Monday, February 28, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/26/20

I am lazy by nature - my guess is that most people are, but don't like to admit it. So a week like this is my favorite: I got exactly one book in the mail, so I can do this weekly post but it shouldn't take too much time.

And if the book looks exciting and fun, well, that's a really nice bonus, isn't it?

Last Exit is the new novel by Max Gladstone, a Boston-area novelist and game developer best known for co-writing This Is How You Lose the Time War with Amal El-Mohtar, for his "Craft Sequence" secondary-world mechanized-fantasy series, and for winning a number of major awards (at least the Hugo and Nebula).

I have several of the Craft books sitting on my groaning shelves, but only managed to read the first one of them, Three Parts Dead, about a decade ago. They've always looked very much like my sort of thing, so I keep thinking of Gladstone as a writer that I want to read, even if the actual execution is pretty weak so far.

Anyway: that's me. He's clearly good at this fiction-writing stuff.

Last Exit seems to stand alone, and to be Gladstone's first fantasy novel set clearly in the contemporary world. (I gather his previous novel, Empress of Forever, is mostly far-future and mostly SF.) The back cover copy is vague, but it sounds like a secret-history-of-the-world background: there is magic, or monsters, or some mixture of pieces of multiple fantasy ideas. A group of young people discovered their secrets, about a decade ago, and thought they could use their knowledge for good.

They were wrong. It sounds like they were badly wrong. And now the survivors, or maybe one in particular, is going to have to face whatever it was that happened ten years before, because the same thing - or something related, new, and worse - is about to happen again.

As I said: it looks like Gladstone has tricks up his sleeve; this is all vague.

(The whole thing is giving me Tim Powers vibes, and the title and some of the description sounds like it's about roads, maybe particularly American roads. So this may intersect interestingly with Power's recent Alternate Routes.) 

Last Exit was just published, about a week ago, in both trade paperback and flowing-electrons formats. You can grab it right now if it sounds intriguing.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Farewell, Brindavoine by Tardi

Anyone with a long enough career will have weird early works. Maybe they weren't "weird" at the time, maybe they were - but enough years later, some of them will line up oddly with all the other stuff that person did later.

In related news, the first book by the French cartoonist born Jacques Tardi and who later jettisoned that first name for added speed and sleekness was Farewell, Brindavoine, serialized in Pilote in 1972-73 and collected soon afterward. The edition I read was the 2021 American edition, translated into English by Jenna Allen, published by Fantagraphics, and including an extended sequence after the big END panel. I have no idea if that additional piece was part of the initial serialization or came later. But the art style is basically identical to the earlier pages and it's in roughly the same tone and with the same concerns, so my guess is that it was very soon afterward, if not actually part of the original from the beginning.

And Brindavoine is pretty weird. Oh, it prefigures a lot of Tardi's later work: its vaguely steampunky 1914 can link to both the Adele Blanc-Sec books and his Great War stories. And the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting is not out of character for an early story by anyone, for serialized adventure, or for Eurocomics in particular. But Tardi's specific "damn things" here get pretty goofy.

Brindavoine is a guy: Lucien Brindavoine, probably in his late twenties, who is happily wasting an inheritance in Paris on fine living and amateur photography. An old man visits him late one evening, with vague demands that Lucien come along on some kind of life-changing adventure, before the old man is shot dead by a mysterious figure on the roof.

So of course Lucien does what the old man asked: it got him killed, so it must be a good idea, right? (To be fair, if he didn't, this would have been a really short story.)

The old man sent him to Istanbul, where he meets one contact, and is sent off in a motorcar with a melancholy, substance-abusing Englishman named Oswald Carpleasure (yes, the names are a large piece of the goofiness) to continue the adventure. The mysterious figure attacks them multiple times as they trek across the desert wastes of Central Asia, and is eventually revealed. All arrive in a fantastic place at about the mid-point of the story, where things get more complicated and Tardi indulges in a lot of let-me-tell-you-what's-really-going-on.

There is more mayhem and danger, which swirls around Lucien without him ever being part of it: this is one of those stories about a character who doesn't understand what's going on and doesn't really affect the outcome; he's a catalyst and a viewpoint, but that's about it. Eventually, we get to that END panel...and then a dozen pages in which an ancient storyteller sketches the rest of Lucien's life and then drops us into an entirely separate series of events during the Great War.

Of the Tardi books I've seen, this is most like 1974's The Arctic Marauder, though that book had a more typical adventure plot and main characters whose actions more strongly affected the story. Brindavoine, by comparison, feels like the story of a very young creator, full of ideas and thoughts that all have to get down on the page, one after another, even if they don't make conventional sense or link well to each other.

So this is early Tardi: as early as you can get. It's not much like his mature career, but I think it does lead pretty directly to the slightly less goofy things he moved on to later in the '70s. Every career is a journey; this is where Tardi's started. It does not make a whole lot of sense, but readers who can forgive it that will find a lot of elements to enjoy and appreciate.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Golden Age, Book 1 by Roxanne Moreil & Cyril Pedrosa

The title is ironic. Or maybe more than ironic: this is not the story of a golden age, but there is a book in this fictional world called "The Golden Age." So it is, perhaps, a story called "The Golden Age" that centers on another story called "The Golden Age."

The back cover says The Golden Age, Book 1 takes place in the kingdom of Antrevers: the narrative never gets that specific. It is a medieval kingdom, somewhere vaguely Western European. Given that the creators - co-writer Roxanne Moreil and writer/artist Cyril Pedrosa - are French - you could call it a fantasy version of France, and not be far wrong.

In the manner of fairy tales, there is no wider world: we don't know what countries border Antrevers, and it doesn't matter. This kingdom is the world of the story; everything will happen within it.

Antrevers has been getting poorer and life harder for a generation or so. Crops are not as fertile, life is not as easy. Again, trade and development are left unmentioned: this is a single kingdom in a static, medieval world. The nobles have been increasing taxes to maintain their position; the peasants have been complaining, and starting to rebel, in turn. Repression of those peasants has been ramping up, under Louys de Vaudemont, one of the most powerful nobles.

The old king has just died. If his name was thrown out, I didn't catch it. He leaves an aged wife - also left unnamed, and her exact title after his death is vague, too - and two children. There's a younger son, but his older sister, Tilda, is expected to inherent - this is not a world with a Salic Law, I suppose.

Tilda is our main viewpoint character: a bit headstrong, determined to use her authority and power to make life better for the entire kingdom, to reverse the downward slide of all of Antrevers. To that end, she has been talking about shaking up the power of the nobles - not eliminating that power, probably not even curtailing it that much, but putting some royal limits on what nobles had gotten used to doing unfettered. She is young and energetic and sure she is right. She will learn others are equally sure of their rightness, believing entirely different things.

We enter this world like diving into a pool: Pedrosa's first few pages are full-bleed, with bright colors, single images in an illustrative, almost impressionist style filling our vision. He mostly settles down to bordered panels after that, but breaks out the full-page art for major moments: this is a visually stunning book. He brings all of the fairy-tale energy and life of his earlier Three Shadows, combining it with the mastery of color and space he showed in Portugal.

