Thursday, March 31, 2022

Lord Emsworth and Others by P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. He wrote books no one else could, some of which are among the most lovely, entertaining novels of all time. He also did that pretty consistently for about seventy years, which is a separate point but equally impressive.

I don't know if anyone actually disputes that - well, I'm writing this on the Internet, so I'm pretty sure someone will dispute anything; I should specify I mean reasonable, informed people - but the kind of story Wodehouse wrote has always been considered less important, less literary, less worthy of attention. Humor is more difficult than seriousness, and can be equally as sublime. And Wodehouse was absolutely the master in that field: who could you stand up against him?

Wodehouse wrote close to a hundred books; I haven't managed to read them all, but I do try to get to another one of them - sometimes new, sometimes not - a few times a year, which means I may someday actually get to the end. But his work is so vast, and so inexhaustible, that doesn't actually matter.

This time around, I picked up Lord Emsworth and Others, a 1937 collection of short fiction that was originally published in the US as Crime Wave at Blandings, after the first and longest story. (That happens very often, and I can't say if it's because Americans are actually stupider and more distracted than other nations, or just that our marketing gurus assume we are.)

I don't have a lot to say about the individual stories - there's a few "Oldest Member" pieces, which actually get me interested in stories about golf, several "Mr. Mulliner" pieces, and some centered on the denizens of the Drones Club. All are funny, full of prime-period Wodehouse wordplay and sparkling language, and all are exceptionally well-constructed stories on top of that. And the lead story...well, I was compelled to tweet about it while reading:

So this is a great book by a great writer, and reading it will make your day that much brighter and happier. I can think of no higher praise for a book. And there's at least a dozen equally-strong books by Wodehouse, which brings me back to the point I made to open this post.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Aster's Magic (2 vols.) by Thom Pico and Karensac

Today I have two books to talk about - or perhaps four if you're French, or a traditionalist.

I don't know if this series has an official name - the main character is Aster in the US edition, and I believe Aubepine in the original French, so my assumption is that it would be named after her. (And a quick google leads me to believe that "Aubepine" actually means "Hawthorn," so I can see why the US edition didn't translate the name of a schoolgirl to make her sound like a tweedy middle-aged professor.)

Also, as an aside, it looks like she's named "Olivia" in the Spanish translation. So there's clearly a vegetative connection, but no urgency to keep her name super-consistent.

Aster - I'll call her that, since I'm American, and read the English-language translation - is maybe ten, maybe not even that old. She's smart and self-directed and energetic and very much less than happy that her family just moved from the (unnamed) big city out far into the countryside - and even less happy when her parents admit that this is a permanent move, not temporary. Her mother is some kind of world-class expert on robots and/or birds, and has moved here because one particular species of very large, very aggressive birds are about to migrate, which usually causes mass destruction but which she thinks she can mitigate.

But Aster is a city kid, and thinks this rural landscape will be terminally boring. Her parents urge her to get out into nature and do stuff, but she's reluctant; that's never been what she's been interested in..

Now let me remind you of the last word in both titles: magic. This valley is full of it, for reasons that will become clearer as the series goes on. In the first book, Aster quickly runs into a trickster spirit, named Rapscallion a little too much on the nose, and has the usual three-wishes shenanigans there. The next three books add more depth and build out a quirky but consistent mythology of this place, complete with avatars of the four seasons, hundreds of years of history, and a backstory for Monsieur Rapscallion. [1]

So Aster quickly finds she does have things to do in this valley, all kinds of adventures with the magic there and, of course, saving the valley and/or world roughly once per book.

There may be more books, since the ending teases a move somewhere else where there may be a different kind of magic, but this story is complete in these two (or four) books. Aster and the Accidental Magic is first - take note of that; I got the second one first by accident - and has two sections, ""Aster Makes Some Poorly Thought-Out Wishes" and "Aster Gets a Magical Fox Exceedingly Upset," which correspond to the original French albums Aubepine 1: Le genie saligaud and Aubepine 2: Le renard furax. The second US book is Aster and the Mixed-Up Magic, containing "All's Well That Ends Wool" (Aubepine 3: Pourquoi tant de laine?) and "The End of Everything (and What Happened Next)" (Aubepine 4: La fin du tout (et du reste)).

And it's all just good fantasy adventure, designed for young readers but perfectly acceptable for somewhat older ones, in a crisp and cartoony Eurocomics style. The characterizations are fun, the situations are exciting without being scary for the young audience, and Aster is a great heroine and central character to navigate it all. The creators are Thom Pico (writing) and Karensac (art), neither of whose work I was familiar with before this. (That may be because this was their first comics work - the bios say that specifically about Karensac, but Pico may have done other comics of some kind.)

It is mostly for younger readers, but it's also zippy fantasy Eurocomics: if you're looking to scratch that itch with something simpler and nicer than Dungeon, Aster is out there waiting for you.

[1] No one ever calls him Monsieur Rapscallion at any point, nor would they.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Thud by Mikael Ross

Americans are more likely to take this book's cover wrongly. There's a young man, tying something around his neck, and a title that could be a vivid, short, violence-tinged name.

Americans are likely to jump into some kind of superhero explanation, either real in the world of the story or imagined by the protagonist - to assume, first of all, that this young man is "The Thud," and the story is about his adventures, in whatever mode.

The Thud is not a person. The Thud is an event. It's a moment, one that led this young man - his name is Noel - to stand outside that hospital, clutching that blanket.

I've had Thuds in my life: moments where everything changes. If you're old enough, you have, too. The point of a Thud is that it's unexpected, and that it's usually not happy. Something breaks, something shatters, something is gone forever.

Noel Flohr lives in Berlin with his mother as The Thud opens. He's twentyish, but clearly has some kind of developmental disability: he's loud, and not good at social interaction, and seems to be obsessed with a few things. We don't know his diagnosis. But we know he needs help, that he needs support to make it through life. And his mother is that help and support: it's just the two of them against the world, and that's fine with them.


One night, Noel heard a noise. He finds his mother lying on the floor, a pool of blood by her head. He knows enough to call the emergency services. He saves her life, probably.

But she's had a stroke. She's in a medically induced coma. It is no longer the two of them against the world.

Noel is put in the care of a guardian, who he thinks of as "the man with the 'stache." He's sent to live in a group home in the village of Neuerkerode, which seems to be largely populated by the developmentally disabled and their minders.

The bulk of the story happens from that point: how Noel settles into Neuerkerode, the people he meets there, his new way of living. It's told in episodes, moments in Noel's new life. There's Valentin, another young man in the same home, who becomes something like his new best friend. There's a woman he is attracted to, and another woman who may be attracted to him. All of them are disabled in some way, all of them have some kind of trouble interfacing with the "normal" world, something that led to them living in Neuerkerode.

So I have a warning for readers of The Thud. We often expect a story to have a certain shape, to be about people who grow and change, who encounter new things and become better people, who fall in love and build lives with others.

Noel, and most of the other characters in The Thud, aren't capable of that kind of easy growth, certainly not in any short period of time. They are not going to "get better." They are not going to "learn to be normal." They are not going to "get over it." This is who they are; these are the lives they have to lead.

