Monday, October 31, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of October 29, 2022

Two books this time, both recently published and both from Tachyon. But, otherwise, they are quite different....

The Unbalancing is a new book in R.B. Lemberg's "Birdverse" universe. It's at least the second published book in that world, after Four Profound Weaves, but the first novel. (I also think there have been some pieces of short fiction, published elsewhere and maybe even collected when I wasn't paying attention.)  This is a fantasy world deeply influenced by language and, I think, with more gender options than some readers are used to. Lemberg is a poet as well - I think a poet first - which likely influences the language.

The Emperor's Soul is a 2012 novella by Brandon Sanderson, who you may have heard of. A few of his books have sold a couple of copies, you might say. This won the Hugo when it was originally published and was nominated for the World Fantasy; this edition is a 10th anniversary republication with a deleted scene and some other stuff added. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Quote of the Week: I Don't Know But I've Been Told

I was not looking for friendship at Fort Lewis. The people were boors. Trainees and drill sergeants and officers, no difference in kind. In that jungle of robots there could be no hope of finding friendship; no one could understand the brutality of the place. I did not want a friend, that was how it stood in the end. If the savages had captured me, they would not drag me into compatibility with their kind. Laughing and talking of hometowns and drag races and twin-cammed racing engines - all this was for the others. I did not like them, and there was no reason to like them. For the other trainees, it came too easy. They did more than adjust well; they thrived on basic training, thinking they were becoming men, joking at the bullyism, getting the drill sergeants to joke along with them. I held my own, not a whisper more. I hated the trainees even more than the captors. But I hated them all. Passionate, sad, desperate hate. I learned to march, but I learned alone. I gaped at the neat package of stupidity and arrogance at Fort Lewis. I was superior. I made no apologies for believing it. Without sympathy or compassion, I instructed my intellect and eyes: Ignore the horde. I kept vigil against intrusion into my private life. I shunned the herd.

 - Tim O'Brien, If I Die In a Combat Zone, pp.32-33

Friday, October 28, 2022

Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy by Jeff Lemire, Tonci Zonjic and Steve Wands

Nigrum Malleoleum est omnis divisa in partes tres.

Some Black Hammer books have numbers in the title: those are the main series. Before the book I'll be complaining about today, there's been Secret Origins, The Event, Age of Doom 1, and Age of Doom 2.

Some Black Hammer books have the words "Black Hammer" in the title, but no number: Streets of Spiral, the Justice League crossover. These are side stories about the whole team.

(Black Hammer '45 is deeply confusing in this schema, but it actually fits in the next category. The "Black Hammer" referred to in the title is not the same as the other books, for maximum what-the-fuck-age.)

And some Black Hammer books are about other people in the same world, whose stories may intersect the main gang of mopey superheroes or may not obviously do so. (This is superhero comics: all stories intersect in the Grand Summer Crossover eventually.) Before this book, there was Sherlock Frankenstein, Doctor Andromeda, and The Quantum Age.

Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy, as the title implies, is in the third group. For those who weren't counting along on their fingers, it's the eleventh collection. It is written by Jeff Lemire, creator and co-owner of the whole shebang, with stylish gritty art by Tonci Zonjic (often breaking into double-page spreads, which are gorgeous and well-designed but made me wish I wasn't reading the whole thing on a tablet) and lettering by Steve Wands.

Skulldigger asks the superhero question: "what if the Punisher instead used a metal skull on a chain to kill people, instead of guns? Wouldn't that be totally awesome?!" It is perhaps the most '90s idea ever to have been thought up twenty years later, and would have fit comfortably into either DC or Marvel's mid-90s grim and gritty eras - which, of course, is the point of all of the Black Hammer comics: they're meant to seem like that stuff you read long ago while at the same time being new stuff you can buy on Wednesdays.

(The argument about how all superhero comics have been doing this more and more consistently for roughly the past forty years is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Now, in any realistic universe, Skulldigger would be shot dead extremely quickly, but so would Batman, so he gets the same dispensation. At the time of the 1996 of this story, he's been around for maybe a decade, and is seemingly the preeminent crimefighter in Spiral City.

So he's not-Punisher. There's also Detective Reyes, who is not-Rene Montoya (literally: tough female detective, lesbian, always fighting with her captain, olive skinned - I do wonder if Lemire does that on purpose or just can't be bothered to change the details), one of the other viewpoint characters.

The third viewpoint character is Matthew. He's twelve, and we see his parents get murdered in front of him in the first scene, with a particular overhead view that will make you think they just came out of a Zorro movie. (Black Hammer is many things, but it is never, ever subtle.)

Anyway, the story here is: random thug kills Matthew's parents. Skulldigger arrives, kills random thug. Matthew becomes non-verbal at witnessing his parents' murder, doesn't respond to any questioning by cops including Reyes, is institutionalized. Reyes is obsessed with finding and stopping Skulldigger; her boss literally says "he's killing the right kind of people, don't waste time on him."

Look, do I need to give all of the story beats? Skulldigger gets a sidekick. If you've been paying any attention, you know who that is. It's not a good idea, but he at least seems to be devoted to training the kid so he doesn't die immediately.

Oh, and meanwhile, an ex-superhero - formerly the Crimson Fist, now civilian Tex Reed - is running for mayor, on a "let's get back to happy superheroing" platform. (He's an unpowered guy, maybe a bit more Moon Knight than Batman, and now fiftyish and retired for ten years or so.) The Crimson Fist's old nemesis Grimjim - who is not anyone in particular from another superhero universe, but is deeply in the Batman Villain template, something of a mash-up of Joker and Ra's al Ghul conceptually and Killer Croc visually  - has to break out of not-Arkham Asylum to cause trouble.

Tex and Grimjim and Skulldigger have hidden connections, of course. Every superhero story is about the same people tripping over each other over and over again; there's never anyone new.

It is grim and it is gritty and it is violent: this is supposed to be a 90s-style story, from the dark and decadent age of superheroing. We are meant to deplore that at the same time we revel in it.

Frankly, this is one of the most successful Black Hammer stories to date, in my mind: it tells a specific story, beginning to end, without getting caught up in extraneous crap. It isn't burdened with the core series' weird reluctance to move from the initial premise, and has the strengths of the whole series to date: Lemire's naturalistic dialogue and strong plotting, and great storytelling art.

It's still a pastiche grim-n-gritty Punisher/Batman comic that has no good reason to exist, mind you. But it's successful at the things it sets out to do.

One last point: the descriptive copy for this book describes it as a tragedy. It is not. Not in any traditional sense, not in any way. "Tragedy" here seems to mean "a story in which sad things happen," but that's most of them. This is not a tragedy, not for Skulldigger or Skeleton Boy or Det. Reyes, or even for Grimjim. And a tragedy has to be a tragedy for the main character.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Minecraft: Wither Without You, Vol. 3 by Kristen Gudsnuk

So this is the end of a trilogy: I don't expect you'll know what's going on unless you're familiar with the first two books. Even more so: it's a sharecropped trilogy, set in the world of the videogame Minecraft, so there's an additional hurdle before you even read the first book. So my audience may, somewhat limited today.

Minecraft: Wither Without You, Vol. 3 finishes up Kristen Gudsnuk's take on the Minecraft monster-hunting team story, with friendship and camaraderie and big epic fights and happy endings strewn about like new cars at an Oprah taping.

Go read my post on the first two books (linked above) if you want to know more, but I can give you the TL; DR version here. Gudsnuk is awesome (try Henchgirl if you've never read her stuff!), with a wonderful energy and verve that works well in the Minecraft milieu. In this book, the teen monster hunting twins Cahira and Orion, along with their mentor Senan and Atria, who is something like a comrade and something like a client they're guiding home, both reach their final destination and have the big battle with the fiendish Wither they've been chasing and fighting for two books already.

