

So what is Morwen's plan, and can she both execute it and save her own neck?

I won't tell you: it looks like Barbarians of the Beyond is rolling towards actual publication, and it's a short book. You should just wait a few months, and then read it.

Hughes's first novels were Vancean, two amusing novels set in an Earth that was not quite Dying yet. He's circled Vance his entire career, creating his own Archonate universe that has nods to both ends of Vance, the fantastic Dying Earth and the SFnal Oikumene and Gaean Reach. And he captures a Vancean tone better than any other writer I've ever read: world-weary, word-besotted, clear-eyed to the verge of cruelty.

I called this novel pastiche before: it is. But most of Hughes' career has been in the wider, less-defined field that is near pastiche but not part of it. Hughes is clearly a follower of Vance - and of many other writers, especially crime writers who are not as noticeable in a book like this one - but not a slavish one. He's a follower in the sense that Virgil was a follower of Homer: you can't explore a territory until someone has opened it. This territory is now open; Hughes has been exploring it. And he's good at that.

Again, you can't buy this book yet. But you probably will be able to do so, soon. When you can, you should, especially if you wish the world had more novels like the ones Vance wrote in the '60s and '70s.

Update: Added a link above, on the author's name, to his books on Amazon. (And here it is again: Matt Hughes.) If you are looking for "somewhat Vancean, and deeply entertaining, books already available," you are greatly in luck.

Update 2: Barbarians of the Beyond will be published on September 1 in paperback (and presumably similar electronic formats) by Spatterlight Press. I'm not finding order links yet, but it's ISBN 978-1-61947-405-5 and should appear within a few days.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharu Tsuge

It's fascinating the way that art comics are similar across vastly different cultures, the same way adventure comics are. ("OK, there are these guys, with crazy powers, wearing colorful clothes, and they fight!") If I were being saturnine, I'd say something like "it's almost like we're all human beings."

The Man Without Talent is almost forty years old, by the Japanese man Yoshiharu Tsuge, and it could almost have been made by Joe Matt last decade. Oh, sure, the cultural signifiers would be all wrong, but the core of the story, the one man who just doesn't want to do anything, is remarkably similar.

Man Without Talent is a series of six linked stories about the former manga-ka Sukezo Sukegawa, who now tries to make a living selling stones next to the Tama River - stones that he found in that river. It's a quixotic pursuit, but we soon learn Suzeko has been through several of them already: fixing and selling cameras, being an antiques dealer, a crazy dream to build a toll footbridge. All of this is to avoid making more comics, which are both harder work and barely remunerative to begin with. (Suzeko is not much in demand as a comics-maker, he complains, but he actually has established contacts there, so it's hard to see that would be a worse career option than the ones he actually chooses.)

Suzeko has a wife and a young child; the three of them seem to have no other family in the world, no strong connections. One of the stories tells of a "vacation" - to a lousy, cheap hot springs, combined with a mostly-failed attempt to find rocks in another river - where they specifically say that they don't have anyone else in the world: no parents or siblings, whether alive or near or what, and no close friends. They exist on the margins of society, in the company of a loose group of similar people - shop-owners one step above beggars, men who salvage random junk for a living, rock dealers, and other oddballs.

What all of these people have in common, which is only lightly commented on, is a distaste for the bustle and forcefulness and go-getter pace of modern life, of urban living. They want to be left alone, to do not much, and to just get by. So they mostly do.

Yoshiharu Tsuge's own life is very close to Suzeko's - this is the kind of story where the reader is expected to understand that Suzeko is not Tsuge...but that he's not Tsuge in a mostly technical, official sense. This edition has a long essay about Tsuge by the translator, Ryan Homberg, which notes that Tsuge has not produced any comics - or, apparently, done work of any kind, since this book was published in 1987. So, in a way, Suzeko did win: he got what he was looking for. I doubt that made him happy: Suzeko is not someone made with the capacity for much happiness.