What they can do - what they do do - is to live those lives, as best they can, within the guardrails those neurotypical guardians make for them. (And some readers may find there's a lot of  leeway in what the inhabitants of Neuerkerode are allowed!) They may act out, they may be inappropriate, they may try to do things for reasons that seem weird or wrong from a neurotypical point of view. But they're living their lives, as best they can.

That's what The Thud is about: how Noel lives when the way he lives is completely upended. It's based on true stories: Neuerkerode is a real place, though I think Noel is completely fictional. Mikael Ross visited it several times while working on this graphic novel: this isn't an "official" publication of that institution, but it's close. 

The Thud is meant for younger readers: people a few years younger than Noel, probably in their teens. Maybe neurotypical, maybe not. Maybe German, maybe American, maybe from other places. I suspect a lot of those younger readers will get more out of The Thud than their parents will; I've already seen a few wrong-headed reviews by American adults, too focused on their own guardrails and expectations.

If you're not too rigid in your own guardrails, you should read it. If there's someone not neurotypical in your life - yourself, a child, a friend, a spouse, whoever - you should read it. If you wonder what would happen to your life after a it.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/26/22

One book this week, and it's a re-buy, so I can probably just point at the old times I wrote about it. Would that be fair or honest? Well, probably not.

The book is Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella by Lewis Trondheim, the first of four volumes collecting an autobiographical strip he did around a decade and a half ago. [1] I think that series of comics ended in his native France a good decade ago, though Approximate Continuum Comics is the same kind of thing, originally somewhat earlier in France, and I think was published a different way.

Anyway, this is slice-of-life comics, daily diary style, and I wrote about it when I got the book almost exactly fourteen years ago and read it later that month. I'm now going to read it again, and probably blog about it in the fulness of time, too.

[1] Googling it, I see that the strip originally appeared online, and is still live, albeit in French. I also note there were seven collections of the strip in French, so we monoglots in English are missing nearly half of it.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Quote of the Week: That Kind of Man

Here was a man who moved through life believing that he was entitled to forget it and start over, to shed women when they become difficult and allegiances when they became tedious and simply move on, dismissing those who quibbled as petty and "judgmental" and generally threatened by his superior and more dynamic view of human possibility.

 - Joan Didion, an essay I am deliberately not saying the title of, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, p.219

Now who could that be? How many men could that be? This essay is from 1976, but most of the examples it brings to my mind are much, much more recent.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld

I don't generally cover picture books here. I haven't read picture books regularly for years - my sons are 23 and 21 now, so they've somewhat grown out of my reading Arnie the Doughnut to them. [1] But I am a Tom Gauld fan, so when I saw he had a picture book out, any my library had it, well, how could I resist?

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess is a fantasy story to read to fairly young children - or for slightly older children to read themselves - so it is not quite as sarcastic or filled with science-y and literary terms as Gauld's cartoons for The Guardian or New Scientist. But it's still pretty clearly a Tom Gauld book.

Gauld's short comics tend to be about moments and conjunctions: they have lots of scientific or literary references, but his people are deeply sensible: they might open wormholes to alternate universes and/or hell dimensions, but that's because they meant to do that. They spend three years getting planning approval and negotiating budget to do exactly that, and they are usually quietly happy at their successes.

His children characters, here, have some of that same pluck. The king and queen of the usual unnamed fantasy kingdom don't have any biological children, so they each seek out an expert and get children other ways: an inventor builds a wooden robot boy, and a witch conjures a magical princess (who, unfortunately, turns into a log when she falls asleep).

As you can see from the cover, a mishap ensues, and the two end up deep in the wilderness, trying to get home - first led by the robot, then by the princess. And it will take more than their combined efforts to do so - but, luckily, they have more than just each other.

This is a fun modern fairy tale, appropriately on the light side for its young audience. It's also lovely to see Gauld working on large pages again: it feels like it's been a while since Mooncop and Goliath. This does not have the depth of those books, but it didn't aim for that: this is a fairy tale for people whose ages have only one digit so far, and it's very good at doing what it sets out to do.

[1] Note: Arnie the Doughnut is still one of the most awesome picture books ever, and I will brook no contradiction here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting by Brian Gordon

Sometimes there are things that you know you like, but you realize you've never really dug into.

Brian Gordon's comics strip Fowl Language is like that for me: I realized I've been seeing it randomly probably since it started (2013, I think), but never actually tried to read it. So I did.

I grabbed this book, Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting, since it seemed to be the earliest of the three published so far. (Further exploration shows that to be true.) It collects about a hundred of those strips, which break down almost evenly into single panels (many of which would make great posters or response memes; Gordon is good at the crisp specific saying) and four-panel strips.

Gordon, as I understand it, sometimes cartoons about other things, but most of Fowl Language is about his kids. In the strips collected here - from the 2013-2016 time period - there were two of them, first a boy and then a girl, and they were very young, first babies and then toddlers and maybe up to preschoolers. You know: the loud, demanding, incoherent, psychopathic years.

My children are vastly older, which may make reading comics like this more distant but also makes them more entertaining - I can remember all of that, but the scars have mostly healed.

They are all from the point of view of the father, who is not exactly Gordon. His name is "Dickie," but that comes up almost never. Well, and also he's a duck, like the rest of the family - you might have noticed that. It's a cute cartooning thing, and it ties well into the title, which also refers to the fact that Dickie is admittedly not the world's best parent.

So this is somewhere in the humorous-parenting world alongside Ian Frazier's "Cursing Mommy" pieces and Guy Delisle's "Bad Dad" books. That's good company to me, and Gordon can do both the funny and the sentimental. Also, to be clear, his sentiment is modern and inclusive, not the same old vague American glurge, with great comics on GTA games, gay marriage, and how kids can be assholes. (That's not my language: that's straight from the comic.)

I expected to like Fowl Language in larger doses, and I did. There are two more books: I might have to find them, and see how the duck-kids have grown up, and if Gordon is cartooning about pre-teen hell these days. I bet he'd be great at that, too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Always Never by Jordi Lafebre

Stories don't have to be told forwards. Sometimes a story can be told best in reverse.

The description of Jodi Lafebre's graphic novel Always Never makes it sound like a late-in-life love story: mayor Ana and Zeno, who has been for decades almost equally a doctoral student in physics, a commercial sailor, and a bookstore owner, finally are in the same place at the same time in their sixties, possibly ready to finally give their relationship a chance. And that is where the story chapter twenty.

The following chapters are also the preceeding chapters, as Lafebre traces the story of their lives backwards, jumping a few days here, a decade there, to wind all the way back to the moment when they met. We get previews of their history as we go: Ana and Zeno, like everyone else, talk about their shared past.

But, also like everyone else, they can't talk about what hasn't happened yet. So what we see later in the book will color what we've already read that happens later in time, but the narrative will continue moving forward. Which is to say: backward.

It's not just a way of telling the story, though. Zeno has a theory about time, about the possibility of rewinding time, and his long-delayed doctoral dissertation is about exactly that. And that dissertation may have been accepted as the book opens, which means....he's right?