Yes, they win. What kind of book do you think this is?

As I said the first time, this is mostly for Minecraft fans and secondarily for people like me who just want more Gudsnuk stories. If you're in neither of those buckets...well, you could start with the first book of this trilogy. But jumping right into this book would be deeply silly.

(Coincidentally, a lot of the best stuff in this book is deeply silly.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

If I Die In a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien

The full title of this book may actually be If I Die In a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, but it's usually cited as just the first phrase. Author Tim O'Brien never made it to the Russian Front - for multiple reasons, but primarily because, so far, there hasn't been one - so none of us need to worry about the problematic next line of that chant.

I mostly know that chant from the Screaming Blue Messiahs song "Someone to Talk To." Mid-80s post-punk from a bunch of then-middle-aged Brits is not the usual way to learn US GI slang, but I've always taken what I can get. And the attitude and energy of the SBM is not a million miles away from that of the Vietnam-era GI, drafted and sent to a foreign country to "kill gooks" and survive as best he could for a one-year term.

I'm no expert on military service. The threatened war of my generation - the jungle war in Latin America we all half-expected at any time - never happened, and I never came any closer to a uniform than worrying about it. But I have a sense that one-year term is unusual: don't soldiers usually get stuck in for longer? I expect there are some major works about that one-year term, and what it meant for the war itself, and for the men fighting it.

Anyway, If I Die In a Combat Zone was Tim O'Brien's memoir of his year in the 'Nam. That year was 1969-70; he was drafted soon after graduating college in the spring of 1968, but the gears of war sometimes grind slowly, so he didn't end up in Basic until that fall and didn't get sent overseas until even later. But it doesn't matter when it started: every GI got a year in-country.

Unless they got killed earlier, of course. That was always a possibility.

This was O'Brien's first book, published in 1975. He was already on his way to being a respected literary novelist and professor of literature by that point, but O'Brien is the kind of "literary" that meant "uses exactly the right words, and sweats over them." Combat Zone is made up of mostly short chapters, about times and moments and days, mostly of his time in Vietnam but with some background on his life and especially the summer when he knew he would be drafted and agonized about running away to Canada or Sweden to avoid it.

Spoiler: he didn't. The fact that this book exists at all tells you that.

O'Brien didn't die in a combat zone - but a lot of other soldiers did. And O'Brien and his fellow GIs - he was with the 23rd Infantry, mostly slogging around between villages in the region Americans called "Pinkville" - left a lot of Vietnamese bodies behind them, as well. Combat Zone does not shy away from talking about the ways that men die, or kill - though it doesn't revel in it, either. If anything, Combat Zone is a series of thoughts about what it is to fight a war, and how a grunt-level soldier can think about what he does, and what his nation does.

O'Brien is a taut, precise writer, even this far back in his career. Combat Zone is a lean, tight book. I've seen it called one of the best, or maybe the best, memoir by a soldier of the Vietnam war - I don't have enough personal reading experience to validate that, but it's strong enough, and resonant enough, that praise that high does make sense. O'Brien also was in the area of the My Lai massacre, though he arrived a year later, so there's some wider concerns about the war and the American way of fighting it that resonates throughout.

America doesn't fight wars like this anymore, for mostly obvious we-lost-this-one reasons. But the lessons are still true, and O'Brien's insights still as valid, as they were in 1975. I'd especially want anyone eager to send US troops off to invade or "liberate" anywhere in the world to read this book, and books like it, before they talk so loud.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Omni-Visibilis by Lewis Trondheim and Matthieu Bonhomme

Herve Boileau is an everyman in Paris: more than a little neurotic, too much of a neat freak, a bit too creepy towards women. But basically a normal guy, probably around thirty. He works in an office doing something we don't know all that much about. We see him go through one day quickly at the beginning of this book.

And, when he wakes up the next morning, he's the center of the world. Not in the sense of having power or influence, but more literally. His senses are somehow broadcast to every human being on Earth - everyone sees what he sees, hears what he hears, smells what he smells. They seem to need to close their eyes to see through Herve's eyes, but he's suddenly no longer anonymous, no longer just another guy.

Everyone wants to find him, to control or exploit this effect, but Herve just wants it to stop. Or, failing that - and how can he stop something completely inexplicable he didn't start? - to get away from people and be left alone. Even with the help of a few friends from work, that's not going to be easy. Or maybe possible.

Omni-Visibilis is the story of Herve's time at the center of the world: it's a 2010 bande dessinee written by Lewis Trondheim and drawn by Matthieu Bonhomme, published in English for the first time in an electronic edition last year as translated by Tom Imber.

After the intro, it's pretty much all one-damn-thing-after-another, with thriller-style plotting: Herve is on the run, trying to find somewhere hidden and nondescript to hide out...because, remember, everyone in the world can see what he sees, so if he looks at anything distinctive at all, thousands or millions of people will know instantly where he is. I don't want to give away any of the twists and turns, since the joy of a book like this is in the discovery - but there is a lot of headlong rush, a lot of ideas and plots. It's not quite one 160-page-long chase scene, but it can feel that way at times.

It's a lot of fun: Trondheim has always been good at recomplication and escalating problems, which serves him well here. And Bonhomme has a crisp, realistic style here, mostly working in a six-panel grid and using a cool blue accent color. It all looks like a modern world, with people only very slightly cartoony to emphasize facial expressions.

There could be a sequel, some day. Hell, for all I know, there are five sequels in French. (Well, no: I don't read French, but I can figure out from the Dupuis web-page that it's still a standalone.) Anyway, this is a hoot. I recommend it for anyone who likes goofy semi-serious fantastika thrillers in comics form.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of October 22, 2022

This week I have one library book - that I actually walked in and picked up off a shelf, like in the Olden Days. Although...I was looking at my online library list earlier in the day, and saw that it was there, so that might be an asterisk.

Tracy Flick Can't Win is the new novel from Tom Perrotta, that bestselling chronicler of  lives lived in the modern suburbs. (That sounds dismissive, but it's where I live, and may be where you do, too.) It's the sequel to Election, his second novel, as you might guess from the title. The go-getter from Election is now middle-aged - yes, it's shocking to all of us when we realize it - and apparently has not conquered the entire world as she thought she would.

I liked Election the book and (which is more famous) Election the movie, but ingested both of them well before this blog, so I have no record of doing so. And I've been reading Perrotta - though I still haven't managed to read his Rapture novel, for Rapture-novel reasons - with mostly pleasure and maybe too little distance for about thirty years now. (See my posts on Mrs. Fletcher and The Abstinence Teacher.) So I will read this one quickly, and probably have complicated thought about it, which is good for a guy blogging about books.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Quote of the Week, Bonus Edition: I Likes a Good Hanging, I Do

We assume our revulsion at brutal death ceremonies is natural and instinctive, but it is not. On the contrary, not only were public executions not particularly shocking to those who witnessed them in the Middle Ages, they were not particularly shocking to those who saw them in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or even twentieth centuries. It is our intensely imagined empathy for other people's pain in the twenty-first century that sets us apart, and even that may be a more fragile attribute than we would care to admit. If spectacular punishment seemed like a barbaric vestige from another age to men like Dickens and Thackeray, who both wrote to condemn capital punishment after watching Courvoisier hang, it was the intransigence of spectators as well as the suffering of the victims that proved increasingly disconcerting to the authorities.

 - Frances Larson, Severed, pp.101-102

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Quote of the Week: Yes, a 'Hemihead" Is Exactly What You Are Picturing Right Now

Dissection is about priorities: some parts are cut away so that other parts can be seen more clearly. Skulls are sawn through to get to brains; brains are pulled out to yield skulls. And, in the process, a person is turned into a series of artefacts that each belong in their own category: skulls, brains, hemiheads, pineal glands, optic nerves. Each category of things has its own value to society, a value with rises and falls with the intellectual tide, the technological facilities of the time, and the broader cultural milieu. The rise of the brain has as much to do with the history of chemistry and preservatives as with the theories of the scientists involved.

