Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Journal of My Father by Jiro Taniguchi

Yoichi Yamashita got out. Born in the provincial Japanese city of Tottori, his family quietly expected him to join his father's barber shop and stick close to home. Instead, he got a scholarship to a Tokyo university, started working in graphic design, and almost never went back.

A Journal of My Father is his story, a twelve-chapter manga created in the mid-90s by Jiro Taniguchi, collected into one volume in Japan then and translated into English last year by Kumar Sivasubrmanian for Fanfare/Ponent Mon. In a way, it's about why Yoichi's was the wrong decision, or maybe, to be more subtle, about how he made that decision the wrong way and did it too strongly, how he cut off his father from most of his life.

It starts with Yoichi in middle age, somewhere near fifty in the early 1990s. His father has just died at the age of seventy-six, and Yoichi has to go back to Tottori, for the first time in fifteen years, to pay his respects. He expects it will be just that: a quick visit, as short and desultory as possible, and then he can get back to the real life he's built in Tokyo with his wife Ryoko.

Although, I should be honest: this is a very Japanese story, very 20th century, so the life Yoichi built is entirely based on work. Working all the time, morning to night, incessantly, to crowd out everything else in life. And, frankly, his father did the same. For all of the insights and thoughtful psychological depths A Journal brings to the story of Yoichi and his family, it never connects those two things, maybe because a fish will never ever mention water. Characters may point out similarities between the two men, but their common workaholic nature will never be seen as a negative: how could it be? Even when it caused the father's divorce and drove the son away forever?

The funeral is the frame story; most of the book is made up of flashbacks, things Yoichi remembers as he's sitting during the evening vigil, the night before the funeral, drinking sake and talking with his family. The flashbacks are pretty much entirely in sequence; Yoichi is remembering his childhood, his relationship with his father, from nearly the beginning.

And not his relationship with his mother, which is even more broken - she got a divorce when Yoichi and his older sister were in primary school, and basically never got to see the kids again. She, unlike the father, is still alive. This is a book about men and the relationship of fathers and sons; women are there, but in the workaholic world, they are not central. I do wonder why Yoichi doesn't have even a second to think that he could build a relationship with the parent who is still alive, while she is still alive.

I also wonder why Taniguchi has pointedly not given Yoichi any children of his own: that would have forced the story to open more, perhaps, to shift the focus from one man and his father. But it does mean we see Yoichi only, eternally, as a son.

Journal is a carefully-observed work, psychological complex, entirely real and honest. It's also embedded in a culture that is not my own, which has certain very strong expectations of what a man will do and say and feel - some of which Yoichi lived up to fully and some of which he did not. But, like all cultures, those expectations are not simple and easy: they were in conflict for Yoichi, and he picked the ones he felt were most important to him. Journal judges Yoichi fairly harshly, or it allows the judgements of others against him to stand unanswered. Taniguchi's afterword implies that he sees himself as something of a Yoichi, but his family was larger - Yoichi was the only son of his father, making him the only true heir.

Again, this is deeply sexist: Yoichi's sister did stick around Tottori, did learn hairdressing, did become part of the business - and all because she wanted to. But that is vastly less important than that Yoichi didn't. In many ways, A Journal is the story of people who can't see that their expectations for each other hurt them all for decades.

As I said: Fish. Water. They'll never tell you about it. You need to read with an eye for the patterns that are never mentioned, or you'll never see them. A Journal is full of patterns like that: it's a deep and rich book about people honestly depicted, living normal lives in a real world. It may make you think about different things than it did for me, but I expect it will make you think. And, as always, I recommend books that make you think.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Tracy Flick Can't Win by Tom Perrotta

The thing about Tom Perrotta is that all of his characters are just this side of stereotypes: instantly recognizable, the kind of people we've known in our own lives and often have been, to one degree or another. Mostly Generation X, like Perrotta. (And like me, which means you may need to take what I just said with a grain of salt: we always love best the writers who mirror ourselves back.)

But the other thing about Perrotta, the more important thing, is that he seems to care for and understand all of those characters equally. His books tend to have multiple viewpoints - at least two major ones, such as in The Abstinence Teacher and Mrs. Fletcher, and often several secondary as well, as in Little Children and this book - and there's never a sense that he's on someone's side. Perrotta knows his people are flawed, and that they often do horrible things, but he's clear-eyed about them and lets us see them from inside.

No one is a villain inside their own heads. Perrotta's work is a great example of that.

Tracy Flick Can't Win is his new novel this year; it's substantially shorter than most of his books, barely two hundred and fifty pages of not-that-small type, broken into often quick-cutting chapters across multiple points of view. It's also the first time he's explicitly written a sequel; Tracy Flick was one of the main characters of Election. (You may have seen the movie, even if you never read the book.)

The central character is Tracy Flick, obviously. She went on strongly right after the events of Election: huge college successes, off to law school at Georgetown. Well on her way to her dream of being the first female President; entirely possible. But it's now twenty years later, and life got in the way. Tracy is a never-married single mother of an eleven-year-old daughter, living in suburban Green Meadow, New Jersey and the Assistant Principal of the local high school. It's not nothing: it looks a lot like success. But it's not what she wanted. It's not where she thought she would be.

She's not our only viewpoint character, of course. Almost equally important is Vito Falcone, the most famous Green Meadow graduate, a football legend who went on to have a short career in the NFL before an injury removed him from his dreams forever. His life has gone even more sideways recently, but he's taking steps to get back.

And then there's Kyle Dorfman, though we don't get deeply into his head. (I tend to think there isn't a "deep" there.) A tech-bro who cashed out and came back to Green Meadow, now the head of the Board of Education and looking for new things to disrupt and transform. If he has dreams, they're all about bigger and better start-ups, not running a high school, no matter what he tells himself now.

And Jack Weede, the principal of GMHS - Tracy's boss. He's had it tough - out for most of the past year with a major heart problem, a wife just coming out the other end of years of cancer treatments - and is looking forward to his own dreams. His retirement decision sets off most of the plot here; he and his wife have a dream they want to follow.

And also two members of the student council, Lily Chu and Nate Cleary, just starting out on their lives - smart and pretty focused but unaware of a lot. And Diane Blankenship, aka "Front Desk Diane," the one who keeps this whole school running and who everyone loves.

It's a large cast for a short book, but Perrotta keeps them from being stereotypes. They are types at times, but in the sense of "I know that guy." But they all have things they care about, and we understand and sympathize with all of them. Even the ones who want contradictory things.

What is the book about? Two things: Kyle wants the high school to have a Hall of Fame for some stupid tech-bro reason, and everyone else just goes along with that, running through a process to pick the first inductees over the course of a school year. And Jack is retiring at the end of that same year, so the Board and the Superintendent will be hiring a new Principal. 