Similarly, Moreil and Pedrosa introduce us to a group of peasants first: our story may be mostly among the powerful, but it's about all the people of this kingdom. From there, the narrative makes its way to court and Tilda, as she meets faithful retainer Lord Tankred and the young swordsman Bertil, who may also have been a childhood playmate of hers. The three of them are soon traveling together, for reasons I don't want to spoil, but you can guess at how the old nobles are reacting to Tilda's impending coronation.

Tilda looks to gather allies: we've heard a lot about "the Peninsula," and she heads there, to rendezvous with Lord Albaret, who she knows is loyal to her. They will find other places along the way, particularly a hidden community of women - something like a secular nunnery, or sanctuary - as the story circles around the ideas of governance, power, and noblesse oblige. Tilda has good intentions, but do revolting peasants want any Queen, even a fairly benevolent, forward-thinking one? And can Tilda conceptualize a government without someone like her ruling it by decree?

On top of all that, this is a fantasy story. There is some power that Tilda will find, at the end. She also has visions throughout: visions that make her weak, shattering her normal life and making her collapse, visions of war and fire and danger, in which she is an imposing, commanding figure.

This is Book 1. It ends on a cliffhanger, after more than two hundred pages. But the story, I'm told, ends in the second book, which is out now. I can't tell you about that book yet - I need to find it now, myself - but I can tell you the first one is compelling and gorgeous and all-enveloping and amazing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Perdy, Vol. 2 by Kickliy

I'm sorry to admit that I may like the idea of the Perdy series better than I like the actual books. Oh, the books are solid French-Western adventure stories, full of gunfights and robberies and evil schemers with noses that look like butts, centered on the brick-house force-of-nature title character. But the story here is pretty straightforward, the conflicts obvious, and the beats hit really, really hard to make sure the reader doesn't miss anything or need to catch anything subtle.

I was pretty positive about the first book, so this could be just me getting my expectations too high based on memories burnished in retrospect. And second books frequently are not as groundbreaking and new as the first one was, by definition.

So that's my initial set of reactions to Perdy, Vol. 2 by the American/French cartoonist credited as Kickliy. Initial enthusiasm, reading the book with interest and excitement, a slight letdown when done that might be mostly my own fault.

The first book set up the situation: Perdy is a middle-aged gunslinger built on the epic scale, fond of bank-robbing, vigorous sex, and doing exactly whatever the hell she pleases in any given moment. She got out of prison at the beginning of the first book after fifteen years, and set out to get her old gear back and reconnect with her daughter. That daughter, now named Rose - that's a plot and character issue - is more conventionally feminine, though not necessarily more law-abiding, or less able with firearms.

This book is more vague in its plot than the first: Perdy wants Rose to assist her in a criminal scheme, but Rose already has a pretty good deal going in this small town, with all of the single men wrapped around her finger and a good living rolling in, probably entirely legally. Oh, there is the butt-faced villain (Big Richard) lurking around, who wants to claim Rose for his own, and he would screw things up even if Perdy weren't energetically screwing other things up at the same time. But the book is more about what those three characters are doing, iteratively, than about any larger plotline - and those three are all pretty reactive here, with Big Richard and Perdy being particularly headstrong and inclined to random activity at any given moment.

So this is a book with a lot of stuff happening, but it mostly circles instead of building to a crescendo. The status quo is completely shattered at the end, and presumably the third book will start somewhere else, with Perdy and Rose working together out of necessity.

There's also quite a lot of flashing back to Perdy's younger life, especially in the early part of the book, and an odd flashback-to-dream transition that isn't super-clear when it happens. I found myself wishing Kickliy had given some more structure to the story: Perdy is a run-roughshod-over-everything character, but that doesn't mean the narrative needs to follow that same pace and style.

All in all: this is a solid Western about a fun main character with massive flaws that are almost entirely the opposite of what any other book expects from female characters. For that alone, the Perdy series is awesome.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Factory Summers by Guy Delisle

Most of us had "just jobs," usually when young. A job that's not a career, not on the way to anything you actually want, not a step forward on any road you care about. Something that pays money, is available to you because of circumstance or lifestage or location: something that works for now even if it won't work forever.

Some people end up in those jobs their whole lives, of course. Some people don't have a road to begin with. But let's assume you had a road and were going to follow it at some point.

That's the student job, the summer job, the first job - the thing you do because you want or need to make some income and it's available. I was a cashier and then a supervisor of cashiers at a Bradlees discount store, way back in highschool; in college, I worked on the student security force, Campus Patrol.

Guy Delisle worked in a paper mill for three summers.

Blue-collar jobs, especially in big factories, are just more interesting as jobs - especially to people of the sitting-in-offices-and-looking-at-computer-screens classes - than the other things young people fall into, foodservice or retail or pet grooming or other random minor services and goods. So Delisle had something inherently compelling: the budding art-school student, his head full of comics and drawing, working twelve-hour shifts amid massive, dangerous, loud machinery with a whole bunch of men with completely different ideas and plans and lives.

It took Delisle almost forty years to tell that story, but he did: it's Factory Summers. At the age of sixteen, in the early '80s, he was hired as a "sixth hand" at what was then the Reed plant at the mouth of the Saint-Charles river in Quebec City. The plant was loud and hot and steamy, and the work was long and tedious, the kind of physical work that's easy to know what to do but that takes a while to get good at the little subtleties of doing it well. Giant rolls of paper need to be hoisted by machine, without swinging or falling, and put into position quickly and efficiently. Waste paper needs to be shoved down into the beater underneath with a big wooden pusher. Debris needs to be cleaned with high-pressure hoses, over and over and over again. Rolls need to be trimmed and cleaned and cleared. All the while giant machines are running at high speed on all sides: it was a modern, First World factory with serious safety precautions, but big machines are inherently dangerous, and the people who work around them learn that very quickly. And they have stories about the ways those machines can kill people - stories always told as "there was this guy who fell from up there" or "one time someone got caught in that" without names, so the new guy is never quite sure if those are true stories or legends.

Delisle tells this story straightforwardly, starting with his interview for the job and running through three main sections, each corresponding to one summer, plus a short coda at the end, showing what he ended up doing instead during what could have been the fourth summer. Again, the paper mill was not his road: he wanted to become an animator, and he did.

There are co-workers that reappear, but mostly within one summer: people change and move on, so the crew one year is different from the one before. Or, at least, the interesting people that Delisle wanted to focus on were different: the long-timers, working at the mill as a career and waiting for retirement, were there all along. He doesn't know what happened to some of them, and he's telling this story forty years later, so some of them don't have names. (Maybe some read the book and recognized themselves!)

Well, there is one person who is important but only appears a few times: Delisle's father was an engineer at that plant, working upstairs in the offices. Delisle saw him only rarely, and the two weren't close: the parents had gotten divorced a few years before and the father, as Delisle depicts him, was a solitary man who talked incessantly whenever in company. This is not a book about Guy Delisle's relationship with his father - but that's a strand of the story.

