Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6 by Herge

I forget, between volumes, just how much work it is to read the small-format Tintin omnibuses. Herge worked for a much larger page-size, and took advantage of that: his pages typically have at least a dozen panels, and are packed with dialogue that these editions set in a slightly fussy italic pseudo-handwritten font. So I find myself peering much more closely than I expect, and sometimes needing to take off my glasses to focus on on panel in isolation.

They're also fairly involved, intricate stories: each one is 64 pages long, and, again, those are big pages full of talking and action. Sure, the talking is often vaudeville-level humor and the action is early-blockbuster spy thriller, but there's still a lot of it. And a little bit of the supposedly humorous secondary characters - Jolyon Wagg, who first appears in these stories, I am looking straight at you - goes very far, but we never get just a little bit of them.

So perhaps I'm happy to be getting close to the end with The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6. There's something melancholic about reading old adventures stories from other people's childhoods to begin with, and I've read fifteen previous adventures even before I got to this point. (Obligatory links to volumes one, two, three, four, and five, each of which reprinted three books. The first two in the series, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, are mildly suppressed these days for reasons of tendentiousness and/or racism.)

Tintin, who was set up to be a boy reporter early in the series but never even feints in the direction of filing a story or having any kind of stable job by this point in the series, first appeared in 1929 at the age of twelve and, in the manner of adventure-story protagonists, was still twelve when The Calculus Affair first appeared in serialized form from 1954-56. (The other two books collected here are The Red Sea Sharks from 1956-58 and Tintin in Tibet from 1958-1959; this appears to be the point where Herge stopped working on Tintin stories basically continuously, at the age of about fifty-three, and did just three more discrete tales over the next decade-and-a-half.)

The three stories here are all entirely separate, though they have the standard Tintin furniture: Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, those supposedly funny detectives, and so on and so on. Calculus and Red Sea are more-or-less spy thrillers: the first details a Cold War-ish battle between the standard two Herge fictional countries (Syldavia and Borduria) over a potential superweapon developed by guess-who, and the second is another one of Herge's long-chain-of-coincidences plots that leads to Tintin foiling an operation to take African hajjis and sell them into slavery. (The book never uses the term "hajjis," but they're going to Mecca. Also, Herge's drawing is a bit caricatured for the African characters, but he's generally not racist in his depiction of them.)

Tibet is an odder book: Tintin has a prophetic dream about Chang, a boy of about the same age he met way back in the book The Blue Lotus, who has not been mentioned since, and who has supposedly just died in a plane crash in the Himalayas. Tintin is sure Chang is not dead, and has various omens that he is correct; the story is driven entirely by the boy's pigheadedness and insistence on finding Chang. Oh, and there's a Yeti in it, but mostly as a background character. It gets cited as a book about the power of friendship, but no real-world friendship I'm aware of includes ESP powers to infallibly rescue one another from far-away continents, so I'm a bit dubious.

Herge is still really good at adventure-story hugger-mugger; he throws additional complications in as well as anyone in the world. And his comic relief, though very hokey, is generally at least moderately amusing. (And that's good, because these books are roughly forty percent comic relief by volume.) As I've said before, this is not exactly my thing, because I am an adult and because I grew up a generation or two later, but this is still really solid work and would probably be nearly as appealing to young people these days.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Doctor Andromeda and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows by Jeff Lemire and Max Fiumara

You know, I'm starting to think the "how to read the Black Hammer-iverse" graphic on Dark Horse's site - which I am not linking here because I'm sarcastically throwing shade at it - is really just a list of everything in that universe in basically publication order, without any thought for what the actual main story is or focus on readers who may want to get to something like an ending before the heat death of the universe.

Again, I may be making an unwarranted assumption that the "actual main story" has ended or will ever end; writer Jeff Lemire is indulging all of his superhero-universe ideas in this meta-series and the whole point of superhero universes is that IP roams free as long as there is money to be made. It may be that this was the idea all along: set up a dramatic situation, and then tell other stories set in the related universe for as long as the marks will keep paying, without ever moving that initial story forward. (I hope not: I had more respect for Lemire than that.)

Anyway, the "fourth" book listed on that graphic is Doctor Andromeda and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows, written by Lemire and drawn by Max Fiumara. It has nothing at all to do with the previous three volumes, aside from being in a shared universe. There is no reason at all to read this next; it doesn't even act as a flashback the way the Sherlock Frankenstein book did. This is entirely a story of some other guy in the same world, who was a sometime co-worker of the characters in the first two books.

That guy is Dr. James Robinson, who is Starman Doctor Andromeda, a WWII-era superhero. The story opens many years later - how many is vague, but probably '80s-90s, around the time of the big "Event" from the main Black Hammer series. Dr. A's son Charlie is dying, and Dr. A is very estranged from that son and, we learn slightly later, the rest of his family as well (now-dead wife, daughter-in-law, unspecified grandchildren).

At this point, we start to uneasily wonder if "Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows" is a god-damned metaphor for regrets and growing older and neglecting the actual human beings in your life to fly around punching people wearing too-tight spandex. I would not dream of spoiling such a realization.

So we see Dr. A in his civilian guise going to visit his dying son Charlie in the hospital, being sad and middle-aged and serious. Interspersed with that, we see young Dr. A. discovering his super-science-y stuff, joining up to fight the Nazis, and generally finding any and every opportunity to avoid his wife and new baby. (Superheroes! They can be workaholics just like anyone else! The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon!)

The description of Doctor Andromeda describes it as having two plots, which is slightly untrue. It takes place in two timeframes, but neither of them quite rises to the level of a full-fledged plot. In one of them, Dr. A. does superhero stuff, leading to a stupid mistake that has consequences for his long-neglected family - but this is a sequence of events over a long period of time rather than any single coherent plot. And in the "modern" story, Dr. A mostly mopes and thinks about how, OK, sure, all of the punching and long hours in the lab were totally awesome, but maybe he should have given the wife and son attention at least once a year or so, especially since not doing so made them hate him forever and it's not like a genius still-fairly-young superhero who probably has patents to seven dozen things that underpin the modern world could have any other life or love options in the world.

Anyway. Dr. A fucked up, and He Is Sad. The point-source fuckup wasn't entirely his problem, but it was based in his blissful neglect of everyday life (which itself was the longer-term, more core fuckup), so it's not like he can get off the hook on a technicality. But the point-source fuckup also has super-science-y implications, and maybe, just maybe, he can use that to cure Charlie's cancer and then the son he neglected for (checks figures) forty-some years will suddenly love him again!

Well, no. But sort-of yes, at least in a Jeff Lemire everybody-is-sad-and-has-family-problems kind of way.

I should say that this story really does end, and the four issues collected here are entirely self-contained. So, for all of my snark, this stands alone reasonably well, and I probably would have liked it much better, and been much nicer to it, if I didn't come to it expecting it would somehow advance the Black Hammer story (which, again: it totally doesn't). If I had read Doctor Andromeda completely alone, I think I would have been at least mildly positive about it, and said things about human concerns in a superhero story and how at least it doesn't really focus on the punching.