 - Frances Larson, Severed, p.237

Friday, October 21, 2022

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

When you learn that someone has written an entire book about severed heads - with thirty pages of sources, to boot - and gotten it published by a respected serious house, you are pretty much required to seek out that book.

And by "you," I mean "me," obviously.

It might take you four years after publication to get a copy. It might take four more years for the thing to push its way to the top of the to-be-read piles. But, damn it, you are going to read the book about severed heads.

Severed is from 2014, in case the math in the previous paragraph is giving you trouble. Its author Frances Larson has had at least one more book since then, and seems to still be around as a respected British anthropologist and writer; from a quick Googling, it looks like she may be in Oxford rather than Durham these days.

And I'll let her give the why - or one of the whys:

A severed head can be many things: a loved one, a trophy, scientific data, criminal evidence, an educational prop, a religious relic, an artistic muse, a practical joke. It can be an item of trade, a communication aid, a political pawn or a family heirloom; and it can be many of these things at once. Its definitions are unstable and they oscillate dramatically, which is one of the reasons human remains have the power to unsettle us. They impose themselves and challenge our assumptions, and none more so than the human head, whose eyes meet our own.


Severed is divided, as many relatively serious non-fiction books are, into thematic chapters. Larson's themes, obviously, are all about the various ways and reasons and historical contexts in which a head might be separated from its neck, and the uses those heads (and various sub-components of the head) could be put to afterward. So she starts with a prologue about one of the most famous heads, that of Oliver Cromwell, before a short introduction covering quickly many of the things she will go into in more depth later. The eight main chapters cover, roughly: shrunken heads, trophies taken in war (especially the Pacific war of WWII), executions both official (especially French, especially with the guillotine) and criminal (particularly those videotaped by terrorists and broadcast to the world), the severed head in and as art, heads as religious artifacts, skulls (mostly famous), dissection and brains, and the efforts to determine how long (or if) consciousness persists after beheading.

Some themes and ideas recur across multiple chapters, of course. It's all about severed heads, after all: some of the characters will come back to sever heads in other contexts. [1]

I struggle to find the right adjectives to describe Severed. Larson is a deeply informed, agile writer, and I found her very quotable and always insightful. But it would be wrong to describe the resulting book as "wonderful" (though it definitely does provide wonders) or "engrossing" (though there is much that readers will find...gross).

I doubt there will ever be another major nonfiction book on severed heads. Luckily for all of us, this one is magnificent and comprehensive. If you are anything like me, just knowing this book exists will induce you to add it to your list. If you are nothing like me, I apologize for taking up so much of your time. You should also avoid this blog for the next two days, when there will be quotes from Severed that I presume will also be unpleasant for you.

[1] I couldn't find an obvious way to fit this into the body of the post, so let me stick it here:

In the decades either side of 1900, scientists started to donate their brains to each other, so much so that bequeathing your brain to your colleagues became something of a 'cottage industry.' Formal and informal 'brain clubs' sprang up in Munich, Paris, Stockholm, Philadelphia, Moscow and Berlin, where distinguished members agreed to leave their brains to their fellow anatomists, who expressed their gratitude by reading out the results of their investigations to other members of the club. One of the most famous was the Paris Mutual Autopsy Club, which was founded in 1872. Members could die happy in the knowledge that their own brain would become central to the utopian scientific project they had pursued so fervently in life.


If there isn't already a death metal band named Paris Mutual Autopsy Club, I despair for the world.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

William and the Lost Spirit by Gwen de Bonneval and Matthieu Bonhomme

One of the things I'm coming to appreciate about the European comics scene is how nearly all of the creators are both writers and artists, even if they generally take on only one role for a specific project. It's a dynamic that's subtly different from US comics, where the Big Two (and various hangers-on) still mostly follow the old industrial-production method, with separate pencilers, inkers, letterers, and colorists (plus at least one writer, and sometimes separated plotters and scripters), all of whom are assigned to a book by some boss editor, and there's a stronger force to keep them all "in their lanes." Euro comics seem to be more on the regular-publishing, freelance basis - a team has a pitch, and if it's accepted, they do that thing.

(I imagine the longer-running Eurocomics, like Spirou, are closer to the US model, with new seasons of sharecroppers hired by the owners - there, I think the difference is that the owners tend to be the descendants of the original creators rather than the successor corporation to the original publisher, which is at least slightly preferable.)

So I find that I see names first in one role or the other, and then they pop up doing the other one. Sometimes I'm following along someone's career - there is definitely a tropism to start off drawing someone else's story, and then advance to writing your own stories for someone else to draw, but it's not all that consistent - and sometimes it's just what I happen to see or the vagaries of translated publishing.

All that to say: I know Gwen de Bonneval's name, because I've seen him draw things before: Last Days of an Immortal and two "Saturday and Sunday" books (one, two). But he's the writer here, and that is totally normal and expected for Eurocomics. I think this is slightly later in his career than those other projects, but only slightly.

William and the Lost Spirit is written by de Bonneval and drawn by Matthieu Bonhomme, who I would not be surprised to see writing something else, entirely different, in another couple of years. It reprints what was a trilogy in the original French publication, three bandes dessinees that came out between 2006 and 2009 and were translated by Anne and Owen Smith for this 2013 US edition.

William is young, just on the verge of his teens, somewhere in medieval Europe. (First guess: France!) His aged grandfather is the local count, and his beloved father has just died, putting the family into turmoil. His mother is remarrying quickly, to the old count's seneschal, and moving house back to the central court - it sounds like William's father was put in an wild and/or obscure corner of the county, to help tame it but it has remained wild and untamed, plagued by bandits.

William's sister Helise has run away: she believes their father is still alive, and is trying to find and save him. The story doesn't emphasize the point, but all of the women in this family have some kind of magical or mystical powers, so Helise may not be entirely correct, but she's not obviously misguided: she says their dead father talk to her, and that is entirely plausible.

This is the story of how William and Helise run away, make allies, search out the true reasons for their father's death, and make it back home - not entirely in that order. The three books are clearly distinct: they tell the overall story together, in sequence, but they do so in somewhat different ways - the second book most obviously.

Lost Spirit is also full of the folklore, beliefs, and social expectations of the time - myths of Prester John and the gryphon on the cover, questions of how the magic of this family's women connects to Christianity, things like that. This is not a vague fantasyland; it's much more grounded in real medieval life.

It was published in the US for a YA audience, so there's some material after the end of the story, to explain those medieval details (where various titles fall in the hierarchy, those mythological figures, religion and gender details, and several pages of discussion questions, presumably for classroom use rather than book groups). None of that is necessary, especially if you're not actually twelve at the moment, but it's thoughtful and useful and (maybe more important) easily skippable if you want to.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

World's Funnest edited by some random DC functionary

It was someone's job to put together World's Funnest. Probably a pretty serious job, says the guy who used to assemble reprint books of prose fairly regularly - comics are even more complicated, since it's not just a batch of words that need to be flowed, but pages of art that have different aspect ratios over the years and exist in different file formats and levels of quality. Someone worked pretty hard on this, before it was published in 2016.

Comics used to have a serious credits problem, in that there were hardly any. Stories were about the characters, not the people who made the stories, so credits were left off most of the time for the first few decades. That changed, slowly. By the 1960s, Marvel pretended Stan Lee was in charge of everything, and whoever else he deigned to give a stupid nickname to got mentioned. That probably pushed DC and other competitors to do something similar.

So, these days, comics have lots of credits. Reprint collections even more so - to the point of being deeply silly.