Delisle draws himself in a modern iteration of ligne claire - precise lines of a a medium width, simplified features. He also uses the yellow workshirt he wore as a pop of color on the otherwise black-and-white-and-gray pages, as seen on the cover. (Noises, smoke, and a few other things are also in the same yellow.)  But his coworkers are drawn in a somewhat more realistic style, more like the machines and surroundings: not full realism, but with more detail to features, more blemishes, more shading. It makes the young Delisle central to every panel he appears in, and cements him as our viewpoint; it underscores how he was different in this environment, a visitor rather than a resident.

Delisle doesn't aim for big revelations or lessons in Factory Summers. It was an interesting time in his life, and the intersection with his father's life gives it added resonance: but he doesn't stretch any of that, he presents it as it was, or as he remembers it now. This is the story of a just job, what Delisle did before he started doing what he really wanted to do.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of 2/21/05

Mondays are for lists. New books, if I have them. This week, there's nothing new, so instead I'll pull up what I was reading "this week" some time in the past, and see what I remember of them.

And the year is 2005.

Tom Perrotta, Little Children (2/16)

I didn't blog about the book when I read it, but I did see the movie a couple of years later, and wrote about that. There's some comparison-to-the-book buried in there, written by someone fifteen years closer to reading that book than I am today.

I have a complicated relationship with Perrotta's books. He writes well, and his characters are often hugely like me, generationally and in their concerns and places in life. I think every major reader has some writers like that: the ones that hit bulls-eyes with you almost without trying, because you came so much out of the same worlds. On the other hand, there's something deeply middle-brow about Perrotta, so there's an elitist part of me that feels bad for liking his books so much. But, at the base, he's a strong writer who writes about things that are electric in the culture and resonant for huge audiences.

This is the one about an affair among suburbanites with young children, to be reductive. Perrotta's books are always more complex than their reductive descriptions, though - and what the movies never quite capture is the psychological, individual depth of his secondary characters; a lot more people get the narrative to run through their heads in a Perrotta book than ever could in the movies made from them.

So I still think this is a good one. I don't know if I'll ever re-read it.

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (read to my older son, 2/16)

This was the middle of my big reading-to-kids era. My older son was born in 1998 and the younger one in 2000, so I read a lot of bedtime books starting about 2000-01 until maybe 2008-2009. For roughly a year before this, I'd been intermittently reading longer books (Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, Narnia - the usuals) to Thing 1, but he was and still is a very antsy person, so that didn't always work well. The routine moved to Thing 2 alone, mostly, for the last few years, and I think I had a second burst of trying to read longer books that also didn't last long. (Thing 2 was a bigger reader of fantasy novels to begin with, though - I basically pointed him toward Pratchett, had some conversations about other writers, and helped facilitate his own reading from that point.)

Great Glass Elevator is a weird book, as I recall, episodic like the first one but set mostly on a space station - of course a candy magnate would fly his space-worthy elevator to an alien-infested space hotel, why would you think he wouldn't? - and it does not get mentioned as one of Dahls' best books for good and sufficient reasons. But I've always liked the weirdness.

Jennifer Fallon, Harshini (photocopies of Australian edition, read beginning & end, 2/18)

For no good reason, at this point in my career I'd weirdly slipped into the role of being the SFBC editor who handled pretty much all of the Australian authors that we acquired - Sean Williams, Sara Douglass, Isobelle Carmody, Sean McMullen, George Turner. Neither then nor since have I ever been to Australia; it was just a random thing. But it did mean I read a lot of fun writers.

Jennifer Fallon fell into that bucket: she did a couple of solid epic-fantasy series that we did in the club and I enjoyed reading. This was the end of what I think was the second trilogy we did, and clearly I was feeling the press of time. (Third books of trilogies being huge and often serving to work out at length what the reader already knows what will happen.) I'm afraid I have no memory of this book.

Andre Norton and Sasha Miller, Dragon Blade (typescript, read beginning and end, 2/19)

Oh, look - I did it again! Yes, the dirty secret of reprint publishing (and possibly certain kinds of reviewing, as well) is that you often don't have to read all of a book to understand or deal with it. A lot of books are what they are, and the middle is just the complications and events that keep the covers far enough apart to charge the appropriate amount of money. (And give the reader more stuff to read and spend some time with - that's the less mercenary way of putting it.)

This was fourth and I want to say last in an epic fantasy series, and I have to admit that Norton (often with collaborators) was doing a lot of epic fantasy in my SFBC years, and I was generally lukewarm at best about it. Norton SF was muscular and smart, with lost civilizations and tough heroes stuck in dangerous situations that sometimes even obliquely commented on real-world social issues. Norton Fantasy was clotted, written in backwards-syntax, straining for mythic effect and running to endless volumes. A lot of people seemed to like that, though - there were a bunch of those books and they all sold well. So maybe my personal tastes don't mean a hell of a lot.

Kazoi Koike and Goseki Kojima, Samurai Executioner, Vol. 3: The Hell Stick (2/20)

This is another series by the 'Lone Wolf & Cub" team, which I think is set in the same continuity - don't the two series cross over, or refer to each other, at a few points? Anyway, more samurai action, more straightforwardly, without the larger take-care-of-your-infant-son-while-pursuing-vengeance frisson. I have no idea what happened in this one, but I bet the hero killed a whole hell of a lot of people in interesting and exciting ways.

Gardner Dozois, The Year's Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Second Annual Collection (2/21, photocopies)

I'm going to have to look up a ToC to say anything coherent. Well, wait, before I do that: in those days, Dozois was the "standard" Year's Best, the really big one with an equally impressive essay about everything going on in the SF field during the past year. Dozois always had a viewpoint and often axes to grind, but he was about as honest as any editor ever is and tried to be clear about even the stuff in the field he didn't enjoy or like as much. So his books were great signposts of What Is Going On every year, albeit given his usual bent towards slightly more literary work.

OK, here's a TOC, from ISFDB. I see stories there I remember from Kage Baker, Walter Jon Williams, and Eleanor Arnason, which isn't a bad hit rate for something almost twenty years old.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Quote of the Week: I Aten't Dead Yet

Looking to the future, we find that the book, the old-fashioned paper-and-ink book, its pages unreflowable, bound at the spine, has proved an enduring technology in the face of its electronic offspring. For the time being, at least, it retains its place as the dominant symbol of our intellectual endeavors, displayed on our shelves and on the crests of the great universities. As long as we navigate the waters of print, the book index, child of the imagination but as old as those universities themselves, will continue to serve as our compass.

 - Dennis Duncan, Index, A History of the, p.260

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Good Night, Hem by Jason

I had the wrong idea about this book. I feel like I say that a lot in this blog, but why not say it if it's true? We all come into new experiences with expectations and ideas, and we're all wrong a lot of the time. There's no shame in saying so.

I expected Good Night, Hem to be a standalone graphic novel about Ernest Hemingway. Since it's by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, I thought there might be a genre element of some kind, or that it might be told slyly in some other way: I didn't expect a straightforward biographical story.