But, in the end, this is a "I spent too much time in the office, and my kid grew up to hate me" story. (Little boy blue and the man in the moon! When you comin' home dad, I don't know when!) And it doesn't really elevate the cliché, or do much more than tell that very familiar story in a superhero setting.

Hence my sarcasm.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Apologies to My Censor by Mitch Moxley

I bought this book randomly in 2018 and read it randomly this year; I have no larger story to tell or connections to make. It's a memoir of six years spent as a journalist in China, more or less, and was five years old when I found it.

Mitch Moxley is a Canadian, about a decade younger than me, and he was a mid-twenties journalist in 2007 when everything went to shit. Jobs were scarce, his life wasn't looking all that exciting, and so he took a strange opportunity when it came his way: to live in Beijing for a year as a reporter for the state-owned China Daily.

Six years later, he moved to New York and this book, Apologies to My Censor, was published. He does not make a connection between the two events; I would not be surprised if there was one.

He presents himself as a slacker in Apologies, living on remittances from his parents as much as his own freelance journalism and other odd jobs available to white North Americans in China (music video and movie actor! voice recorder for training audio! plausible-looking man in a suit!), and doing so for more than half a decade. His accounts of his life also keeps mentioning hangovers and partying and keeps avoiding talking in depth about any long-term friendship or love relationships. (He did have a semi-serious girlfriend for the first couple of years, and then silence descends.) He did manage to write this book, so he's not a total slacker, but, on balance, I think he makes a good case for himself as a terminally arrested adolescent; he turns thirty in the middle of this stretch of time, and keeps on living like a frat rat.

Moxley became mildly famous, and probably got on the path to this book deal, from his short article "Rent a White Guy" in the Atlantic, in which he explained for the rest of the world something white guys in China like him knew: there was a big market for pretending to be the executives of random (presumably fictitious) companies for building openings, ground-breakings,  other ceremonies, and apparently also some day-to-day operations. Moxley insists this is not the Chinese thinking Westerners are superior, but there's clearly some level of cargo-cult or con-man thinking: if we pretend to have this thing, that will make everything better!

It's very clear that Moxley did very little in six years in China: a few freelance clips, a lot of drinking in bars and working out in gyms and watching pirated movies alone or with fellow drunken expats. He took an intensive program in the Chinese language at the end of his years there, so he came out of it with better language skills: that's possibly the most telling factoid from this book. It sounds like a horrible, soul-sucking existence, and I can't tell if Moxley's repeated declarations that it was wonderful to be in this foreign city with a bunch of random losers and drunks is meant to be true or just him psyching himself up.

Apologies to My Censor is a pleasure to read; Moxley did some silly things, and writes about them pleasantly. It's not a book to think deeply on, though: the more time you spend looking back at it, the sadder you get for Moxley and all of the other men like him wasting years they can never get back.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/25/21

This week, one book I put on hold popped up at the library, and this is it:

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? by Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, and Nathan Fairbairn: it collects the recent series of the same name. I don't see a "Vol. 1" on the copyright page - though there could be one on the spine, covered by the library stickers - which leads me to believe this was another goofy experiment, allowed to exist for a short time in the usually clenched-teeth world of Big Two comics. (I could be wrong; there may be more clenched teeth in this book than I expect.) Anyway, I tend to like weird throwback Silver Age ideas, or at least I like to read and mock them. (Hi, Cave Carson! How's tricks?)

As far as I can tell, this story is about Jimmy running around with different groups of characters each issue (all with some connection to Superman, I expect), trying to solve his own murder. (I have no idea if this is a time-paradox story, an I've-be-poisoned-unreasonably-slowly story, a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story. But that's the premise.) It may also spin out of what I think was a crossover: a story from something called Superman: Leviathan Rising Special leads off the book, which may either be integral to the deal or a one-off proof of concept.

Anyway, it's a thing, and I expect to read it later the same day I'm typing this.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Quote of the Week: Every Failing Real or Imagined

Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception., The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards - the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others - who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that details one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There's the glass you broke in anger, there's the hurt on X's face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one.

 - Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect," in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, pp.109-110

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Minecraft: Wither Without You Vols. 1 & 2 by Kristen Gudsnuk

I don't have tags for either video games or sharecropping, since I don't read enough books in either category to make those useful, but this book would have both of those tags, if they existed. I'm also not 100% sure the "for kids" applies: the CIP data on the copyright page says these books are "Ages 8+," but so are a lot of other things. The Minecraft graphic novels are at least not not for kids, if that makes sense.

Most people will be reading this book, and the burst of other Minecraft graphic novels that Dark Horse has been publishing under an arrangement with Mojang over the past couple of years, because they like the video game Minecraft: maybe the building/crafting elements, maybe the grinding/fighting mobs elements, maybe something social about being on a server with friends. But I only played Minecraft a very little bit myself, way back near the beginning, so I'm one of the few people here because I'm following Kristen Gudsnuk's career.

(Sidebar 1: said career consisting, as far as I've seen, of the awesome Henchgirl graphic novel, mostly for adults, and two books in the Making Friends series for middle-grader readers. Those also contain awesomeness, but said awesomeness is more finely tailored to an audience of tween girls. A third Making Friends book has just been published; I haven't seen it yet. I recommend adults start with Henchgirl: as previously mentioned, it is awesome, and I will keep saying so until everyone admits it.)

(Sidebar 2: I think I liked what I played of Minecraft. It's just that I think I want to play building/crafting sims - I spent decades thinking I really really wanted to play Sim City or Sim Universe or whatever, but never got around to any of them, and did buy The Sims but left it moldering in my Steam folder after setting up two separate households in one evening - but, on the evidence, I actually want to do some crafting/building in my RPGs, as evidenced by nearly 3k hours in Fallout 4 to date. So nothing against Minecraft, and I may get back to it someday. But I bet it's totally different than my vague memory.)

I say that to orient you the reader: the Minecraft stuff here is vaguely familiar to me, and I have definitely played other video games. But I may misunderstand some pretty basic stuff, and I apologize ahead of time if I do.

Anyway, Kristen Gudsnuk, of previous awesome comics fame, is in the middle of a trilogy of short graphic novels set in the world of Minecraft, the popular video game. I recently read the first two: as far as I can see, the third is not yet scheduled to be published, but my guess is that it should hit in mid-2022. The series is called Minecraft: Wither Without You, and Volume One was published in April of 2020 and Volume Two followed this May.

So this is an incomplete story, obviously. It's set-up and middle, but the ending is not available yet. But each of the two books to date has an arc of its own - as all trilogies should - so I think I can say coherent things about the two of them.

We're in a fantasy world that will be very familiar to Minecraft players and deeply weird to anyone else: the world is made of blocky elements than can be mined for materials used to build other things, and monsters run around randomly. Some of the people are rounded, but most of the villagers (whisper NPCs whisper) are blocky just like their world and creatures. Adventurers fight monsters to save villages, but even more so to get experience orbs and rare materials and probably some valuables the monsters have themselves.

Cahira and Orion are twin teenage monster hunters, traveling with their mentor/teacher Senan the Thorough to learn the ways of monster hunting and get epic loot along the way. In the first book, a Wither - a big nasty flying monster - attacks them when they trigger a trap in some monster-filled castle they're exploring. It swallows Senan, and the twins chase it across the landscape, thinking they can save their mentor from its belly if they can do it quickly enough.