Man Without Talent is an art comic, and one from a culture on the other side of the planet from me. So it is quiet, and elliptical, and filled with details of a culture I know only from other works of art. Anyone willing to spend the time, and with an inclination to find the slacker life worth examining, will find this deep and resonant. The only real criticism I could make of it is that the text is all typeset in a very obvious font; comics don't need to have hand-lettering, but their letters should look like individual effort went into them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Ascender, Vol. 1: The Haunted Galaxy by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

So I was, to put it mildly, not happy with the way Descender ended. I knew that there was a sequel to that series -- this is it, Ascender -- but I figured I would not be coming back after writer Jeff Lemire set up a Backswing Fantasy larger than any seen previously. (Larger both in the backswinginess and the fantasy: this is full-bore dragon-starship goofiness here.)

But the local library had a copy of Ascender, Vol. 1: The Haunted Galaxy, and that last Descender volume was literally the only time I'd read a Jeff Lemire comic and not really enjoyed it, so I thought I should give it a chance.

I tend to suspect the Descender/Ascender transition was the plan all along, since Ascender is not so much a thematic riff on Descender, or another story set in the "same" (vastly changed) universe, but a flat-out pure sequel. The main character of Ascender is Mila, the roughly nine-year-old daughter of Andy and Effie from Descender, and the main action of this volume is Andy and Mila running away from danger to get to another character we recognize from the previous volumes.

That is to say: you could start here, but starting here is not the point, and not the expectation. This is for people who read Descender. (And that makes me think, with my old fantasy-editor hat on, that this will want to be a trilogy eventually -- what would that make the merged science/fantasy galaxy's story? Leveler?)

You may have also noticed that Bandit, the robot dog, is on the cover along with Mila, so mentioning it shouldn't be a spoiler. His arrival sets in motion the plot, which so far is running on the same kind of rails as Descender, with two cases of "that person has got to be dead" already showed prominently, one immediately subverted and the other obviously going in a very specific direction. It's all a bit lazy and obvious, I'm sorry to say.

In related news, the Big Bad is a vampire queen named Mother - I guess it's positive that she's of the old and morbidly fat style of evil vampires, not the slim and seductive type? - who is the latest in a centuries-long series of vampire queens who apparently immigrated in from some other universe between the end of Descender and this book. (Seriously, there's nowhere in the universe shown in Descender they could have been. I'll buy "the universe flipped to magic, and now we have vampires!" but not "oh, and they're centuries old, because they were actually <indistinct mumbling, trails off>.") She is casually cruel to her underlings and rules the galaxy with a bloated fist, because of course she does, and she somehow did all this in less than a decade.

There are Rebels, because any Star Wars-inspired story worth its salt has to have them, and they are obviously the good guys. Mila will join them, eventually, but probably not until book three - my guess is that she meets them in passing in book two, maybe with her keepers at the time getting into a violent disagreement with the Rebels, and then that has to be papered over later. The Rebels have a secret Sorcerer leader, whom the evil vampire queen is of course insane to find and kill, but said sorcerer does not seem to be actually good enough at the sorcery thing to make the Rebels any kind of match for the Forces of Evil.

(Oh, and the sorcerer is almost certainly a robot. My money is on Tim-21, but it's definitely not going to be a new character. I expect his big reveal will be at the end of one of the volumes: maybe two, more likely three.)

Ascender looks wonderful, moves quickly, and is full of action, adventure, and vigor. It's also hugely derivative and barely exists as a thing of its own, being a Descender remix by DJ Star Wars using beats from several hundred years of generic horror. I may read more of it, if I can keep getting it from the library, but I'll be damned if I'll spend money on this.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/12/21

These are books I bought myself, online, and then let others wrap up so I could pretend to be surprised by them on my birthday about a week ago. That may sound weird, but you really can't beat it for getting exactly the presents you want, so I recommend it highly.

The Burglar in Short Order by Lawrence Block collects all of the short stories about Bernie Rhodenbarr, gentleman bookseller and equally gentlemanly burglar. I suspect Block has basically retired from writing new fiction - he is 82, and wrote professionally, and in great quantities, since he was about 18 - so I'm not going to do the usual "oh, maybe we'll get a new novel" stuff here. It's great to have all of these stories in one place, and maybe will make me want to re-read the novels, of which there are a pretty large number of which are all loads of fun.