I wasn't far wrong, but I'd forgotten that Jason had already written about Hemingway and his Paris circle of the 1920s in The Left Bank Gang - well, sort-of, since those characters had the names of the Lost Generation circle but were comics creators planning a bank robbery. And I didn't know that Good Night, Hem is also a sequel to The Last Musketeer [1], since Athos is a major character here.

So, to sum up: Good Night, Hem is not really a sequel to the previous Jason book in which "Ernest Hemingway" appeared, but it is a sequel to a completely different Jason book that was not about Hemingway. This is par for the course for Jason: you don't go to his books for straightforward and obvious.

Oh, one other thing: it's not a single narrative, but three loosely linked shorter stories: one in Paris and Spain in 1925, when Hemingway is inspired to write The Sun Also Rises; one in Paris and other points in 1944, where Hemingway is inspired to lead a group of young Frenchmen (are they supposed to be writers? I'm not sure) to train, airdrop into Berlin, and capture Hitler to end the war early; and a short coda set in Cuba in 1959, where Hemingway muses on Athos, their combined histories, and life in general.

So it is largely about Athos, in a sideways, Jason fashion. Hemingway is the focal character, but Athos is more interesting and harder to understand - the story is told from Hemingway's viewpoint, but it's largely about Athos (except that odd middle section).

I also think Jason's books have gotten less dense recently: he switched from a mostly nine-panel grid to a four-panel grid, so each page has bigger, more open panels with less action and dialogue. On the other hand, I don't have the books in front of me to check, but I also think his recent books are longer - so I may be saying they have about the same amount of action, but spread out onto more pages, so it feels longer and more relaxed.

What happens? Well, the first section is pretty straightforward and relatively close to history, only with the addition of an immortal musketeer in the group going to Pamplona: it's focused, like Sun itself, on the sexual tensions within the group, and adds to them by having Athos and Hemingway be essentially doppelgangers. (Not that Jason has that many character types to begin with, so this may be lampshading in his part.)

The second section is an old-fashioned nutty Jason story, along the lines of I Killed Adolph Hitler, in which completely crazy, impossible things are presented straightforwardly and just happen anyway.

And the ending is, again, more of a coda, summing up Hemingway's view of Athos and cataloging all of their interactions. (He also inspired The Old Man and the Sea!)

I didn't think this completely came together as one thing - the middle section is too different in tone, style, and concerns - but all of the pieces are good, and all show Jason doing good work in his mature style. I wouldn't pick this up as a first Jason book - Hitler or the newer Lost Cat or maybe Werewolves of Montpelier are better choices to start - but it's a fine continuation.

[1] No good link for that book: it was the first Jason book I read, in March of 2009 when I was an Eisner judge, so I stuck it in the middle of a massive post covering the 94 books I read that month.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith

I cannot prove that this book originated as a story pitch for The Incredible Hulk, sometime in the dim misty past. But I fervently believe it, and that's what matters in the world today, right?

Monsters is a massive graphic novel written and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith; he apparently has been working on it, off and on, for thirty-five years. (I didn't hear a word about it until it was published; I'm not clear if he worked on it quietly the whole time or if he had mentioned it and I just never heard.) It aims to be a serious book, but it has an inherent pulpiness that drags it back down over and over again, and a loose-limbed structure that introduces its own issues.

For most potential readers, the big point is that it contains over three hundred and sixty pages of BWS art, some of those among the best in his career. It's all also entirely in his mature style; there's no visual indication in this book that it took four decades to make. So this is a visually stunning book: BWS has been a great craftsman of comics pages for about fifty years now (counting from his game-changing stint on Conan), and this is a major, major milestone in any appreciation or evaluation of his career.

The story though, does feel like a lightly warmed-over Hulk story. There's a monster: gigantic, almost indestructible, mentally tormented, uncommunicative. There are evil scientists (some of them, inevitably, Nazis) and almost-as-evil military types. There's abuse from a father in the past. There's an escape, under gunfire, from a military base, the monster hiding out with a helper in an isolated house with military choppers angrily buzzing overhead, and a shoved-in "power of public opinion" moment that nearly gets lost.

There's also a major thread about supernatural powers, which are not terribly well defined and seem to be able to do whatever the story needs them to do. (Not to save their owners from death, admittedly, but being dead doesn't slow possessors of "the shine" anyway.)

It's all told in more-or-less straightforward comics, but it's not particularly well-structured for the length. All of these pages, all of these moments, could have formed a stronger story if corralled somewhat more tightly, reorganized a bit, and if BWS or an editor had imposed a stronger structure on the story. (This, though, would have meant redrawing or reworking some number of pages - probably including some from thirty years before. That may have not been plausible.)

Instead, the story meanders, telling us one thing and then another, adding layers and depths as it goes - but in a fashion that leads this reader to suspect it happened as BWS worked on the pages, and that he didn't go back to integrate his new ideas into old pages. One particularly egregious example: one character barges in, declaring that he's the Governor of this state, and is accepted as such....but he admits, a hundred pages later, that he was just pretending. Now, in this world, the Governor of a state is a public figure, and everyone knows who that guy is. So this is just not a ruse that can actually work.

The Nazi, who is basically the main villain, is unavailable for the big ending, so he gets understudied by a military guy - who, humorously to me, is actually named Ross, as if that was the only word remaining from the Hulk pitch.

It's all set in the late '40s (mostly 1949) and 1964-65, but only the furniture (cars, hairstyles, WWII uniforms) makes it feel like a period story. I suspect there are multiple expressions used in dialog that are anachronistic; this feels like a contemporary story told in a different time to make the Nazi/WWII connection make sense.

All in all, this has pretty much exactly the strengths and weaknesses of a book that a respected but idiosyncratic creator worked on quietly and alone for decades: it looks great, it has a lot of good ideas and moments, the characterization is excellent. But it's also lumpy, with a structure that feels like a sequence of pages in the order that the creator thought of them rather than the order that would best serve the story, and later revelations that are not adequately set up. It's good, but you can see the better book that it should have been.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan

In case the post title is confusing you, this book is titled Index, A History of the and its author is British writer (Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books) and academic (lecturer, University College London) Dennis Duncan. This is one of the rare cases where I'm seeing and writing about a book before it's published: this is being published in the US today. I'm pretty sure it's already out in the UK, but I have no idea about Canada and more obscure lands.

I keep checking the cover to make sure that "A" is capitalized, which means, I think, I'm exactly the kind of person this book is for: bookish, detail-oriented, interested in quirky bits of history, borderline obsessive.

Yes, this is a history of the index, that thing at the back of the book that tells you where you (assuming you are famous) are mentioned, so you don't have to read the book itself. Indexes - by the way, Duncan prefers that to "indices," but I tend to go the other direction, only because I always prefer the most baroque option; ask me about "octopodes" some day - are useful and, like a lot of things in this world, more complicated and messy than non-experts think.

Now you are thinking "Oh! Is this yet another 'how this one thing changed the entire world' book?" Well, yes, sort-of. Duncan is not claiming the entire edifice of the modern world is based on the work of Robert Grosseteste and Hugh of St. Cher [1], but, in the way of that strain of best-selling non-fiction, he is going to trace different kinds of indexes, mostly but not entirely the usual kind printed in physical books, from as far back in time as is feasible right up to Google, which does use the term "index" quite a lot when talking about what its big fancy search engine does.