They are correct, though they need the help of Atria, a teen girl they meet along the way: she's been cursed to attract monsters, and ends up both luring the Wither to them and figuring out what the Wither really wants.

The second book begins with our four heroes seeing that same Wither fly over, which it should definitely not be doing given the end of book one. (Trying to be at leas slightly vague here.) They're on their way to Whitestone City to resupply after their epic battle, and they decide to also consult the great sorcerer Lucasta while they're in town.

Unfortunately, Lucasta is also Senan's great rival, so there's some tension there. She also farms monsters, and is most interested in setting Atria up in a room with some monster death-traps to harvest their stuff - which is not the most pleasant thing for Atria. And there's a self-proclaimed great monster hunter, Elvicks, in Whitestone, and his arrogance and attempted thievery leads to a zombie infestation, as it sometimes does.

So most of the back end of book two is devoted to getting rid of the zombies and working out the other problems. But they all end the book newly geared up and ready to go out and stop that Wither...which I presume they will do in the final book.

These are both fun and zippy in Gudsnuk's usual style: her people have big emotions and reactions, which is excellent for slightly goofy melodrama where the reader knows it will all end well eventually. You probably do need to be a fan of Minecraft or Gudsnuk to want to read them, unless you've got a thing for books-based-on-video games. (And maybe you do: I don't judge.) But both of these books are very good at what they set out to do, and what they set out to do is be vaguely positive but silly entertainment.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Ascender, Vol. 3: The Digital Mage by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

The formula is still strong with this one, but I guess that's OK: it's an old formula, but one that a lot of people like and that still has some juice to it. Just because I can see every plot development coming a parsec away isn't necessarily a reason to say it's bad, I guess.

But seeing plot developments coming that far away does give a reader a lot of time to scrutinize them as they approach, and Ascender does not have enough story detail to give a lot of depth to reward such scrutiny. So, as before, my advice is to read the Ascender books as quickly as possible and try not to let any extraneous thinking enter your brain during the process. The more you can concentrate on Dustin Nguyen's lovely painted art, the better.

Here in Ascender, Vol. 3: The Digital Mage, writer Jeff Lemire has exactly the big reveal that I expected when I wrote about the first volume, at exactly the moment I thought. I'm not claiming any particular prescience; a monkey with bifocals could have seen it coming, and it's on the frigging cover of this book, too. The the surviving cast of Descender continues to gather for the eventual big showdown with Mother and the Vampires Who Were Always There But No One Knew They Were Because It Used to Be a Science Universe And Now It's a Magic Universe, Look Just Trust Us On This, Okay?

Speaking of the vampires, a character in the first issue collected here bluntly states the vampires were "underground" for "eons" in this volume - yeah, sure, just keep saying that and maybe it will make sense. Frankly, "the rules of the world changed and now there have always been vampires" would have been more elegant and a better fit for a magical universe to begin with: magic is about transformation and paradox. But no one asked me.

The party is still split for this volume, with Mila and Telsa zipping across space, Andy and {SPOILER} trying to survive on Sampson, and our two vampire Mothers (old fat previous model and her sister the slim gorgeous redhead current titleholder) wandering around plotting and scheming, mostly against each other. They will all come together for the big fight, obviously.

By the way, time for another obvious prediction: the ending of Ascender will feature a sudden but inevitable betrayal by old Mother of new Mother, which will save the day for Our Heroes. I'm mostly sure it will be purely out of spite and hatred, but old Mother might also have a moment of "Oh, gosh, The Source of All Magic is so Wicked Kewl I cannot let my evil sister get it."

Anyway, it's all zippy and exciting. There's very little time for real character work, so it's a good thing we're nine volumes in and everyone is pretty well established. (Sucks for Mila, who gets to be "spunky kid with Secret Powers," and no space for anything else, but them's are the breaks.)

I still cannot take this seriously in any way, in any universe with laws based on magic or science. I see a fourth volume will be published in October: if my library system gets it, or if a copy mysteriously has been "underground" for "eons" near me and spontaneously erupts, I expect I will read it. But probably not otherwise.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

PTSD by Guillaume Singelin

It's the near future, or a near future. Some city, somewhere: relatively cosmopolitan, pretty big, diverse, full of activity. There's probably a government somewhere - we know they fought a war in the recent past - but they don't impinge on daily lives. Maybe it's a poor government, or a minimal one, or one that badly lost that war, or maybe just the people we see want nothing to do with the army of social workers who never show up on the page.

People live on the streets in this city, as they do in many cities. Some of them are just trying to get by, some of them are engaged in exploiting others - this may be illegal, or may not be, but there's no sign anyone important cares, either way. Many of these people on the streets are veterans of the recent war. Some are veterans of older wars.

There were always wars. There are always veterans. And many of them are deeply damaged, physically and mentally, from what they saw and did.

PTSD is the story of one veteran: Jun. She was a sniper: a very good one. But when we see her, she has only one eye and she's addicted to pain-killers (maybe for physical pain, more likely for sleeping and forgetting) and she's barely keeping it together on the streets of this city. Worse, she's actively hostile to help. This is more-or-les the story of how she turns herself around: how she finds a purpose, finds a way to accept help from other people and give help to other people, how she pulls out of a downward spiral and sets herself on a better path.

There's violence along the way. Jun is very good at violence. Wars are good at teaching that, or maybe at winnowing out the people who aren't good at violence. She's violent against the people who exploit others, mostly, so we're mostly on her side. Not everyone is: when you fight against someone, they fight back, and that's not necessarily just against you.

So Jun starts off alone and addicted, tormented and trapped by her own memories. She meets people, rejects them, but gets dragged into their lives almost against her will. She starts trying to do good - maybe at first partly because it's a way to be violent, and partly because some part of her wants to die violently, and partly because it's just something to do. She does find other ways to help, other things she knows how to do that are more productive than violence. Eventually.

The book is called PTSD. And a lot of the characters have PTSD, one way or another. But that's just who they are now: what this war did to them. PTSD for them is like gravity, or air - it's what water is to fish.

Guillaume Singelin shows rather than tells Jun's story, with a soft color palette and an art style that leans more to manga influences than Euro, but does incorporate both. This is not a lesson; it's a story. The title is a sneaky one, to make the reader think about how and why Jun is damaged rather than just enjoy this as another story about a veteran using her skills for violence in ways we're supposed to deplore but secretly love.

The book itself isn't overly sneaky, I suppose - I like sneaky books, so I'd be happy with even more of that here - but it's sneaky enough, and sneaky in smart ways. But it is smart, and told crisply: the story of one woman in a particular place and time, an interesting and diverse city, and how she survives and more than survives after a devastating shock. Those are all good material, and Singelin does good things with them here.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/18/21

This week, I have two upcoming books from the fine folks at Tachyon, which I will dive into without further ado:

The Peculiarities is a new novel by David Liss, author of A Conspiracy of Paper and a bunch of other novels. His name is oddly familiar; I think because I've had his The Ethical Assassin on my to-read shelves for years, and I keep pulling it down and looking at it but haven't actually read the whole thing. It looks like he's had one of those interestingly meandering literary careers: he's written some comics and a Spider-Man novel recently, did a middle-grade SF trilogy before that, but most of his books are historical mystery/thrillers in deeply researched time periods.