The Vault of Walt, Vol. 2 by Jim Korkis - I'm not one of your world-class theme-park (or specifically Disney) fans, but I like both of those things probably more than most people. And I do like random bits of nonfiction, so books of theme-park stories are a lot of fun when I come across them. Korkis is one of the grand masters of this thing: this book is the second in an annual string that got up to a tenth volume last year, which followed a long career within Disney as in various roles that mostly involved history and gathering/collecting stories. I read the first book in this series several years ago; I was slightly surprised to see how many of them there are now when I went to buy this one.

Lester Fenton and the Walking Dead: Unsettling Zombie Love! by Kyle Baker is an obscure 1992 story - originally an 11-pager in the DC anthology Fast Forward #2 - that Baker republished under his own imprint as a separate book sometime in the past decade. I suspect he has rearranged panels to stretch the story out rather than adding new material, but circa-'92 Kyle Baker is some of my favorite Kyle Baker, so that doesn't bother me.

Bad Machinery, Vol. 9: The Case of the Missing Piece by John Allison - collects the ninth storyline of a great webcomics series by a great creator, about which I've been burbling here for a number of years. (See my post on the eighth volume, which has links further back for the terminally bored and/or interested.) Look: these are great and funny and awesome, and if you're still not reading them, I don't think I can fix what's wrong with you.

Poison Flowers & Pandemonium is a bittersweet book; it collects the last four comics stories Richard Sala made before his unexpected death last May. His work was unique, with spooky stories inspired by old horror movies and an art style that layered vibrant watercolor on top of sleek black lines.

Trots and Bonnie is a big, almost comprehensive collection of the great comics feature from National Lampoon in the 1970s, written and drawn by Shary Flenniken, who didn't do a whole lot of comics after that. (Or maybe she did, and it will all be re- or initially published now, and we will find out it was all awesome. That rarely happens, but I like to live in hope.) This is great work that was one of last "why the hell hasn't that thing been collected yet?" questions in the comics world, so I'm looking forward to getting back to it all these years later.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Quote of the Week: Who and Why

I have an idea you aren't going to like me very much.

That may prove to be the only thing we'll have in common, so let's make the most of it. I do terrible things. I do them to my enemies, to my own side, to myself. In the process, I save a large number of strangers (on average, between five and ten a week) from the worst thing that can happen to a human being. I'd like to say I do it because I'm one of the good guys, but if I did that, you'd see right through me.

 - K.J. Parker, Prosper's Demon, pp.13-14

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of June 10, 1991

The RNG sent me to one end of my chosen time period (2007) last week, and, this week, it sends me to the other end. It makes me think something is wrong, but it works, for now, so I'll go with it. And so here's what I was reading this week, way back in 1991.

But first, a technical note. I started my notebook at the beginning of December 1990, and kept track of what I read each week (including magazines, listed by total number of pages as if I got points for weight) through the end of September 1991. After that I settled down to a normal, reasonable list of books finished or abandoned by date. So this list is actually "Week Ending 6/15/91," and it gives a picture of how deep I was into how many books that I gave up on not too long afterward.

I also neglected to include author's first names, so I may have to do a little reconstruction.

Marcia Muller, Ask the Cards a Question

This is the second Sharon McCone novel; the first was Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and I'm not sure when I read that. (I did read Muller's The Shape of Dread in early May, and it was newish then, so maybe I read the one I could find and then jumped back to the older ones the Mystery Guild had available.) I liked catching up to this series a lot, and I enjoyed reading along with it for at least the first half of the '90s: I found that it bogged down with a too-large cast, all centering around the law firm (or legal-aid group? something like that) where McCone worked. It eventually turned into too much ongoing soap opera and not enough mystery from this book for me, but the first roughly dozen books were solidly to my taste.

I don't seem to have covered any Muller books read at the time on this blog; I apparently gave up on her before 2007. 