World's Funnest has a page of small type for credits - it lists forty-six people, most of whom were the VP-level and higher corporate officers of DC in 2016.

Wait, I take it back. Comics still has a credits problem. And it's still the same one: credit goes to the company or the character or the "VP - Sales Planning & Trade Development" rather than to the people who actually made the thing.

This book was probably edited by Robin Wildman, listed as "Editor - Collected Edition." Maybe partially by Jeb Woodard, then "Group Editor - Collected Editions." Maybe the reason the cover says "by Evan Dorkin and Friends" is that Dorkin made the initial list of stories to be reprinted? Or kibitzed as Wildman and/or Woodard dug through the archives to find these?

Anyway, what we have here is the 2000 one-shot World's Funnest, written by Dorkin and drawn by Dave Gibbons for the early pages and then a cast of thousands for the rest of its 64-page epic, and then a selection of the first and/or best and/or most memorable stories featuring DC's lovable imps, Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyztplk. Except for that first story, everything is in strict chronological order, which means related stories are separated several times, and it also means we end with a story from 2008, later than the Dorkin piece.

I said someone assembled this, and that it was hard work. I didn't say I agreed with all of their artistic decisions.

I'll come back to the Dorkin story, since it's the point and capstone of the exercise. But after it we get what amounts to a potted, slapdash history of DC Comics, starting with the first appearances of both Mxyztplk (a 1944 Siegel-Shuster story with a nice lightness and sense of humor to it) and Bat-Mite (a snoozier 1959 piece from Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff, and Charles Paris, deep in the giant-props and dull-detective era of Batman).

Then comes the inevitable team-up, "Bat-Mite Meets Mr. Myxzptlk," from 1960, from which Dorkin cribbed a few ideas for his story. It is pleasant, but this is still the Wooden Era of DC.

We then jump two decades for two short Bat-Mite vignettes: the first is a pleasant bit of metafiction mostly memorable for showing how a bunch of DC folks looked in 1979 (big hair, mustaches, etc.) and the second is a single-page gag.

Then we get two Mxy stories from the John Byrne Superman reboot of the late '80s - first Byrne himself and Karl Kessel have Supes tangle with Mxy (for the first time!...once again) and then the Stern Peyer Cullins Janke law-firm brings back Mxy to let Lex Luthor have a crack at him. Both of these are mostly serious, with some humor, though the Luthor one is more dour.

And that drops us into the grim-and-gritty '90s, with two Alan Grant/Kevin O'Neil "Dark Mite" stories, which are mostly parodies of the real Batman comics of the time. Grant and O'Neil are always great, but these are really close to poking yourself in the eye with a sharp stick.

In between those two, out of chronological order I guess entirely to separate them, is "The Imp-Possible Dream," the post-Crisis version of the "the Mite and the Mxy Meet!" story. Dorkin may have re-used some ideas from this story, too.

Last in the book is a two-parter from the New Earnest era, "L'il Leaguers," in which Mite and Myx port over Superman and Batman (and, eventually, a lot more) from a chibi version of Earth-1, and everyone has to learn The Meaning of Heroism. (Which is the point of roughly eight single issues every month, but nevermind.) It has really engaging art from Rafael Albuquerque, but the saccharine level is a bit high for my taste.

Finally, I'll get back to the opening story. Remember the fad for "this guy kills the <superhero company> universe" stories? It's one of those. Gibbons does his best Dick Sprang/Shelly Moldoff impression, to make it all look like a Silver Age comic, as Superman, Batman, and Robin capture the standard batch of '50s gangsters to start us all off, but then Mite & Mxy appear, start squabbling with each other, and things escalate. They kill the World's Finest folks, then the female versions, then the Super-Pets, then the Legion, and go on from there to depopulate and destroy first Earth-1 and then every other Earth Dorkin could remember existed at that point. (They get 2, S, X, the Zoo Crew one, and a few dozen others, including alternate futures and other imaginary stories - as always, Dorkin is thorough when he sets out to blow stuff up.)

Each universe is drawn by someone else, in many cases the creator or most famous artist: Frank Miller does three Dark Knight-y pages; Bruce Timm provides two pages of TV-show storyboards; Alex Ross paints three pages of gods getting slaughtered. Others involved are Mike Allred, Stephen DeStefano, Joe Giella, Jaime Hernandez, Stuart Immonen, Phil Jimenez, Doug Mahnke, David Mazzuccheli, Sheldon Moldoff hisownself, Glen Murakami, Norm Rapmund, Scott Shaw!, Jay Stephens, Ty Templeton, and Jim Woodring.

It's a lot. Frankly, it's a bit too much: by the mid-point, it starts to feel like a box-checking exercise ("Look, Lou, we've still got twenty-seven universes to wreck by quitting time, so let's get going!"). Myx and Mite don't actually have great chemistry, since they're both one-note characters designed to stymie their superhero foes...and Dorkin got rid of those on the sixth story page. But Dorkin is the master of Ids on the rampage, so he gamefully keeps them going until they destroy everything - and then pulls out the requisite superhero-universe ending.

I did not enjoy this book quite as much as I'd hoped. Partially it's that a little of these guys goes a long way - and this book has 300 pages of comics, which is a really, really long way.  I also suspect a more focused collection - maybe just Golden/Silver age stuff, without the meta-commentary - would be more fun. But this book exists, and it's probably got as much or more Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite as anyone would want.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Autobiographix edited by Diana Schutz

I think I read this before. The book itself is a bit coy about its previous history - editor Diana Schutz is only credited as "original collection editor" on the copyright page, as if that was an equivalent function to "general counsel" and "senior director of licensed publications," and it also tried very hard to hide the fact that this 2021 edition is a (probably exact?) reprint of a 2003 original that was entirely original - so that may be confusing me. But it was all familiar. I'm pretty sure I did buy and read it back in 2003, and then lost my copy, along with so much else, in my 2011 flood.

Autobiographix, again, is a collection of short comics, new at the time of publication, written and drawn by a bunch of people and edited by Schutz. I'm pretty sure she sought them all out and solicited work; she was likely the kind of editor who is very active in the molding and creation of the book. That's the kind of editor, he said pointedly, who should be credited on the cover and in the metadata.

There are fourteen stories here, telling things that we assume are true (though one story has "An Astounding Lie" in its title) and that happened to sixteen people (there are some other artistic collaborators, but the teams Metaphrog and Fabio Moon/Gabriel Ba are the only ones who lived through the events together).

The stories are varied in manner and style and substance, from a dreamy idyll in a jazz club by Schutz, illustrated by Arnold Pander, to a straightforward travel report by Stan Sakai to that "astounding lie" about a doomed bus trip by Metaphrog to a recipe by Matt Wagner to a moody, mostly-wordless piece laid out in vignettes by Will Eisner.

Some are ruminative and philosophical - Jason Lutes near the front of the book, Eddie Campbell at the midpoint, Paul Hornschemeier to close it out. A few aim mostly to be amusing, like Sergio Aragones's story of meeting Richard Nixon in the late '70s and Bill Morrison's tales of his childhood Bat-mania. There's one story by a creator I think was new to comics - Richard Doutt, writing a story about a tree in a cemetery, illustrated by Farel Dalrymple.

It's all solid, depending on your taste and interests. It's all autobiographical, in various different ways. Schutz has curated the stories and arranged them carefully, in a structure that's elegant and sneaky more than once. And it's a good introduction to a number of creators you may not have heard of - some of them in characteristic styles , and some not so much.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of October 17, 2022

I think this is the last of the books I requested from the library. And I guess it's appropriate that I got it from the library, and that it came in on its own:

Unshelved: Library Mascot Cage Match is a 2005 collection of the library-themed strip comic by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum. That strip ran online from 2002 through 2016, and is still alive in reruns, in the way of many webcomics. I covered the first collection seven years ago - not long before the strip ended, in fact - but haven't otherwise read it; not in book form and not regularly when it was running. (I did see it here and there, obviously - I knew it existed - but never actively read it when it was alive.)