The point of an entertaining and informative non-fiction book - one that is either or both of those things, I mean, though it's obviously better if it's both at once, as this one is - is to tell the reader things she doesn't already know, preferably things that are worth knowing. (There is an entire vast world of academic publishing, full of books that could tell you things you don't know that you would never ever care about for a second.) Duncan succeeds on both counts here: I wasn't really clear in my own head on the difference between a concordance and a subject index before I read Index, and now I could possibly explain them, as long as someone asks me within the next two or three days and I'm not distracted.

(But! I could also look up, in Index's index, "concordances, births of the index" and refresh my memory on pages 51-52 and 55. In fact, I just did that, since I figured a book on the index should be particularly accessible through its own index. And so it is: Index has an extensive, detailed index of its own, compiled by professional indexer Paula Clarke Bain. It also has extensive endnotes, a list of illustrations, and, as something of a bad example, a partial computer-generated index of this book. As usual, Norton rules the scholarly-apparatus-for-lay-readers world.)

In short: Index is much more entertaining than you would think, full of quirky literary stories from the past seven centuries or so, all told well and aligned to the central thread of Duncan's thesis. It's long enough to tell its story and short enough not to wear out its welcome. If you are a bookish person, you probably will want to read it: it could very easily be this year's Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

[1] No, not that Cher. That would be silly. And only dead people can be canonized anyway.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/12/21

Four books from the library this week, and these are they:

Aster and the Mixed-Up Magic, by Thom Pico and Karensac. I got this one, and realized that it's actually the second book. I think it was linked in some end-of-year round-up, which may be why I heard about it and not the previous book, but, however it happened, I had this one in hand, had at least a vague reason to want to read it, but wanted to find the previous book first.

It's some kind of book-for-younger-readers - my guess is middle-grade, but I'll have to read it to be sure - and it seems to be about a kid who has magic. I'm not sure if it's our world, a fantasy world, or something more baroque.

And I'm holding off reading it until I can get the first one, but the library only lets me keep books three weeks...oh, golly! whatever will I do?

Aster and the Accidental Magic, by Thom Pico and Karensac. Oh, look! The library system also had the previous book, and got it to me within a few days of my request. The modern world is pretty awesome sometimes, particularly when you ask for something free and get it almost immediately. When that something is a book, it's downright magical.

Again, you might want to know what the books are about, but I haven't read them yet, so I'm vague on that. But I'm pretty sure they're magical-kid stories for tweens (maybe slightly younger than that), and I would not be surprised if they are more diverse than the similar books of my own youth. (I read a lot of books about sad rich white kids - that might partly have been me, but I think it was a massive genre in the '70s for no obvious reason.)

The Thud by Mikael Ross. This is another book that I chased down because it was on someone's Best-of-2021 list. (Or I'm pretty sure that's why. Hey, we all add things randomly to our Books-I-Want-to-Read lists, and do we care that much why or how? No: we want to read more good stuff, and details sometimes just slow that down.) As I understand it, this is fiction - aimed at a YA audience - but based fairly closely on real people and the real town they live in; the story is made-up but the moments are probably mostly based on reality. In Germany, there's a town called Neuerkrode which is largely populated by people with developmental disabilities - our teenage hero goes to live there after his mother has an accident. This is, I gather, the story of how he comes to find a life there.

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld. Because of the oddities of scheduling and timing, I've already read this and just wrote a post about it right before starting to type here. So I can either repeat myself or write something totally different...or, maybe, just stick to the factual this time. This is a fairy tale in picture-book form, Gauld's first book for younger readers (Hey! I've got a theme: I didn't pick books for younger readers on purpose, but that's what came in from the library.) and it's very Gauldian and very good.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Discipline by Dash Shaw

Comics is a deliberate art: even the pieces that seem quickly made or sketched are carefully planned. There's a huge amount of work that goes into a page that goes by your eyes in a minute or less, for every creator of every kind of comics.

But even in that company, working in that form, Dash Shaw is more deliberate than most, and looks less deliberate. His art is loose, at times mimicking a sketchbook. His lettering looks more like handwriting a lot of the time. His people are driven by immediate urges and demands, sometimes almost uncontrollably.

Discipline is perhaps the peak of that side of Shaw, or at least a peak. The pages do look like something out of a sketchbook, with unbordered pictures that form comics without quite looking like comics. His lettering is in script, slightly fussy, to fit this 19th century story - it could easily be the handwriting of one or more of the characters in the book. And his main character does the one thing his community hates most of all: goes to war.

Charles Cox is seventeen in 1863, a Quaker growing up in an Indiana community of Quakers: quiet, sober, serious, dedicated to self-improvement, bettering their community and world, and non-violence in both their individual lives and the wider world. He has unnamed parents and what seems to be a slightly older sister, Fanny.

Only after finishing the book do I think about that: only two children, on a farm in the 1860s? What's the story there? How many crib deaths lie in the past of this family, how many other children lost before these two grew up?

It's the middle of the Civil War, and Charles is old enough to fight. Old enough to grapple with the moral side of the conflict, too: he deeply believes in both the rightness of the Union cause - Quakers were vastly more abolitionist than most of America, and much earlier - and in the value of the Quaker non-violence ethos. Those two things are in immediate conflict: the nation will not be pulled back together, nor the slaves be freed, though non-violence and pacifism.

So Charles does run off and enlist. Discipline is mostly his story, alternating with Fanny's story back at home, where she is "courted" by Cyrus, who looks to my eye to be substantially older than her. Shaw tells those two stories in two ways: in his loose art, which has no direct dialogue and takes place essentially in pantomime, and with narrative captions, which we mostly take to be the letters these two send back and forth but also include unvoiced thoughts and ruminations.

In his afterword, Shaw says a lot of the language in the book is directly from letters and other documents of the period: these are largely the words of actual Quakers of that time, and the rest is deeply influenced by them.

Charles goes through quick, brief training. He marches south, fights in his first battle, and marches much further south with Sherman's army. His story is full of events: wounded, captured, sick, prison-break.

Fanny's story gives us more of the conflicting views of Quakers on the war, including the ongoing argument about whether they should pay the increased taxes to fund the armies. Quakers, we learn, have for generations specifically refused to pay any taxes that go to armed forces: they refuse, entirely, to fund violence. And it also gives us a view of her relationship with Cyrus, in those silent panels: we may miss the most important thing, but we'll learn it in words before the end.

Shaw is not giving us an answer to the central conflict here. He is not expressing an opinion about whether fighting in the Civil War - or any war, any conflict - was right or necessary for any person. He's telling a story about people living through it, making choices, and trying to live up to their ideas. 

They are very high, very strong ideals. A lot of us could do well to try to be closer to them, even if we don't exactly believe in the specific God at the center of those ideals.

Discipline is much quieter than a reader would expect for a book about the Civil War, almost a meditation. It's much more a Quaker book than a war book, which is entirely appropriate. And I found it almost entirely successful on its own terms: it sets out do so something specific and succeeds entirely at that.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

One Line by Ray Fawkes

The old editor in me should have expected a third: all art aspires to the condition of trilogy, we used to joke.