Peculiarities is not a historical novel, exactly, I've poked into the afterword and other bits enough to see that this is an alternate rather than a secret history; some things will be different from the way the real world was. This one also has supernatural elements, and I'm not sure if his straight-historical books did - so it's a conspiracy-thriller set in Victorian London, with a clueless young man thrown in over his head. (That all sounds very Tim-Powers-ian, which I am entirely in favor of; I'd love more books like that.) This was just published in trade paperback at the beginning of September.

I try not to be too obvious in my editorial comments when listing new books - everyone likes different things - but I have to admit that the title of this next one gives me at least a minor case of the squicks: Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror. I'm not crazy about horror at the best of times, and adding "extreme" and "body" in the mix makes me think I may not be the right reader for this one.

But you may well be! It's edited by Ellen Datlow, who knows horror short fiction better than anyone, and it collects 29 stories from the '80s through the modern day, by all of the classic and modern names that you would expect. So, if you are in the mood for a body-horror anthology, you are never going to find a better one than this. It will be published on October 19th, in the traditional season for horror.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Once You're Born, That's Where It Starts

This is my favorite song right this moment, off a record that I keep picking new favorite songs from.

The song is "Transparent Chart of the Heavens," the band is Boston's own Hallelujah the Hills, and the album is 2019's sublime I'm You.

It's another one of those slow-burn songs I love so much: give it the chance to grab you, because it starts really quiet.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Quote of the Week: Vast Tracts of Land

I was prepared for a fat man in the same way that someone who has grown up on the shores of a five-acre inland lake is prepared for the sea. There was a lot of Master Prosper. Quite how much of it was necessary, I wouldn't care to say; maybe 60 percent, which was roughly the ratio of genius to bullshit that made up his mental and spiritual being, so probably about that.

 - K.J. Parker, Prosper's Demon, pp.46

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 10: Life Is Too Short, Squirrel by North Charm Franquiz Renzi

North Charm Franquiz Renzi! For all your complex consumer litigation needs! Our professional and compassionate attorneys will listen to your story and determine if you and your loved ones may be entitled to monetary compensation, all at no up-front cost to you!

OK, maybe not. But that's what modern comics credits sounds like. Actually, this time out we have Ryan North as writer (as he has been for the entirety of this series) Derek Charm as the main artist (on four of the five issues), Naomi Franquiz drawing the remaining issue, and Rico Renzi on colors and the odd trading card.

What they deliver is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 10: Life Is Too Short, Squirrel, which collects issues 37 to 41 of the series - I believe both the issues and this compilation were published in 2019, which is nicely tidy. If this is your first exposure to a college student with the powers of both squirrel and girl, may I direct you to my posts on the first volume and the most recent volume? (I also have posts on all of the ones in the middle, but I'm trying not to do the massive-list-of-links things anymore these days; assembling them is not how I'd prefer to spend my time. You can track backwards one at a time from Vol. 9 for as long as you are entertained, if you'd like.)

So this is superhero comics, but somewhat nonstandard - Doreen Green (she who is secretly Squirrel Girl) prefers to talk through problems and help people rather than just punching things, and her stories lean heavily into science and fun and friendship, aiming for an audience substantially younger and more female than most superhero comics. It was something of an anomaly for Marvel while it was running, and I bet there were people in their offices who were quietly waiting for it to end so they could go back to entirely ignoring women and young readers instead of just mostly doing so. And, yes, this series has ended: the big final issue #50 hit your local comics dungeon more than a year and a half ago.

This tenth collection follows the pattern of most of its predecessors: one big four-issue storyline and one somewhat lighter single-issue story. The big story this time features the Death! Of! Squirrel Girl!, a shocking event that happened entirely between issues and is shown to be not true on page four. It does give us a big funeral scene, some semi-paranoid computer-science-informed theorizing, a surprising tie-in to a past Marvel cross-over, and a new character who I doubt anyone has done anything with (but I could be wrong). It does all end pleasantly for all concerned, which is the definition of a North-era Squirrel Girl story.

The single issue has a villain who I don't want to call a complete rip-off of DC's The Riddler, but only because I am polite. Ms. Quizzler is young and Black and female, but otherwise nails the "obsessed with holding people in deathtraps and testing heroes with riddle-based obstacles" rubric. And she, in turn, is indeed bested by the Girl of Squirrels, as she must be.

The book also reprints the letter columns, which is nice to see, even though I stopped reading them many books ago. (Lots of cute pictures of people's kids dressed up as SG, lots of stories about how much said kids love SG, many of both from the kids themselves - totally wholesome and like a wave of niceness, but entirely the same thing over and over again.)

I read Squirrel Girl because I like to reminded that the superhero form is not inherently stupid; that it can have uses that are positive and life-affirming. And because I know the end is near, and because of North's page-bottom captions, and sometimes mostly because of the mildly nihilistic Brain Drain. If any of those reasons seem relevant to you, or if, more importantly, you have younger female persons infesting your home, you may also be interested in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil by Jeff Lemire and David Rubin

Names come with expectations. If a biker gang has members named Trash, Jocko, Bonecrusher, and Fluffy, you're going to expect there's a story there. And if the names are references, you'll already have preconceptions based on the originals.

So when a major character is named "Sherlock Frankenstein," you're going to expect a detective who is a monster - or, maybe, if you're more of a purist, a detective who creates monsters. If you're told this Sherlock Frankenstein is a villain, that might be a little confusing at first, particularly the "Sherlock" bit, but you assume the creators know what they're doing.

Until you realize they mean "Sherlock" in the kid-insult sense: this guy is kinda smart, but it implies no more than that. And they mean "Frankenstein" at about the same level: it sounds cool, and he's old, like the Frankenstein story. Both words here signify "vaguely 19th century dude," and the man with those names is a tinkerer-type supervillain with a silly circa-1900 origin (hero! villain! random transatlantic journey!  long years as an always-failing villain! hero once more many decades later!) and no motivation other than "a sad thing happened to me, and so therefore the world is horrible and I will make it worse."

Well, that's disappointing. But superhero comics traffic in disappointment as much as they do in punching: it's in the top five ingredients on the label. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that "Sherlock Frankenstein" is much duller and more generic than his name implied. That's how superhero comics work.

And then we come to Sherlock's big story: Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil! You can't even say it out loud without adding a "bwa-ha-ha!" on the end! Surely this will be an epic story of villainy (presumably thwarted, but maybe not if he's the title character) full of epic battles with do-gooders and prominently featuring the battle aftermath we see on the cover. If we like superhero stories - and why the hell else would we be reading Sherlock Fucking Frankenstein and the Motherfucking Legion of Evil if we don't? - we're keyed up for it.