I may be reading this largely because it's a comic about libraries that I could get from my library, and that amuses me. Don't judge me.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Quote of the Week: What Do You Mean We, Kemo Sabe?

Today, from the social vantage point I enjoy, and probably from yours, too, it seems almost antediluvian that well-brought-up young white Americans would settle in contentedly to such occupations as full-time elevator operator or messenger; but that was then, and the social world that you and I know today is only one facet of the real world, a single facet, and the rest of today's real world is  one more reality from which we, with our privileges, strive to remain safely insulated, and of which we definitely wish to keep ourselves securely ignorant.

 - Joseph Heller, Now and Then, p.134

Friday, October 14, 2022

Now and Then by Joseph Heller

It's not required that a memoir be a discursive, loosely-organized thing written by a older writer who is not nearly as critical about his younger self as he wants you to believe he is. But there sure are a lot of them.

Joseph Heller's version was Now and Then, published in 1998, a year before his death from a heart attack. He was 75 for the book's publication, and insisted he was in great health at the end of the book. As one of his contemporaries said: so it goes.

It's a cliché to say that everything that Heller published after Catch-22 was at least slightly disappointing, but Now and Then is on the higher end of the disappointment scale. It's full of stories about his younger life, but it's a poorly-organized rush, clumped into chapters with titles like "On and On," "And On and On," and "And On and On and On." There's solid Heller writing throughout, and some pleasant anecdotes, and (I expect) a lot of things that will be mined by his biographers or serve as the basis for further research. But the book itself is the usual mushy being-me-was-awesome treatment of his younger life.

It's at its most focused in the early chapters, hitting his young life as a kid and teen growing up in Coney Island. (And his publishers clearly saw that, since the subtitle is "From Coney Island to Here" and the descriptive copy I've seen always talks mostly about Coney and his childhood.) That's the first hundred pages or so, bringing him up to the beginning of the war in a roughly chronological order.

Well, "roughly." Now and Then is roughly a lot of things. The chronology is broken by the war: Heller quite obviously doesn't have a chapter on the war, and his longest section on it - tellingly, in the chapter titled "Peace" - starts from a photo of him and four other airmen, taken after he hit his sixty completed missions and was eligible to go home. All of his war memories come after that point: all of the danger, the retold snippets he used in Catch-22, all the "this guy was the basis for this idea," every bit of it comes after the big "I lived through the war" moment.

And, obviously, we already know he lived through the war. But, maybe, even fifty years later, it didn't quite seem real to Heller, and he had to write it that way for himself.

So this is somewhat straightforward, with digressions, for its first third, and then digressions on digressions for the rest. Heller gives some background on his writing career, in between other things and not always at the times in the narrative you'd expect it. Like most memoirs, the years-to-page ratio starts out very low and skyrockets once he's grown. His children pop up, nearly full-grown, for example, somewhere past the halfway point. He spent a year in England in the late '50s but hasn't a single anecdote or story from that time. The 1960s are almost entirely skipped - he jumps from Catch-22 to Something Happened.

Again, it's only in retrospect a reader can be clear what Heller covers: none of his adult life is in any kind of order. The chapters are vaguely thematic, at least some of the time - at the beginning and end, mostly - but the themes are broad and capacious, allowing him to wander around his topics and memories for a few hundred words at a time.

This is a pleasant book by a engaging writer. It does have some insights to his novels. But it also has all of the usual flaws of a memoir by an aged, famous, lionized writer, plus a few Heller wandered into himself.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Delicates by Brenna Thummler

I don't want to say there's always a sequel...but, these days, it's the way to bet. Anything that has any degree of success will have a follow-up, telling more of the story or doing as much of the same thing as possible.

So when Brenna Thummler's first graphic novel, Sheets, was an unexpected success a few years ago, what would her next project be?

Yes, obviously: the direct sequel Delicates, which came out three years later (in 2021). And, though I might sound dismissive, Delicates does all the things a good sequel should: it starts from the end of the first book (rather than rehashing the same story/issues/ideas), adds more details and richness to the world, examines slightly different (but related) concerns, and moves the overall story forward.

Sheets took place, in retrospect, in the fall of Marjorie Glatt's seventh-grade year. (We didn't know then exactly how old she was; we did roughly know the time of year.) Delicates jumps forward a bit, to the start of another school year. Summer is ending: Marjorie is about to enter eighth grade.

In the wake of the events of Sheets, Marjorie has a new friend group, mostly because the boy she has a crush on, Colton, is part of it. The rest are all girls, and at the center is Tessi, a mean-girl-type who controls the conversation and is low-key angry most of the time. Tessi has her own issues, mostly with a mother who is trying, in a well-meaning way but not one that has much chance of luck with the terminally sour and image-obsessed Tessi, to engage and lighten up her daughter. But we're not really on Tessi's side - we don't have an antagonist here as we did with Mr. Saubertuck in Sheets, but she's pretty close.

Wendel the ghost is still Wendel, still basically the same. That's usually the deal with ghosts, of course. If you want to change, you have to do it before dying.

And there's a new central character: Eliza, the girl on the cover. She's the oldest daughter of a favorite teacher at this middle school, has just been held back to repeat eighth grade, and is clearly on the spectrum somewhere. (No specific diagnosis is given in the book: she's just who she is. But she has obsessions and verbal tics, and I may just be more prone to notice those things.) Her particular obsessions are photography, ghosts, and their overlap: she spends a lot of time trying to photograph ghosts.

She doesn't know ghosts are real - or, rather, doesn't know how ghosts actually work in Thummler's fictional world. She's pretty sure ghosts are real. I don't know if she pictures them as Charlie Brown kids-in-sheets, but that's what they are here.

Delicates is partially a book about fitting in: Eliza is too weird, too specific, to really fit in, Marjorie is weird but can cram herself into a shape Tessi & crew will be friends with, and Wendell only really has Marjorie, so he hates any ways she changes that makes her less friendly to him.

It's also, like Sheets, a book in which death looms, always off the page and never specifically mentioned, but there all the time. All of Marjorie's family is still dealing with her mother's death: her father is engaging more with life now, but seems to be running around trying to do all the things his wife used to do, to keep all the old plates spinning, and to tightly control the few things he feels competent to control. Her kid brother Owen is doing something similar, on the level of a first-grader. And Marjorie, of course, is trying to be a "normal" teenager - have a friends group, be part of the group, maybe have a boyfriend if she can ever figure that out.

By the end, they'll all have to be themselves instead of the people they're trying to be. This isn't exactly a book with a moral, but the story it's telling aims in that direction: be who you actually are, and let other people do the same. Those are excellent things to remember, and Thummler tells a good story around them.

This is most obviously for people around Marjorie and Eliza's age - the ones figuring out who they are, alone and with their parents and with their friends and with any potential boy/girlfriends. But, like all good YA, it's a fine story even for those of us who have been pretty sure who we are for a few decades now, since we sometimes can still tend to forget.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Press Enter to Continue by Ana Galvan

One of the great things about translations is that you can dive right into someone mid-career. A fully-formed artist pops up in front of you, someone you've never heard of. But she's obviously been doing this a while, and has a clear look and style and viewpoint.

Ana Galvan is Spanish; I believe her Press Enter to Continue was the first collection of her work in English - it came out in 2019. Her work might look familiar to English-speaking people though: she does a lot of illustration work, including for the New York Times and Guardian.

The five stories here all share an art style and a method: they're chilly things, with lots of greens and blues, people drawn almost blankly, small faces with empty ovals for features. Overlays of color march across the page, in a style that's occasionally reminiscent of the 1980s. None of the stories are titled; the table of contents presents them as five diamond boxes - one image and a page number.

