Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Trots and Bonnie by Shary Flenniken

In memory, the past is moments. We slot in memories to specific points in time: that was when I was living there, remember when Y was five years old and started doing Z?, that was the Christmas when A had that crazy hat.

But time is more fluid than that. Anything we remember was more than a moment: it was a period, an era, an epoch. It's true for our own lives, and it's true for a lot of art.

Especially comics, which are the great serialized art form of the American 20th century. I might rhapsodize about Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, the famous Alan Moore "Anatomy Lesson" story that upended that series and gave corporate comics a new template to exploit for the next few decades, and peg it to February 1984. But Moore started writing Swamp Thing one issue before, and "Anatomy Lesson" is full of the loose ends of the previous stretch of stories - and the reason we look back at it in the first place is what came afterward. It lived up to its promise, so we remember it.

Shary Flenniken lived up to her promise in Trots and Bonnie. More than that, she made radically different, larger, stronger promises than almost anyone else in comics: some other women were aiming in the same direction, but Flenniken's work was purer, more precise, and consistent over a much longer period.

That's the memory-moment issue again. I think of Trots and Bonnie in the context of the height of National Lampoon in the 1970s, as a burst of feminist energy in the middle of that very sophomoric, boyish humor. But Flenniken produced Trots and Bonnie strips for more than twenty years, from 1972 to 1993, spanning not just the Lampoon height of the '70s but its declining years in the '80s and its eventual implosion. Flenniken was one of the most consistent things about Lampoon for those years: a page of female concerns and anger in the middle of some of the most male-oriented humor imaginable, a context that got steadily blander and more derivative as those '80s wore on.

That's the wonder of it: that Trots and Bonnie existed at all, that it lasted almost the entire life of the Lampoon. Some editor at the Lampoon (OK: it was Michel Choquette) saw Flenniken's early work - the first four Trots and Bonnie strips collected here predate her Lampoon years, and she did some other work as well - and said "my audience of college-aged sex-obsessed boys needs a comic strip about a thirteen-year-old girl obsessed with sex in very different ways." He was right. And his successors, who kept the strip running, were just as right.

This book is the first time the Trots and Bonnie strips have been collected together in English; there was a previous collection only published in France, for whatever reason. It is not complete: for all that some of these strips are shocking and norm-breaking - the Lampoon prided itself on breaking norms; Flenniken chose different, more central norms than most of its contributors - there are some unspecified number that are too much to be republished. Flenniken says they were omitted because "Oh, that might hurt somebody's feelings or something."

I suspect it's a bit deeper than that. But that's how Flenniken works. That heavily-socialized voice of mid-century womanhood comes easily to her, even if the reader isn't sure if she's using it to tell the truth, to mask her intentions, or to set up her next attack on its sexist assumptions and crippling control of women.

But know that, no matter how shocking some of the strips here are, there are some Flenniken left out. She's thinking about your poor shocked sensibilities, oh eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old boys, the same way she was for the twenty years she made these comics. She's thinking about those sensibilities, but maybe mostly about how to pop them most effectively and quickly.

Bonnie is a thirteen-year-old girl. She reads a bit tomboyish on the page: Annie-style blank eyes, always wearing pants, usually in a dark pullover sweater over a white shirt, like a school uniform. But she's obsessed with sex, because she is thirteen. The great secret of Trots and Bonnie, for even the dull boyish readers who didn't get any further into it, was that girls (and, if they realized it, by extension women) were as interested in and fascinated by and eager to learn about sex as boys were.

Of course "as" covers a wide range in both populations: that's the point. But Flenniken, in the sex-obsessed Lampoon, gave those boys a window into the ways girls could be sex-obsessed, the ways they might talk about boys, might have their own concerns and worries and demands. Girls in most of the rest of the pages of Lampoon were objects - pretty naked bodies to adorn a joke in Foto Funnies, the targets of lust in most of the written pieces - but in Trots and Bonnie they were central, and active, and in control.

Trots is Bonnie's dog: in best classic-comics fashion, he can talk, at last some of the time. He gets the punch lines a lot of the time, because that's the deal with talking animals: they don't have the hang-ups and fears and interpersonal problems of humans. They can just do; they don't have to be self-conscious about it.

The third main character of Trots and Bonnie is the one who isn't in the title: Pepsi, Bonnie's best friend and inciting influence. Where Bonnie is questioning, Pepsi is demanding. Where Bonnie is concerned, Pepsi is outraged. Where Bonnie is interested, Pepsi is fascinated. Pepsi's angers and enthusiasms and appetite drive a lot of the strips.

Flenniken wraps those three characters, a few others that recur at least a few times (perpetually smiling boy-next-door Elrod, Bonnie's clueless and complaining parents), and a whole lot of one-offs into a series of stories, most usually single-pagers, that are all about sex. Sometimes it's sex as in the old in-out (or the desire for same, more specifically), sometimes sex as an advertising campaign, sometimes sex as in women. There are strips about menstruation, abortion, and rape: Flenniken is not here to be happy and nice for your entertainment.

In retrospect, the Lampoon was a great home for this work. It was an outlet obsessed with pushing boundaries. Flenniken was pushing in an entirely different direction - I'd argue a better, more important direction - but just that she pushed so hard must have appealed to the Lampoon editors.

Trots and Bonnie is not dated. Not in the slightest. The details of the lives Bonnie and Pepsi lived in these stories are of their times, but their mental lives are still current. (Sadly, I guess. We should have gotten beyond this by now.) Even the classic early-20h-century style art just makes it seem more eternal and current.

I still think boys need to read Trots and Bonnie more than girls do - and I use the diminutive forms of both deliberately - because girls already know all of this. (Maybe not consciously, all of them: we all know different things. But I expect it's already in their heads, one way or another.) So I'm very glad to see that it's available again, and I hope the thrill of sex will induce some of the right readers, the boys who most need to learn that girls are people, to read it, and to laugh, and to achieve enlightenment.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of August 28, 2021

I'm actually pushing this one forward a week, because I got the "wrong" book and I think I might be able to get the right one as well, and keep that all together.

But perhaps I should explain.

As I write this, I've just picked up a book from the library: The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 by Herge, which collects the three bandes dessinees The Castafiore Emerald, Flight 714 to Sydney, and Tintin and the Picaros.

I have been reading the Tintin books over the past few years, fairly slowly: one, two, three, four, five.

A careful reader will have noticed that I read up to volume five and have now gotten volume seven. That is the mistake: my library system has the books without the volume numbers in the title, so a reader has to go by the cover color and remember where in the series he is by said intricate color-coding.

So, as I am typing this, I've also been placing a hold on volume six at the library, and I hope it arrives within the next week, so I can read them both in the correct order. If not, I'll try to renew this one and make other plans. Look below for any updates, a week later. 

Spongebob narrator voice: One Week Later

Four books from the library, starting with the obvious one:

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6. This is by Herge, of course, and I expect to be reading it in a car later "this" afternoon (on Saturday as I'm typing) taking my younger son back to college for the first time in eighteen months. That has nothing to do with the book, sure, but what else can I say here about fifty-year-old adventures stories for boys that I haven't read yet?

Save It for Later is a new collection of mostly short, mostly topical (maybe "all" on both of those counts, but I'm equivocating since I have also not read this one) comics by Nate Powell. Powell is best known as the cartoonist of the March books, but, to my mind, he'll always be the guy who did Swallow Me Whole, which I still think is one of the very best graphic novels of the past generation.

Thirsty Mermaids is the new graphic novel by Kat Leyh, author of the really impressive Snapdragon. It looks like a really weird, different "Little Mermaid" take, with three mermaids transforming into human form (apparently without the aid of a wicked witch, or by giving up anything central to their communication abilities) and finding themselves stuck in the human world. I gather some kinds of hijinks ensue, and probably more than hijinks.