That possibility stands behind the entire story, and crystallizes the final moments here. This may be exactly what he theorized - but, if it is, that's outside of this story. If time rewinds and tells a different story, what happens then?

Ana and Zeno are mostly separate, those long years, trading letters - sometimes actually trading them, sometimes writing and discarding those letters, for themselves rather than for the other one - talking on the phone, thinking about each other, and mostly living their own lives. Ana married and had a daughter, who is grown with a child of her own by the beginning (or end) of the book. Zeno was engaged, in his telling, many, many times, but nothing more than that - how do you tie down a sailor?

There are other motifs besides the doctoral thesis, other pieces that recur. One of Ana's longest projects as mayor was building a bridge for her town, connecting what seem to be the neighborhoods on top of two very steep hills - and that project takes much longer, and goes through more changes, than anyone expected. But, of course, because of the way Lafebre tells the story, we see it completed first - because of the way he tells this story, we see the end of everything first.

That, almost paradoxically, makes Always Never a more positive, happy story. We already know how it will end; we know things will be just fine. What we don't know, or don't know enough about, is how it begins.

Lafebre tells this story in a mostly-sunny palette and with character designs that seem to my eye to have a bit of animation influence in them: these are people made to move through space, to interact with their world, to be dynamic in their bodies and faces. And even as Ana and Zeno end up on opposite sides of the world, we're on their side - on the side of each of them in their struggles, and on the side of wanting Ana-and-Zeno to be together. (Although Lafebre manages that in large part by keeping Ana's husband Giuseppe mostly in the background; his version of this story would be very different.)

Always Never is assured, confident, lovely, and sweet. It's also remarkably happy for a love story about two people who spend forty years about as far apart from each other as possible. I see it was the first book Lafebre wrote after drawing a number of bandes dessinées from other people's scripts; he's clearly been taking notes along the way.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/19/22

This is needlessly complicated, and explaining it serves no purpose, but....

So I was buying some books online recently, taking advantage of a sale at a comics-shop's online presence. Those books take a while to get packed and shipped, so I haven't seen them yet. But there were a couple of things that I couldn't get from that shop, which are holding up me reading other things for position-in-the-series reasons.

So I ordered these two books from the massive hegemonic retailer - yes, you know the one - because they were in stock and I could get them quickly. And, yes, they arrived before the other books, which I'll list here eventually, once the box shows up.

So these are books I bought so I can read them before other books I bought to read. Simple as mud, right?

Trese 2: Unreported Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo is, as the title subtly indicates, the second in a great urban-fantasy series of comics stories. I saw the original Philippine edition of the first three books in the series over a decade ago, and raved about them then. (See my post for ComicMix partially about the first two Trese books.) I lost my copies of the original editions in a 2011 flood, but they're finally getting published on this end of the Pacific: see my new post on the first book from last year. There's also a Netflix series, so all your friends might be talking about this soon. (Or "they" might "ruin" it: you never know with adaptations and fan reactions.) Anyway, these are great urban fantasy stories: taut, dangerous, with gloriously inky art from Baldismo. Read 'em.

Steeple collects the first series of comics of that name - there's since been a second one, and I think at least one further online story yet uncollected - by John Allison. I also think this is set in his common universe, along with Giant Days and Bad Machinery and Scarygoround and Bobbins, though this seems to be a "stuff going on over there, not in Tackleford" story, like Giant Days. I've had the second book for a while, but had a hard time finding this one, and have been avoiding reading the online comics until I could start from the beginning.

And that has been painful, because Allison is one of my favorite comics creators, and I see his stuff (whatever it is at the moment; right now he has a goofy Giant Days/Batman crossover running which is wonderful but makes me wonder if the Warner lawyers will come knocking) in my RSS feeds pretty much daily.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Quote of the Week: Incluing, Discussion of

What we have earlier referred to as the substance of this chapter will inevitably raise questions in the mind of the reader, which condition is, of course, quite normal, and requires us to mention that among the skills that are necessary in order to effectively communicate historical understanding is the ability to rigorously maintain an awareness of questions raised in the reader's mind, for the simple reason that, should there become too many of these questions, or should they remain unanswered for too long, there is a certain strain on the mind that is as antithetical to clarity and antagonistic to comprehension as would be a single sentence that is extended beyond reason - which confusion can best be remedied by, in the one case, the answering of the question, and in the other, by coming to the end of the sentence, or, if the reader prefer, in the latter case by failing to extend the sentence beyond what the reader's awareness is able to hold, and in the former case by means of answering the question before it is asked, a method that, as this reader has not doubt deduced, we have chosen to employ in this instance (the issue of the length of a single sentence, which we had the honor to use as an example, can be considered moot due to the author's habitual terseness).

 - Steven Brust, The Baron of Magister Valley, p.316

Thursday, March 17, 2022

I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelves by Grant Snider

Grant Snider is one of those rarest of things: the orthodontist-slash-cartoonist. Oh, sure, as far as I can tell he's never cartooned about orthodontia, but we can live in hope.

But, seriously, he has been making comics online, as Incidental Comics, for several years now. His work is generally positive stuff, usually creativity-inspired or at least creativity-adjacent, about books and ideas and doing good work and stuff like that. He's made at least one picture book, and there have been a couple of collections of his comics published.

This is one of them: I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelf. The title is more judgmental and in-your-face than is really borne out by Snider's actual cartooning: his work presents him more as a person who will be fascinated by the things he learns, or assumes, about you from the books on your shelves.

And the focus is on "I," rather than "your bookshelves." Snider has a parade of author-stand-in characters in the comics here, of different ages and genders and races, but they're all the same essential person: bookish, positive, hardworking by preference but dreamy in practice, deeply in love with writing and stories, a writer as much as a reader.

Snider starts off with a page of things "I Confess," which turns out to be a hidden Table of Contents - each of those confessions turns into a half-title later, with a section of comics about that concern. I think most of the comics here originally appeared elsewhere - there's at least one obvious library poster, a lot of stuff from Incidental, and the copyright page lists a lot of other initial publications.

Snider's art is cozy and colorful: to my eye, he's more influenced by R.O. Blechman than anyone else; he has a similar cast of rubber-hose-limbed, happy, cavorting characters. It's lovely and inviting and very well suited for the positivity and energy of his comics.

And these are positive, sometimes energetic comics about books: this is not the world of literary feuds and authors dropped by their publishers, of banned books and school visits gone wrong and libraries closed by budget cuts, of books left on trains to be lost forever or of books that never were or could be written. It's all happy, positive, book-stuff: not exactly the sort of thing that would be embroidered on a pillow with a pictures of a cat, to be sold in that quaint shop on the main road in the nearest tourist-trap town, but not far away from that end of the literary world. If you like books that way, Snider will be a great guide.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness by Peter Kuper

I'm not crazy about adaptations, by disposition. I'd generally rather see new stuff in Creative Format X, rather than a Format X version of a story that worked well in Format Q.