Her work doesn't all look like this - you'll realize that if you check out her advertising work. This is a choice and a decision: this book looks this way because it is a book. These are not just five separate stories.

The matter is as chilly and distanced as the style. A woman flees a tiger, in multiple overlapping images, as if showing the various outcomes in multiple universes. A young man joins a circus as the new trapeze artist, and meets an enigmatic colleague. A young woman has an odd job interview. A boy in a science-fictional world remembers a transformative camp experience, and looks forward to another. And a woman has visions of a boy, and learns unlikely secrets about those visions.

Galvan gives no easy answers or obvious conclusions: each story ends at a good moment, but they tend to be tense moments, moments where things will continue, even if we don't see that continuation. Like all stories, these end because they're things being told: the world doesn't begin or end.

These are attractive stories, stories told well, stories with visual style and storytelling focus - but not stories that will give you an easy way in or any guidance of how to read them. If you're willing to meet them there, they have a lot to offer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Trese, Vol. 4: Last Seen After Midnight by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo

We're back to shorter stories here, after the big mythology epic of the previous volume. Four separate stories, each of them roughly single-issue length - probably because they first appeared as floppy comics in the Philippines, a decade or so ago.

If that's confusing, you may want to see what I wrote about volumes one, two, and three over the past year; the TL; DR is that this is a contemporary fantasy/horror comics series by Philippine creators about a woman named Alexandra Trese, almost two decades old at this point, and the US market has just now caught up to 2011 Manila.

That's how we get to Trese, Vol. 4: Last Seen After Midnight, which collects those four stories - as I understand, the stories immediately following that big mythology tale - by creators Budjette Tan (writer) and KaJo Baldisimo (artist). We're back to the usual set-up: Trese owns a popular club in Manila, but her real work is as a sometime supernatural investigator for the local police. 

As always in this series, the supernatural creatures are local to the Philippines - engkandata, diwata, mananaggal, aswang, batibat, bangungot. Some of them are local gangsters, more or less: organized, usually overtly law-abiding when dealing with normal humans. And some are stranger, wilder things: nature spirits, forces of grief and death. Trese gets pulled into these four cases in different ways, but what they all have in common is death and the supernatural - someone has died, and it turns out they were killed by something inhuman.

She's our hero, so she solves the problems - that's how urban fantasy works. She's still mysterious; the previous book gave us more of her background but these stories are about her work rather than her life. This is not the kind of urban fantasy where the heroine wears crop-tops and whines about her romantic entanglements with hot-boy werewolves and vampires; the supernatural creatures are Trese's professional colleagues.

And sometimes enemies, too - that's how it happens. But I don't think we're going to see her sighing like a schoolgirl over any of them, which is a wonderful thing.

As always, Tan paces his stories well, moving from taut action sequences to quieter character and dialogue work, always leaving enough space to explain the complicated supernatural world the series takes place in. And Baldisimo, as I think I've said before, draws night like day will never come and his silky masses of black argue that comics should never be in color.

This is good stuff, particularly for fans of supernatural adventures and the kind of fantasy just this side of horror. This book could work as an introduction; the stories are all standalone. If you see it, give it a look.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of October 8, 2022

Two more books this week, and, as I suspected, they are more coming in from my library requests. And they are...

Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise, a collection of the comics by Gary Panter. I thought this was a new, possibly comprehensive collection, but it seems to be the old 1988 RAW book reprinted with a different cover thirty years later. Frankly, I don't know if there is any newer Jimbo material in the first place, so I may be slightly surprised, but not disappointed. I had this book back in the day - I was a solid RAW fan in college - but I lost it, along with so much else, in my 2011 flood. So this will be the first time re-reading this material probably since 1988.

The Grand Odalisque is a caper bande desinee by the team of Bastien Vives, Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot. I have no idea how they collaborated; Ruppert and Mulot are a team who usually work together - both writing and both drawing - and Vives is similarly a writer-artist. It's a story about three main characters, so my puckish assumption is that they each wrote and drew one of them and then fought over the backgrounds. Those main characters are art thieves - two of them friends since childhood and now international masters out for the Ingres painting of the title. The third, I gather, has a specific set of skills they need to get that particular painting, so they recruit her. 

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Quote of the Week Redux: Soppy to the Core

I don't want to wrong anybody, so I won't go so far as to say that she actually wrote poetry, but her conversation, to my mind, was of a nature calculated to excite the liveliest suspicions,. Well, I mean to say, when a girl suddenly asks you out of a blue sky if you don't sometimes feel that the stars are God's daisy-chain, you begin to think a bit.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves, p.19

Quote of the Week: The Endless Variety of Political Life

In fact exile life in Miami was dense with political distinctions, none of them exactly in the American grain. Miami was for example the only American city I had ever visited in which it was not unusual to hear one citizen describe the position of another as "Falangist," or as "essentially Nasserite." There were in Miami exiles who defined themselves as communists, anti-Castro. There were in Miami a significant number of exile socialists, also anti-Castro, but agreed on only this single issue. There were in Miami two prominent groups of exile anarchists, many still in their twenties, all anti-Castro, and divided from one another, I was told, by "personality differences," "personality differences" being the explanation Cubans tend to offer for anything from a dinner-table argument to a coup.

 - Joan Didion, Miami, p. 496 (in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live)

Friday, October 07, 2022

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

I haven't read this particular book in a decade or two, and have never written about it here. But I have written about Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster books more than once: all the way back to a very short mention of Very Good, Jeeves! in 2006, the early stories in My Man Jeeves in 2008, The Inimitable Jeeves a year later, then Jeeves in the Offing more recently. I also wrote about the Sebastian Faulks sharecrop book Jeeves and the Wedding Bells twice, five years apart (2014 and 2019), without apparently noticing.

I've also written about other Wodehouse books, since I'm in the habit of reading one roughly once a quarter. (Hey, he wrote a hundred books, and all of the ones I've read are wonderful, and I've still got thirty or so I've never even read once.) For example, mostly recently: Barmy in Wonderland, Lord Emsworth and OthersService with a Smile, The Little Nugget, Money for Nothing, Uncle Fred in the SpringtimeBring on the Girls, Over Seventy, Bachelors Anonymous, A Pelican at Blandings, Ukridge, and Young Men in Spats.

So: my opinions on Wodehouse in general and Jeeves/Wooster in particular are not exactly secret or obscure. Wodehouse is one of the great comic writers of all time; the Jeeves/Wooster books are among his best; his peak was mostly in the interwar years. Some people will rank Uncle Fred or (especially) the Blandings book above Jeeves, but there's broad consensus on all three of those things.

Right Ho, Jeeves is the 1935 novel in which noted newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle finds love with the soppy Madeleine Bassett (fond of noting that the stars are God's daisy chain) and in which Tuppy Glossop similarly finds love with Bertie's Cousin Angela. There also are related complications around Angela's ancestral pile, Brinkley Court, involving her mother, Bertie's Aunt Dahlia, and her incomparable French chef Anatole. It is all set in motion by Bertie's intransience about a white mess jacket that was a big hit in Cannes - but which Jeeves notes will be entirely wrong for English wear - and Bertie's subsequent insitence that Jeeves has lost his touch, so Bertie will instead take charge of solving all of these problems.

Reader, he does not do so. But Jeeves does bring peace and happiness to all in the end. And it is all glorious to read - this isn't quite as wonderful as Joy in the Morning, the peak of the Jeeves books, but it's close.

You know I recommend Wodehouse in general; I recommend this book in particular. There may come a time in your life when you need a book like this: Joy in the Morning was what I turned to right after my heart failure. I wish you all the joy and distraction that Wodehouse can bring.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Back to Basics, Vol. 2: Making Plans by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

So I may have gotten things backward when I wrote about the first book. I have two things to say in my defense. First, the explanation in this book may actually be a joke - it's so weird and convoluted that's a remote possibility. And, second, can you blame me?