Last is Glass Town, a graphic novel about the Brontes by Isabel Greenberg. Greenberg's previous books - at least the ones I've seen - were the mythic The Encyclopedia of Early Earth and One Hundred Nights of Hero, so I'm not expecting this will be a straightforward historical story. I think "Glass Town" was one of their fictional worlds, actually, so it may be something more like Hurd-McKenney and Geary's Infernal Angria. It will be interesting to compare the two books, he said, having no idea if they go anywhere in the same territory as each other.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Quote of the Week: Didn't Drive Anywhere Else

"Do you mean to sit there, Brother Jackson, and tell me that [a dead body] and your woman's trunk full of gold ore are in that hearse out there, parked in front of my house?" he asked in horror.

"No sir. I lost them. They fell out somewhere, I don't know where."

"They fell out of the hearse? Into the street?"

"It must have been the street. I didn't drive anywhere else."

 "Just why did you come here, Brother Jackson? Why did you come to me?"

"I just wanted to kneel here beside you, Reverend Gaines, and give myself up to the Lord."

"What!" Reverend Gaines started as though Jackson had uttered blasphemy. "Give yourself up to the Lord? Jesus Christ, man, what do you take the Lord for? You have to go and give yourself up to the police. The Lord won't get you out of that kind of mess." 

 - Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem, pp.140-141

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Lester Fenton and the Walking Dead: Unsettling Zombie Love! by Kyle Baker

That is an awfully long title for something that was an eleven-page anthology story. (Fast Forward #2, from DC in 1992) But it's the title we have, and it was republished as a book, clearly reformatted from larger pages but still flowing well, by creator Kyle Baker under his Quality Jollity imprint, in 2017.

So that's Lester Fenton and the Walking Dead: Unsettling Zombie Love! The bulk of the book is a flashback: we begin with Lester in his middle years on a date, but a random zombie attack leads him to tell his origin story.

Young Lester was a nerd, in what seems to be the Movie '50s, who is invited to the prom by popular and gorgeous cheerleader April, for mostly self-esteem-boosting reasons (hers, not his). Meanwhile, Lester's father, who just died, surprisingly turns back up at the house, speaking in a stilted manner but moving around and seeming to be at least a horrible mockery of alive. In fact, a number of people who are supposedly dead are walking about, and at least half-assedly trying to hide the supposed-to-be-dead thing.

It all comes to a head the night of the prom, obviously. Lester must battle the zombies, and defeat their immediate leader, his own father. (Their ultimate leader is of course Satan, who makes an appearance.)

This is all told in Baker's Why I Hate Saturn style: panels more or less placed in rows, but without a lot of traditional panel transitions, and long, humorous dialogue presented below the panels in hand-drawn lettering. The tone is arch and knowing, the dialogue is self-aware and hilarious, and the situation is silly in wonderfully make-fun-of-the-cliché ways. This book packs a lot of funny into its pages.

It's still a short thing, obviously. It was an eleven-page story. But it was a very dense eleven-page story, on what I think were larger pages than these, so giving it a bit more space to breathe is good. And Baker is killer when he's really cooking with his funny material, which he definitely is here. So maybe not entirely a lost classic, but definitely a really funny genre book you've probably never heard of.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

The books you haven't read yet are often not the books you think they are.

I mean, that should be obvious, right? If you haven't read it, there are clearly things about it you don't know. The quirkier and older and more particular a book is, the more this applies. You might not know exactly what the deal is with the latest John Grisham legal thriller or Danielle Steel potboiler, but your random guess is going to be pretty close.

A thriller from 1957 set in Harlem and written by an ex-con, though: that could be very different that what you expect.

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard reprinted a bunch of Chester Himes books under the series title "Harlem Detectives" and with copy that emphasizes the two cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. It sounds like some kind of traditional mystery series: something happens, these two guys investigate it and presumably solve the crime.

A Rage in Harlem, the first book in the series, does not follow that model at all. Johnson and Jones don't even appear until about half-way through the book, and remain minor characters throughout. (One of them is less than that: he's in one scene and then out of the action entirely.)

This book is actually about a sap named Jackson, who we suspect would fall for every last scam or scheme in the world. We meet him in the process of being fleeced in a con called The Blow, which supposedly turns ten-dollar-bills to hundreds with special equipment in an ordinary stove. He loses all his money, thinks his girlfriend Imabelle is in danger (when she is clearly part of the scam), and sets off in entirely the wrong direction, causing all manner of havoc and trouble over the next roughly twenty-four hours.

Jackson steals, both money and a hearse from his employer. He enlists the aim of his brother, the vastly more street-smart Goldy, who can explain The Blow but can't convince Jackson that Imabelle was part of it. His increasingly frantic actions lead to a lot of death and mayhem in Harlem - but, as usual with fools, in the end, those are all things that happen to other people.

Jackson remains a sap to the end: he may learn better in a few very specific situations, but he's conned three or four other ways before the book is over as well. He is one of nature's born fools.

But Himes does not wink: other characters occasionally connect on how spectacularly gullible Jackson is, but the narrative never gives anything away. It's written in a taut thriller style, with perhaps Chandler-esque poetic turns of phrase to describe the colorful world it's set in. It is quick and runs at top speed and is packed full with great phrases, indelible characters, wonderfully inspired action set-pieces, and one-damn-thing-after-another pacing. Himes keeps track of a reasonably large cast, chasing them in different directions and bringing them back together in different permutations again and again - and he has a lovely knack for the perfectly right yet-one-more-complication moment.

A Rage in Harlem is pretty darn funny in spots, for all that it's about murderous con men and possibly even more murderous cops. It is not at all what I expected, but it was a hell of a ride. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

It's a cliché now: the superhero story that makes a startling new origin or explanation for a character. But there was a time when it was new. There was even a time when it was reserved for minor, unimportant characters - it was too much of a risk to radically change anyone important.

We're very far from that world now: it's been gone for almost thirty years. Perpetual transformation of the most profitable characters is the standard. I assume the Big Two have wall-sized whiteboards to keep track of who's currently dead, when they're coming back, which are swapping races or genders or powers or doing heel/face turns, just so they don't trip over themselves.

And if they don't have whiteboards like that, they should. They need them.

But 1988 was the other side of that wave: it had just started. Alan Moore had done it with Swamp Thing, most obviously. And the glimmerings of the all-crisis-all-the-time world, of eternal reboots, was faintly visible in the passel of Secret Wars and John Byrne Superman. And the conveyor belt of all-new! all-different! minor characters was just starting.

One of them was Black Orchid, a three-issue series in the newly hot Prestige Format (forty-eight pages, perfect-bound, on fancy paper with a fancy price tag to match) by two British creators making their American debut: writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean.

Black Orchid was a definitively minor character: she didn't even have an origin, she hadn't had a comic named after her before. She was some kind of mob-infiltration expert, a mistress of disguise with some other powers (flight, toughness, giving and taking punches - the usual stuff). So she was perfect for the soon-to-be standard British Creator Makeover -- there was very little to worry about.

So Gaiman killed Black Orchid in the opening pages. (Spoiler, I guess, for the set-up of a thirty-five year old story. Citizen Kane is about an old rich guy who owned newspapers; Star Wars is about this space farmboy named Luke; The Usual Suspects are criminals.) He connected her to a bunch of other DC characters, mostly through the Alan Moore Swamp Thing (probably because that was the current model of "treating superheroes seriously" or "making comics for adults"), giving her an origin that's not a million miles away from Swampy himself.