Maybe that's true. Ray Fawkes found a way to take one of the best graphic novels anyone has ever made and do it again, and then again one more time.

A decade ago, he made a great book, One Soul. On facing pages of nine-panel grids, he told the stories of eighteen lives simultaneously, from birth to death. (Spoiler: not everyone dies at the same time.) It was brilliant, it was simple in its brilliance, and it felt like the kind of tour de force that could only be done once.

But then a few years later Fawkes came back with The People Inside. That book took a similar structure - multiple stories, the same story in the same place throughout the book - and told stories of relationships. Not individuals, all by themselves, but people finding each other, falling in and out of love, living their lives together. And that panel structure let him have double-panels for couples, which could break and re-form in different directions as the relationships changed.

How could he follow that up?

It took another seven years, but One Line is the answer. This time, Fawkes is using that same structure to tell the stories of families through generations. Or maybe, to be expansive about it, nations. After a brief prelude set in prehistoric times, the first part introduces eighteen characters in their eighteen panels. Some are related - two sets of brothers, one set of sisters. There are other almost-pairs, as with a Chinese and Japanese family that will interact over time, or an Indian local and the Englishman ruling him.

Fawkes tells these stories in the same allusive, stream of consciousness style as the previous two books: the captions in each panel both serve as a continuous narrative and tell the story of that one family straight through the book.

The book has multiple sections, corresponding to generations - very clearly to begin with, a little more loosely towards the end.

And, as in One Soul, when a character dies, that panel goes dark for the rest of the section. This will be important, as it was important in One Soul. More important, actually: by the end of One Line, I came to believe it was the most important thing.

One Line takes place over the last two or three centuries, and is full of war and pogroms as those years were. These eighteen people start out all over the world: if you pay attention, you can figure out where each of them are, more or less. Some of these people will try to kill each other, and some will succeed.

And the generations roll on, with new generations not necessarily knowing the connections previous generations had. Or not caring. So the black panels pile up in each section.

Fawkes has a positive message in the end, as he did in the previous two books: he's showing here how bad humanity can be but also how good it can be. And this is just as strong, just as human, as the previous books: these are, again, some of the best graphic novels from anyone.

I'm pretty sure there's no room for another book in this sequence...but I've said that before.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Patience by Daniel Clowes

It's never a good thing to realize, halfway through, that you've read a book before. Especially when you've just bought a shiny new copy, and the realization includes the fact that another copy - just as shiny, also bought new - is probably on a shelf upstairs in your house. (I haven't looked yet; maybe it isn't. Maybe I read it from a library the first time?)

You see, if you read a book again on purpose, that's fine: it means you remember it, and want to experience it again. And reading a new book is obviously normal. But thinking it's new to you when it isn't - that's not a good experience.

So I re-read Patience yesterday (as I write this). It was the 2016 graphic novel from Daniel Clowes, and is still his most recent book. I read it for the first time in 2017, and let me take a second to re-read what I wrote about it then.


OK, I agree with all of that. Clearly I didn't remember it deeply, and I trusted my Books Wanted list more than I should have, but it's a solid Clowes story, very much in his usual style and manner. For all of Clowes's characters' histrionics, I find I don't really engage emotionally with them: they are very emotional people who Clowes often seems to be examining like a scientist with a bug.

That may be one reason why I don't remember Clowes stories viscerally: they're all distanced to begin with. The Clowes affect subliminally says "these people are damaged and wrong in various ways; pay attention to them but don't care about them." I doubt Clowes intends this affect for Patience, but it's so ingrained into how I read his work, so tied to his art style and method of viewing characters, that he'd need to change a lot to break that habit. And I suspect I'm not alone in this.

Anyway, Patience is a good Clowes book that didn't impress itself strongly in my memory. Everything I said in my old post is still how I'd characterize it as a story. I have no new insights to impart. Come back tomorrow; with luck, I'll have a read a book for the first time and have something interesting to say about it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Why Did We Trust Him? by Shannon Wheeler

I like reading books of single-panel cartoons, but they're not great blog fodder.

There's no story to write about, obviously, and unless the cartoonist has a really clear theme or topic, there's no hook to hang a review on. "Hey, here's a bunch of jokes by this one person!" doesn't say much.

So, here's a bunch of jokes by Shannon Wheeler, collected as Why Did We Trust Him? It was published by Top Shelf in 2019, and followed several similar earlier books by Wheeler, including I Told You So, I Thought You Would Be Funnier, and the mixed single-panel and comics-stories collection Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius.

This one has a table of contents, which is unusual for a book of single-panel cartoons. Even less usual: it seems to have an entry for every single cartoon, and is organized into sections - Introduction, Contents, Word, Afterword, Index, Glossary, Footnotes. These sections just have cartoons in them, and there's no obvious, say, "Index" theme to that section. It seems to be just a meta-joke about book design, which is fine with me.

(I did not spend any time comparing punchlines with the entries in the ToC: that would be crazy.)

This book seems to have a lot of cartoons about clowns, Sisyphus, and fishbowls, along with the usual cartooning staples: a couple in bed or at the dinner table, desert islands, gurus on mountaintops, people in Heaven or Hell. As I said, it's a book of single-panel cartoons.

I think it's funny, and Wheeler has a good style for the format: mostly thin lines with some gray washes for emphasis - looks like that could actually be some kind of watercolor, from the thinness and translucency. (I am not an artist, and may be embarrassing myself with this comment.)

The ecosystem for cartoons like this has mostly collapsed: you can find a few online in places like GoComics and the like, along with individual artists' social accounts (is it still mostly Tumblr these days?), but the vast thundering herds of magazines that bought dozens of cartoons each are mostly gone. If you like 'em, you probably need to seek out books like this one. So seek it.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of 2/5/94

This is Monday. (I know, I know.) On Mondays, if I got any new books, I write about them here. If not, I write about the old books I read "this week" in some past year.

This time out, the past year is...1994! And the list is both short and weird, which suits me.

James Morrow, Towing Jehovah (1/30)

When I was an editor at the SF Book Club, my boss Ellen Asher and I used to regularly discuss putting together a "blasphemy flyer," collecting all of the books we offered that could offend the Mrs. Grundys of the era. Sure, there were some other books, like God: The Autobiography (which sold well for us for years but I otherwise never saw or heard anywhere else in the world), but it would largely be a Jim Morrow collection, which might be why we never did it.

(Another reason being that it would be designed to offend people, which is not generally a good idea to do in a business context.)

Morrow had already won the World Fantasy for Only Begotten Daughter, which is probably a better, definitely a more popular, and absolutely a friendlier novel than the chilly, doom-laden, deliberately anti-theistic Towing Jehovah. So he was clearly doubling down at this point in his career, focusing on one of his major themes really tightly - did I mention this was the beginning of a trilogy, in which God's gigantic dead body is found floating in the Atlantic, and things get weirder from there? It is.