Back to Basics, Vol. 2: Making Plans is the second in a series of humorous autobiographical bandes dessinees about cartoonist Manu Larcenet and his partner Mariette, who moved to the rural French village of Ravenelles [1] in mid-2001 and may still be there. (The series runs at least five books - that's what's been translated into English - but those only cover up to about 2007.)

Larcenet does the series with Jean-Yves Ferri, who is credited first. Based on some things in the first book - and maybe just my assumptions - I thought Larcenet wrote these books and Ferri drew them. But in this volume we see the humorously fictionalized story of how Larcenet pitched the series to Dargaud, and a lot of the humor comes from the fact that Ferri writes the series for Larcenet to draw, with the additional complication that Larcenet is deliberately drawing in a different style.

So, yeah. Maybe that's real. It is what they say, so let's take it as true, at least for this book. Vol. 3 may add more complications.

Other than my confusion, this is the same kind of things as the first book: usually six-panel comics (two tiers of three panels, each a half-page here) with Larcenet mostly as the butt of the jokes, about their lives in this oddball obscure corner of France. The locals are exceptionally competent at the usual physical activities that an artist and city-dweller like Larcenet is both not good at and in awe of. Nature is everywhere, including invasive creatures in the house. Mariette is talking about having a baby; Larcenet is talking about making a garden - there's more than a little related cross-talk. There is a local weird child who gloms onto Larcenet for unclear reasons, and It Is Funny.

It has the pace and concerns and amiability of a good daily strip, though the individual comics are roughly double the size of a modern American daily. The characters are broad, maybe just this side of caricature, and the jokes come out of their standard behavior a lot of the time.

It's fun and amiable and entertaining. We've all seen "city mouse tries to fit in with the rural oddballs" stories before, but this one is done solidly and has the advantage of being true, more or less, we think. Larcenet's cartoony style is fun, and Ferri makes the dialogue appropriately goofy - assuming that's how they did break down the work, and I'm not being dogmatic about it at all now.

This is a fun series, of a kind that generally is not done in comics form on my side of the Atlantic. I like all kinds of stories to be in comics form, so that's a big plus for me. It may be for you as well.

[1] I say "village." In the first book, it seemed to be the name of their house. Here it seems to be more general. It may be a region or borough or slang term for a common local slug, for all I know.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Cryptid Club by Sarah Andersen

So I like reading books of quick, funny cartoons, and I like writing posts about the books I read. But those two impulses don't really work all that well together.

I blame society.

For everything, but this in particular.

Anyway, I just read Sarah Andersen's new book of cartoons, Cryptid Club, which collects a whole bunch of mostly 4-panel cartoons about - yes, you guessed it, cryptids! It is funny and I enjoyed every single page of it (even the more obscure cryptids that I had to look up, which I will go into more detail below), but there's not really a whole lot more to say other than "this is a book of funny cartoons about a bunch of cryptids, who are friends and hang out together as well as being the scary monsters we know them as, more or less."

I'm not sure if these appeared anywhere else first - this is the kind of thing that could have been a recurring feature in a wider webcomic - or just a big batch of variations on a theme done specifically to make a book. That doesn't matter, I guess, but if they did appear online, and I knew where that was, I could give you a link to get a sense of the material here.

Oh! I should mention that the line art is all Andersen, but this is all in full color, and the color is a huge part of the appeal - it's spooky and garish and bright and creepy in turn to make the jokes work. Colors are by Celi Godfried, assisted by Kayla Nicole, who did flatting for the book. (I know "flatting" is a thing in books of cartoon color art, and I think it's a semi-mechanical process - tedious and maybe finnicky but probably not directly creative in the first instance - but I don't know the details and will forget them if anyone tries to explain to me.)

OK, so the deal here is that all of these folks - Mothman, Nessie, Bigfoot, Kraken, Chupacabra, and so on - are all real, all know each other, and all sort of hang out somewhere, despite the fact that they supposedly live all over the world. There are a lot of "we're camera shy" jokes, and more dating material than I would have expected. And, obviously specific jokes about their individual deals - Chupacabra sucks on goats, Mothman is attracted to lights, Bigfoot is sensitive about the size of his feet.

Andersen has an engaging, cartoony style here, which occasionally makes some of her cryptids look an awful lot like each other. Specifically: the Flatwoods Monster and Mothman are not only both from the same geographical region, but Andersen draws them to have basically the same head, and then draws them in close-up a lot. (Flatwoods does wear a hooded dress, while Mothman is a giant unclothed moth - I'm not saying I can't tell them apart, just that it can cause a moment of confusion.)

Even more so, the Fresno Nightwalkers - and props to you if you've heard of them; I hadn't - look almost exactly like ghosts, except the Nightwalkers bottoms clearly bifurcate into feet that touch the ground, and the ghosts don't do that consistently. But, otherwise, yeah, basically the same outline and eyes. Luckily, Andersen gives the Nightwalkers fabulous shoes pretty quickly, which helps a lot.

Again, this is a book of loosely connected cartoons about a medium-size cast of goofball monsters. I'm publishing this post way out of sequence, so I can get it out quickly - my guess is that this was published pre-Halloween for a reason, and I'm trying to hit that window as well. If you want a new funny book for the spooky season this year, this is is available and it's a good choice.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Seventeen Years in the Blogging Mines

Today is the seventeenth anniversary of this blog. For most of those years, I had a long post to mark the anniversary, with statistics and links to notable posts of the past year and other foofaraw.

Now, I'm not saying I'm not going to do that this year. I'm writing my way into this post, starting more than a week ahead of the actual anniversary, and I may work my way up to something like the heights I used to hit. But these are lesser, latter days, and all has fallen into rack and ruin, so don't count on it.

What Has Gone Before: The Links

One thing I try to do each year is link back to the previous anniversary posts, so here you go: first, second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth. You may notice two are missing: I forgot to do this entirely a couple of times, and once of those was last year. (Several others are quick and desultory.)

So last year I whiffed entirely, for the first time since the fifth year of the blog. I'm not sure if that was on purpose - I'm sure I remembered the anniversary at some point in the six months surrounding it; I'm quirky but not brain-damaged - but it happened, whatever the reasons Then-Me had. But I'm back, to at least some extent, this year.

I also tell the Legend of the Blog every year, but it's not that interesting. I started Antick Musings because my then-employer was planning to start a big batch of blogs for most of the clubs, and running the SFBC blog was going to become part of my duties. I was relatively diligent in those days, and wanted to get some experience under my belt ahead of that launch. As it happened, Antick Musings vastly outlasted a lot of things associated with me and the SFBC, including that blog. So it goes.

What Has Gone Before: The Numbers

Anyway, I'm here now. Next up is typically the dick-measuring contest {ahem!} the listing of numbers of posts by year:

2021-2022 -- 279 posts

2020-2021 -- 265 posts

2019-2020 -- 55 posts

2018-2019 -- 178 posts

2017-2018 -- 368 posts

2016-2017 -- 263 posts

2015-2016 -- 144 posts

2014-2015 -- 258 posts

2013-2014 -- 434 posts

2012-2013 -- 285 posts

2011-2012 -- 332 posts

2010-2011 -- 445 posts

2009-2010 -- 711 posts

2008-2009 -- 880 posts

2007-2008 -- 834 posts

2006-2007 -- 841 posts

2005-2006 -- 809 posts

I had another blog - Editorial Explanations, in which I would explicate the Great American Editorial Cartoon in all its tendentious and bad-faith splendor - for a few years in the middle there, and used to include those numbers for an "everything I did" total. But who cares now? Not even me, that's for sure.