Reader: that scene appears nowhere in the book. There isn't a plotline that could lead to that scene. It presumably depicts some old battle of Sherlock against whatever the hell the WWII superhero team is called in this universe, in which some other superhero then came in from off the cover to save the day, hurrah! It's purely a bait-and-switch, which sadly is also in the top five label ingredients of superhero comics. [1]

No, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil (bwa-ha-ha!) is actually a story that would more honestly be titled Black Hammer II: Lucy's Quest or something along those lines. It is a sidebar to the main Black Hammer storyline - this phrasing implies there is a main Black Hammer storyline, and I've seen very little evidence of that in the first two volumes, but I'm willing to be generous - in which Sherlock is the McGuffin, not the main character. He's the guy the narrative circles, and eventually shows up onstage at the end for an extended talking-heads sequence, but engages in exactly zero world-conquering plots and at no time uses an insectoid mechanized thing to defeat Golden Gail and whoever the hell the rest of the people on the cover are.

In the main Black Hammer story, a small band of heroes were transported to a farm on the outskirts of a rural town - which itself is in a pocket universe or something, so they can't get out - a decade ago, after defeating not-Darkseid in the not-Crisis. The hero actually named Black Hammer was physically disassembled attempting to cross that pocket-universe border and get back to Spiral City, main venue for all the punching. Everyone in Spiral City believes all of the heroes were killed in "the event," but the rest of the main cast is sure only Black Hammer is dead. (And we the readers realize he's only as dead as any superhero character ever is: until his triumphant return.)

Black Hammer had a young daughter when he "died," Lucy Weber. In the Black Hammer comics, we saw her, now a reporter in her early '20s, do the spunky-reporter thing, find a way into the pocket universe, and take up her father's hammer to become what has not yet been inevitably named Black Hammer II [2]. None of that is surprising or new.

This Sherlock Frankenstein series tells more of Lucy's story: some of the things she did to learn about her father's life before the final success we've already seen. Yes: it's yet another fucking flashback. At this point, the entire Black Hammer saga is a loose tapestry of flashbacks held together by the thinnest possible "present-day" (probably actually mid-90s) story.

I'm half-expecting the gang will never leave the pocket universe, that every Black Hammer story will flash back more and more to tell smaller and smaller stories about things we really don't care about. How Abraham Slam found boots that are comfortable and long-lasting! Barbalien's first epic love story on earth in the 1950s! Talky-Walky's brief spin-off, The League of Super-Robots! Mildly Unsettling Tales, hosted by Madame Dragonfly! All of them with titles that imply much more action and punching than we actually get.

Look: Jeff Lemire is an excellent writer. His people talk like human beings and have understandable motivations, which is rare in comics about punching. But this whole Black Hammer thing is a two-finger exercise that he seems to be doing in his sleep. There is nothing surprising or new or exciting about any of it; it doesn't even have the usual energy and forward momentum that's one of the major draws of the superhero comic.

It all also looks very nice: for this story, David Rubin provides full art and colors, and his dynamic layouts mostly hide the fact that this is a superhero story entirely about people talking to each other.

But I just don't get it. I gather the appeal here is the "superhero universe" thing, to see Lemire spin out more variations on (mostly) DC Comics history, but there's a gigantic actual DC Comics universe out there, with probably thousands of issues of comics (admittedly, written and drawn much more for socially maladjusted pre-teens of the 1970s, but with stories that actually go places and include vastly more of the punching that superhero fans crave) that people could be reading instead.

And naming this Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil instead of Black Hammer, Vol. 3 leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is not a standalone, it's not about Sherlock, and he's nothing like what "Sherlock Frankenstein" would imply to begin with. Frankly, it all feels like Lemire is trying to build an entire superhero universe out of the avoidance of finishing a single story.

But maybe it's just that I don't get how superhero universes work these days. Maybe this is all the point. It's confusing, it doesn't go anywhere, the character names are deliberately misleading, you have to follow the thinnest thread of story through a dozen books with confusing and changing titles, and you never get the big scene on the cover. Maybe Lemire is either just really good at doing what usually takes a whole Big Two bureaucracy or the whole thing is a deeply meta piss-take.

I doubt it. But maybe.

[1] What are the other two ingredients in the top five, you ask? Let's say "silly costumes" and "problematic social attitudes," today. I reserve the right to pick five entirely different ones tomorrow. Well, except for punching. Punching is like sugar in kid's cereal: people who know better will always point out how unhealthy it is, but it's the whole point of the thing.

[2] I think she will actually be the third, but I'm calling her Black Hammer II in all my Black Hammer posts because otherwise it's just too damn silly and confusing. (Although "too damn silly and confusing" is roughly my take on nearly all superhero comics nearly all of the time.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Midwinter Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag

I could pretend that I did it on purpose: that I skipped The Hidden Witch because this book is newer, maybe as some kind of comment on how commercial fiction, especially for younger readers, is so trope-ridden and bend-over-backward accessible that any reader can jump in anywhere and figure out everything important.

I could. But I shouldn't: it's not true. So I won't.

I did read The Witch Boy, the first book in this series of graphic novels by Molly Knox Ostertag (who also, apropos of nothing, is the artist of the great Strong Female Protagonist series). But I missed the second one, and maybe got The Midwinter Witch from the library thinking it was the second one. (I had them in the wrong order in my list there, so that's my excuse.) Whatever: I read book one three years ago, and now I read book three.

There are secret families of magical people - large, extended clans spread across the world, several families, each with slightly different traditions and skills and abilities. As far as we've seen, they're almost entirely good, nurturing people, though, like anyone else, they can be close-minded and unwilling to want change. [1]

Aster is a boy, and in his family, boys are typically shifters - they transform into animals - and girls are witches, casting spells. In Witch Boy, Aster was able to show that typically does not mean must always be, and was able to start training publicly as a witch.

I think Hidden introduced Ariel, a girl about the same age - maybe ten? I'm not clear how old these kids are, but they feel early-middle-schoolish, just prior to the pairing up and worrying-about-sex years - who has witchy abilities, but was adopted, so her heritage was somewhat unknown. Ariel is now part of the same cluster of kids that learn magic (and maybe other things? there may be a Hogwarts-education issue in this world as well) in a homeschooling environment, along with Aster.

This book is about the runup to the big Midwinter Festival, in which Aster's family (Vanisen) gathers together for a combination family reunion and competition. The shifters (just the kids, as far as I can see) compete in one contest, the witches in another. And the drama in this book is about whether Aster and Ariel will compete.

Aster wants to compete: wants to be seen as what he is. Ariel is reticent: she's good at magic, but not good at family, and this is all really new to her. Aster's mother Holly wants Aster to take a pass this year (for what seem to be mostly not-making-waves reasons) and Ariel to compete (since that would help cement her place in the larger family).

Meanwhile, Ariel is having dreams of a powerful older witch who claims to be a living real relative of hers, and trying to drag her into a very different, much nastier kind of magic.

Who! Will! Win!

This is a YA graphic novel series, so obviously it all turns out fine in the end, with all of the good people hugging and being friendly, and everyone winning to at least some degree. I tend to prefer stories with slightly harder choices, but this is fun and positive and affirming: I expect it, and the whole series, are big confidence-builders for all sorts of kids who are odd in one way or another, particularly those whose oddities run up against the gender norms in their families.