Oh, the first Black Orchid was dead. And the woman she was based on was dead long before that. But you grow orchids. It's not like there's only one of them in the world.

There are supervillains doing supervillainy and some vague ecological stuff in the background, but this is mostly about new Black Orchid trying to figure out who the heck she is and what the heck she's supposed to do. (In the end, it will be: fight crime in a skintight costume that shows off her tits, because DC wants to sell more comics. But that's after this series is over.)

In some ways, Black Orchid is "The Anatomy Lesson" writ large, with the General Sunderland role broken up into several people, the "principle" one a much more important DC character. This is all origin story for a character we didn't realize needed an origin.

It is lovely and mostly thoughtful: the adventure-story hugger-mugger sometimes tonally clashes with the "as a newborn plant-woman, who am I?" soul-searching. Gaiman admirably keeps his heroine from violence for the course of this story. (I have no idea what happened afterward: I assume she used her plant-based barely-covered tits to batter miscreants into submission like every other female superhero with strategic cutouts in her outfit.)

These days, Black Orchid is most interesting as a warm-up for The Sandman, which began soon after. It shows that Gaiman was already eager to dive into the obscure corners of DC lore, and that he wasn't happy with the obvious story choices that universe provided. And McKean's art is simply stunning: this was the high point of his realistic style, fully painted and drop-dead gorgeous in every panel, just as stunning as the better-known Arkham Asylum.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 8/23/95

I'm doing this a week ahead, since I already have something scheduled for this coming Monday (a week ago, as you read this), and so I'm taking a calculated risk that nothing will arrive in the mail during the next week.

Why? Because I try to do two blog posts each Saturday and Sunday, and I can only write about a book if I've finished a book. I just wrote about the book I read last Sunday, and that was it in the hopper.

So, instead here's what I read this week back in 1995. Let's see if I remember anything interesting:

Robert B. Parker, Thin Air (8/17)

Yes, I seem to end up with weeks full of mysteries more often than not when I do these "Reading into the Past" posts - maybe I just read mysteries for pleasure all the damn time back then? (I thought it was more a week or two here or there, but the random sampling does not support that hypothesis.)

Anyway, this was the new book in Parker's series about Spenser, the big lug of a Boston-based PI. In this book, he looked for the missing wife of a cop contact, who turned out to have been kidnapped. I don't remember it at all, but I have no clear memories of any of the Spenser books, so that's not surprising. These are all OK for that mid-century male-PI thing, and writers in particular could get interesting insights from late Parker about how he stripped down his writing style so far.

Joe Gores, Dead Skip (8/18)

This was the first of the DKA novels, about a relatively realistic private detective firm called Dan Kearney Associates in San Francisco - "realistic" enough that their work was primarily repossessing cars, and that formed the backbone of a lot of the plots. This one was from the '70s, and started with a repo, but the DKA guy ended up in a coma, so his colleagues had to do some actual investigating to figure out how and why and whether it was deliberate. (Answer: it's a mystery novel, so of course bad things happened because people did them.)

It's a short series, and not like anything else. No one else really followed Gores's lead: it was too hard to fit a normal mystery plot into what the real-world people really did with their time. I recommend it, especially for people who like quirkier mysteries and books that do try to fit real life into genre strictures. Also, this particular book is the one that "crosses over" with one of Richard Stark's Parker books: there's a scene where the DKA crew encounter Parker.

Karen Kijewski, Alley Cat Blues (8/19)

Looks like this was the new book at the time, too. I read this series as long as it lasted, which pretty much matched the '90s. (A lot of writers, like a lot of bands, have careers that last around ten years: it's sad but true.) I liked them, but I think I mix them up with Linda Barnes (another writer of a female PI, from the other side of the country) a bit in my head.

This is the one that pissed off Mormons, I'm reminded as I glance at the Amazon reviews. I don't remember anything specific about it, or much about the series: liked it at the time, kept reading it happily with each new book, but didn't take huge notice when they stopped coming.

Janet Evanovich, One for the Money (8/20)

At some point, I became the first reader for this series, and wrote reader's reports for a number of them. (I've lost my copies, in the 2011 flood, so I can't trace how increasingly annoyed I became by the series' reset button and utter lack of growth on the part of the main character.) But it looks like I got to the first one after publication, probably because I was trying to read more books by women in those days, especially about female PIs.

Stephanie Plum wasn't exactly a "female PI," not in the actually-professional and -competent sense (and that's what soured me on the series before too long), but it looked that way to start. And certainly a huge number of people who aren't me loved the series and its media extensions. So I doubt you need me to tall you about it. But I will say I thought they were really funny, and enjoyed the humor right up to the point where I couldn't stand how stupid and incompetent Stephanie was.

Julian May, Magnificat (typescript, 8/20)

This was the third of the Galactic Millieu trilogy; I read it for work. (And, I think, I bought it as a SFBC Selection not long after this: May was quite popular at the time.) I have the feeling that May has entirely fallen out of the SF conversation, maybe because her focus on psionic powers feels like a relic from a prior generation or maybe because her plots were so long and baroque.

I'd read the Saga of Pliocene Exile first, or instead of, this series - it's a late extension/prequel to a series that didn't actually need that. But my memory if that they were decent books, so there's more May if you read the Pliocene books and want more.

Marcia Muller, A Wild and Lonely Place (bound galleys, 8/21)

Again, this was the new book that year. I don't think I read it for the Mystery Guild; I only did a few reports for them (mostly authors I really loved and wanted to grab, like Lawrence Block). But I working in publishing, and the galleys flowed through the office like water. It was a great time for someone who read a lot of books: new books were on every side, and you just had to reach out your hand and grab them.

I've written a bit about this series in previous "Reading into the Past" posts; I stopped the series once the cast got too large and cumbersome and the plots started being more about the cast's soap-opera relationships than on the PI work series heroine Sharon McCone did. But I can't speak to the contents of any specific book in the series at this point; I haven't read any of them in twenty years.

Stuart M. Kaminsky, Tomorrow Is Another Day (bound galleys, 8/21)

I read a couple of books in this series -- this might have been the first one, actually - and books in another series or two by Kaminsky, but nothing really clicked with me. (And that's fine: not every writer is for every reader, and vice versa.)

This series is about Toby Peters, a Hollywood detective in the 1940s - I don't remember if he was totally private, or attached to a particular studio. In this one, I read now on Amazon, he investigates a possible murder during the filming of Gone With the Wind a few years later, and it looks like Clark Gable is the prime suspect. I suspect I wasn't enough of an old-Hollywood buff to care that much.

Stanley Asimov, editor, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters (bound galleys, 8/22)

This is exactly what it looks like: the usual posthumous collection of letters by a famous person, edited by someone close to them (his brother, in this case), so that there can be another book with the dead person's name on it. Oh, and probably also it will be somewhat useful to scholarship, though anything really incriminating or hot won't make it into the books.

Asimov wrote a lot - books and letters and ephemera. This book doesn't even include full letters; it's entirely excerpts from longer letters, maybe because Stanley was trying to get as much of his brother's voice and thoughts between two covers as possible.

I doubt anyone reads this nowadays. If you're an Asimov scholar, I hope the letters themselves are accessible in an archive somewhere. And Asimov fans have nearly five hundred books he wrote in his life to read - the vast majority nonfiction admittedly, and most of those now massively out of date.

Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (pamphlet, 8/22)

I think this was the first storyline from the original newspaper strips, reprinted in a quick (giveaway?) edition to promote whatever the current Buck Rogers franchise item was at the time (a potential TV show? maybe a RPG?).

I have no memory of it, and I lost the physical object long ago: maybe even before the flood in 2011. And I haven't gone back to the strip since then: as I recall, it was decent pulpy sci-fi (and I use that last term very deliberately).