Tracy wants the job, of course. Tracy is best-positioned for it, Tracy is the most qualified for it, Tracy has worked harder than anyone else for it - that's the story of Tracy's life.

The book is called Tracy Flick Can't Win. It covers most of an academic year. It's smart and thoughtful and full of people I think you will find immediately real. I won't tell you what happens to all of them in the end, but it's a Tom Perrotta book. Everyone screws up somehow, in different ways. Some are fixable; some aren't. And you don't necessarily get what you deserve. Just like life.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of November 27, 2022

As I implied last week, this week I have three more books that I picked up from the shelves of a local library at the same time as last week's books. I'll start with the book that I went there to find:

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All is the second novel by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, after Bright's Passage back in 2012. This one is a lumberjack story, set in Ritter's native Idaho about a century back, with more than a bit of the flavor of a tall tale about it. It's narrated by the main character: he's a smart but green thirteen in the main body of the story and a cantankerous bed-ridden ninety-nine in the frame story.

Simon & Louise is a bande dessinee by Max de Radigues, about two teenagers and their bumpy love story. I understand it's told from both of their points of view and is, at least in part, about social media - it's also been translated from the French, and I've been reading a lot of books like that recently.

And Parenthesis is another BD translated from the French, by Elodie Durand. This one is closer to non-fiction, and looks like it won a bunch of awards at Angouleme its year (probably 2010, when it was originally published in France). I thought it was non-fiction, but it seems to be the kind of book closely based on the author's experience but with a main character using a different name - here "Judith."

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Quote of the Week: The Great Unknown

There is, it must be said, no more - and no less - tangible proof for this scenario as for any other. No hiker, rafter, or patrolling park ranger at that Grand Canyon has ever found a pile of bones, a few scraps of black clothing, or a crumbling white skull with a bullet hole in the temple to indicate the author's final resting place. As Bierce himself promised, his bones have never been found. It is entirely possible that, as he told reporters in El Paso, he simply crawled off into the mountains of Mexico to die, or that, as others have suggested, he sickened with fever or asthma or heart disease and lay down unrecognized in some adobe hut to cough away his life among dark-skinned strangers. In the end, as he intended, his fate is unknown. And yet, if one were to make an educated guess, the notion that Bierce killed himself, purposely and with malice aforethought, is hard to resist. Experienced homicide detectives, when faced with a seemingly insoluble case, typically go back to the simplest explanation,. Given the utter lack of eyewitnesses and the eternally missing body, logic argues that Bierce died alone, as he would have wanted, and unobserved, as he apparently took great pains to ensure. That being the case, he probably did not die in Mexico. More than that, no one can say.

 - Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, p.263

Friday, November 25, 2022

Back to Basics, Vol. 3: The Great World by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

I like to think I'm flexible and adaptable - that I can figure out new things, incorporate them into my thinking, and move forward without a hitch. I'm probably wrong, though. We're never the people we want to be or think we are.

Over the past few months, I've been reading more French comics by writer/artist teams - previously I'd mostly either read massive assemblages like Donjon (which list in detail what each person does, since there are a lot of them) or single-creator works. And it's taken me a surprisingly long time to internalize that the standard French (maybe Euro in general) credit sequence is artist-writer, the opposite of the US standard. (Colorists, on both continents, are named lower and lesser. Letterers and other folks, where they're separate jobs, are even more variable.)

Which is to say, when the second volume of the Back to Basics series had a series of jokes based on the opposite of the actual credits of the book, I shrugged - either going along with the joke or mixed-up enough to think it was plausible - and presented it straight. (Or maybe I'm mixed up now. But I don't think so.)

Anyway, this is a light-hearted bande dessinee series, written by Manu Larcenet - should I mention that all comics creators in the book have slightly altered, "funny" versions of their names? - and drawn by Jean-Yves Ferri, all about Larcenet's move from Paris to the rural enclave of Ravenelles and his subsequent life there with his partner Mariette and the various colorful rural folk already living there. See my posts on the first and second books.

That brings us up to Back to Basics, Vol. 3: The Great World, in which the first Back to Basics book is finalized and published, in which Larcenet (or should I say "Larssinet;" see above) goes to a major comics show and wins "the Golden Eraser," and in which Mariette is pregnant with their first child. (The baby is born right at the end, of course - Larcenet knows how to structure a book.)

As before, it's all told in half-page comics, mostly six-panel grids, which tend to cluster to tell sequences. As I've said in the previous posts, it's a lot like a daily comic in its rhythms and style of humor; as far as I know they weren't serialized anywhere but they easily could have been.

This is amusing and fun, even if I seem to mostly write about which one of them does what job on the book. (That's a silly side issue, but when you write about light humor, you grab onto anything specific and quirky to make it your shtick. Come to think of it, that's not a bad summation of how Back to Basics works in the first place.)

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Good Asian, Vol. 2 by Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi

I did not plan this book's post to land today; I'm working about seven weeks ahead at the moment, and this is the day I'm up to, typing right now on October 7. And I could probably spin out some story about how racism and corruption and the corrosive charms of power and money are the real core values of America, so it's actually appropriate that I have this book today.

But I don't feel up to any of that right now. So I don't have a big conspiracy to wrap it all up in: just the book itself, and what it says. I'll gesture at the wider context - {waves idly at the previous paragraph} - and leave it to you to fill in whatever it means.

This is the back half of a noir detective story in comics form, set in 1936 San Francisco. As you might guess from the title, much of the cast is Chinese, and the rest of the cast is "American" - that was a clear distinction at the time, as similar distinctions are still clear in the minds of horrible people.

It's The Good Asian, Vol. 2 - written by Pornsak Pichetshote and drawn by Alexandre Tefenkgi. I read the first book not long ago, and was impressed. I'm still impressed, this time, but it's a twisty mystery with a lot of details, so I don't know how much plot I can or should get into here.

Our main character is Edison Hark. Back home in Hawaii he's a police detective; I gather mostly respected and considered an equal human man at least a lot of the time. But he's in San Francisco visiting his adopted family, and they and their rich white world have entirely different opinions of the Chinese who have kept so much of their city running for fifty years or more. (Isn't that always the way? The oppressors have to hate the oppressed, or else they'll realize what they're doing.) [1]

His foster father, Mason Carroway, is ill, in a very noir, convenient way: lying in bed, uncommunicative, unable to affect the action of the story until (maybe, sometime) he wakes up. The old man has two children, daughter Victoria and son Frankie - the first volume of The Good Asian largely showed up what Edison's relationship was like with Frankie, both growing up and now that they meet again as adults. And so this one is largely about Victoria.

There will be deep secrets, of course. That's the point of noir. There are a lot of flashbacks - at first back to their youth, and then, toward the end of the book, in more baroque fashion.