I seem to be in a pretty small minority in that, though. The world demands movies from their comic books, TV shows from their novels, opera from their stories about historical figures, stage musicals assembled from random songs. And vice versa: look at the deeply incestuous "casting thread," in which random observers squee over which actors in TV-shows-based-on-books should be their favorite characters in a potential movie-based-on-a-comic-book.

On the other hand, I don't mind as much with old stuff. A new movie based on a Shakespeare play? Yeah, OK - that's closer to the point to begin with. A graphic novel based on that hundred-year-old book everyone has heard of? Well, I suspect it's because the publishers want to get in on that sweet, sweet adopted-by-a-million-school-systems money, but it's closer to the original format, and might bring in new readers and...OK, why not?

That's how I came to Peter Kuper's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short novel Heart of Darkness, which has the usual quirkiness in its title common to adapted GNs. (It always reminds me of "Rod Torfulson's Armada! Featuring Herman Menderchuck!" for a reference none of you will get.)

Kuper has a detailed, inky art style and goes in for fleshy, unpleasant faces a lot of the time, which are all strengths with this material. He also is adapting the story basically straight: it's not transposed to the modern world and moved to another continent or "reversed" or anything like that. He even maintains the fussy frame-story element, though I'm unclear whether the benefits (believability, collegiality) of that ever outweighed the vast lost of immediacy.

Kuper's introduction is about one-half process description and one half responding to Chinua Achebe's mid-70s declaration that Heart is inherently racist and colonialist. Kuper disagrees with "inherently," and emphasizes Conrad's anti-colonialist credentials, but responding to that kind of criticism in his frontmatter tends to undermine the book. Remember: if you're explaining, you're losing. Kuper starts explaining, and explaining something he didn't have to bring up in the first place, before the reader gets a chance to see the story itself. Afterwords, says Andy who is not actually the King of the World of Books despite his grandiose visions, is the place for material like that if you absolutely must include it.

Otherwise: this is Heart of Darkness. Marlowe goes upstream on a river the text does not name (but is clearly the Congo, and Kuper shows it as such on a map) in a continent equally unnamed (also put into clearer images by Kuper), first to be captain of a boat on that river but eventually to find the mysterious and central Mr. Kurtz. He tells this story to a group of others, including one who is officially our narrator, lounging on a boat in the estuary of another big river (the Thames) on another continent (Europe) that the text also pointedly does not name.

Kuper does his best to give the (entirely unnamed, mostly background) Black characters more stage business, agency, and importance here than exists in the raw text - this is their world, and the various fat, stupid, and greedy white people are invaders - but they're not really part of Conrad's story, so this is not always successful. They're still scenery, even in Kuper's version: there to make changes on white men, the ones worth telling stories about.

Achebe's criticism is still valid: that's what I'm saying. Kuper does what he can, and the story is not in favor of colonialism, but it's still a hundred-year-old story by a white guy about another white guy going crazy from the jungle atmosphere.

But that's Heart of Darkness. That's the story. Kuper does a good job of retelling it, of moving all those Black people at least closer to the center of the story, but it's still about one relatively good white man thrown into a milieu of horrible white men and going through a transformative journey to find the one iconic white man who embodies the place.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Dungeon: Zenith, Vol. 4: Outside the Ramparts by Sfar, Trondheim & Boulet

The last time I wrote about Dungeon, it was the end. And it looked like it might be really the end: there had been a few years since new books appeared in French, and US publication had mostly caught up with the originals.

But that's not the case now; creators and co-writers Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim have clearly been busy the past few years. There are two brand new series, Antipodes +  and Antipodes -, telling stories in the distant future and past. And, looking at the list of books on Wikipedia, there seem to be a good half-dozen more potential US omnibuses: another Early Years, another Zenith after this one, a Parade, two Monstres, and one each of the new Antipodes. And a stray Twilight book, too, with nothing to omnibusize it with yet.

So that is still mostly the ending of the main story - with that extra Twilight book sitting at a new "level" one higher than the last book, presumably adding more to that ending - but there's a lot more going on now all over the timeline.

So, where are we in this book - Dungeon: Zenith, Vol. 4: Outside the Ramparts, to be precise, the US omnibus of the French Donjon albums Hors des remparts and En sa mémoire? It picks up right after the end of Back in Style, with Herbert and Marvin still scheming to get their boss, the Keeper, back in control of the titular Dungeon, although the schemes in these two books take them nowhere near the actual Dungeon...implying getting it back may take several more books, if it happens at all.

The good news is that Herbert and Marvin are now both lucky in love: Herbert with Princess Isis and Marvin with Pirzween, a draconic-looking woman in the village of sorcerers whose name I can't remember at the moment. (There are a lot of little details in the Dungeon books, and they loop back at the oddest times - I don't know if Sfar and Trondheim have a big bible of the series to keep themselves straight, or if they're less organized than that, but they have to have some way of keeping all of this straight.) Well, that's good news for them, mostly, but means that they're a bit distracted from the saving-the-dungeon plot.

And, not for nothing, the path of love never runs smooth in the world of Terra Amata. Falling in love is one of the worst, most life-tangling things you can possibly do.

But the first book collected here - Outside the Ramparts itself - does move the saving-the-Dungeon plot forward. Herbert and Marvin are tasked with getting a magical herb under false pretenses, which blows up into an attempt to either destroy the Repo Enforcers' impregnable Center, or maybe just infiltrate it to steal all records pertaining to the Keeper. As usual, they succeed, more or less, in their underlying goal while not actually doing most of the things in their actual plan. So the Keeper is seemingly in a better position to kick Delacour out of the Dungeon.

But, first! Marvin has gotten engaged to Pirzween, so his best friend has to go tell his mother, the Dragonista teacher Madame Alberta, that, in a very formal Dragonista way. Herbert is the best friend, and so the second book, In Her Memory begins. Unfortunately, Alberta was just murdered before Herbert arrived, and, for the usual complicated Dragonista-rules reasons, he can't tell Marvin that as he arrives soon afterward. And there's a large number of very large, quite angry, and massively violent Dragonistas who want to take revenge for Alberta's murder, and aren't too picky about who they take revenge on.

Oh, and one of those Dragonistas is almost certainly the murderer, too.

Herbert is not a particularly subtle or skilled detective, but it's on him to solve the murder and keep the Dragonistas - particularly Marvin - from killing the wrong people, or too many people, or Herbert in particular. That happens, mostly, by the end.

I hope the rest of the newish French books get translated. In particular, I want to know if  the next Zenith books actually free the Dungeon or head off on more tangents. The titles of the next two books translate, loosely, to Steppes and Fog and Incantatory Formula, which isn't a lot of guidance. (My other theory was that one or more of those books could be about either Marvin or Herbert's weddings, which those titles do not seem to indicate.)

Anyway, this is more Dungeon adventure, as convoluted and odd as the earlier books. These stories are drawn by Boulet, like the previous batch of Zenith stories, and he's one of the more straightforward artists for the series - lots of detail, clear layouts, and good at making all of the weird-looking creatures into people with facial and body expressions. You won't want to start here, but there's a lot of Dungeon and a lot of doors into it - check out my earlier posts if any of the above sounds appealing.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/12/22

One book this week, from the library, unexpectedly.