Byron Preiss, John Betancourt, and Keith R.A. DeCandido, editors, The Ultimate Dragon (bound galleys, 8/23)

The Ultimate books were solid original anthologies, packaged by Preiss's outfit and published by Dell (he said, pretty sure that was correct). I don't remember any of the stories in any of the books, but the series were all attractive, full of stories by well-known authors, and I think well-illustrated. Exactly the kind of thing a good book-packaging operation could do well, and thrive creating. (I suspect the market niche for books like that has definitively closed, but a lot of market niches are like that - they only last for a decade or three, so it can be hard to have a career entirely tied to one of them.)

Matt Feazell, Ert!: Not Available Comics (8/23)

The then-new collection of comics - I think originally mini-comics - by Feazell, centering on his character Cynicalman, but including lots of others. Feazell is funny and great: one of the best, most consistent makers of comics over the past three or four decades. Yes, he works in stick figures and typically either mini-comics or strips in minor local papers. (He's from Hamtramck, if I remember right.)

This book would be very hard to find now. Someone should do a big magisterial collection of Feazell comics, and I hope it happens while he's still around to enjoy it.

I kept reading at a two-book-a-day pace for the next six days, finishing up with three books on the last day of August (admittedly, two of them were Valiant comics collections). I read nine more novels and fifteen total books that week, including Endymion. Yes, many of us were more productive before the Internet: I have the records.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Quote of the Week: Very Like Indeed

He was an extraordinarily unpleasant little boy. Physically the portrait standing on the chair did him more than justice. Painted by a mother's loving hand, it flattered him. It was bulgy. He was more bulgy. It was sullen. He scowled. And, art having its limitations, particularly amateur art, the portrait gave no hint of his very repellent manner. He was an intensely sophisticated child. He has the air of one who has seen all life has to offer, and is now permanently bored. His speech and bearing were those of a young man, and a distinctly unlovable young man.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, The Little Nugget, p.17

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The River Bank by Kij Johnson

Books for children are often set in deliberately altered versions of the world: simplified or rationalized, turned into something more like a utopia or dystopia, or one of those weird things where eight-year-olds seem to all live alone in their own houses and no one has an actual job.

Books from the past are set in worlds that don't exist anymore: worlds we might recognize or not, worlds we might want to live in or not, worlds that never were or worlds that were supposed to come into being later.

And then we have new books, maybe for children, based on old books for children...I don't know if I could describe all of the ways a world like that is different. So Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908, about very English-country-people animals living along a river, and it was quirky in both writing-for-children ways and Edwardian ways, but deeply lovable and loved. Some of the writing-for-children and Edwardian things hit differently a hundred years later, which was likely part of the reason Kij Johnson decided to write a sequel, and actually include things like, I don't know, actual female characters.

That's The River Bank. A 2017 novel probably mostly for adults who read The Wind in the Willows as children, maybe particularly for women who wondered what a woman Mole or Badger or Water Rat (or even, heaven forbid! Toad) would be like. It's mostly slow and winding, like its model the Grahame novel or like its model the river itself. I haven't read Wind in ages, but this feels like the same sort of thing: Johnson isn't trying to subvert or rewrite the original, but to extend it and give it new life. (The other half of life, perhaps.)

So it begins not long after Wind. Toad is still chastened from his recent exploits, but of course he will surge back to heights of Toad-ness eventually. Two new residents of the River Bank have arrived, and taken up residence in Sunflower Cottage: Beryl, a Mole, and Rabbit. (Johnson is Grahame-esque enough to avoid using actual names unless she absolutely has to: the Rabbit does have a name, which we learn, and one faintly supposes the male characters do have personal names as well, but they never are necessary, so they never appear.) The Rabbit is flighty, as one expects a Rabbit - particularly a female Rabbit, at least one character sniffs -- to be.

This is largely still Grahame's world: the technology is that of a century ago. Motor-cars are new and exciting, and motor-cycles will be even more so (particularly to certain susceptible individuals). The social world is equally so: more formal and defined.

Mole - the original Mole - does not want to talk to or spend any time with Beryl. They know each other in some way, undefined for a long time, and she is friendly to everyone but he is just barely this side of rude with her. That's one strand of what will turn into the plot.

Another is Toad, of course. He will get a new enthusiasm, and will go much too far with it.

There's also a tertiary thread about creation and art: Beryl is a novelist, and the Water Rat writes poetry. The god Pan makes a return appearance in River Bank, reprising his role in Wind.

Like Wind, River Bank is made up of mostly independent chapters, each of which is about a particular day or series of events. There is a similar climax to the motor-car/prison/recapture of Toad Hall in Wind, which happens in a very different way with a somewhat different cast in a different place.

This is a deliberately small book, much like Wind. It aims to replicate the feeling and rhythms of living beside a placid river in a deep English summer, and does so well. It's a fine sequel that stands well besides its original. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Breakfast After Noon by Andi Watson

We all define ourselves. By what we believe in, where we live, which sports teams we support, who our family is. What we do for a living is always a big one: I'm a doctor; I'm a lawyer; I'm a realtor; I'm a teacher. But what we do for a living is always dependent on someone paying us to do that, which is never guaranteed. Picking that as a major pillar of your self-definition is a dangerous thing.

Rob Grafton is an assembler. It's a skilled job: putting together various items in the Windsor Potteries factory in the West Midlands of England. He's been doing it since he left school. He thinks he'll do it for the rest of his life.

He's wrong.

The potteries - not just Windsor, but this whole region, largely dependent on this one industry - are in decline. The patterns are old and stuffy, younger families don't buy the fancy stuff to begin with, costs are rising, materials are getting more difficult to source and coming from further overseas. It's an industry running downhill, first slowly then quickly, in a region where that industry is a major pillar.

Rob gets laid off, along with his fiancé and live-in girlfriend Louise Bright. She works at the potteries, too, though she's not as keen to define herself by her job. Maybe because she does something more tedious and less skilled, maybe because that's more of a guy thing, maybe because she has other things that loom larger in her life, such as their impending wedding.

But Louise is keen to move on: apply for unemployment, get retraining, investigate what else she can do, jump to something else. Rob, though, is surly and grumpy: he's an assembler, he insists. That's what he does; it's what he will do. He'll just get his job back at Windsor, or get the same job somewhere else: how could he possibly do anything else?

Rob is wrong. I could type that a dozen times in this post: Breakfast After Noon is largely the story of how wrong Rob is, in many different ways. He's frankly not a very good person when we meet him: self-centered and thoughtless, the kind of guy who assumes the world will continue on exactly as it has, doing only the things he enjoys, because why won't it?

So Rob drags his feet with Louise. He doesn't do his end of the wedding planning; he doesn't take being unemployed seriously and look to move on; he's not particularly affectionate or loving to her at any point. And he's just as thoughtless with his friends: lazy and joking on their local-league football team, unpleasant at the pub, just not a pleasant person to be around in any way.

And his actions have the natural consequences. Grumpy, stubborn people don't get what they want because of their attitudes. They're often less likely to get what they want because of those attitudes, in fact. That's how it goes in Breakfast After Noon: Rob is wrong until his wrong decisions and attitudes and failures to act start driving people away, and then...well, that would be giving it away.

Breakfast After Noon was Andi Watson's first completely naturalistic comics story, the natural next step from the ebbing fantasy of Skeleton Key and the muted SF of Geisha. It was a six-issue comics series  in 2000 before becoming a book immediately afterward, but it shows the signs of being planned as a single story from the beginning: it has chapter breaks rather than issue breaks. And Watson may perhaps have made Rob a bit too stubborn and off-putting, even to a comics-shop audience of youngish men equally sure of everything important in their lives. I can also quibble a bit about the ending: I felt like there was an awful lot of "Rob is a stubborn ass who doesn't know what's good for him" and vanishingly little of "Rob realizes this and we actually see him change and make an effort."