So: this is a good book, a major book, a powerful book. I don't know if I can recommend it to all readers, though. For some of you, you might just burst into flames upon trying to read it, and I wouldn't want that on my conscience.

Jim Thompson, Cropper's Cabin (1/31)

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard was reprinting all of Thompson's novels in somewhat unified trade dress (they had a batch for each season, and, as art directors will, the design tended to drift over the course of a few years), and I was buying and reading all of them. This was one: I'll have to look it up to see which one it was.

OK. This is a 1952 novel, about the son of a sharecropper in Oklahoma (where Thompson was born and lived) who was in love with the daughter of a man he hates. I think Thompson used that same vague plot - not the sharecropper part; the "obsessed with the wrong girl" part - more than once, but I have a vague memory of this book, and it's too-headstrong-for-his-own-good hero. (All Thompson heroes are tragic, one way or another, either for themselves or others.) Core-period Thompson is always good.

Macintosh User's Guide for Macintosh Performa Computers (2/3)

This was the manual that came with my first "real" computer (I had a TRS-80 Color as a teen, hence the qualifier), which I bought sometime that winter from an office-supply store on Route 46 in Totowa. (The one that was previously a movie theater, and is now some kind of women's-clothing emporium; I think it was an OfficeMax back in the day. This will mean nothing to those of you who aren't local.)

And, yes, I did read it cover-to-cover; we were serious about our computers in my day!

Jon A. Jackson, The Blind Pig (1/4)

This was some variety of mystery novel; I know I read a couple by Jackson and I may have read everything he published. Let me go check - maybe I'll find out he's had a booming career since then, and this series now has thirty books, including a bunch of award winners. (I write that down, since it's always my hope: I want things to have gone well while I wasn't paying attention.)

OK, this is Detective Sergeant Mullheisen - I seem to remember he had some nickname (aha! It's "Fang") - and this was the second of ten novels. They were quite hardboiled, especially for a series with a cop protagonist, and set in a mob-riddled Detroit, with a lot of great recurring characters and wonderfully sleazy atmosphere. The Diehard was the first one; this was the second. They might feel out-of-date these days, but I enjoyed all the ones I read. 

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Books Read: January 2022

As always, this is almost entirely for me in the future rather than for any other reader. Links will follow once the posts go live.

This is what I read last month:

Guy Delisle, Factory Summers (1/1/)

Kickliy, Perdy, Vol. 2 (1/2)

Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, The Golden Age, Book 1 (1/8)

Tardi, Farewell, Brindavoine (1/9)

Pascal Girard, Rebecca & Lucie in the Case of the Missing Neighbor (1/15)

R. Kikuo Johnson, No One Else (1/16)

Steven Brust, The Baron of Magister Valley (1/16)

Basil Wolverton, Scoop Scuttle and His Pals (1/17)

Dan Nadel and Frank Santoro, editors, Return to Romance! The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney (1/22)

Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, and Boulet, Dungeon Zenith, Vol. 4: Outside the Ramparts (1/23)

Peter Kuper, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1/28)

Joan Didion, The White Album (in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, 1/28)

Grant Snider, I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelf (1/29, digital)

Jordi Lafebre, Always Never (1/30, digital)

Friday, February 04, 2022

Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley

OK, I'm dropping this on a Friday, which I'm typically not using for reviews these days, because I want to make this short and avoid total Ouroboros nature here.

Second Reading is a collection of the monthly column of the same name, by Jonathan Yardley, from the Washington Post (I'm not sure if it was in Book World or not; Yardley just uses the name of the paper). It ran from 2003 through 2010, and, in that column, Yardley re-read books that had been important to him at one point or other and then wrote about them.

So you can see that reviewing a collection of re-reviewed book reviews could get just a wee bit tail-eating.

The column ran to ninety-seven entries; sixty of them are included in the book. Yardley does not explain how he made the cut, or why he didn't make two slightly shorter books. (Well, as a former editor, I'm pretty sure the answer to the second part is "Kent Carroll was only willing to publish one," possibly with a side order of "you can't make two books called 'Second Reading'.") There is a list of the omitted entries at the end, and all of the entries are also available as part of the Neglected Books website.

Other people's opinions about books are interesting as long as they're informed and reasonably well-written: Yardley's work is both, since he had been a newspaperman and book reviewer for about fifty years when he began this project.

Some people like reading essays on books they know well, so they can quibble. Some like reading essays on books they haven't read, so they can add to their lists and bookselves. I tend to like a mix, or maybe I just get a mix, since my reading has been random and haphazard, so I don't have any category where I'm entirely one or the other. Second Readings gave me both: a few books I am familiar with, like Catcher in the Rye and A Moveable Feast, but mostly things I'd either never heard of ( a biography of W.C. Fields, the novels of Harold Frederic, J.F. Powers, and Frederick Lewis Allen) or intend to read someday (The Twelve Caesars, Tom Jones, Speak, Memory).

Yardley writes solid essays about all of them, making them interesting for the scope of five pages, and making me at least momentarily want to read every book he covers. For many, though, like the several "problems of rich prep-school people" novels and the similar ones about bishops and early 20th century provincial businessmen, the impulse passed quickly.

This book is pitched these days as a guide for book groups, and it definitely is that. I don't know how those groups pick their books - I'm no good at letting anyone else pick what I'm going to read next, so I avoid them - but Yardley makes the case for a lot of different, oddball books being worth reading, which is one of the great successes in writing about books.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Happily Ever After & Everything In Between by Debbie Tung

I'm writing this early the morning of Christmas, about a cute little inoffensive book, so I expect this will be short and mild.

Happily Ever After and Everything In Between is a collection of single-page comics by Debbie Tung - they might have appeared somewhere else first, or might have been created for this book; it doesn't say - all about her newlywed life with her husband Jason. According to her bio in the book, she lives near Birmingham in the UK, but the book itself isn't specific about place or country: it could be just about anywhere in the English-speaking world (or even wider than that, if we pretend it could have been translated).

In the Olden Times, books like this were designed to sit by the cash register in a store, looking attractive and grabbing the attention of people in the right demographic or lifestage, or maybe just their friends and relatives looking for gifts for those people. Now I think these books have to make their way in the larger and more difficult online world, hoping for Google juice and that their creators' social accounts drive enough traffic to keep them going.

Either way, it's a nice book. That's what it aims to be, that's what it does: slice-of-life moments that are generally applicable, told with humor and drawn in a slightly cartoony, very relatable style. (I see a little Kate Beaton in Tung's figures, especially in motion - but I think a lot of young cartoonists have a bit of Beaton influence these days.)

Tung and her husband are specific people, but books like this lean into the universality of the experience: getting used to living with someone, being surprised daily by the reminder that you're actually married, buying your first house, not wanting to cook, starting to think about kids, and so on. If you've been a newlywed, a lot of those things will be familiar, and that's what Happily Ever After aims to do: show you Tung's version of those universal moments, in a sweet and fun way.