(But wait! You say. How can a book from the library be unexpected? Well, I put this on my hold list about a year ago, and it's sat quietly since then - I'd assumed the one copy supposedly in the system had actually been lost, but maybe someone just returned it with a whopping fine or maybe there were a lot of holds ahead of me.)

That book is Jeremy Jusay's The Strange Ones, a graphic novel that has some autobiographical elements (I think), though the character potentially based on Jusay is not the protagonist or the viewpoint character. I saw on some list of good recent GNs, I think - probably for adults, possibly for teens - put it on that hold list, and, well, half-forgot about it until the library let me know it was suddenly available.

I've actually already read it as I type this post here, but I'll leave the post-reading-the-book thoughts for its own post, as usual.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Books Read: February 2022

This is, as always, mostly an index and mostly for Future Me. If anyone else finds it useful, well, go you.

It's what I read last month, and links will appear later, once the posts go live:

Brian Gordon, Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting (2/5, digital)

Dennis Duncan, Index, A History of the (2/5)

Tom Gauld, The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess (2/6)

Mikael Ross, The Thud (2/12)

Thom Pico and Karensac, Aster and the Accidental Magic (2/13)

P.G. Wodehouse, Lord Emsworth and Others (2/13)

Thom Pico and Karensac, Aster and the Mixed-Up Magic (2/15)

Zidrou and Oriol, The Muse (2/19, digital)

Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, and Matt Kindt, Black Hammer '45 (2/20, digital)

Cosey, In Search of Peter Pan (2/21, digital)

Sarah Andersen, Big Mushy Happy Lump (2/26, digital)

Brian Gordon, Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real (2/27, digital)

Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader (2/27)

Friday, March 11, 2022

Quote of the Week: Muses

…I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor. Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment's high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot, the bike boys stripping down stolen cars on the captive cripple's ranch, the freeway sniper who feels "real bad" about picking off the family of five, the hustlers, the insane, the cunning Okie faces that turn up in military investigations, the sullen lurkers in doorways, the lost children, all the ignorant armies jostling in the night.

 - Joan Didion, "In the Islands," in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, pp.277-278

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The White Album by Joan Didion

This collection of essays came out the year I turned ten; it's no surprise I didn't read it then. Reading it for the first time in 2022 might take more explaining: this is a book very much about a moment, a time.

One section is titled "On the Morning After the Sixties," named after a short essay near the end of the book. That would have been a less arch, more descriptive title for the whole book - but, even with my limited experience, I don't think Joan Didion was ever persuaded to do anything in a purely descriptive, reportorial way. This is a book about the curdled end of a particular kind of American Dream, about all the things Americans did and thought and cared about and worried about while, in the background, the Vietnam War lurched to its inevitable end and Nixon did the same.

Didion named it The White Album, after the long essay, more or less about rock music, that opens it. The book is less unified than its predecessor, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and oddly more apocalyptic, both as the culture turned away from the obvious apocalypses and Didion's subject matter became more personal, more hermetic, and less general.

Slouching is a collection of semi-random essays, but one with a strong central point of view and set of concerns. White has the same point of view - Didion could not not be Didion - but the concerns are more personal, more an undercurrent of worry and uneasiness about what living in this world, or reporting on these things, has been doing to her. I'm probably reversing that, actually: I think Didion, at the time, would have said that she could report the way she did because of who she was, because of her worries and anxieties and dissociations.

It's divided into sections, the indication in an essay collection that there is no through-line, that what we have here are clusters. It opens with "The White Album," and we might realize, as readers, from that piece that Didion will circle her topics but not answer any of them, that the work of this decade (roughly 1968-1978) is all about questions and concerns raised and not addressed, all about things continuing to fall apart now that people have stopped paying attention to the rot and decay.

The other sections could be seen as a catalog of Didion's obsessions for that decade: California, women, travel, the fallout from "the Sixties." Most of the essays follow the model of "The White Album," with many of them having almost completely independent sections about different things that the reader is expected to connect together...or maybe not, since Didion seems to be despairing of any kind of connection, of anything or anyone.

I read The White Album in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a big omnibus of her non-fiction published nearly twenty years ago. (The omnibus title comes from the first line of "The White Album;" does that make it more appropriate?) I am no expert on Didion; I'm reading through her major nonfiction now, decades later and from very different starting points than she had in writing them. But White feels like a urgent note of some kind - suicide or ransom, something like that - from Didion to all of her peers, about her mental state that decade and the ways she thought she was...well, not characteristic of the time and world. Maybe canary-esque? Maybe she was saying "where I am now, you may all be eventually."

This is not as strong as Slouching. Very little is. But it's clearly the next step on that path, and there are lines in this book as true and searching as anyone has ever written.

I don't know how this will read for people a generation younger than me: I know, more or less, how Silents like Didion would take it, and Boomers, and Xers like me. But if this is history, if this is the dead past rather than part of your life, does any of it matter to you? If something was broken before you got there, is it just Ozymandias? Or does knowing about the breaking give you any more insight?

I don't know. We all have to decide that for ourselves. For me, this was valuable insights to a culture that permeated my childhood, that I noticed as much as a fish did water.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Return to Romance! The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney

How do we know who did anything? If they did it in public, there's that, of course. But if taking credit for a work was discouraged, how do we tell, years later, after everyone is dead, exactly how something came to be?

Bluntly, we don't. Art experts talk about "the studio of X" and insist that this one painting is clearly by the master because the gallery auctioning it is paying their fee because they are experts and can tell these things. With comics, the auction houses have less power, and are selling things clearly by Big Names anyway, so the process - I think - is clearer and more honest. But it's still a case of "artist X got paid for pages turned in on this date, which we're 99% sure is this story" and "the inking in story Y has these elements, so I know it was by That Guy."

There's been a lot of that, especially on the art side, in comics criticism. It is much easier to discern a artist's characteristic brushwork than a writer's characteristic motifs, particularly in such a cliché-ridden field as mid-century comics. So we're in the position, after a few decades of scholarship digging out the details of the decades before that, where we know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, who drew things without having anything like that certainty about who wrote them.

Since the writing comes first - no matter the breakdown of work, all the way to Marvel Method - that's a huge hole. And comics scholarship sometimes just shrugs its shoulders and kicks dirt over the question.

I didn't realize that was the case with Return to Romance! The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney until I got to the afterword by co-editor Dan Nadel. (The other editor is Frank Santoro.) In the course of mostly writing about how this book came to be, we get this blunt assessment:

But actual writing credits are rare in ACG comics, and so it's impossible to know which, if any, of the present stories were written by [editor Richard] Hughes; his assistant editor, Norman Fruman; any number of freelancers passing through the office, or Whitney himself.

The book treats those stories, in the end, as if they were written by Whitney, since it's a book about Whitney. That is an entirely reasonable publishing decision. The stories do have a consistent tone and style...but Nadel and Santoro edited this selection of nine stories out of some unknown larger number of Whitney-drawn stories from a five-year period. Is it possible they dug out the nine best stories written by some other person - or even the nine only stories written by some other person - and that they're reacting to that person's style and concerns?