Robert Parker, The Widening Gyre

This is the tenth Spenser book, from 1983. I was reading them out of order, since I'd hit Looking for Rachel Wallace (#7, 1980) the same week as the Muller. I did keep reading this series into the Days of the Blog, so you can find a couple of Parker books covered and some other thoughts in my archives. My memory is that this book was early enough that Parker was still writing relatively normal mystery novels, in which his hero actually went places and did things, instead of just standing around talking to Hawk and Susan about how awesome the three of them are, and waiting for the plot to resolve itself around the force of their awesomeness. (I may be exaggerating.)

Sue Grafton, "G" Is For Gumshoe

This was the then-book book in the series, published the year before. I'd also just read the first one ("A" Is For Alibi) during that same early-May week I was reading Muller and Parker. My pattern of binging on mysteries for seven days at a time was already solidly established, and I think I filled in the missing books over the next year or so. In memory, this series started well, got stronger through about this book, and then kept a steady peak to somewhere around M. I've only written anything about the books from S on, and I've been in mostly this-is-OK-but mode for them.

Bill Pronzini, Jackpot

This was the then-new book in the series, but I'd been reading Pronzini for a while at that point. (My mystery tastes were formed by Chandler and ran forward at first entirely in that vein: Ross Macdonald and then a bunch of more derivative male writers of relatively tough male PIs. Working for the book clubs taught me a lot of things, but one of the first things I learned, from then-Mystery Guild editor Maryann Eccles, was that women also wrote mysteries, and many of them were much better at it. You wouldn't think a guy who went to Vassar would need that lesson, but oh well.) I don't remember almost anything about any of the Nameless Detective books, which is probably why I stopped reading them: he felt pretty blank to me, a random PI who liked pulps and had the usual murder cases.

The Pronzini books I do keep coming back to are Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek, collections of "differently good" mystery writing - they are wonderful, perfectly chosen and presented by Pronzini as an editor.

Joseph Hansen, Early Graves

Another mystery - the 1988 entry in the Dave Brandstetter series. Brandstetter was an insurance investigator, making him on of the few series heroes with a good reason to actually investigate crimes and strange occurrences. He was also gay, which seemed like a much bigger deal in the '80s. I liked these a lot at the time: Brandstetter had a real life and his job actually made sense and the mystery plots were strong and well-organized. But the series seems to have fallen entirely out of print and been forgotten.

Joan D. Vinge, Heaven Chronicles (typescript)

I note here that it became a November 91 Selection. Since it was a fixup of short fiction published as a mass-market paperback by Warner Questar (no shade thrown, but they had a small budget and had a hard time competing with bigger fish in those days), my guess is that we were in one of our periodic "where the hell is all the decent SF?" frenzies. I don't remember it well, but I liked it then, and Vinge has been dependably good before and since.

Various Periodicals

1127 pages of them! Well, let's remember that I was commuting, and that this was the fat days of magazines, when ad pages ran without stopping through the tundra of an ecosystem that never dreamed it could crash. But, yes, I was keeping track of pages read every week - it was my big metric to show productivity during my unemployment from Dec of 1990 through April of 1991, and I kept it up as long as I was tracking reading by week.

Chris Claremont, Grounded! (galleys, began)

This is the sequel to FirstFlight, and I finished reading it the next week - the two books became the SFBC omnibus High Frontier, a Featured Alternate in December 1991. They were nearish future SF about a tough woman space pilot who seemed to be a gender-swapped Chuck Yeager in Space! I had forgotten that they existed at all, or that Claremont (the comics writer, the guy who did X-Men for a million years and made them the biggest thing in the world) ever wrote novels at all.

Michael McCollum, The Clouds of Saturn (galleys, began)

I note here that I read 56 pages and that the SFBC rejected it. I don't think I've read anything else by McCollum since, so I don't have an appreciable opinion on his work. 