Posts About Books: The Self-Indulgent Bit

The bulk of this post, most years, is the self-indulgent bit. "But Andy!" you say. "All of this is hugely self-indulgent, isn't it?" Well, yes. But this next part even more so.

So I link to posts from the past year - book-review posts, since that's basically everything I do now - by quoting sentences I wrote that I am still inordinately fond of. I hope I don't have to tell you how sad that is, but I only do it once a year. And so here are some words I wrote that I still like:

But all of life is a sequence of things you get into and can't easily get out of: relationships, jobs, places to live, family.

I have a cynical opinion: for most of us, no matter how good we are, careers last about ten years. It applies to the artists we love and the lives we live equally. That band will probably break up after a decade; that writer will put out novels dependably until the second digit of the year changes. And your job will be happy with you right up to the point where they aren't, and at that point the industry will have changed enough that you have to leap into something else.

There's nothing like a breezy book by a young person to make you feel really old.

I always want more context and cultural criticism; I always want more why and less "remember this thing?"

If there's a sequel, there has to be a trilogy. I don't know if that's actually a law, but we said it a lot in my SFBC days, and it turned out to be true almost all the time.

Frankly, the lesson I take from Wendy, Master of Art is that my vague stereotype of art students and the art world in general - formed at Vassar over thirty years ago, out of minimal materials and a dislike for the kind of people who smoke above eye level - is basically correct, and I have been right to avoid both since then. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

It took a while for me to realize, and this may be a spoiler: they are not running against each other. They are running together. I think this is important.

To my mind, if you're going to do a superhero story, or even a story set in a superhero world (this is more of the latter; Jimmy is always central, and most of the important characters don't have powers), you need to be at least halfway lighthearted. We all know every ending will be happy, all deaths are temporary, and all drama is momentary.

Corporate comics, man! They're stupid even when they don't have to be. It's like they go out of they way for it.

I don't want to be reductive here. (Well, maybe I do.) But it certainly seems to be that the central theme of European comics for younger readers is "what it the point of life, and how can you find the right path?" while the central theme of US comics for young readers is either (Big Two) "hitting people is how you solve problems" or (the YA world) "you are a unique special snowflake, and will have to overcome whatever horrible thing happened to you that you had no control over."

Don't get the idea I'm against creators taking control of the means of production! But if the only way I can get a book is to go to the guy's table at Comic Arts West Bumfuck and pay cash, I am much less likely to ever see it.

Over that scene is the tonally distinct gigantic caption "This is the story of a nameless girl...and the fearless, graceful life she led...from the postwar the present day." (Which sounds like a weird Jackie O biopic, or maybe an arch Givenchy ad.) 

OK, you know how in big superhero comics, everything needs to be back at status quo ante eventually? Worlds will live, worlds will die, Ultrafellow will be replaced by a disabled teen Latina, and the entire Evil-Fighting Gang will disband for good...but only until it all goes back to the way it was before.

Memory is flawed, history is misunderstood, the past is a mystery. And demon-creatures shouldn't be completely knowable, able to be nailed down to a specific timeline.

And, most of all, it's about the questions of childhood: the things you asked at the time, the things you wish you'd asked at the time, the things you know you never would have gotten a straight answer about, and the things you didn't even think could be questions until much much later.

So the story I thought was bullshit for one reason is now retroactively bullshit for an entirely separate reason. Does that make me happy? Well, happy is a sliding scale.

Tintin is traveling, first to get into Russia and then to get out of it, while various dirty commies try, sometimes with massive military force and sometimes with sneaky sabotage, to murder him. Several times, for variety, they capture him, tie him up, and threaten to murder him slightly later.

I appreciate creators who get bored easily. I may not always love every last random avenue they go down - who likes everything? - but I love that impulse, and I strongly believe creators who go really different from project to project are the best, most exciting ones.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

If ever a man was born to draw tasteful living rooms and functional office suites with flat-color backgrounds, it was Whitney.

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.

The prospect of actual money does wonderful things to the artistic impulse; I greatly recommend it to anyone attempting to motivate an artist.

Thinking far too deeply about it, I would love to see a series with the opposite premise: dogs and cats are the villains, because they have been tainted by human evil, and badgers or foxes or opossums or maybe raccoons are the heroes. Actually, yes, raccoons, maybe with corvids as advisors: that's the one I want.

Int. Day. Berlin. Bunker.

HITLER: Achtung! Give me a report on the secret compound!

HIMMLER: Yes, Fuhrer! Early tests on the Odinspear are promising...

HITLER: Nein! Not that secret compound! The one outside Vienna!

HIMMER: West of Vienna or South of Vienna?

HITLER:  West, you schweinhund!

HIMMER: Oh, right, the Greenbaums.

What do they do? They fuck. They shit. They kill each other. Occasionally even in that order.

I like parallels; I like books to set things up and then knock them down; I like guns on mantlepieces to be taken down at just the right moment and fired. 

The title gives away the end. You may not realize how, as you dive into the surreal, dreamlike early pages, but it will all be clearer by the end. And the title gives away the end.

Reporters write about moments, about places, about the intersection of the two: what it's like to be here when it is now. Some pieces are more obvious about it than others.

She was an addict and a stormy personality, I think - the book and the introduction are more poetic about it - which didn't help, but who ever min-maxes their own life to be the most successful version of themselves? She achieved a lot. She fought hard. She died young.

This is the story of a young man with fabulous powers and a bizarrely impossible upbringing, whose interactions with the outside world are about 95% murder, but, on the other hand, he's a tall attractive man with cool clothes. And apparently that is enough to make a mass-murderer into a hero.

This is a book by a young man. We sometimes forget things like that: we think that Albert Einstein was born the old guy with the bushy hair, or that Lawrence Welk's '60s style was what big-band music sounded like when the WW II generation was young and on the make. Everyone was young once; everyone thought the world was ahead of them and they could do anything they wanted. Some of them were right.

I still think the less-used pronouns can set their users up for a lot of additional microaggression and worse in their lives, especially as them/they is actually getting traction as a singular pronoun in wide culture, but I don't get to decide those things for other people.

All the most interesting people have the least-likely careers. (Says the man who started out as a SF editor and somehow ended up doing content marketing for corporate lawyers.)

Look, Gardner is a fun, energetic writer, and he's particularly good at writing women with strong, distinctive voices. All of his strengths are shown to good effect in Gun. But the more I think about it, the more I can't fucking stand the default superhero universe. Sorry.

A collection, on the other hand, is already multitudes. It flows through your hands when you try to define it: a little more over here than you first thought, oh wait maybe it's more like this, no no I've got it now it's totally thus.

This book may make you want to sharpen your guillotine and start gathering cobblestones for barricades, which is no bad thing.

Most of us have trouble being happy, I think. Most of us want to be happier than we are, want to enjoy moments more than we feel we actually can.

Everything Else

Antick Musings is, I have to admit it, a book blog. I used to write about movies, I used to write about random things that struck my fancy. I don't anymore, in either case. So, in years long past, I would have other links in this section of the anniversary post to those other kinds of posts - but not this time.

On Monday mornings, assuming I don't forget, there is either a Reviewing the Mail post (listing new books) or a Reading Into the Past post (listing old books). I also post a Quote of the Week, originally on Fridays and more recently on Saturdays as part of an expanded content regime for 2022H2. That's pretty much everything else posted here over the past year.

I was intermittently active on the question-answering site Quora a few years back, before a flood of political content co-emergent with Our Previous President overwhelmed that site. I still read stuff there, but haven't posted in I can't tell you how long. I'm also on the usual social networks for someone my age (see standard links in the right-hand rail) and not on the ones you wouldn't expect, since I am typical and boring, I suppose.

And that was the past year. I guess I am back on the big-pointless-self-congratulatory-post bandwagon. We'll see what happens next year, I suppose.