Edison is trying to find Lily Chen, who was the old man's cleaning woman and had a very close relationship with him. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Years before, Edison's mother was also his cleaning woman, and the old man went out of his way to help her and her son...take that as you will. Lily has run away, for some reason, and Edison is trying both to find her to bring her back and to untangle why she left.

It's big and complicated, since this is a mystery story, and there will be partial, not-quite-correct explanations along the way, before we get to the end. There will be violence and danger and a lot of racism (and probably just as much sexism, which Pichetshote doesn't specifically call out but I hope he realizes). There are unbalanced people making unhinged speeches in dramatic situations, there are shoot-outs, there are chases and police cordons and people in hiding. At the end we're told Edison will be back, of course.

I personally think it might be a bit too overstuffed, with one too many shocking reversals and a large cast that I lost my way in several times. But every page is fun and exciting and every line of dialogue is true, and it's a hell of a ride the whole way. And, if you're not careful, you just might learn something.

[1] Note that the first time I thought he grew up in SF, but this book makes it clear that the Carroway family lived in Hawaii when Edison was young, and that Edison specifically did not move with them to SF in his early teens rather than moving away at that age. I'm willing to take that as my mistake, not the book changing its mind a few issues in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris, Jr.

Ambrose Bierce was an opinionated man: he spent his life mostly as a journalist in a time and place (San Francisco, mostly, in the latter third of the 19th century) where that job meant "having very strong opinions, in public, and occasionally backing them up with a pistol when people came to the newspaper office to complain." He was also one of the best American short-story writers of the 19th century and the first important writer to have both directly participated in a major war (the American Civil War, for him) and then write about it in a modern way.

But what most people know about him, if they know anything, is either the way he died - he disappeared at the age of seventy-one in 1913, after loudly and repeatedly proclaiming that he was going to witness and/or join the revolution in Mexico, and that no one should be surprised if he got shot dead while there [1] - or for his book of definitions, The Devil's Dictionary.

I thought I'd read Devil's Dictionary sometime this century, but I guess not: I haven't posted about it here. I did read a posthumous collection of Bierce's essays (probably adapted from his journalism) over a decade ago, and I can also point you to some things I said about Bierce while covering Carlos Fuentes's The Old Gringo. The biggest thing I wrote about Bierce was my college thesis, equally about him, Poe and Lovecraft, but that's not available online and I doubt I would want to link to it even if I could. But I am a Biercian, at least in a minor way, and I'd wanted to read this book, the current standard biography, for quite some time.

And so I did: only twenty-five years late, I got to Roy Morris Jr.'s Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, a compact but complete life of the writer published by Oxford in 1995. It was published a few years too late to influence my thesis - I think I read the Carey McWilliams bio from the '20s back then, but I was mostly focusing on primary sources - but I've had this copy on my shelves for a while (maybe even before the 2011 flood?) and I feel like I was looking for it for a while before I found it.

But now I come to google myself - which always makes me feel slightly dirty - and I see that I've noted this book once here already, in passing, and that was because I actually read it in 1996, soon after publication. So much for memory.

In any case, Bierce is not a major writer. But he's interesting and specific and led a life with things worth writing about, and then wrote things still worth reading more than a century later. Only a few people can be major; a lot of minor things can still be important and useful. Morris keeps his book under three hundred pages, before the critical apparatus, but he hits all the high points and generally make it all flow well. (In nearly every biography, there are points, usually late in the book, where the reader is dozing along and suddenly realizes a decade has passed since the top of a page - lives are often like that.)

Bierce's childhood was on an Ohio farm in the 1840s and '50s; we know almost nothing about it, as we know almost nothing about anyone's childhood that far back. So Morris covers youth pretty quickly and then dives into the Civil War, where is where Bierce's story properly starts. And I gather Morris is largely a historian of the War, which gives him a facility for writing about the battles and movements and putting Bierce's activities into proper context.

After the war, Bierce had a few oddball jobs, military and government and not, and then found himself in San Francisco in need of something new to do. He started editing a paper, and it stuck: that was the work of the rest of his adult life, with occasional breaks as he tried (and generally failed) to do other things.

Along the way, he had a private life that he seems to have screwed up by being exactly who he was and never being willing to change or bend a hair: two sons died young, and his wife was estranged long before they actually parted. (Though anyone who ever read anything Bierce wrote on the subject of marriage would not be surprised by that.)

Morris has a fine sense of the period and milieu: he's telling Bierce's story, but telling it in context, so he can talk about other battles in the war and other journalists in San Francisco to set the scene for the particular things Bierce did. I don't know if this is the best biography of Bierce, but it's a very good one, still pretty modern, and it's particularly good at describing clearly what he did, without mythologizing, particularly when it comes to that famous end. I'm happy to have read it again, even if I had forgotten that I read it before.

[1] Morris devotes extensive page-space to those very, very obvious statements, and I tend to agree with his conclusions. Bierce was obviously protesting too much. Whether it was pure myth-making or laying a deliberate false trail, I can't say a century later, but Morris lays out the facts, and they don't line up at all with any of the more famous assumptions. However Bierce died, I'm 99% sure it wasn't "shot as a gringo in Mexico." It most likely wasn't in Mexico at all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Ghost Tree by Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane

Brandt made a promise to his grandfather, when he was just a kid: come back to visit, ten years after "Oiji-Chan" dies, under a particular tree.

When you're a kid, you agree to a lot of things like that. Adults say that something is really important, and you say "OK." Maybe it is important, maybe you actually remember it decades later - maybe a lot of maybes.

Brandt did remember. Probably because it was a good excuse to run away; his marriage with Alice is crumbling, now that he's in his early thirties, and the anniversary of his grandfather's death is as good a reason as any to head back to the rural Japanese landscape where he grew up.

Ghost Tree is about what he finds there. As the title implies, it's not just a tree - this is a book in which there are real ghosts, and some people can talk to them and interact with them. Brandt's grandfather is one, but there are a lot more - that tree is a place where they gather, and ghosts, as we all know, are unquiet spirits who have something left unfinished.

Brandt isn't fazed by the supernatural; maybe he'd suspected, or maybe this is just the kind of thing he always was hoping would erupt into his life. He's happy to talk to his grandfather, happy to talk to various ghosts and try to help them work out their problems.

But his grandfather isn't sure, now, if this was a good idea. He now thinks he wasted his own life with ghosts - neglected his wife, Brandt's grandmother, who is still there in their old house, now quietly taking Brandt to task for the same flaws her late husband had - and he's worried that Brandt will do exactly the same thing, will give up the world of the living for the simpler world of the dead.