James Lee Burke, Black Cherry Blues (began)

Back to the mysteries! This was the third in the Dave Robicheaux series, published in 1989. I don't know if "alcoholic" was shorthand for "serious PI novel," but Dave also had a drinking problem (among other problems; I don't think he was actually seeing ghosts in this book, but that and other things would come later), much like Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, whose novels were magnificent things up to this period. So maybe I thought "alcoholic male detective" equaled "classy serious mystery." I was young; let's blame me. This is a series I stopped reading for no reason: I liked all of the books I read, and thought he was a great writer (I even read some of his literary stuff along the way; he's also a college professor). I think I had several of these on the shelf at the time of my flood, and just never started rebuilding: I bet a lot of my reading life has a dividing line like that.

Peter Nicholls, The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (continue)

I read 181 pages of the 1979 edition this week, having read 129 pages the week before. I'd read 206 the week after, skip it entirely the week ending 6/29, and get the last 156 pages in the first week of July.

And, yes, I was reading an encyclopedia straight through: I think I also did that for other genre reference books over the next few years. (The '95 second edition of this book, not so much. I did get a copy, and did read a hell of a lot of it, but never tried to plow right through that brick.)

Under the entries for that week, I did the totals, as I always did in those days: 3003 pages, 429/day. Remembering that a third of that was magazines, and half or more of magazine pages were ads in those days, it means less than it could. Also remembering that even the books were a mixture of encyclopedia, paperback, hardcover, typescript, and unbound galley pages, it was a completely useless metric unattached to anything in the real world...which is why I soon gave it up.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

The Contradictions by Sophie Yanow

Most of the reviews and blurbs I've seen about Sophie Yanow's graphic novel The Contradictions focus on the radical politics, on how Sophie is learning about anarchism and communism and feminism and various related isms as a college student spending a year in Paris. But that seems to me to be entirely surface, and not what the book is about at all.

Sophie does meet Zena, who pulls her into that radical world. And The Contradictions is centered around a road trip the two of them make together, to Amsterdam and Berlin, the spring break of that year. But The Contradictions is about Sophie's unrequited desire for Zena.

(Here I need to back up briefly, and explain a standard reviewer tactic. When I say "Sophie," I mean the character in this story, as written and drawn by Sophie Yanow. When I say "Yanow," I mean the author of the work. I have no way of knowing how close Sophie's experiences are to what Yanow actually experienced, and that's besides the point, anyway: I'm not talking about a life, I'm talking about a work of art. And Yanow has clearly, carefully, constructed this book - it is very much a work of art, based to some unknowable degree on her own life and experiences.)

And I mean "desire" in a broad sense. I think Yanow is showing that Sophie wants and desires so many things about Zena: her passion, her energy, her enthusiasm, the way she knows who she is and what she wants to do. Sophie both wants Zena and wants to be Zena. 

Sophie is gay: she makes that clear early on. She's not in a relationship as the book opens; we don't see her in any other relationship in this book. Zena is coming out of a relationship with a boy, and we don't see her start a new one. Sophie, in the course of the book, never says anything explicitly to Zena. (There is a moment, late in the book, involving controlled substances, written messages, and a certain four-letter word.) And Yanow does not present them as being in a physical or romantically emotional relationship - though they clearly are in a close friendship, and Sophie obviously wants even more closeness.

I find it hard to believe Zena is clueless. I don't think Yanow means to show Zena as clueless. Zena has faults - The Contradictions is in large part the story of Sophie coming face-to-face with Zena's faults - but she is good at seeing opportunities. So I believe that Zena is deliberately stringing Sophie along.

Zena is a woman of passions, the kind of person - so common at that age - who does nothing in small ways. She's passionately committed to veganism, to anarchism, to her own role in smashing everything she sees as horrible and making a better world. And if that passion comes out in petty theft, because that only harms evil rapacious corporations? That's fine with Zena.

Sophie, though, needs to figure out if she's fine with all of that as well. And if she's fine with Zena's lack of passion for the things Sophie cases about: art and museums and dancing, things large and small and in-between. Sophie's politics are more centered in art and feminism; Zena's are more performative and anarchist. Zena is the kind of passionate person who only has room in her life for her passions. And the road trip at the center of Contradictions is where Sophie has to live with Zena, and all Zena's baggage, for an extended period of time.