Still, it's a great story: true to life, deeply grounded in a place and specific people, deeply meaningful. We all know Robs and Louises; we're probably both of them, in some ways, ourselves. And this is from the moment where Watson's art style had definitively shifted from manga to Euro influences: his lines are lovely and organic, always in the right place and the right weight, with warm grey washes to define spaces and moods.

My personal opinion is that Watson got even better than this quickly: Slow News Day and Love Fights and Little Star built on this naturalistic foundation and did similar things even more strongly. But this was the beginning of that period, and, for all of Rob's faults, he's a lovable lout in a relatable jam. For great comics stories about real-world people in real-world lives, it's hard to beat 2000s Andi Watson.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Young Shadow by Ben Sears

Sometimes a creator's different instincts and plans don't always play nice with each other. For example, a costumed-hero story has certain standard tropes: the hero can always leave the bad guys tied up with a nice note for the authorities and the reader knows that means justice has and will be done.

But if the same creator wants to do a story about corrupt cops in what seems to be a deeply corrupt city, tying up those cops will not have the same expected result: it just means their compatriots will untie them, maybe make fun of them, maybe get angry on their behalf. Frankly, it would just annoy Certain People even more: that's an event for the middle of the story, not the end.

So I'm not as happy with Ben Sears's new graphic novel Young Shadow as I was with the last book of his I read, House of the Black Spot. Black Spot had villains who could be dealt with by mostly offstage Forces of Justice, and heroes whose modus operandi was a bit more complex and nuanced than the costumed-hero standard of "run around the city at night, asking people if there's any trouble, and then get into fights with people whose look you don't like." That's very close to Young Shadow's exact words: he's the hero, so the book says he's right to do so, but his actions are exactly those of a bully or criminal gang: find someone doing something you object to (in this case, "rebel against your rich parents by drinking in the park and not bathing"), use violence on him.

If I were being reductionist, I'd say Young Shadow is "the Jason Todd Robin in an ACAB world." We don't know what Young Shadow's real name is, or his history: we meet him on patrol, in Bolt City. He's in tactical gear, with a domino mask, and he's good at violence but signposted to be on the side of righteousness - the first time we see him fight, it's to help a maltreated dog. Sears's rounded, clean art style isn't great at communicating this, though: Shadow says the dog is malnourished and dehydrated, but Sears draws him exactly the same then as later in the story, or like any other dog, just with his eyes closed most of the time.

Shadow doesn't appear to have any real home. Maybe a bolt hole or three where he sleeps, or stashes gear, or keeps whatever other stuff he has. It's not a "this guy is homeless" situation; it's just not important. What he does is patrol as Young Shadow. What he does is protect the city. Anything else he does is not even secondary.

Shadow has a network of friends, or maybe informants. They're the people of this neighborhood, or maybe multiple Bolt City neighborhoods. A number seem to be the owners of small businesses: a "lantern shop," places that look a lot like bodegas, an animal shelter. They would tell Shadow about miscreants in their areas, we think - but, in this book, they don't talk about nuts dressed up like wombats planning elaborate wombat-themed crimes, but instead about the night shift of the Bolt City Police Department. Those cops are acting suspicious, searching for things in a more furtive way than usual for cops. It's not super-clear if there are elements of the BCPD, or any aspect of Bolt City governance, that is generally trusted by the populace. My guess is no. There is definitely some generalized "never talk to the cops about anything" advice, as with similar communities in the real world.

We do get some scenes from outside Shadow's point of view, to learn that there are Sinister Forces, and that they encompass both the young malcontents Shadow beat up in the early pages and those crooked cops. (Well, maybe not crooked: they're not soliciting bribes. We don't even see them beat up or harass anyone. It's just that Young Shadow is set in a world with people who totally mistrust cops for reasons which are too fundamental to even be mentioned.) There is an Evil Corporation, as there must be, and both a villain with a face and a higher-up Faceless Villain. Their goals are pretty penny-ante for an Evil Corporation: get back a big cache of crowd-control weapons and tools, get some more pollution done quickly before the law changes.

Shadow spends a lot of time wandering around looking for these people. I'm not sure if Sears is trying to make the point that this is not a useful tactic, or that Shadow is good at the violence stuff, but not so much at the finding-appropriate-avenues-for-violence stuff. I thought he did make those points, deliberately or not. Eventually, another vigilante appears: Spiral Scratch. (At first in a closed helmet, which I was sure meant it would be a character we'd seen before. But nope.) The flap copy calls SS the sidekick of Shadow, but the opposite is closer to the truth: Scratch is more organized and planful, and Shadow wouldn't get much done alone.

In the end, our two forces of righteous violence find the thing the Forces of Evil are searching for, and dispose of it with the aid of an order of robot nuns. (I do enjoy the odd bits of Sears's worldbuilding.) And they tie up some of the henchmen, which, as I mentioned way up top, will probably not lead to anything like punishment for them.

So I'm left wondering if there's going to be a sequel: it feels like this story isn't really over, that our vigilante heroes haven't actually solved any underlying problem by punching a few people. And I also think I like Sears when his characters are detecting and talking rather than punching. But I like that in general, so that's no surprise. People who like more punching in their comics may have a different opinion, and God knows they're very common - if you're one of them, give Young Shadow a look.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Hypnotwist / Scarlet by Starlight by Gilbert Hernandez

I feel like we're all just supposed to know how to read Gilbert Hernandez's "movie books," even though they've never been clear, and their publisher (Fantagraphics) has stopped even mentioning the movie connection. These days, it seems to be just the distinctive end-papers that give us a clue, and then we're on our own.

You see, Hernandez has been writing stories, in the various comics mostly named Love and Rockets, about a group of people, originally centered on the residents of a small South American town of Palomar though in recent decades shifting to the extended Southern California family of a woman named Luba who lived in Palomar for a long time. Luba's younger half-sister, Fritz, had a career as a film actress: not a great career, and not a lasting one, but she made a bunch of movies. And Hernandez has not just told stories about Luba and Fritz and others - stories in their world, meant to be "true" as much as any fiction is - but also told stories retelling those movies, telling stories that are meant to be seen as fictional from a fictional world.

It's complicated and knotty, and not explaining it in the books themselves makes it even weirder and complicated. The most recent, and most major, Maria M., was the height of convolution, telling the movie version of Fritz's mother's life (with Fritz in that "role"), which readers of Love and Rockets had already seen the "real" version of, years before. Prior movie books were from "earlier in Fritz's career," when she did pulpier, less ambitious....OK, let's say bluntly bad and derivative and exploitative movies: Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows. (And I can't explain explain clearly how Speak of the Devil fits into this schema, either -- I think it's the "real" version of a story not about Fritz and Luba and company that was also made into a movie with Fritz, and maybe we saw some parts of that movie made in the main series.)

Hernandez was most active with these stories just over a decade ago - the first burst came out roughly every year, 2007 and '08 and '09 and '11. Maria M. took longer to gestate. And, along the way, Hernandez also made two shorter movie stories, which have now been collected together in flip-book format.

That is Hypnotwist Scarlet by Starlight, both of which "star" Fritz as a major role, though (and maybe this is meaningful?) she doesn't speak in either story. One is a pretentious movie that I don't think Hernandez expects us to take entirely seriously. The other is a pulpy genre exercise.