Brandt has other things drawing him to that world: not just his breaking marriage behind him, but the ghost of Arami, his teenage girlfriend, the one who got away, who died not long after he left her and Japan so many years ago. The past is always tempting, especially when it hasn't changed. Even when it's a ghost you can't touch.

There are other elements of this collection of ghosts, other issues and problems and creatures. But that's the core of it: the question of how much energy and time to give to the past and the dead, and how much to give to the living and the future.

Brandt has to make that decision, in the end. Arami has to make a different kind of decision, because this is a cosmology where ghosts aren't trapped, aren't lesser or echoes - just people, later on, in a different way.

Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane (words and art, respectively - colors are by Ian Herring with Becka Kinzie and letters by Chris Mowry) tell this story well, in a mostly quiet mode. Gane gives the world a lushness and depth, and Herrings's mostly subtle colors add to that depth. Curnow's dialogue is real and his people realistic, and he doesn't turn any of his endings facile or obvious. There are a number of excellent moments near the end, in particular: a panel that pays off the "usually one a generation" talk earlier, and a stronger ending to the Brandt-Alice story than I expected.

This is a fine graphic novel: as it says, about "love, loss, and how the past never truly stays dead."

Monday, November 21, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of November 19, 2022

I'm listing three books this week, and holding three more to list next week, so to keep all of us from collapsing from raw enthusiasm. (Or perhaps some other reason, less ridiculous.) All these books came from the library, and this time I actually walked in the door and wandered around the shelves, like in the Before Times. I even did it in the library in the Larger Town Next Door, which is both the town where I grew up and the library where my sons and I would often go to get random books on a Saturday afternoon when they were smaller and needed closer watching.

So: here's what I found.

Stranger Planet is, I think, the second collection of Nathan W. Pyle's "Strange Planet" comics. You've seen them by now: Pyle's characters are blue-skinned, big-headed aliens doing absolutely normal human things but describing them in convoluted language. It's a one-joke premise - humans are weird and do weird things - but it's a durable one, and Pyle gets a lot of mileage out of it. I've seen these strips online a lot, but they don't seem to have an online home; my guess is that Pyle posted them on social media first, used that to get a book deal, but the books are the core format of the comic, as in Olden Days.

The Incredible Nellie Bly is a nonfiction graphic novel - no points to guess its subject - by Luciana Cimino and Sergio Algozzino. As the creators' names imply, this was originally published in Italian (in Italy, because they're both Italian themselves, I mean; that's the point) in 2019 and translated into Nellie Bly's native language two years later. I've had this vaguely on my I-should-read-it list for a couple of years, so seeing it on a shelf meant it had to come away with me. I gather it's mostly a biography of the subject, but veers a bit to tell a wider story about women and journalism as well.

Ex Libris is some manner of graphic novel by Matt Madden, in a large format. The back-cover copy is aggressively post-modern, in the "you are reading the blurb of a book!" mode, and that's one of the kinds of obvious reader manipulation that I do like. I don't know much more about it than that, but I've seen Madden's translations and editing work in comics before, even if I don't think I've read any books he directly made yet.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Quote of the Week: Expectations

It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a "house blessing" which hung in a hallway of her house in West Hartford, Connecticut.

God bless the corners of this house,

And be the lintel blest--

And bless the hearth and bless the board

And bless each place of rest--

And bless the crystal windowpane that lets the starlight in

And bless each door that opens wide, to stranger as to kin.

This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of "ironic" detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found.

 - Joan Didion, "The White Album," in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, p.190

Friday, November 18, 2022

Unshelved: Library Mascot Cage Match by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum

Some comic strips are vastly more likely to be posted in specific places than others. Even decades later, Far Sides cling proudly to doors in various STEM-related departments in universities throughout the nation. Dilbert - probably mostly older ones, if we're honest - lives on fabric-covered cube walls, most often in a position where the worker can see it and passing supervisors can not.

And Unshelved is going to be posted in the sorting rooms and other "backstage" spaces of a library - I'm pretty sure of it. The strip itself ended a few years back after running for roughly the first fifteen years of this century, but that's no impediment: I expect a lot of them were printed out and taped up in the early days, and are still making new appearances, here and there.

I am not a librarian, and my days of regularly dealing with the wild consumer were decades ago. (I was a cashier, and then a supervisor of cashiers, for a Bradlees store starting my senior year of high school. I'm never going back, but I'm glad I had that experience, and it made me think everyone should work a year or two in retail or foodservice, at least once in their lives.) But I like librarians, and I think I have enough library-adjacent experience (library patron, editor, book blogger, book-award judge, retail drone) to comment meaningfully.

And, hey, it's a comic strip that's pretty funny. That was an inducement, too. (I did read the first collection some years ago - this is probably the second, or maybe third, but it doesn't make that clear anywhere.)

So I got Library Mascot Death Match, a random Unshelved book that's the only one available in my library system. (Proof once again that librarians are the opposite of self-indulgent.) It was published in 2005, so it depicts a library that is somewhat technologically out of date - more so, I mean, even than a library today would be, since local taxpayers are not well-known for showering money on libraries to continually upgrade to the shiniest of new tech. But I think the people and concerns and issues are probably still pretty similar, though I wonder if streaming has blown a hole in libraries' role in loaning out various video formats.

The main character is a young slacker named Dewey; given the time-frame, I suspect he was originally meant to be part of my generation, but he may read as a Millennial these days. (there's always a new "those slacker kids," and there always will be). As with any workplace comedy, there is a fair-sized cast around him, and my one complaint about this book is that they are not introduced well - a comic with a big cast needs a page (web or text) to say who the people are and what their deal is.

Dewey and his co-workers deal with the public, argue about their coffee orders and other workplace food issues, and spat with teachers about whose job it is to keep kids occupied at different times of year. There's also a long comics-page-format story in the middle, in which a massively overfunded bookmobile (I think it's supposed to be a metaphor for Amazon, but it comes across as "some other level of government has a lot more funding than we do," which is weird) has to be defeated to save their local library.

It's all a little bit quaint (2005, remember) and a little bit specific (library) but more than a little bit funny. You do not need to be a librarian to find Unshelved funny; I will attest to that. And it's still being re-run online, so you can read it in the wild, as it was meant to be read, without finding this book or spending any money whatsoever.

And that's very appropriate for a strip about a library, isn't it?

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Grande Odalisque by Vives, Ruppert + Mulot

This stylish thriller of a graphic novel (or bande dessinee) was made by three people: Bastien Vives, Florent Ruppert, and Jerome Mulot. The title of this post is styled as they are credited on the book: Vives / Ruppert + Mulot. All three are writer/artists. Ruppert and Mulot are a team who typically work together on all aspects of a story. I have no idea how they broke this down: if it were an American comic, that order would imply Vives was the writer and the other two the art team, but French credits often work in the reverse fashion.