Yeah, maybe. But so what? What difference would it make, either way? Whitney is dead, Hughes is dead, Fruman is dead, and I assume all of those unnamed freelancers and unmentioned office workers are, too - these stories were made and published about sixty years ago. We are never going to know for sure. Why not attribute them to Whitney, for simplicity if nothing else?

Something in me wants to think a woman was involved centrally somehow. Oh, sure, I know romance comics were mostly made by men for teenage girls: all comics of the era were made mostly by men for teenagers of various kinds. But whoever wrote these stories, Whitney or otherwise, had a better sense of human motivation that most stories for third-tier companies, and the women in these stories, though driven by plots usually along familiar lines, are more individual than the standard comics ingenue, quirky and cranky and real in odd ways.

The men, oddly, are sometimes just as neurotic and messy - there's a guy afraid of everything, and a boxer shattered when he kills someone in the ring - but not quite as consistently. Men are the object of a romance story, so they can be more generalized, less specific, and there's a bit of that here.

Again, I don't know. I will never know. I want to believe a woman was somewhere in the mix, and not just that some man was really good at seeing women as people, but it's purely an act of faith on my part. My wishful head-canon is that some young woman in the office - probably a secretary in that era - wrote a few scripts, which Whitney turned into these stories, and then she went on to a fabulous life doing something else entirely different.

What we do have here is nine stories of romance. Drawn by Ogden Whitney, in that solid style comics fans know best from Herbie. Romance is even more suited to Whitney's artistic muse than fantasy was: his panels and pages have an Eisenhower-era solidity, almost drabness to them. If ever a man was born to draw tasteful living rooms and functional office suites with flat-color backgrounds, it was Whitney. His people are real, not glamorous - attractive when they're supposed to be without being beautiful at any point. The first story here centers on a photographer and his models, which is not quite the right cast for a Whitney story: I never get the sense any of his characters are pretty enough for a life like that. Whitney characters do clean up well: they can be the best-looking person in the world for the one they fell in love with. They're like you or me in that, and not like a pretty pin-up.

The plots are reasonably complicated for stories that run eight or a dozen pages: girl meets boy, girl either likes or hates boy, complications ensue, girl gets boy. Sometimes the narrative follows her, sometimes him. My sense is that the action that brings the two together is hers, nearly always - as it should be in stories for a female audience. And those complications can get complicated, as they should: these are often heavily-narrated stories, with a lot of dialogue and business.

These are psychologically complex people, as much as they can be in short comics stories. Some are neurotic, many are insecure about themselves, all have a yearning hole that can only be filled by one special person. They are romance stories.

These are fascinating, gnarly, interesting stories. I would not call them "great," but they're all at least "good" - professional, smart, quirky, specific. I have no idea how teenage girls in the early '60s reacted to them: these stories are about regret and insecurity and obsession and hate as much as they are about love; they seem aimed at an audience with a little more experience of life. But I am never going to say that a story being deeper, more resonant, or thoughtful is a negative, and I won't do that here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Scoop Scuttle and His Pals by Basil Wolverton

So much goes into comedy, especially comedy in comics - there's funny writing, and funny drawing, and the intersection of the two, plus personal taste and sometimes all of that obscured by the passage of time. Something can be done well, with lots of wordplay, well-thought-out drawings and solidly amusing premises, but still feel outdated or just flat to any particular reader.

That's where I land with Scoop Scuttle and His Pals: The Crackpot Comics of Basil Wolverton. It collects four series of stories from the 1940s and early '50s: reporter Scoop Scuttle, diminutive Indian fakir Mystic Moot (and his Magic Snoot), indestructible cowboy Bingbang Buster, and goofy SF hero Jumpin' Jupiter.. There are detailed story notes by editor Greg Sadowski, and the whole package is well-designed and organized, with comics pages about as clear and crisp as you could hope for stuff printed on newsprint seventy years ago.

I didn't laugh once. I might have had a wry smile a couple of times. Some of it, especially later in the book, was amusing and fun, but nothing got that immediate humor reaction from me. The Scoop Scuttle stories in particular felt too stuffed: too many words with too much supposedly-comic alliteration, too much minor-vaudeville business. So I am not a good person to tell you what's great about these Basil Wolverton stories.

Now, I'm pretty sure this is minor Wolverton. But I'm no Wolverton expert: I've seen some of his stuff here and there, but never dug deeply. This book was titled and published in a way that made it look like it was saying "this is the good stuff!" Looking more carefully after reading it, it seems to actually say "this is some obscure stuff, mostly made as the Golden Age was dying, nicely cleaned up for Wolverton fanatics, and we're not making any claims about its quality."

These are all anthology-filler comics stories, from an era where comics were 64 pages long and needed to be filled with various stuff. Part of that Golden-Age-dying was the shrinking of those comics; it looks, from this distance, like Wolverton was squeezed out during that shrinking. What gets squeezed out is not necessarily by quality: popularity is first, and what most closely fits the overall theme and style of the book tends to stay. Wolverton being goofy and sui generis made him an obvious early target for removal: this material would have been the most different stuff in any of the comics it appeared in.

So, if I'm telling you anything you didn't know about Wolverton, this is not a book for you. This is a book for people who already know a lot more about Wolverton than I do, or maybe people whose comic sensibility is more attuned to mass-market alliterative and nearly-rhyming jokes from mid-century.

One very random example:

"I'm from the Daily Dally! I'm looking for Lester Fester!"

"I'm not Lester Fester! I'm Esther Tester! Now take it on the lam, ham, and scram! I'm strangling my husband, and I don't want any interruptions!"

If you enjoy wordplay along the lines of "take it on the lam, ham, and scram," you will find a lot of it here.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of 3/7/91

Here's how I do it: I post a list of books every Monday. If I got anything new in the past week; that's the list. If I didn't, I pick a week from my reading notebook (from the years 1991 to 2007, for those who care) and write about those books.

In the latter case, there's a lot of trying to remember what something was. But that's the way of the world, and it amuses me: everything falls apart, everything is forgotten, everything goes away and is irretrievably broken eventually.

This time, the year is 1991. I'm looking at the fourth page of my first reading notebook, almost the very beginning. Here's what I read then:

Jimmy Breslin, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

I didn't entirely articulate it at the time, and I would have been a horrible reporter, but I had a serious desire in my youth to be a newspaper columnist. I devoured and loved a lot of Royko and Baker and Buchwald, and had vague dreams of being that kind of guy: living in a big city somewhere, coming into a bustling office everyday to sit down and pound out semi-funny, semi-serious copy about Whatever Was Happening, and see it in print before the earth spun around the sun another time. It obviously never happened, and since journalism had an even bigger extinction event than book publishing, that was definitely a good thing for me.

But I'm pretty sure I was reading this book because of that. Breslin was another one of those guys who I thought I wanted to be like, and this was his famous novel, twentyish years old when I read it but still funny and dynamic and energetic. It's also a comic novel about crime, and I was reading a lot of mysteries then - I think I'd already started reading Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books, which are in the same general area. This is probably really old-sounding at this point (the book is exactly as old as I am), and I bet many of the social attitudes will raise eyebrows: I think it's all white people, thank goodness, but I don't think Italians and Jews and Irish come out well, or non-stereotypically.