And I still don't get the point of either book, or of this entire sequence. Is it meant to be some kind of parallax view of specific events in the "real" story? Are they just goofy, clear-the-decks stories that Hernandez wants to get out of his head, and this is a way to tie them in? Or what?

Hypnotwist is the longer story, 59 pages long: it's some kind of art film with no narration or dialog that follows a woman who may be dreaming, or sleepwalking, or hallucinating, or something. A sequence of surreal things happen, some of them sexual and/or violent, with some other characters reappearing and a central image of a creepily smiling face. Oh, wait! I forgot the magic shoes! She gets magic shoes at the beginning, and that might explain it all. If anything can explain anything here.

(You might have gathered that I don't get this at all. Hernandez has done a bunch of dream-logic stories in his career, and I like looking at them and appreciate the visual inventiveness but never get anything specific out of any of them.)

Scarlet by Starlight is tighter, a '50s-style space opera movie in 37 pages of comics - though, in the world of L&R, I guess it was made in the late '90s. Three Americans are on an alien planet, researching something or other, two men and a woman. There are two seemingly-sapient races here, though neither can speak: the human-height and furred Forest People and the dwarfish pinkies. The humans have befriended the Forest People - well, at least the couple Scarlet (female, Fritz's character) and Crimson and their children. The pinkies, though they seem to be more organized - they have a village with buildings, and a much deeper curiosity about the human's technology - are considered basically vermin.

But then Scarlet comes into heat, I guess, and tries to have sex with one of the Americans, and it all goes to hell. There's a lot of Hernandezian violence until the survivors are able to regroup with a Hollywoodesque happy ending. Again, Hernandez is not trying to present this as a good movie: rather the reverse.

I get the sense that Hernandez makes these stories either to scratch an itch to tell junky stories or to comment on junky stories, but I have no idea which, or if it's both, or if those are the only two possibilities. I enjoy the way he moves characters around and evokes junky movies without ever getting a clear sense of why he thought spending months of his time to do this would be worthwhile.

It's weird, man. The "movie books" are just an odd sequence of stories, and these two are the very weirdest of that sequence. People who like weird should dive in here; this book is about as bizarre and random as Hernandez gets.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Quote of the Week: Perhaps Also Some Sympathy

The noise in the hall had increased rather than subsided. A belated sense of professional duty returned to Glossop and myself. We descended the stairs and began to do our best, in our respective styles, to produce order. It was not an easy task. Small boys are always prone to make a noise, even without provocation. When they get a genuine excuse like the incursion of men in white masks, who prod assistant-masters in the small of the back with Browning pistols, they tend to eclipse themselves. I doubt whether we would ever have quieted them, had it not been that the hour of Buck's visit had chanced to fall within a short time of that set apart of the boys' tea, and that the kitchen has lain outside the sphere of our visitors' operations. As in many English country houses, the kitchen at Sanstead House was at the end of a long corridor, shut off by doors through with even pistol-shots penetrated but faintly. Our excellent cook has, moreover, the misfortune to be somewhat deaf, with the result that, throughout all of the storm and stress in our part of the house, she, like the lady in Goethe's poem, had gone on cutting bread and butter; till now, when it seemed that nothing could quell the uproar, they rose above it the ringing of the bell.

If there is anything exciting enough to keep the Englishman or the English boy from his tea, it has yet to be discovered. The shouting ceased on the instant. The general feeling seemed to be that inquiries could be postponed till a more suitable occasion, but not tea. There was a general movement in the direction of the dining-room.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, The Little Nugget, pp.145-146

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Little Nugget by P.G. Wodehouse

Stalkers may have noticed that I tend to hit a P.G. Wodehouse book about every three to five months: I have my unread books in two-and-a-half bookcases behind me, organized by author, but Wodehouse is broken out to a shelf of his own in the middle of the first case. (It's because what I have are the uniform small Overlook hardcovers, so it can be a low shelf: other books don't consistently fit there.)

And I'm reading physical books in "order" - one book from this shelf, then one from the next, start again at the beginning when I hit the end. It's a weird system, but I find it helps ameliorate the anxiety of choice: picking from thirty or forty books is easier than picking from four hundred.

When I hit the Wodehouse Shelf this time, I wanted to go early - I was reading his nonfiction a few years ago (and got through what I think is all of it), and then a cluster of late books, so now it's time to see what the young Wodehouse got up to.

Parenthetically, it's weird to think of an author who lived so long as being young, but that's how time works. Just because Wodehouse died at the age of ninety-three doesn't mean he's wasn't once twenty, or forty, or eight. But the last view of a person is the one that sticks.

So that's why you get The Little Nugget today. A novel published in 1913, first in Munsey's Magazine and then in hardcovers , when it's author was in his early thirties and looking to move from being a writer of school stories into other areas. Late enough not to be juvenilia; generally considered to be one of the first really successful novels of his career; still early enough to be pre-Jeeves.

The Little Nugget himself is Ogden Ford, the teenage son of an American millionaire. He is horrible, mostly in ways well-bred English folks of 1913 would find the most appalling: recalcitrant, fat, demanding, rude, obnoxious. We are told he was spoiled by his mother, and we believe it. His parents are now divorced, and are fighting over him - having moved the field of battle to England from the vague Midwestern bit of America where they came from. The LN attracts kidnappers like nobody's business: two in particular (Buck MacGinnis and Sam Fisher) seem to have made a career out of it, despite not actually ever capturing the boy.

Into the center of this mess wanders Peter Burns, a moderately well-off young man with a broken heart behind him and a new fiancée, Cynthia, who works as a secretary for Mrs. Ford. She puts him up to a kidnap scheme, to get the boy back to his loving mother: he will take a position as assistant master at the rural school where The LN is about to be deposited, and use his access there to spirit the boy away and off to Mrs. Ford's yacht in Monaco. Then he can be joyfully wed to Cynthia, and all will be well.

The plot does not go along those lines. The LN is horrible in ways that both stymie and facilitate kidnapping, for one. MacGinnis and Fisher are both known to be snooping around that very isolated school. And the woman who broke Peter's heart five years ago, Audrey, turns up at the school as well.

This is not a full-bore Wodehouse comedy. The plot is mostly taken seriously, and Peter is in real danger from the guns of the kidnappers. The love-plot, and Peter's mental anguish over it, is taken seriously, and is the kind of thing that later Wodehouse would parody or simply yadda-yadda over. But this novel is funny here and there, and it clearly showed to Wodehouse himself and his readers that he could flex in the direction of amusing, and he flexed that way more and more as the years moved forward.

So this is not a great Wodehouse novel. It's also not a great early-20th century thriller. It's good, definitely: fun and engaging and entertaining throughout. But it's somewhere in between those two things: not quite a thriller, not quite a comedy. I like platypuses like that: things halfway between one form and another. If you do, too, especially if you like Wodehouse, The Little Nugget is wroth reading a hundred years later.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Room for Love by Ilya

This is a story about two people and about love. No, not that kind of story.

One of the people writes that kind of story, though. Pamela Green is a romance novelist, reasonably successful writing as Leonie Hart, with a fan club and what seems to be solid but unspectacular sales. But she's in a bad patch of writer's block, and has possibly soured on the entire idea of romantic love. Personally, she's deep into her middle years, and alone: we don't know exactly why and how when the book opens, but we will learn.

The other person is a young man: we actually meet him first. We don't know his name. He travels to London from wherever, hitching rides and exchanging sex for money. He ends up on the street, with another young man. Things go bad.

Room for Love is the story of Pam and that man -- call him Cougar; he does when he gives Pam a name at all. It's by a cartoonist of several names himself: credited as Ilya here, known to me previously as the Ed Hillyer who worked with Eddie Campbell on a number of Deadface stories.