So: the three of them did this, in some combination. If we can see a movie without worrying about what, exactly, a Director of Photography does, I think we can bring a similar equanimity to The Grand Odalisque, which is very much like a big-budget classy thriller movie on the page.

It's a large-format album, appropriate for the style and the substance. I found the dialogue lettered just a bit too small and too lightly; take that into account, particularly if you intend to read this digitally.

It is a thriller, which means a lot of things: our heroines are amazingly competent, stunningly gorgeous, and massively flawed; the world is full of dangers, but not fatal ones; and hitting someone on the head or shooting them with a tranquillizer dart is a foolproof, immediate way of making that person go unconscious for exactly as long as you require, with no ill effects. Any readers who want more realism need to go elsewhere: this is Mission: Impossible-style action on the comics page.

Carole and Alex are high-level art thieves; we see them steal Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe from the Musee D'Orsay in the opening pages of the book. They squabble like an old married couple, and have been doing this for about a decade, even though they're both still quite young - Carole is a few years older, but I don't think she's hit 30 yet. Again, in a realistic world they would be killed or captured very quickly; this is not in any way a realistic world.

They are gorgeous, they are stylish, they are the best at what they do. But they can't do the next job alone - getting Ingres' La Grande Odalisque out of the Louvre. So first they enlist an arms dealer to get them guns, and then a getaway driver, Sam, who becomes the third woman of their team - presumably going forward, since there's already a second book.

After some minor complications - their arms dealer is captured by Mexican bandits, and to my surprise the solution isn't "he's already dead" (again: this is not a realistic story) but "let's go, in bikinis, to slaughter the drug-lord and half-heartedly take over his operations" - it's finally time for the big caper, which is as widescreen and cinematic as could be hoped, with exciting motorcycle chases and automatic-weapons fire and both helicopters and ultralight aircraft.

And if, in the end, the reader thinks "there's no possibly way they could escape, in public, in the middle of Paris, with that level of police attention," well, what I have I sad three times already? You are not meant to take The Grand Odalisque seriously. But, if you take it on its level, with all of its tropes and assumptions, it is a lot of fun. If you read it, I recommend making every effort not to engage the critical side of your brain; it will be no help.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise by Gary Panter

This book is all about the art rather than the story. As usual with books like that, I'm not going to be a lot of help here: I can look at things like that, but I don't have the art background or vocabulary to describe or explicate it well. So I may be quick and desultory today; I apologize if so.

Also, I should give a consumer warning. Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise has a 2021 copyright date for this New York Review Comics edition, which indeed came out last year. And the 1988 Adventures in Paradise book has been out of print so long that it would be easy to forget about it. But this is that old book: the only new things here are the cover, the foreword by Ed Ruscha, and a potted life story of creator Gary Panter in the afterword by Nicole Rudick. The comics and the art are exactly the same as the 1988 version: if you have or had or read that book, you know exactly what's in here.

So this book collects pages from 1978 through 1988, collected and assembled in 1988 and put into what I will somewhat shakily call a coherent form at that point. From the Rudick afterword, it seems that most of the few story beats that are here were introduced for the 1988 collection; Jimbo was a collection of scattered moments before that. (And mostly still is, even afterward.)

Jimbo is the central character of these pages, a punk in some dystopic future - again, the Rudick afterword explains that "Dal-Tokyo" is a city on Mars a hundred years or more in the future, which Panter has used in multiple stories over the years , but the book doesn't explain or define that. It's just a name, for this place in which random things happen. Jimbo is a big, beefy guy, but he's not a warrior or anything like that - just a regular dude, trying to get by, to get a burger in an automated restaurant or go to a punk show or find a girlfriend. (Or defuse an atom bomb, towards the end, but he's no good at that, anyway.)

As I said, the pages are arranged in a sequence, but they're mostly disjoint. It's easy to tell, especially in the first half, where each installment begins and ends - there are some longer sequences (most of the better work, actually) but there's also a lot of single or two-page ideas. Panter uses wildly different art styles, often on the same page, and the early part of the book has a weird repetitive effect where the first pages of a "story" are the crudest, the most "punk," and he amps up the finish as the story goes on, usually because Jimbo is moving from his natural place into automated and mechanized spaces.

Again: stuff happens. But it doesn't mean much, and it doesn't connect. Eventually, Jimbo gets a friend, and a girlfriend (the friend's sister), and then the latter gets kidnapped, and...then there's an extended sequence of Jimbo pretending to be an "Indian" somewhere out on the Plains until he stops and gets back to what I might as well call the plot. And there's nuclear terrorism, because it was the early '80s, and the threat of nuclear death was what every creator had lurking in the back of his head. Panter ends with a long sequence that could only be described by someone with better art-describing chops than I have; there's a lot of pages with striking pictures overlaid on top of each other, aiming at an apocalyptic effect. I mostly just wanted to get through it.

I don't remember my reaction to Jimbo the first time around; I was a college student, and I don't think I expected to like everything, anyway. I had enough lurking respect or fondness in the back of my head to come back almost thirty-five years later, if that means anything.

I will say the first page of this collection - I include someone else's old scan here - is iconic, and one of the greatest expressions of late 20th century uneasiness that have ever been put to paper. There are other moments here that may strike you as strongly, too. Panter is a deep and thoughtful artist; he's just not making the kind of art that forms "stories" and "sense" and "coherent narrative."

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Ralph Azham, Vol. 1: Black Are the Stars by Lewis Trondheim

Ralph Azham does not live in the same world as Dungeon. We're pretty clear on that; this is not Terra Amata. But it's the same kind of world: whatever Joann Sfar brings to the mix for Dungeon, that style of fantasy seems to be the way Lewis Trondheim operates. (There are some lesser similarities to his "McConey" books, too.)

So: we have a central smartass in a big, complicated world, full of anthropomorphic people who plot and scheme, with magic that really works and can do world-changing things but has very specific rules that need to be learned by trial and error. We have authorities who are corrupt or outright evil or just low-key incompetent - this is no surprise, since everyone is out for themselves, pretty much all the time.

Ralph Azham is our central character: another vaguely duck-like hero, like Herbert in Dungeon Zenith. He grew up in an isolated, unnamed mountain village out in the wilds of the kingdom of Astolia, the son of an engineer, Bastien, who moved there to help the locals prepare for a potential attack by the Horde of Vom Syrus. (We don't know a lot about the Horde or its leader: they're clearly real, and have been rampaging around the outskirts of this kingdom for decades, but we don't know who Syrus is or what his goals are. I have a very strong suspicion at the end of this book, though.)

In this world, some children turn blue on the night of a double moon - this is a sign they have a magical power, and are Chosen Ones, or potential Chosen Ones. In Astolia, Couriers take those children off to the capital, but they don't generally seem to come back.