I found Tung a little more universal than someone like Sarah Andersen (whose Adulthood Is a Myth is about a lifestage two or three steps before this one), which is great for that spot by the cash register but made me want a bit more quirk and specificity. But happy people, and happy couples, are all very alike, and Tung seems to have been very happy when she made this book. There's no way I can count that as a negative. Happily Ever After is sweet and fun and nice: it will be a lovely read for people in that lifestage (or who can look back on it fondly).

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Joshua W. Cotter

The memory of a book is not the same as an initial assessment, or a re-read. Looking back, when starting to write about Joshua W. Cotter's excellent graphic novel Skyscrapers of the Midwest, I see that I read it at almost the same time as Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole. At the time, I said Skyscrapers was my favorite, but I've thought about Swallow much more often in the past decade, and returned to Powell's work in a way I haven't for Cotter.

So which of the two is "better"? 2008 Andy thought it was Skyscrapers. The default Andy of about 2010-2020 would probably say Swallow if asked to choose between the two. And today, after I've just re-read Skyscrapers?

Today I think I'm going to say picking between two books by completely different people is s silly game, that books are not in competition with each other in any sense other than for attention in the moment. The world is wide; there's room for everything. There's especially lots of room for strong books.

But today I have just re-read Skyscrapers. And I seem to be avoiding writing about it directly - maybe because what I wrote in 2008 is still entirely applicable and I don't really have anything to add to that. This is the story of a boy who probably is a semi-fictionalized version of Cotter himself, at the age of 10 in 1987. I wrote about a lot of the impressive elements of the story a decade ago, and I only have a few things to add to that.

There's a subplot here about a young man - eighteen or twenty, I guess - who looks a lot like the young protagonist and is in a bad relationship (almost entirely because of him) with a woman of the same age. Reading Skyscrapers this time, I wondered if that was supposed to be a flashforward, the same boy a little older. I don't think so: the rest of the book is set in 1987, and there's no transitional elements to imply that shift in time. More importantly, he interacts with the main plot once, so he must be a different person - maybe similar, maybe a warning of what the protagonist could become.

There's also some fake-nonfiction elements as part of the package - the letter column is answered by a cowboy named "Skinny Kenny," as the biggest example, but there are also some fake ads and similar stuff. This is loosely incorporated into the overall story, since "Skinny Kenny" replies to letters that, at least in one case, is clearly by a character in the story and is about the story.

But those are the only major pieces I didn't mention in my old post: otherwise, I agree with what 2008 Andy said. This is impressive, and it still struck me in 2021 as a lot like a more humanist, less formalist version of a Chris Ware story: similar elements about a similar childhood, with the story heading in a different direction and with a very different art style. In Ware, the story is about how a boy is irreparably broken - whether because of comics, or just adjacent to comics isn't really important. For Cotter, the hermeticism of a boy's imagination is both positive and negative, like so many things in life, and his characters need to have other connections, especially to family, to get through those tricky years.

We do sense that this boy will get through; he won't be broken like a Ware character. And I'm reminded that I've lost track of  what Cotter has been doing for the past decade, so I really should see if he's done anything else this strong.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Skreemer by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins, and Steve Dillon

I have to start with the quibble: I'll move on to praise in a moment. I'm sorry; it's just how my mind works.

Skreemer is a SFnal gangster story, originally serialized in six comics issues in 1989 and collected some time later. It was written by Peter Milligan, with art by Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon. It's set after a slow apocalypse: a series of plagues seems to have just overwhelmed the world and collapsed governments. At least, it's done that in the unnamed city the book takes place in, and, as far as the narrative says, across all of America.

Because it's a gangster story, most of the main characters are gangsters: Veto Skreemer is the main character, the guy on the cover. His henchmen and allies and enemies are most of the others; a family named Finnegan are the contrasting group of civilians.

For the resonance, for the kind of story Milligan wants to tell, they have to be gangsters. Outlaws. Violent men carving up empires of illegal activities. And they are.

But there's no society for them to be outlaws against. They are as much government as their nation has, though Milligan doesn't spend time showing that: for his story, they have to focus on drugs and prostitution, not taxes and resolving disputes.  But if the reader thinks about it for a moment, it's clear that their world can't have any functioning money, and doesn't have any laws left for them to break.

They're actually warlords, not gangsters. Milligan clearly knows this: the fact that the gang leaders take the title of President and carve up the nation shows he's gesturing in that direction. There's dialogue that talks about the whole nation, but all we see is this crumbling ruin of a city.

Who is picking up the garbage? Who is trucking food into the city? For that matter, who is growing food, and do the Presidents have guards stationed on the farms to make sure the food flows into the otherwise-starving cities? How is this society functioning at all, if the only order is imposed by '30s-style gangsters who spend all their time lounging in sybaritic splendor and baroquely murdering each other?

None of that is what Skreemer is about. The reader is not supposed to think about any of that; the world-building is besides the point. This is a story about people, in horrible, extreme situations; the world is constructed around them to force those situations. Some readers may find that artificial and limiting; Skreemer is not a good book for those readers.

That's what's missing in Skreemer: I don't want to say what's "wrong" with it, since it's not part of the plan or the story to begin with. It's an aspect of the book and story and world that simply doesn't exist, is not taken account of.

The story of Skreemer is about predestination and choices, about the evil that men do and the good they claim they could possibly do. Veto is cold and calculating in every moment, from the time we see him as a boy of about nine. If we're SF readers, we realize early he has some kind of presentiment of his future, but we don't get the full explanation until nearly the end. But the short version is: Veto knows what will happen. All of it, all of the important moments. Everything has already happened, is already done, as far as he's concerned. We don't follow his point of view - we see him entirely from outside, usually as a cipher - but he's another one of those precognitives who are utterly trapped, who feel like they are acting out exactly what they must do, without choice or change or free will.

Milligan tells Veto's story sideways and inside out, seeming to jump around the timeline while actually laying it all out very carefully and methodically. Our narrator is not even born during the course of the story; we never see him. Nothing is a surprise to Veto, even as he tries to find a way out of his destiny: he thinks if he can have a child, that will break the pattern he's seen. (He's right, I suppose.)

It's all juxtaposed with the story of the Finnegan family, who are just trying to survive the chaos, though not all of them do. The father is obsessed with the old drinking song "Finnegan's Wake," maybe just for last-name reasons. They go through their own horrible situations, and choices.

Well, if they are choices. Veto doesn't think so: he thinks it's all set, all final already. Everything from the collapse to his rise to his own inevitable death: utterly unalterable.

That's the story of Skreemer. The things Veto Skreemer saw and lived through, mostly in that order. It's dark and full of violence, with horrible things happening to characters we care about. It's a gangster story: that's required. Blood must flow, betrayals must be swift and shocking, and most of the cast must not make it to the end.

It's a very good SFnal gangster story: stronger in the gangster than the SF, inevitably. Ewins and Dillon tell it in a straightforward adventure-comics style of the era, without fancy panel layouts, to support Milligan's complex flashbacks-within-flashbacks structure. That was a good choice: a more baroque visual style would have been too much baroqueness at once.

It's not quite a lost classic, but it's a strong story by three creators who have worked together in different permutations a number of times, and have later done other things that this story prefigured. It's a solid comics story that does some interesting things: there's always room for more like that.