Pam and Cougar meet on a bridge. It's already a third of the way through this graphic novel, so we know their routines and lives pretty well at that point. Pam thinks Cougar is going to kill himself; we're not sure but it seems plausible. She's wrong, and she ruins what Cougar has. To atone, she offers, suddenly and surprisingly to both of them, for him to live in her house.

Cougar, we see, is the kind of man who takes every opportunity he can, so he agrees. He moves in with her, cleans up a bit. Opens up, not even that much of a bit. They end up having sex after a couple of days, and then regularly.

In retrospect, we realize that's Cougar's pattern: it's how he gets close to people, how he transacts with people, how he gets what he wants. Maybe we realize that at the time: I didn't. Pam doesn't. Pam thinks this is a relationship.

Well, it is. But she thinks it's a romantic relationship, when it's a business relationship. Eventually, she learns better.

Actually, they both come out of Room for Love a little bit better, more able to handle the next big thing in their respective lives, the thing they were avoiding and trying not to think about. 

Ilya tells this story in contrasting colors: brown for Cougar and blue for Pam - panels washed with their respective colors when they're separate, discrete highlights on their clothing when they're together, dialog boxes outside panels in their colors. It's a small thing, but a deeply comics thing: a clear visual representation of how separate they are, and a clean way to keep what are and are not two story strands separate. His art falls in that no-man's-land: a little bit of cartooniness in his faces, to make them instantly identifiable, but mostly realistic, only in a slightly simplified, cleaner way. (I don't have the language to talk very well about art; I'm a words person, mostly.)

This is a thoughtful story about two well-defined people. I have a few quibbles: there's more than a bit of  psycho-babble near the end, and I think Pam's agent is acting a lot more like an editor. But the quibbles are all on that level: minor, unimportant. Room For Love is interesting and resonant: it's a book worth reading.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Bad Machinery, Vol. 9: The Case of the Missing Piece by John Allison

I like all of John Allison's comics: let me make that clear. Giant Days is wonderful, I really hope Wicked Things wasn't a one-off, and my main complaint with By Night is that he's too British to do an American-set story really convincingly.

But I love Allison in particular as a cartoonist. Like a lot of comics creators, he's just better when he's drawing his own material: he knows the jokes and characters, and probably adjusts things while drawing to make it all just that bit better. It's not that there's anything wrong with other artists; they just don't live in John Allison's head.

And so his webcomics have been the purest and best of his works: the most Allisonian, the funniest, with the most intricate plots and great character details. (And I say this while still avonding his currently-running Steeple because I haven't read the published-as-floppies beginning yet.) Bobbins and Scarygoround saw him get better and better over more than a decade, but Bad Machinery hit when he was already fully himself: I'd call it the first Allison work that was mature and entirely successful from the beginning.

Of course it's over now; Allison writes about people who live in time, and his stories usually have those people at a specific time in their lives. (Typically young enough to do crazy things, just getting old enough to know they shouldn't: late teens to mid-twenties most of the time, with some variation on either end.)

The Case of the Missing Piece is the ninth of ten Bad Machinery stories - I recall there were some uncollected bits, especially at the end, but Allison is currently upgrading his main site, so the extensive archives (including story details) are down at the moment. See my post on the eighth volume for some context, and then dig back further to volumes one to seven, and even to Scarygoround, for an unnecessarily large amount of context.

The series started out being about a group of kids at a local British school in the fictional city of Tackleford. (I think it was a "public" school, meaning not run by the government, but it seems to be more "competitive and moderately good" than "ultra-posh," for other Americans trying to set their expectations. More like the decent parochial school in your town, if you have one, than like Choate, where one of my college buddies went.) There were three girls and three boys, all tweens, and they solved mysteries: sometimes together, but more often competitively. Those mysteries often had a vaguely supernatural component; Allison's stories are generally realistic but he's not finnicky about consensus reality if it gets in the way of a fun story.

By this point, it's several years later, and they've mostly stopped solving mysteries actively. It's something they talk about, and vaguely think about doing again, like that sport you gave up last year because it interfered with your other activities. This book is not about a mystery, exactly.

Shauna is at the center: her mother is getting married to her long-term boyfriend (this is mostly a good thing, but a cause of change and stress), her older brother Darren has just gotten out of prison, she may finally get a chance to meet her father, and she's taken it upon herself to befriend Blossom Cooper, a frighteningly large and dangerous girl of their year. But Linton is mopey about never having had a girlfriend, Claire is going through her own love convolutions, with a boyfriend breaking up with her because his family is returning to Ireland (though not as quickly as the reader would expect), and the rest of the cast (especially Charlotte, who can always be counted on to barge in) circle around the main action. Oh, and the veteran teacher who handled discipline for the school is out after a health crisis, and there's a new face with new, modern ways. (Quote: "I don't do 'bollocking,' Linton. I thought maybe we could listen to some music...just rap about what's going on with you. Do you like the Beetles?")

All of those things stew around and with each other over the course of about an academic term, and it all comes to a head at Shauna's mother's wedding, as things do. Well, that's only about the halfway point of the book - the first major crisis. There will be more.

A lot of Allison's best works are about people realizing they're not who they used to be and that they need to rethink what they want and what they should be doing. This, like the end of Giant Days, is one of those stories. It's smart and witty and full of colorful characters, it's amusing and thoughtful and drawn with an energetic line.

Again, pure Allison is the best Allison. This is pure; this is one of his best. And he's one of the best. QED.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/7/21

It's a good-sized list this week: one book I bought and a bunch from the library, since my stock of books-to-read-quickly is at low ebb, and my life isn't such as to give it the flood it had in Elder Days. (Not complaining: I still have more books than I can read, and getting more is not in any way difficult. The problem, as always, is choice.)

The book I bought is Afterthoughts, Version 2.0, an updated and revised collection of new introductions and afterwords to his old books by Lawrence Block. I say "new," but the first edition is a decade old, so much of the material is at least that "new," which may seem less than "new" to some readers. But when Block is writing about books from 1958 or 1963, even 2010 is pretty new. I read the first edition nearly a decade ago, soon after it was published, and wanted to see what was different this time. (Also: the cover of the real book has covers of actual Block books on those stacks of generic books you see on this preliminary cover image, so he either learned Photoshop himself or paid someone who's pretty good at it.)

Everything else, from this point down, is from the library, so I'll only say that once. OK, maybe twice: these are from the mighty Emmanuel Einstein Library of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, though all of them originated from other nearby towns (Passaic! Verona! Woodland Park! Wayne!)

The Midwinter Witch is the third book in the series by Molly Knox Ostertag that began with The Witch Boy. I may have thought it was the second one, since I don't think I've read the actual #2, The Hidden Witch. I'm going to write about this book in about twenty minutes, since I read it yesterday, so I'll leave it at that here. See my post on the first book for more details.

PTSD is a graphic novel by Guillaume Singelin, from the small list of books for adults from First Second. (They publish a lot more for younger readers of various ages, and I've generally found all of their books are strong.) I know I've seen good reviews of it, but that was probably two years ago when it was published in English, so I don't recall exactly where at this point. It is some manner of post-apocalyptic SF in comics form, by a creator I don't think I've ever read.

I'm not sure if I should read Minecraft: Wither Without You, Vol. 2 by Kristen Gudsnuk. I got it because I've liked all of Gudsnuk's books I've seen so far, and know enough about Minecraft (not much, but I did play it very briefly in the very early days) to be willing to see what she does here. I also vaguely thought that the first Wither Without You either was not by Gudsnuk or was not available in my library system...but neither of those things are true.