Ralph is blue. He can tell, infallibly, how many children someone has had. It seems to also include knowing who else was involved in the creation of those children, even if they were never born. And a Trondheim smartass can get himself in a lot of trouble, especially in a small village, knowing who knocked up who, who had a quiet abortion, who had older siblings that are now dead, and so on.

Ralph was taken by a Courier. He came back, a failed Chosen One - so he thinks. Since then, he's become the village scapegoat and annoyance - he hasn't helped this at all, to be honest, but he's not treated well at all. The truth about Chosen Ones, though, is much worse, for a lot of people.

Ralph Azham: Black Are the Stars collects the first three album-length books of the series. There have been twelve books in French, published between 2011 and 2020, and, as far as I can tell, that's the complete story: this is not something open-ended like Dungeon. The first book, Why Would You Lie to Someone You Love?, was published in a slightly altered form by Fantagraphics in 2014, but this volume is the first time the rest of the series has been translated into English. Three more English omnibuses are already scheduled, through next March: if all goes well, the whole series will be published within a year. (But the lesson of every Trondheim comic is: things never go well.)

What I've just told you covers roughly the first half of the first book. From there, the Horde does come, and violence ensues, as always in a book like this. Obviously, Ralph will leave his village to see the wider world. He will meet other Chosen Ones, and learn what happens to Chosen Ones. There will be magical items with very specific uses that are deployed in inventive and surprising ways. Ralph will learn that he has another, larger power, and two other people from his village - a kid, Raoul, and Claire, who is Ralph's age - will also turn blue and travel the path of the Chosen One. There will be powerful people who are not who they seem, or who are corrupt and scheming, or both at once. There will be antagonists who are very hard to kill, and ordinary people who are far too quick to die.

The story is about Ralph's family, maybe. Or about what it means to be a Chosen One. Or the usual overthrowing-the-corrupt story of epic fantasy. Or maybe just surviving in a dangerous world full of people with weapons and magic. This is only a quarter of the way through: it would be premature to say what the whole thing means at this point.

But it's prime Trondheim: smart fantasy adventure with a sharp edge, pitched only slightly less cruel than Dungeon, accessible to smarter, slightly older kids but with depths only adults will recognize. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of it.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of November 12, 2001

Can I admit that I'm doing most of my posts well in advance these days? (I mean, I think that's clear for the book-review posts, but maybe not for things like this.) I like to be prepared; I don't like things sneaking up on me, so I prefer to get things done early. That has nothing to do with what I'm about to type, but I guess I'm feeling confessional this morning.

The RNG gave me 2001, and my old reading notebook shows I was very active that week - looks like I was in one of my intermittent read-a-GN-a-day binges to reduce the size of the stack of books on the printer - so I'll see what I remember about this stuff:

Eddie Campbell, Alex: Three Piece Suit (11/6)

I should probably just point you at my 2011 post about the giant omnibus of (nearly) the whole series of Alex stories, "The Years Have Pants." This book collects a chunk of that work; I think the second batch of stories? Anyway, it's an outdated version at this point; look for the big book.

Scott Adams, When Did Ignorance Become a Point of View? (11/7)

I could say something rude about Adams following up on that title, but he was never ignorant. Nutty, misinformed, utterly wrong-headed, stuck deeply inside a bizarre news bubble, yes, but he always knew stuff. It was mostly false stuff, agreed, but calling that ignorance would be a misuse of the word.

Millennials probably disbelieve Dilbert was ever less than tendentious and horrible, but, for almost a decade, it was really good, and electric in the ways it could crystalize the ways people worked and talked in offices. This is about the point when that started to falter, in retrospect: Adams had been out of a cube for several years, and his correspondents started to tend to the techy and the opinionated. Sin transit gloria mundi.

Lawrence Block, Hope to Die (11/8)

Block is one of my favorite writers, and this is a book in probably his best series: the mysteries about Matt Scudder. But I'm not going to be able to tell you anything about the plot twenty years later. I recommend the series, but don't start here. Start at the beginning, or maybe at When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the best book. You might get here, if you have the time and inclination: this is #15 of 17.

Michael Dowers, editor, The Tijuana Bibles, Vol. 2 (11/8)

You know what these are, right? Pornographic comics using then-popular characters, created in the early to mid 20th century, sold very much under the counter since they were doubly illegal. There was a big hardcover collection of them around that time, with an actual scholarly apparatus, and a series of paperback collections as well. This is part of the latter; I followed both of those for all of the obvious reasons (quirky comics history, prurient interest, wacky stuff, often surprisingly good art). No idea if this one has Moon Mullins or Popeye or Jiggs in it at this late date; they're all pretty much the same thing.

Richard Stark, The Mourner (11/9)

This was a random book in the Parker series; I later took a month and read through all of them. So let me point you to my later post on this same book and to my introductory post on that blog series.

Andi Watson, Skeleton Key, Vol. 4: Cats & Dogs (11/9)

This may have been new at the time, but I've since gone back and did a re-read of the whole Skeleton Key series. So let me point you there for anything coherent I have to say about that excellent comics series.

"divers hands," Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Volume One (11/10)

This was definitely a comics series based on Ellison stories - kind of a nutty idea, frankly, even at the time - and I think, from my weird editor-credit, that it wasn't clearly assembled or managed by anyone, to keep H*A*R*L*A*N at the center of all the publicity and hype, as he always insisted. I have no idea who the artists were, or what Ellison stories they adapted, and, at this late date, I don't actually care. My copy of this was destroyed in my 2011 flood, and it's now super-expensive, so I don't think I will ever read it again.

Various Artists, Expo 2001 (11/11)

What on earth is this? Let's see if google is any help, but that's a very vague title.

OK, so the Comics Legal Defense Fund seems to have done a benefit anthology for a few years, associated with and published at the time of the Small Press Expo of Bethesda, MD. This was that book for 2001.

On the positive side, it's clearly a worthy cause. But the first-credited person is editor Charles Brownstein, and I'm not going to try to explain anything to do with that. I have no memory of this, though the cover is vaguely familiar, and it would be difficult to find today if you wanted it.

David Clement-Davies, The Sight (11/12)

OK, this is going to sound crazy, but I'm going to guess before I look. I think this is a fantasy novel (maybe YA?) about a deer or elk, something like that, set in the UK though I think in some long-ago historical period. If it's the book I'm thinking of, I liked it, and remember it vaguely two decades later.

But I'll check: Oh, so close! Fire Bringer, Clement-Davies' first book, was the one about the deer (Red Deer, 13th century Scotland, mostly YA, check). This one was his follow-up; it was about wolves in the Carpathians. 

And it looks like Clement-Davies has continued to write dark animal fantasies for younger readers: he's got another three or four since these two. I like quirky writing niches, especially when I enjoyed at least one of the books, so good for him.