[1] This has been a series for pre-sex kids so far, so how people pair up isn't as clear. I'm hoping there are pan-family gatherings at least partially for teens to meet and match with each other, or else each family is going to get really unpleasant genetically.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/11/21

Three books from the library this week, and they were:

Fangs by Sarah Andersen - This seems to be an original vampire-themed graphic novel from the cartoonist who does the Sarah's Scribbles strip. Weirdly, I put this one on reserve at the library (not really noticing who the creator was), then read digitally & reviewed the first Sarah's Scribbles collection (that post hasn't gone live yet, and won't for about a month), and only then got this book in my hands from the library. It looks like it's in a completely different art style, both from Andersen's loose cartooning for the strip and her lush mid-century illustrative work. So I'm not sure where this book is going or how it fits into her career, which is a fun place to be.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 11: Call Your Squirrelfriend is the penultimate collection of the series, by the usual creators of Ryan North (words), Derek Charm (lines), and Rico Renzi (colors). I seem to speeding up as I get to the end of this series - I've been reading it 2-3 years late consistently, but my post for Vol. 10 is written and not yet published, so maybe I'm closing in on only eighteen months! (Instead, see my post on Vol. 9 and track backward from there if you feel the need.)

And then there's Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Part I, the fifth book in the heavily-lauded superhero series written by Jeff Lemire and mostly drawn (as here) by Dean Ormston. In this case, I have two books in the series that I've read and written about, but the posts are sitting quietly in the queue waiting to see the light of day - look for Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil this Wednesday, actually, and Doctor Andromeda and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows somewhat later. This Age of Doom book announces that it's finally getting back to the main story of the person named Black Hammer, so you might guess some of the things I said about those two books. The description here also gloats that, as soon as it does get back to the story of Black Hammer II, it immediately sends her away from the original cast to have other adventures, so I gather the core concept of "never actually finish the story began in issue 1" is still in effect.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Quote of the Week: Gone Into Mourning for the Death of the Sun

Then there is the dust of London. When my story begins, in the 1960s, the fog is lifting a little. The choking smogs of my childhood, with visibility down to a yard, have been curtailed, for the sake of public health, by the Clean Air Act of 1956. The dust, dirt and grime of a million coal fires, hundreds of steam trains and massive power stations is receding as they are slowly replaced by cleaner fuel - but I miss it. I miss the sulphurous fog that linked you the the London of Sherlock Holmes and Dickens, that inspired visiting French Impressionists to paint the city's blurred sunrises and sunsets, and that made everything soft and mysterious. It was part of London, and part of being a Londoner. I suppose even poison is something you can grow fond of.

 - Richard Thompson, Beeswing, p.1

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Beeswing by Richard Thompson

Memoirs are always about memory rather than about the things remembered. Everyone molds the past in their own heads to fit what has happened since, their own stories of themselves or their hopes and dreams, fulfilled or dashed. No matter how honest anyone tries to be, there's no way to get back to the person you were then: a diary at the time is inherently different from a memoir later.

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice: 1967-1975 is a memoir, by the excellent British [1] guitarist, singer, songwriter, and bandleader Richard Thompson, covering roughly his first decade making music for a living and written more than forty years after the end of the period he writes about. Thompson opens the book explicitly noting, or maybe disclaiming, that this is all based on memory, and that he's spent a lot of time deliberately not looking back on these years.

Is that why so much of Beeswing feels so quiet and detached? Thompson tells the story of these years, relatively personally, but he's not using a memoir to settle scores or give us his version of events. It's all pretty much the same as anyone else has ever said, and he's relentlessly positive about his bandmates and friends, even as he's cataloging the seemingly endless personnel changes in Fairport Convention. All of the departures were relatively friendly, in his telling, and all because of the music that each of them wanted to make at the time. Given how little money was involved, and how it was the late '60s, I believed him, too.

But Beeswing is a short book about eight tumultuous years, and its bulk is spent on those early Fairport days. I'd estimate two-thirds of the book is Fairport, with the last third covering his first solo album and his entire life, marriage, and duo act with Linda Thompson. Well, the subtitle says it ends in 1975, but Thompson at least sketches their career up to 1979's Sunnyvista and hints about '82's Shoot Out the Lights at the very end.

So it's much more interesting the more a reader cares about Fairport and the folk scene of the late '60s: that's what Thompson is mostly writing about and recreating here, that whole world of bands that merged and split and did gigs together, like a traveling mass of amoebas. Readers deeply invested in knowing the inside story of his conversion to Sufi Islam will find some details here, and those who want to know about his life and working relationship with Linda will find only a few.

He's still a private man; still someone who uses wit to keep people at arm's length. I did mention he was British, didn't I? Sometimes stereotypes have an element of truth.

There are occasional flashes of alternative books that Thompson didn't write, or didn't write yet: at the end, he explicates the title song in some detail, and does that, to a lesser extent, a few times earlier in the book. That - a series of essays about songs he finds the most interesting, tracing the sources of ideas and ruminating about what he was trying to say and what the song means to him after decades singing it in public - would be interesting, and might yet happen. And the subtitle certainly leaves room for subsequent memoirs covering later years.

All in all, though, Thompson is not indulging in most of the things people write memoirs for. He's not giving his side of old disputes, arguing for anything in particular, or aggrandizing his role in events. If anything, he's doing the opposite of all of those things: presenting himself as a mostly quiet, still pretty naïve young man who wasn't quite sure exactly what he wanted to do but was passionate about doing it as well as he possibly could. That's admirable, and speaks well to the equanimity and mental balance Thompson has at this point in his life - quite possibly due to his Sufi faith, which he has kept to, all these years - but it does make Beeswing feel smaller and quieter than what one expects from "a rock memoir."

[1] Although, amusingly, he's lived a couple of towns over from me in New Jersey for most of the past decade. Not that I've ever seen him - suburbia is a big place packed full of people - but we always imagine our heroes to be living bigger lives somewhere more exciting and further away.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Phantoms in the Attic by Richard Sala

Don't come to this book expecting comics, despite my tag. Oh, there are two short strips at the end, because Richard Sala was a cartoonist at heart and had material that would fit, but that's not the point of the book.

Phantoms in the Attic is an art book, mostly collecting a bunch of full-page images. Some are monochrome, a few are black-and-white, but most are in Sala's usual softly creepy watercolors. I think the physical book is in a fairly small format, but I read it digitally: so, for me, it was exactly the size of my device, like every other book I read that way. (Reading digitally is excellent in some ways, but turns into a procrustean bed for anything heavily designed or full of art.)

As usual with Sala, it's all horror-tinged, with familiar monsters menacing very Sala-esque young ladies. Some of the monsters are creatures: vampires and werewolves and swamp monsters, ghosts and devils and mummies. But just as many are arguably human: maniacal children, slavering serial killers, depraved and deformed maniacs. What they have in common is that urge to attack and destroy cute barefoot girls - it's the core theme of Sala.

I say "girls" because Sala's female characters all skew young, and it seems deliberate. His men are sometimes young (and usually clueless) and sometimes old (and usually fiendish), but his women, evil or good, are all fresh-faced and clean-limbed and perky, in the first flush of youth. The man had a type, or at least his comics did.