Poul Anderson, The Earth Book of Stormgate

I was reading a lot of random SF in those days: intensely and in multiple directions but not necessarily seriously or with a purpose. I might have had my first interview for the eventual SFBC job in early March, since I started there on Tax Day, but I think I was just reading fantastic stuff because that's what I liked and cared about. I was still used to reading a lot quickly from my youth and English-major days (I was mostly a Victorianist, I guess, which meant a lot of really long novels to read quickly), which was good practice for that job.

This particular book is a relatively minor collection by Anderson - it's part of the Polesotechnic League series, which looked like his major work for a while, but the pull of series of novels in the SF world was too intense, so these are read pretty much just by Anderson devotees lately. My memory is that he, like a lot of mid-century SF writers, was better at short-fiction lengths (especially novelette to novella, which I think most of these were) than at novels. I'd say this is worth reading, if you find it, but it's pretty deep in that particular series. On the other hand, old series made up of short fiction were much more modular than the series standard these days; you wouldn't lose much starting here.

Brian Aldiss, Starship

At some point, the US edition smartened up and used the title the UK had been using all along, Non-Stop. (You see, the fact that this is a generation starship is meant to be a surprise in the text.) But that was later; I read this pre-spoiled. Frankly, I probably read it because I saw it mentioned while poking through the original SF Encyclopedia, so it was pre-pre-spoiled.

This is a short and relatively straightforward 1950s novel; Aldiss got more literary and baroque later but here he was mostly just a good writer telling a good story. It is post-apocalyptic, and fairly generic, but, as I remember, Aldiss handles it all pretty well. Not a major classic of the field, but a solid book by a writer who did even better things.

Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes

Yes, my taste in SF always tended to the literary and odd. Also - another pattern that has recurred a lot since then - I don't think I ever seriously watched any of the movies, neither the '60s string or the recent ones, but I did, obviously, seek out the original novel.

I have not re-read this book since then, though I still have a clear sense of reading the astronauts' first view of the ape-world. As a million people have said since then, this is deeper and more philosophical than any of the movies, and clearly set on a different planet, without the twist ending of the movie.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

And I was still catching up on major classics that I somehow missed during my schooling. Well, I'm still doing that, but it's much slower these days. (I was reading late Dickens, about one book a year, in the '90s, expecting to round the corner back to early Dickens and finish up, but I'm still staring down Edwin Drood today.)

I have nothing coherent to say about a world classic that I read in translation - come to think of it, I don't know which translation, which could be important - more than thirty years ago. It is a world classic; if you haven't read it, you should. Put it on the list.

"Various Periodicals"

This was typically "various magazines" other weeks, so I may have caught up on something that wasn't a magazine - back this far I listed the number of pages, and there's a whopping 1260 pages here. (Though remember this was the pre-Internet era, when magazines were fat and happy with ad pages.)
I'm going to guess this was a combination of movie magazines, SPIN, maybe National Review (I think I was reading that by this point), almost certainly Comics Buyer's Guide, Entertainment Weekly, National Lampoon (if it hadn't already died) and probably a couple of other things I've completely forgotten about. Most of the throwaway journalism that these days is online was in magazines back then, on about the same level of seriousness and professionalism but (I think) generally substantially better-paid.

Friday, March 04, 2022

Quote of the Week: I Have Been Asking For Nothing Else This Very Hour

"So, then, I have learned something."

"What have you learned, my young friend?"

"That the juice of the pear improves the flavor of the meat."

"Well, but there is more, is there not?"

"Oh, I do not doubt there is more, my dear teacher."

"And then?"

"But what is it?"

"It is the first lesson. No, I tell a lie. It is the first two lessons."

"Well, then I hope you will explain them to me plainly."

"I will, and this very instant."

"Then I am listening."

"The first is, you are able to change the flavor of your food to make it more to your liking."

"Very well, I accept that. And then?"

"Whatever your circumstances, there are choices to make, and things you can change, and ways to make them better."

"Whatever my circumstances?"

"So long as there is life."

"I understand."

 - Steven Brust, The Baron of Magister Valley, p.127

Thursday, March 03, 2022

The Baron of Magister Valley by Steven Brust

The impulse is always for the review to mimic the book: that would be most appropriate, yes? Readers who enjoy the review get a taste of what the book is like; readers who find that off-putting or tedious know to stay away. It does assume the reviewer can do something like the book, which is a big assumption.

I'm trying to fight that impulse here; it would amuse me but probably no one else. If my sentences get too ornate further down, know that the impulse has overwhelmed me - I hope only temporarily.

The Baron of Magister Valley is a book written in a deliberately ornate style. The story I heard, many years ago, was that author Steven Brust read 19th century translations of the novels of Alexandre Dumas that were long, over-embellished, and grandiose - read those at a young age, loved them uncritically, and that they helped form his ideas of what fiction, particularly adventure fiction, can be. 

In the 1990s, he retold Dumas's "D'Artagnan" trilogy within his fictional world of Dragaera [1] - first The Phoenix Guards, then Five Hundred Years After, and then a trilogy for the third novel The Viscount of Adrilankha (which was basically a trilogy in Dumas's original): The Paths of the Dead, The Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode. His main series set in that world, the Vlad Taltos novels, are mostly written in a tight first-person style, as from the point of view of the main character, with something of a influence of the hard-boiled mystery. [2]

The ornate books are known as the "Paarfi" novels, after their in-universe author. I read the previous ones as part of my editorial work at the SFBC, though I don't think I was able to buy them for that operation. (I was a Brust fan from way back - as I still am.) I don't have any posts on those books to link to; they all predate this blog. But I can link to my post on the most recent Vlad Taltos novel, Vallista, which has some more details on this world for those who care.

But the short form is: this is a fake-historical novel, presented as if a popular historical work within the context of this fictional world, by a writer who comes across to us as quite pompous and stuffed-shirt-y, but who we are to believe is actually very zippy and modern and shocking to the hugely long-lived and conservative Dragearans.

By this point, most readers will have guess what Baron of Magister Valley is: it's a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in that world. (Alexandre Dumas wrote a lot of books, but only a few of them are still famous a century and a half later.)

So: you know the rough plot, and you have a sense of the style: long, clause-clotted sentences that circle a thought as if they are a cavalry detachment trying to defeat and capture it. I could go into what the characters are named in this version, and maybe a bit about the (small) changes the existence of magic in Brust's world requires in the story...but I'd probably need to know Monte Cristo better to do that well, and I've never actually read Monte Cristo. (I do like his sandwich, though, he said puckishly.)

Baron strikes me as less connected to the central matter of the Dragaeran books than the previous series was: those books cast light on important "historical" events in the series, and I think some of those characters also appeared, substantially older, in the Vlad books. This is an unconnected story, about one man wronged and his quest for vengeance.

I'm hesitant to recommend Baron to new readers: it does stand on its own, but the style will be an obstacle for a lot of readers, and it's primary appeal is for the audience who already knows this world and wants more stories about it. But, if you do happen to be a fan of long, discursive 19th century novels, check this out.