The problem is that Wither One is not available for hold, and there's only one copy in the system. So I'd have to drive to the library in West Milford (and I have no idea where that is, though I could obviously find out easily), during a time when it is open, find that book on the shelf (assuming no one else has done so in the meantime), and get it that way. I don't think I have the time for any of that in my life currently, so I might just read this one and see how much sense it makes.

Ascender, Vol. 3: The Digital Mage continues the series by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen that I have been making mild fun of the last few months. The series as a whole is also a sequel to their earlier Descender. And this one looks just as gorgeous and silly as the first two.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 10: Life Is Too Short, Squirrel is another one of the books collecting that popular and now-ended series. This one was written by longtime series mainstay Ryan North, drawn by then-new artist Derek Charm (with one issue by Naomi Franquiz), and colored by Rico Renzi, also a long-timer. The first issue here is the obligatory Death of Squirrel Girl! fake-out, which every superhero must do roughly once a decade. (Both Marvel and DC have big charts on prominent walls in their offices, I am morally sure, to keep track of who is dead at the moment and who is in which costume. Or maybe it's a private app, these days.) I've read the series up to this point, and it looks like I'm going to finish it up.

And last is Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, which the "read this next" page insists is the third collection of the Black Hammer series written by Jeff Lemire. (I am more than a little dubious, as you may guess, but this is certainly in the same universe. And I'm willing to believe this story doesn't so much move forward as proliferate.) This one is drawn by David Rubin, who also did one issue in the second collection of the main Black Hammer series. I expect I will find this much less impressive than the longjohns fans do, but the library still has another couple Black Hammer-verse books, so I'm hoping it will be good enough that I can keep reading and actually get the end of the story Lemire started in the main series. (This assumes there is an end to that story, which may be an unwarranted assumption, given it's a superhero comic.)

Friday, August 06, 2021

Quote of the Week: Worth Any Number of Old Ladies

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling someone out.

 - Joan Didion, "A Preface," in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p.7

Thursday, August 05, 2021

The Follies of Richard Wadsworth by Nick Maandag

I thought I knew deadpan. Brother, was I wrong.

Nick Maandag is deadpan. Middle-of-Death-Valley-in-a-heat-wave deadpan. No flinching, no blinking, no prisoners. And I appreciate that, even as I start to wonder if I really should be laughing: what if, I think, this isn't meant to be funny?

There are sequences in the second story in this book, "Night School," that run straight down the weird borderland between dystopic horror and exaggerated slapstick. I did laugh, I admit it. But I immediately felt bad about it, and wondered if I should have.

The book is The Follies of Richard Wadsworth. Nick Maandag, again, is the cartoonist. It came out two years ago, and had three new stories - the title piece is about half the book, then "Night School" and "The Disciple" split the rest. There's also some four-panel jokes, somewhat along the lines of Ruben Bolling's "Super-Fun-Pak Comix," on the inside covers.

Maandag will not tell you when to laugh; he's not going to telegraph anything. His situations may be bizarre - "Night School," in particular, spirals from a fairly normal business class to escalating torments smoothly and plausibly. "The Disciple" is a bit more of a shaggy dog story, in which one young monk battles his attachments to the world and learns some unsavory secrets about his master. Oh, and manages a monkey sidekick, because Maandag will never quite be straightforward.

The title story plays it basically straight, with Wadsworth, a peripatetic philosophy professor in his early middle years, landing at a new college for a new academic year, hoping to finally put down roots and get tenure. But he's bizarrely impulsive and socially inept - in the manner of a comedy protagonist, mostly - and horribly bumbles both a relationship with a female student and learning a juicy piece of academic gossip. Wadsworth is one of those people who can't get out of his own way to save his life, but always in funny ways. Maandag, though, plays it all as it it were totally straight, as if this were yet another story of a professor lusting after a student and not about a total goofball who runs on endlessly about the joys of bland chain restaurants.

Maandag's line reminds me a bit of Seth: precise, thin, all the same weight, with a lot of texture on surfaces behind his characters. His people pop from their backgrounds, but still feel small, limited, inherently minor. It's a good look for comedy: his people are mockable down to their core, in the way he draws them as much as the way he writes them. They're mostly ugly or funny-looking to one degree or other, like real people are and comics people most of the time aren't.

I don't think anyone needs to be told this book is comedy. I think that would be clear in the reading of it, even if you picked it up randomly, with no knowledge at all. I think. Maybe not. Maandag is that deadpan. 

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Poison Flowers & Pandemonium by Richard Sala

First of all, it's sad to see this book, because we know it's the last of Richard Sala's work. He died suddenly last year - and, it seems, at least somewhat mysteriously, which is grimly appropriate - and there won't be any more of his work ever again.

Sala was original, brewing up a mixture of horror movies, penny dreadfuls, and plucky young (barefoot!) heroines into a gorgeously-watercolored mixture that would be welcome to fans of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, or Edward Gorey but was uniquely Sala. Some of his best books, and places I'd recommend starting if you don't know his work, are The Chuckling Whatzit and Delphine and Mad Night.

What we have here today are his last four stories - some miscellaneous work that (I think) was already planned to be collected together even before his unexpected death. It's a nice big package; it looks lovely; each of the stories is fun and deeply Sala-esque. It's Poison Flowers & Pandemonium, and the bittersweet nature of publishing it after Sala's death is perhaps the most exquisitely Sala-esque moment in his entire career.

In order, those four stories are:

"The Bloody Cardinal 2: House of the Blue Dwarf" is a sequel to the first Bloody Cardinal book, also published originally as a webcomic, although it's less focused on the title character (either of them). A typically Sala heroine, Phillipa Nicely, is caught up in a group of fiendish types when an acquaintance of hers enlists her in an attempt to swindle them. It all gets vastly more complicated, of course, but there's a full-page listing of characters up front to help keep track of them as they get machetes to the brain in turn. (People die often in Sala stories; he tells bloody monster movies in comics form.) This one has a lot of energy and I think is more successful than the first Bloody Cardinal, but still could have used a little more space and careful pacing - my sense is that webcomics weren't the best format for Sala, who did somewhat better work when he could rework groups of pages or entire stories together.

"Monsters Illustrated" is mostly a series of full-page illustrations of monsters in action, with a very thin frame story (involving a plucky barefoot girl in danger [1]). The monsters are not named precisely to explain who they are, but readers will likely recognize many of them, and I suspect really devout readers could place every single one of them.

"Cave Girls of the Lost World" is another frame story, and almost a self-parody. A young boy discovers a bottle on the beach, inside which is a fantastic story of a planeload of private-college girls who found themselves in a savage land (not The Savage Land) full of dinosaurs, cavemen, and Bat People. The cave-girl story is told in hand-lettered prose (as if on weathered parchment) on left-hand pages, with full-page illos of the bare-breasted girls battling the various dangers of their lost world on the right. Sala has a fun wink at the very end; I wonder if he had hoped to expand this out to something larger?

"Fantomella" is another one of his stories of an avenging young woman, in the vein of Violenzia. It's set in a dystopian world, and is almost entirely the title character fighting her way up the tower HQ of the masters of this crapsack world, killing colorful lunatics along the way, mostly with her ubiquitous knives. (Though she does mix it up a bit as she does along.) This one is fun and energetic, but very much in a style Sala has done multiple times before.

So all of it is solid and all of it is deeply Sala-esque, and no one else could have made any of these four stories. I wouldn't rank any of them as the best in his career, but it's all solid mid-rank work. Again, I wouldn't start Sala here, but it's certainly a great way to send him off, since we do have to send him off.


[1] I don't know what the deal was with Sala and women's bare feet, but he regularly has his heroines wandering around cities, doing things otherwise normally, without shoes. Other people's kinks, man!