Phantoms has nearly a hundred pieces of art like that. They're individual illustrations, so they're more static than Sala's comics pages: even the ones that depict a moment of action look more posed, and most of them are either montages or vignettes or just quieter moments.

You will recognize, I hope, most of the major characters - Sherlocks and Santa Clauses, monsters from this old horror movie or that one, various folkloric beasties - as they menace their particular girls, or cavort in their own image-spaces. If you're someone who would not recognize any of those creatures, Sala is very much not a cartoonist for you.

And, of course, Phantoms is an art book by a cartoonist, so it's audience will be a bit more limited than other Sala books. It doesn't tell a story: it just collects a bunch of unconnected pictures. They're all very nice pictures, and they're all exceptionally fun and Sala-esque, but you need to be a Sala fan to begin with to want this much unconnected Sala.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Slalom by Lewis Trondheim

Look, most of what I could say here I just said in writing about Gloomtown. That post has not gone live as I type here, so I'm hoping I will remember to drop a link in time. But, folks, it only went up a couple of days ago, and is probably just three posts back in the history of this blog. It's not gonna be hard to find.

Slalom was the first of the "McConey" books by Lewis Trondheim, his first work published outside of L'Association (which he co-founded and ran), and his first broadly "commercial" comics work - with the caveat that "commercial" meant something radically different in early-90s France (and in Francophone comics in general, in any recent decade) than it generally does in a US context. In lists of the series, I've seen it noted as number "zero;" I have no idea why, or if that means anything in particular. It was originally published in black-and-white in 1993, but Trondheim revised it a few years later, once he was deeper into the series, to bring its look into the series style (color, borders drawn with a ruler, relationship of the original art to printed size, similar things that only bother a creator).

It's contemporary fiction, slice-of-life division: four friends go on a ski holiday together to an unspecified mountainous resort area. They can, and do, drive there, which in a French context means they left probably-Paris to go somewhere in the Alps. US translations of the McConey books sometimes tries to pretend they live in NYC; this one starts and ends on the trip and doesn't attempt to explain where this is or where these friends live.

There's not really a larger story: they meet a couple of girls, and two of the guys have semi-dates with them, that don't lead to much. There's a wolf somewhere in the area, which shuts down the trains for a day or two - but the plot is not about how these regular guys hunt the wolf, or are killed by the wolf, or have a shocking encounter with the wolf. All in all, it's most similar in tone to a long episode of a good sitcom: these are characters with clear personalities, they know each other and bounce off each other, and what happens to them is amusing and fun without having to be deeply plotty.

So they ski for what seems to be a week: Trondheim doesn't even make the amount of time this takes entirely clear. They have fun, but they each have different ideas of what "fun" is - like real people in a real world do. What they do is amusing: if I read this first, it would make me want to read more comics about McConey and his friends, and maybe see what their lives were like day-to-day back in the big city.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of 9/6/01

Nothing new arrived this week, so I'll fire up the RNG's what I was reading this week in 2001:

David Garnett, Bikini Planet (bound galleys, 9/1)

This is a humorous SF novel, published in the UK in 2000; the US edition was more than a year later, at the end of 2001. I was clearly reading it a few months ahead of publication with an eye towards offering it in the SFBC.

We did not, in the end, offer it in the club. That may indicate my opinion of the book at the time, or may be because I made an offer and it fell through. (But I think it was the former.) I didn't remember ever holding or even knowing about a book called Bikini Planet until picking up the reading notebook a few minutes ago. And I don't think I've read anything else by Garnett (though I keep mixing him up with Paul Barnett, who I did know). 

P.N. Elrod, editor, Dracula in London (bound galleys, 9/2)

Elrod had a couple of fun series about vampires herself: Jack Fleming of "The Vampire Files" was a PI, I think in the traditional '30s, who solved crimes and hobnobbed with mobsters. And the Jonathan Barrett books, which I recall being a bit more ambitious, were set during the Revolution. And it looks like the rest of her career was pretty vampire-centric, as well.

So she edited this anthology, which looks to have been entirely original. I don't see a SFBC edition on ISFDB, which makes sense: anthologies were then and are now a tough sell; they never do as well as a single equivalent novel. I don't remember the specific stories, but it is an anthology I read during Worldcon twenty years ago. But Elrod was generally good with the vampire stuff, and Ace put together smoothly professional books, so my bet is this would still be fun and entertaining if you had a copy of it.

Alan Dean Foster, Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind's Eye (9/3)

I had definitely read this before. I know I read it at least once before Empire came out, and possibly other times afterward. My guess is that I was reading it in 2001 with the thought in my head that having a Star Wars book in one of our twice-yearly "Collector's Issues" would be a good seller, and that this book could slot in there and not be embarrassing. That's the guess, since there doesn't seem to have been a new edition around 2001 that could have triggered the re-read.

Or maybe I was reading it for pleasure? It's not impossible, but SFF tended to all be work, in those days.

Anyway, this is the very first sharecropped SW novel (after Foster's adaptation of the movie itself), and I've heard stories that it was a potential plot for Movie 2, if Star Wars did well enough to get a sequel but the budget got cut. It would have definitely been a lower-budget movie, mostly with Luke running around a misty planet and hiding from Vader - I don't remember the details all these years later, but it was OK adventure fiction that only showed slight indications of having been built from much earlier ideas of the Star Wars universe.

Evan Dorkin, Dork, Vol. 1: Who's Laughing Now? (9/4)

This was the first trade paperback collecting Dorkin's solo, and roughly-yearly, comic Dork! As I remember, there were eventually three volumes of Dork!; this one has the first five issues. You can get all of this material in more permanent form these days - most of it is in the big omnibus Dork (note the lack of exclamation point, indicating we are older and wiser now), with some of the strips over in the series-specific books about Milk & Cheese or the Eltingville Club.

Dorkin is, and was even more then, the grumpiest, most cynical cartoonist about the comics field (and a strong contender for "grumpiest and most cynical" in the overall event, too). I always appreciated that: he is funny, biting, and unstoppable at his best. But I always thought being Evan Dorkin seemed to be a really difficult, unpleasant thing - I hope he's mellowed as the years have passed, and that I don't see as much bile from him because he doesn't need to spread as much bile as he used to.

But these are awesome, nasty, funny comics and everyone who reads comics should read them. In this format, if you randomly find this book, in Dork, wherever. Dorkin is one of the greats.

The Humorous World of Jerome K. Jerome (9/6)

This appears to be a 1962 book from Dover Publications - famously a house that focuses on works out of copyright to simplify their accounting - and I have no idea why I was reading it, or what's included in it. I have read other Jerome - obviously I started with Three Men in a Boat, like everyone else, but I've also read Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and (I think) Three Men on the Bummel. And this, whatever this was.

My guess is that it was an anonymously-edited collection of excerpts from a lot of Jerome's work, but it could also have been a small omnibus - maybe of Boat and one other book.

Jerome is still entertaining, at his best: he was frivolous enough, and his time modern enough, that he still reads well today. So if you're looking for funny stuff, he's still a good place to go.

Philip Gourevitch, A Cold Case (9/6)

This was almost brand-new at the time; the hardcover came out in July. So I suspect I got a copy at work, since this was late enough that I think the BOMC-Doubleday merger had gone through and I had access to basically any normally-published book I could possibly want.