Chip Kidd, Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz (11/12)

I feel like I've picked on this book a lot here, even though I read it well before the blog existed. Kidd is a fine cover designer, but when he edits books of comics and cartoon art, he always presents the images as aged and battered artifacts instead of trying to present the artwork cleanly and clearly. To my mind, it's the take of a nostalgist: what's interesting is that this thing is old and worn, full of memories and related to moments in the past, rather than something specific and vital and valuable by itself.

I disagree entirely with that stance: it's distancing and prioritizes the Boomer viewpoint over every other potential opinion. So I've complained loudly whenever I see Kidd doing it. (See my post on a book about Jack Cole that Kidd did with art spiegelman for an example.)

So it's unfortunate that this is the standard Schulz art-book for this generation; it's more Kidd than Schulz. But, it's been almost another generation now, so maybe someone else will edit a book of Schulz's art - which is tight and precise, and has been a model and inspiration for hundreds of other cartoonists - and focus it on the work rather than his own memories.

That's what I was reading "this" week twenty years ago; how has time be treating you?

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Quote of the Week: Like Clovis

A little later incense drifts hazily in the closed air of the narrow room., They are sitting on the floor, on the flat mattress that is the room's only furniture -- Kanacheta is sitting, that is. The cadet lies with her head in his lap, and his long fingers explore the planes of her face. She wiggles. She does not like to be touched, which is to say that she is finding his touch to be very soothing and calm and she does not want to be soothing and calm, not tonight. Also, she does not like to be touched.

 - Ysabeau S. Wilce, "Lovelocks," in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams, pp.151

Friday, November 11, 2022

Prophecies, Libels & Dreams by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Writing careers are quirky, sometimes fragile things. They depend on so much that's invisible: opportunity, time, inspiration, support...publishing contracts, sales figures. We never know from the outside the reasons why a career takes a particular shape, why a writer disappears for years or forever. But we do know that careers are contingent, that ideas are not endless, that stories are hard to make in the first place.

Ysabeau S. Wilce is a quirky, deeply specific writer - or, at least, the vast bulk of her work to date is all in one fictional world, and that is quirky and deeply specific. Califa is a city-state roughly where San Francisco is in our world, and the stories Wilce tells about it are set in what are probably our 18th and 19th centuries, but this is not our world at all. She never gives any serious historical background, but, from names and other random details, I suspect this is a North America thinly settled by Vikings, possibly with a major Dutch or English polity on the east coast but not one that ever embraced Manifest Destiny. The Spanish did penetrate further south, but perhaps did not conquer as they did in our world; the major power, covering what I think is roughly Mexico at its largest extent, is the Huitzil Empire, which appears to be as much Aztec as Spanish. North American native tribes aren't mentioned by name, so they may have suffered a similar fate to our world - or may have their own nations, mostly in the center of the continent on the Plains.

She set a trilogy of YA fantasy novels in that world - Flora Segunda, Flora's Dare, and Flora's Fury. I see, looking back, that I claimed not to like the first one all that much but came back for the second book a year later and was much more positive. (I may have still been in SFBC mode, which was much more focused on negative criticism: every book has things wrong with it, and if you need to sell it, you have to be as clear-eyed as possible.)

Two years after that third book, a small book of stories appeared: Prophecies, Libels & Dreams. Since then, if the ISFDB can be trusted, there's been three other stories, the last in 2018. That's disappointing: Wilce had a great voice and a powerful imagination and could write like a demented angel, as several of these stories show. (The novels, as first-person narratives for teens, were a bit more sedate and straightforward.) I have no idea how old she is - details are scarce, probably on purpose - but I do hope she'll eventually return with more books or stories.

Prophecies says that all of its seven tales are "Stories of Califa," and includes Afterwords to each story, in-character as a stuffy Califa academic of the modern day, sniffing about how wrong and ridiculous each story is. This is not quite true, but it's close enough for fiction - I'll get to that later. More seriously, the stories seem to be organized in internal chronological order, which means it starts strong and focused but gets vaguer towards the end - that's unfortunate, but a book of stories is always going to be various anyway.

And so let me run through those stories - there are few enough of them that I feel obligated.

"The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror!"

Wilce has a lot of fun with this one, telling a pseudo-folktale about the childhood of a famous criminal in her fictional world - Springheel Jack, who is not unknown in our world as well - and in particular how he got his famous boots.

Very deliberately mannered writing, but that's entirely fine for the matter, and works for the length. It also prepares us for the rest of the book, where Wilce uses a similar style several more times, particularly for the Hardhands/Tiny Doom stories.

"Quartermaster Returns"

I see I read this, way back when, in Eclipse One; it may have been my first Wilce. This is something of a tall-tale as well, this time about a small Army detachment far out in the desert, focused on the resurrected person of the title and a drinking contest he takes part in. (Wilce, I've read, is or was a military historian, and that comes out in a number of her stories.)

Here may be an appropriate point to mention that Wilce's military world is entirely gender-mixed and uniforms (maybe just dress uniforms?) seem to include skirts for everyone. She's also fond of referring to people by title before gender-identifying them: I say this to warn those who have certain rigid expectations.

"Metal More Attractive"

Now we get into the core of the book - the first of several stories about the younger lives of Hardhands and Tiny Doom, very important people in the family of Flora Fyrdraca (narrator of the novels).

In this one, Hardhands is fifteen, in a secret relationship, and tempted to murder his grandmother, the then-Warlady (ruler of Califa). I suspect it is more meaningful if you've read the novels recently, but it's a strong story with a great sting in the end.

"The Lineaments of Gratified Desire"

Oh, wait - this is probably the first Wilce story I read, since Jonathan Strahan picked it for his Best Short Novels 2007, and I was the inside editor for that.

This takes place about a year after the previous story - Hardhands is about sixteen, and Tiny Doom a small child rather than a toddler. It's the longest story in the book, a novella about the Halloween equivalent in this world, when the walls between the Waking World and Elsewhere are so thin as to be nearly nonexistent, and a certain small child goes missing and needs to be retrieved before those forces do something irrevocable. 


The last of the Flora prequel cluster, with a now-grown-up Tiny Doom facing an ordeal to become a full member of an elite Califa military force. Except: she doesn't entirely want to be part of that force, and there are other things she wants to do with the freedom the ordeal gives her. It's also set on a day of revelry; Califa sure seems to have a lot of them.

"Hand in Glove"

Maybe a century later, a young female police detective thinks a renowned and flashy male counterpart has solved a murder by finding entirely the wrong culprit, and intends to use new kinds of forensic science to find the real murderer. She does, but it's a lot more mad-science-y than I expected; this story is arguably in a different genre than the ones before it. (They're all pseudo-historical fantasy, this is something closer to steampunk.)