If I wanted to be cute, I might say that Sophie stuck around because she thought she could become one of Zena's passions. Maybe she did. Maybe Yanow was implying that. And maybe there was an element of how-flexible-can-this-person-be in the desire: Sophie learned that Zena was exactly as inflexible as she said she was.

Zena is not a bad person at all. By her own lights, she's as good as a person can possibly be, and she's not wrong in horrible ways. (Just in smaller, actually-living-in-a-world-with-other-people ways.) But she's strong medicine, especially if you don't agree with her on every passion. And who does agree with anyone else on every passion?

So The Contradictions is, maybe, a falling-in-and-out-of-love book. A book about an infatuation. And, yes, the politics is a huge part of the appeal: Zena, and people like her, are sexy and exciting because of their unwavering commitment to unpopular ideals. But Sophie has her own ideals, which do not entirely line up with Zena's, and her passions may be quieter, but that does not mean they are not passions. Zena is not someone who has much time for people who disagree with her on fundamental things...and nearly everything is fundamental with Zena.

I haven't mentioned Yanow's art, because I'm a words person, and because it intimidates me. She has a razor-sharp ligne claire (and I feel like a poser just typing that, though it's absolutely the right term) style that leaves nothing to chance, just precise lines on the paper and inky blacks where needed. It's a pretty absolutist style, which is deeply resonant for a book about someone as absolutist as Zena: I don't know if Yanow always works like this, but it's an amazing match of matter and style.

The Contradictions is a deep, resonant book that won't tell you what it's about; even the title slips out of your hands when you try to explain it. It is a great graphic novel that is as much about love as politics. And I hope Sophie Yanow will keep making books this strong for decades to come.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

All Together Now by Hope Larson

There's something deeply pure about a middle-book about middle-schoolers. The characters are in a point of their lives where they're growing and changing - not still the people they were as kids, and not even the teenagers they will be in another year or two, much less the actual adults they will eventually become - and the story is similarly middle, starting from another book it hopes we've already read and handing off at the end to a book the author may not have even planned out yet.

It's very thematically appropriate, is what I'm saying.

That's how I think about All Together Now, Hope Larson's new graphic novel for 2020 and a sequel to 2018's All Summer Long. It picks up soon after the end of the previous book: Bina is still thirteen, it's still the same year, and she still wants to write and play music. But the entanglements and problems are different, because it's not summer anymore - All Together Now begins in September and runs through nearly the end of the year. So Bina is back in school, has formed a band with her new friend Darcy, and hardly sees her neighbor and one-time best friend Austin, who has a punishing travel-soccer schedule.

So the Bina-Darcy band needs a drummer, and gets one, which changes everything, and keeps changing things. And Austin eventually circles back, with a different opinion of Bina than he had before.

Things change. They can change really quickly when you're thirteen.

Together is the same kind of book as Summer: episodic, quiet rather than flashy, introspective rather than dramatic. It's about how Bina feels about what's happening as much as it's about the things that happen...and, to be honest, Bina isn't really sure how she feels about the band-drama and the next-door-neighbor drama a lot of the time.

Books about people this age often have the young people bemoaning the changes, and wanting things to stay the way they were, forever - Bina had a bit of that, in Summer. She's still not thrilled with all of the changes now, but I think she's happier, or maybe just resigned, about the changes. Maybe she's starting to see the places the changes could take her, and those are thrilling and frightening, like all adult life is. That's a good sign for her: life is change, and the earlier people realize that, the better off they will be.

All Together Now is another fine, deep, naturalistic graphic novel by Hope Larson, following a long string like Chiggers and Mercury. I'm not as plugged into that world, so I hope the reason I don't hear about her work as much is because I'm not part of that conversation, and not because she's little-known. This book, in particular, should be in every middle-school library in the country: it has a lot to say to other actual and aspirational thirteen-year-olds.