[1] This is not the name of the world. It's the name of the main inhabitants, who are not exactly human, and of their empire. But that gets far into the weeds.

[2] Brust is fond of stylistic experimentation, though: the word "mostly" is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

Naturalism is not a single thing: every art form has a different kind of naturalism. So if I say that R. Kikuo Johnson's graphic novel No One Else leans towards a prose fiction kind of naturalism, I don't mean just that it aims to tell a story about real people in a real world.

Comics naturalism is close to film naturalism: use the panel like a camera eye, honestly, depicting what a person would see in that position and following sequences of events as they happen. Everything may not be clear at any moment, but the information to understand the story is all there, on the screen or the page, for the eye to process.

Prose naturalism, though, since Raymond Carver, is about not saying things - it's about what's deliberately left out of the story, the things careful readers will notice and catalog. This is inherently trickier, since it presupposes an ideal reader, one who can tell what's missing. So it's a form that can break easily, over time or with new audiences; I'd never want to try to translate a writer like Carver.

I think Johnson is playing a Carveresque game here. I'm just not sure if I'm clearly seeing the missing pieces, or if there are aspects to life in Hawai'i, or something else, that I don't know. The trouble with prose naturalism is exactly that: not being sure if you're seeing the holes that are in the story on purpose, or the holes that are in your necessary experience to read the story.

No One Else is a family story, the story of three people: Charlene, her brother Robbie, her son Brandon. The back cover copy focuses on Charlene, but she's the least knowable of the three, the most tightly sealed. She's a nurse, both for pay and for the aged, dementia-broken father who lives with her and Brandon.

Brandon is young - late elementary-school, I think, just old enough to be left to care for himself but not all that good at it or happy with it. He loves his cat, Batman, and isn't that thrilled with anything else.

Robbie is the prodigal; he shows up partway through the book. He's a working musician on a low level: it looks like he tours a lot, playing small gigs, and that covers his living expenses, but he has no house or roots or anything else to tie him down.

You may guess that he and Charlene have entirely different views on life.

Among the things No One Else will not say or touch on:

  • Charlene's father's name, or more than a hint of his history
  • Anything at all about her mother, dead or estranged
  • Anything at all about Brandon's father
  • Charlene and Robbie's childhood
  • The significance of the boat sitting in Charlene's yard
  • Why brush fires lurk around the edges of this story
That last is, I think, one of the important gaps: sugar-cane cultivation includes burning fields, which is controversial. (Cane growers like it; everyone else who lives anywhere near does not.) It's also a clear visual metaphor for other elements in the story.

But are those other pieces important the same way? This is a family story; are the holes in this family significant? I'm not sure. Johnson is quiet and naturalistic, as I said - his panels and pages are naturalistic in the comics sense as well - so he shows us a lot of events and leaves it for us to understand.

There's a major event in the first few pages, for example, that we need to understand clearly. A question of responsibility, in particular, and whether that influences behavior later in the story. I'm not going to spoil that event, but it sets up the entire book: everything else happens because of that. So I'm also not going to talk about plot at all here: the plot is that something happens, and then we see what happens afterward.

Johnson's pages are excellent, his people real in their faces and movements and unknowable depths. No One Else has depths that I don't think I've plumbed, which is impressive for a short book of half-size pages. But I do worry that I might not be able to completely understand it: that there are aspects of this book that require an ideal reader with experiences I don't and will never have, who grew up somewhere else among other people, who knows and believes other things. I may have to chance that, and read it again.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Rebecca & Lucie in the Case of the Missing Neighbor by Pascal Girard

There are many ways to turn life into art, to turn autobiography into stories. I'm beginning to think Pascal Girard has a big chart of them, and is working through it, jumping from one approach to another for each new comics project, and maybe mapping entirely new territory as he goes. 

The first book I saw of his was his deeply affecting memoir Nicolas, about his brother who died when they both were young. Since then he's also done books like Petty Theft, about a sad-sack adult Girard getting obsessed with a woman who steals his books, and Reunion, in which an equally sad-sack Girard obsesses badly about his tenth highschool reunion. In the spirit of honesty, I should also mention Bigfoot, which does not include a character named "Pascal Girard," but which likely draws on his life in less-obvious ways.

And his new book last summer, Rebecca & Lucie in the Case of the Missing Neighbor, also has a character named "Pascal Girard," clearly based on the author. But he's a secondary figure in this story - Girard continues his streak of making himself confused and out-of-the-loop here as well - in what he declares is a fictional story about his wife, Rebecca Lloyd, and their nine-month-old daughter Lucie, solving a local mystery.

Now, I have to admit that Girard is Quebecois, and works in French. So my view of his work is only what has been translated: that may be different from how French-speakers see his entire oeuvre. But it seems pretty central: Girard makes stories in which he appears, and in which he does not come off well.

He's very much secondary in Rebecca & Lucie: a good husband, sure, in his goofy half-distracted way, but not privy to what's going on in Rebecca's head. The copyright page says this is all fiction, except for one sequence about Lucie's birth, which was "written with the help of Rebecca Lloyd." I have to imagine Rebecca Lloyd at least kibitzed on the rest of the pages, the ones in which a fictional version of her runs around their neighborhood investigating a missing person.

Before the title page, we get a late-night sequence: Lucie wakes up, and Rebecca feeds her. She sees some kind of commotion in the alley behind their apartment, something being put in a white van that then drives away. She soon learns that a neighbor, Eduardo Morales, has gone missing, and, for whatever reason - boredom, feeling confined by her new all-encompassing role as "Lucie's mother," a sense of justice - she starts talking to people about it.

Like all the best amateur sleuths, she's dogged about it: Rebecca needs to know what happened, like a physical need. She goes to extreme ends - Girard has always been fond of the comedy of embarrassment, and that comes out here - all to find out the truth, and, eventually to punish the people she is sure are the real villains.

It's a mixture of amusing and low-key thriller, particular near the end, where Rebecca puts herself in physical danger. Girard starts slow, anchoring his story in the rhythms of a woman towards the end of her "mat leave" - exercise classes, errands, day-to-day life with a toddler. And as Rebecca learns more, and suspects vastly more than that, she gets more energized and obsessive.

I don't think this will turn into a series, but it could. Girard gives us a series springboard at the end, so we could see an annual "Rebecca & Lucie in the Case of something-or-other" if he and his publishers wanted to. That could be fun, particularly if he allowed Lucie to grow up at a normal rate - each book would have different taking-care-of-the-kid problems, and maybe we could see what Rebecca does for a living when she isn't on maternity leave.

But, for now and possibly for ever, this is a standalone. It's amusing, not quite as light as it first appears, and probably not the best for people who like serious mysteries with clues the reader has to work out and red herrings and multiple suspects and a big "you know why I've brought you all here" drawing-room scene at the end. This is a Pascal Girard mystery, which means it's about people who stumble as much as they walk confidently, who do things for reasons they don't entirely understand, who hide things from each other without thinking about it, who have good intentions but might not have a clear idea of how to make those intentions real.