"Scaring the Shavetail"

This is a supernatural story about a chupacabra, told by a Civil War veteran sergeant,. set in the Arizona Territory probably sometime in the late 1870s. (Custer is referenced, and I think he's dead before this story takes place.) It's also a shaggy dog story with a groaner of a punch line, so it's doubly an odd choice to end the book with: not a Califa story, and not a particularly strong ending.

So my guess is that Prophecies was everything short Wilce had published at that point - there seems to have been one 2013 collaboration with Ellen Kushner as well, which may have been in production as this book was assembled. It's a slim book, but it's got four absolutely fizzing stories, two pretty good ones, and the only mildly disappointing "Shavetail." That's a great batting average, and, again, I hope this isn't the last we hear from Wilce.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Dionysos: The New God by George O'Connor

I'll start off with a hat tip: I knew this book existed, and immediately sought out a copy, because of an interview with the author at The Comics Journal. I always like that their definition of "comics" includes all of the worlds of comics, and that they're as serious about middle-grade mythology as poor-me autobio. That interview may be a good starting point for anyone who's not familiar with O'Connor, actually.

George O'Connor has been working on a series of graphic novels about the Greek Gods - deeply researched, vividly written, drawn album-size in an energetic style with a lot of '80s superhero art in its DNA - for more than a decade now. The series is called Olympians, and it's now complete at twelve books with the publication earlier this year of Dionysos: The New God.

(I've covered all of them here: Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Ares/Apollo/Artemis, Hermes, Hephaistos.)

They've all come out from First Second, in a unified trade dress, and my impression is that they were not officially published for younger readers - the copyright page doesn't have the age-level details and content coding that end of publishing requires - but First Second is a major publisher of GNs for younger readers and is well plugged into the selling channels for younger readers and this series was, as far as I can tell, mostly promoted in that direction. So maybe a bit of an asterisk on the "is this made for middle-graders?" question - it's a No But Yes.

This one is narrated by Hestia, the one of the original twelve Olympians who didn't get her own book - possibly because very few stories actually about her survived (or were ever told?), possibly because she's less interesting to modern audiences. That is appropriate for a story reason that was spoiled by myths several thousand years ago, but if you don't know, I'll let you learn it in the ending pages of this book.

As with the other books in the series, O'Connor weaves a group of somewhat discrete myths and folktales together into one narrative, to tell the main story of his central character's life. It all has to be vaguely appropriate for those middle-schoolers, so O'Connor elides some of the activities of Dionysos and his Bacchantes (I don't think he actually uses that word, actually, probably because it's of Roman origin), but adults can generally read between the lines. There's wine, there's revelry, and there's blood - it's just the sexual end of the revels that has to be implied.

Dionysos is always one of the more fun gods, up there with Hermes. (I'm sure Eddie Campbell would agree with me there.) So these are exciting stories, even with the sex parts mostly elided over, and Dionysos, as he must be, is riveting throughout. It is a fine way to end a fine series, and I'm happy to learn (from that interview I mentioned up top) that O'Connor will next do a four-book series on Norse mythology but has hopes to come back to the Greek world for more books about Titans or heroes or others. (Hey, how about a series about sons of Zeus?)

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Batman/The Maxx: Arkham Dreams

I pick on crossovers a lot here. And on superheroes, too. Usually because they're obvious and tired and dull.

But they don't have to be any of those things. They can be random and quirky and utterly weird.

That's better, I suppose. And if there's an auteur theory of superhero comics, Sam Kieth should be high in the pantheon: he seems to do pretty much what he wants, chasing his own muse or id wherever it leads.

But boy howdy is Batman/The Maxx: Arkham Dreams an oddball thing.

It is entirely written and drawn by Kieth, with colors by Ronda Pattison and letters by Shawn Lee. His editor was Scott Dunbier of IDW, which implies there was no one from DC Comics closely connected to ensure tormented billionaire Boo Swain stayed on-model, but I'm sure there was serious kibitzing from multiple DC functionaries, the kind of people we used to call "suits" but now probably live in Southern California loungewear.

The Maxx is Kieth's creation, a big hulking guy in a purple suit with a massive overbite who is both a borderline-crazy homeless man and the protector of an otherworldly Outback belonging to a young female social worker who intermittently tries to help him. (The theory of mental illness and the homeless embodied here was formed when the series started in the very early '90s; it is at least very, very stylized and romanticized.) I don't remember if the original series made it clear that everyone has a different Outback - my sense was that it was a Jungian collective unconscious in those days, but it was twenty-five-plus years ago - but that is very much the case now.

Anyway, as the title implies, The Maxx ends up in Arkham after being a clearly crazy person in public in front of Batman. This is the kind of crossover where suddenly everyone is in the same world, and suddenly they won't be as soon as the crossover is over. There is a doctor at Arkham who at first we think may only be mildly crazy, and he Does Experiments, and everything spins out from that. Batman's dialogue is mostly along the "is that really wise, doctor?" line early on, but he eventually gets more to do.

Because of said mad doctor and because this is a Maxx book, Bats and Maxxy drop in and out of what are probably multiple different Outbacks, and the assumption here is that each one of them belongs to someone. And the first one is particularly damaged and unhealthy, which they - well, Maxxy, but maybe Bats, too, what the hell - want to fix. In fact, the plot of this series - inasmuch as it has a plot, which it only does intermittently - is all about "who's Outback is this, and how do we heal it?" Well, The Maxx wants to heal it. Batman mostly wants to hit something with a bat-branded violence device and then Detect it all into neat little boxes, since that's how he deals with everything.

Other Arkham inmates do get dragged into the story - yes, especially the thin chap with the green hair, can't forget him - but it's all shaggy-doggier than you would expect, with scenes blinking back and forth between the two worlds following no obvious narrative cadence or story triggers.

(Also, Kieth draws Bats almost like a parody of Bernie Wrightson, which I found distracting.)

The Maxx's main villain Mr. Gone is in this, and is basically the main villain here. But he mostly lurks around the edges of the narrative, making speeches that don't quite bring anything into focus.

This all goes on for five issues and over a hundred pages, with a lot of gorgeous double-page spreads that are really annoying to try to read on a tablet, as I was. There is a lot of quirky dialogue. Batman has a logo on his shirt that looks like parentheses with dots widely spaced in the middle, for no reason I understand.

Kieth is still wierd. This is what I'm saying. Batman is in this, but it's nothing like a normal Batman story. I suppose it's more-or-less normal for the Maxx, since he was always this nutty. But it feels looser and more random than the classic Maxx stories. I found it pleasant, but I both didn't quite get it and didn't quite see the reason it existed. I do like having really weird things like this in the world, though. That's a massive positive.