Gourevich was famous from We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, which had come out a few years before (and which is still on my shelf, unread - it's hard to get the energy to read several hundred pages about massacres). This book was shorter and about just one murder, which may be why I managed to read it. As I remember, it's a great book of reportage, following one detective as he cracks a personally-important thirty-year-old case. 

The beginning of this week overlapped the Millennium Philcon - the Worldcon was in Philly that year, so it was an easy, convenient trip, and I vaguely remember having a good time there. (As much as I've ever had a good time at any convention: I'm not good at crowds, or small-talk, and I never quite figured out what to do at conventions.) So those first few books were read in chairs in hotel lobbies, or at random moments in the exhibit hall, or (probably) in too much time in my hotel room. I seem to have been trying to "work" during that time, which makes sense: Worldcon was work for me. 

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Books Read: August 2021

I'm actually writing this early the morning of the 1st, since I'm on vacation this week and I try to write two blog posts early in the morning on days I'm not working. (And I only finished reading one book yesterday.) So this is as fresh as it could possibly be, for all that I'm setting it to post four days later.

(I don't know why I bother to type things like that, unless it's just to have some kind of introduction here. Even looking back, months or years later, I doubt I'd care.)

Anyway, here's what I read this past month:

Richard Sala, Phantoms in the Attic (digital, 8/1)

Richard Thompson, Beeswing (digital, 8/5)

Molly Knox Ostertag, The Midwinter Witch (8/7)

Jeff Lemire and David Rubin, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil (8/8)

Ryan North, Derek Charm, Naomi Franquiz, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 10: Life Is Too Short, Squirrel (8/14)

Guillaume Singelin, PTSD (8/15)

Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, Ascender, Vol. 3: The Digital Mage (8/20)

Mitch Moxley, Apologies to My Censor (8/21)

Kristen Gudsnuk, Minecraft: Wither Without You, Vol. 1 (digital, 8/21)

Kristen Gudsnuk, Minecraft: Wither Without You, Vol. 2 (8/21)

Jeff Lemire and Max Fuimara, Doctor Andromeda and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows (digital, 8/22)

Herge, The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6 (8/28)

Kat Leyh, Thirsty Mermaids (8/29)

Nate Powell, Save It For Later (8/30)

Isabel Greenberg, Glass Town (8/31)

No links yet: my current reading regime is now at a point where I'm setting new posts about five weeks in the future. I may need to adjust things slightly....

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Abandoned Books: The Humbling by Philip Roth

I haven't done an "Abandoned Book" post in eight years: that's longer than I thought. I'm sure I gave up on books in the meantime, but maybe I didn't have anything to say about them.

Philip Roth's The Humbling is a short novel, maybe actually a novella, published in 2008 when its author was seventy-five. He only wrote one more book, which came out the next year, but lived for another decade. And I've never read any Roth before, despite having a number of his books lying around for years and year.

So I read almost half of this - 60 of 138 pages - and decided I didn't want to go on any further. It was meandering to that point, in a way I was worried indicated an old writer losing control of his powers, but that wasn't the problem. It was very talky, the opposite of "show, don't tell," but I'd generally enjoyed that voice for the first fifty pages or so.

No, there was a sexual-politics element starting up, which I suspect may be the central element of this short book, and I was arguing with it strongly in my head. I had the feeling I was deeply out of sympathy with what Roth was doing, and that gap was only going to get wider as the novel went on. (To state one piece of it: trans people are not rejecting their current partners in their quest to become their true selves. I suspect it's more often absolutely the opposite of that. Roth, I'm afraid, bluntly stated that a lesbian woman committed the worst treason possible to her partner by transitioning to male.)

So I was the wrong reader, or it was the wrong time, and I noped out. No insult to the book, which I didn't quite read half of. I still plan to try Roth again, though I think I'll go earlier in his career for the next attempt - maybe I'll just hit Portnoy's Complaint to be obvious.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Quote of the Week: Job Goals

If I could get the refugees out of the module and over to the colony ship's lock without the hostiles even realizing I was there, then the responder would be free to take over the hostile ship.

That plan was easier plus 100 percent less murdery. And I liked it better.

Huh. I liked it better because it wasn't a CombatUnit plan, or actually a plan that humans would come up with for CombatUnits. Sneaking the endangered humans off the ship to safety and then leaving the hostiles for someone else to deal with, that was a SecUnit plan, that was what we were really designed for, despite how the company and every other corporate used us. The point was to retrieve the clients alive and fuck everything else.

Maybe I'd been waiting too long for GrayCris to show up and try to kill us all. I was thinking like a CombatUnit, or, for fuck's sake, like a CombatBot.

 - Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry, pp.130-131

Thursday, September 02, 2021

The Vault of Walk, Vol. 2 by Jim Korkis

This will likely be short; I said everything I might want to say here seven years ago, covering Jim Korkis's first book of stories about Disney, The Revised Vault of Walt.

That's a pretty long post, about the Cult of Disney in general and how Korkis's book fits into it in particular. But I still agree with all of it - more than that, it's pretty much exactly what I would say about this book, which is explicitly Chapter Two to that same project. (Korkis has since done similar books yearly; the most recent one seems to be #7.)

So The Vault of Walt: Volume 2: More Unofficial Disney Stories Never Told has another two hundred pages worth of stories in which the saintly Walter Elias Disney dispenses uniquely wonderful wisdom, delivers perfect entertainment experiences at every turn, has his every last passing thought validated as visionary and marvelous, and is revealed as entirely the most wonderful human being to have ever lived in this or any other universe. (I may slightly exaggerate. Only slightly.)

Korkis, as before, is a good archivist and researcher. He's also done a fair bit of original interviews with people who actually were there when the stone was rolled away and WED's brilliance was revealed to the world. I still find that the structure of his essays is sometimes lumpy: there's a lot of detail, but it often flows in an order that makes my old editor's pencil twitch and want to move sections around wholesale.

He also relies a lot on what I am pretty sure are press releases as primary documents. I've been involved in the creation of press releases for events and releases, and can tell you that quotes "from" a prominent person are not necessarily "true" in the purest sense and that said person almost certainly saw and approved that quote but is very unlikely to have actually said it. (And I do mean "almost," there.)

Again, that's the whole point here: taking minor episodes in the history of a major entertainment conglomerate (Walt was in DeMolay as a young man! there were cheap live action movies called Toby Tyler and Blackbeard's Ghost! P.L. Travers was nearly as demanding and bullheaded as Disney, but this book isn't about her! there have been Mickey Mouse balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade! Captain EO did really exist; we did not all imagine it!) and appearing to give a warts-and-all treatment that actually shows that what eventually happened was wonderful and special and the best it could possibly be.

So this is a collection of amusing stories, mostly involving Walt himself, from Disney corporate history. It is not official, but it also is not critical: it's written for people who want behind-the-scenes stories that are bascially the same in tone as Disney's public statements. If that's you, Korkis has a shelf of the stuff, as do several others. I read these things periodically, and always wish there was some more criticism to them: but that's the nature of the form and the audience.