Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Attack of the Stuff by Jim Benton

I haven't decided how far I'm going to go down the Jim Benton well. I discovered him through his gag cartoons for adults - Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. and Man, I Hate Cursive; see also GoComics for the ongoing feed - and I'm solidly on board for one-off graphic novels for middle-graders. (There are days I feel like a middle-grader myself, still.)

But I don't know if I'm going to dive into the clear middle-grade illustrated-novel series, like "Franny K. Stein" - those seem a bit more like product, and might turn into diminishing returns for a middle-aged man pretty quickly. So far, I'm finding everything Benton does to be a hoot, and I don't want to break that streak. My aim is to check out all of the things I would find awesome, and quietly avoid the stuff that really is just for the ankle-biters.

So I liked Clyde (a standalone) a couple of months ago, and came back for Attack of the Stuff, also a standalone, right now, and thought both of them were great. But I'm looking at the rest of the Benton catalog and trying to figure out what would be next.

What I like about both Clyde and Stuff is how wacky and random they are from the jump: Benton works in weird ideas like Seurat works in paint, providing a surface that looks conventional at a glance but gets quirkier the closer you look.

Stuff is about Bill Waddler - he's the duck on the cover. This is the kind of world where everyone's an anthropomorphic something, ducks or pigs or bears or dogs or things that really aren't clear. Bill hears things talk: all kinds of things, all the time. His toilet LaToyat Toiletstein wants to be a movie star. His peanut butter and jelly complain they're allergic to each other. His clock radio complains that he snores when he sleeps. All his stuff whines and kibitzes at him all the time, and he's sick of it.

Even his job - he runs a small street-corner stand called Hey Man, where he sells hay for cash - isn't particularly rewarding. So, after a couple of bad days of filthy old guys ranting about nature and moderately-helpful orange-juice-store workers and pig customers who can't quite decide if they want hay, Bill gives up and runs off to "live in nature."

There, he is almost immediately attacked by a large number of snakes. It is not entirely clear if they are farting snakes, which he dreamed about previously.

Meanwhile, back in civilization, the Internet collapses three days later, and everything goes to chaos immediately. And the orange-juice-store guy, Kris, remembers that Bill can talk to things, and figures he might be able to talk to the Internet and find out what's wrong.

Kris finds Bill, who is no longer being attacked by snakes for reasons I will not spoil.

And of course Bill can talk to the Internet. And of course the Internet wants something - a hat.

In the end, the Internet gets a hat, Bill and Kris get a whole lot of stuff from the government for fixing the Internet, and everyone is happy.

Benton's line is loose and open, his pages flow quickly, and his dialogue is always zippy, amusing and at right angles to what the reader expects. Yes, it's all pitched at a level that will work for ten-year-olds - that might be a deal-breaker for some people - but unless that's a problem for you, Benton's cartooning is wonderfully specific, funny, and quick-moving. Hornswoggler says check it out.

Monday, October 30, 2023

This Year: 2013

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

As I said the last two weeks, 2012 is a scratch, because I had two songs for 2011.

I may have done this entire series, the whole "This Year" sequence, just to put this down in words. It's been bouncing around my head for a few years now.

Songs affect us strongly, of course - every person (I hope I speak for everyone but I probably don't) has some songs that are personal or important or special, for different reasons and in different ways. We can't choose that, mostly. It happens. It hits us.

I'm not a visual thinker. My mind works in words, or concepts. But this song - it's like there's a video for it, that I could make. I don't see it - my mind just does not work that way - but I know how it would go, I know the beats, how it lines up with the music, I know the emotions and the story.

I could probably do an AV script for it - time it out to the second. If I could draw at all, I could storyboard it. It's all that clear. And it came out of nowhere, from listening to the song.

For 2013, it has to be Heat Death Infinity Splitter by 65 Days of Static. It's an instrumental. And, in my head, it's a SF story.

(Oh, I should also say, before I completely dive down my rabbit hole, that 65dos - that's the short form of their name, all internetty - is thoroughly awesome and has a bunch of other songs equally good. Radio Protector. String Loop. Weak4. Dance Parties (Distant). Come To Me. Those last two are the only ones I know with actual lyrics, if you need that to get into a band.)

You can quit here if you want; it will run long. It is hugely self-indulgent.

No one knows what is happening
No one knows what is happening
There is a lot of danger out there, OK?

This is spoken, to open the song. From here, I'm going to tell you the story - again, it's my story, it's not official or "real" or anything. Just what came, full-formed, into my head from listening. (You may want to start the video below, as you read.)

There are two main characters: The Engineer and The Kid. The Engineer is that speaker; The Kid is, well, her kid. Ten, eleven, something like that. Boy or girl, doesn't matter. A kid, the child of an engineer, inquisitive, daring as any tween, smart.

We're on a big old spacestation, out in the depths somewhere. Lived-in, loved, full of people and life. We open with a longshot, the camera moving in and wandering around the surface as we hear The Engineer speak, as we move into the station and see her talk to The Kid. I don't think they're in person: she's talking over some speaker or comlink, already at work keeping the old hulk running when The Kid is ready to start the day.

We think The Engineer might be in charge of maintenance or systems. We see her bustling around, quickly, giving orders, looking at things, making fixes. We know this station needs a lot of attention to keep it going.

Cut to space: a ship is approaching: shiny, angular, inhuman.

Cut again: leaders of the station, assembling. Clearly nervous, some happy some apprehensive. Ready to meet the envoys. The aliens.

Interspersed: The Kid heading through the station. Purposeful, inquisitive. Going to see the big event. Snaking through crowds, going through sneaky ways. The Kid knows this station intimately: can get anywhere and see anything. Isn't going to miss this.

The music is quietly ominous as the alien ship docks. Doors open. At 1:10 the envoys start moving through the station, to that slow drumbeat.

They float. They are not humanoid at all. I see them as something like a Grant Morrison-era Doom Patrol creation: partially drapery and partially boxy, moving slowly, at a stately pace, down the corridors of the station. There is nothing human about them. There is nothing obviously organic about them.

The assembled human leaders see a feed of the envoys; they're unnerved, shuffling. But they're committed, it's going to happen. They swallow, collect themselves, whatever. They're professionals. They can do this.

The Kid is everywhere, sneaking around to see everything. Our viewpoint, our identification character. We are The Kid, in a way. We see it all through The Kid's eyes.

As the envoys move - more slowly than seems reasonable, painfully slowly, like the procession to the headsman's axe - the station is under stress. We know the envoys are doing it even if we have no idea how. Dials slowly turn into the red. Maybe steam comes from unexpected places. The Engineer and her team is working faster, keeping it all together - this is nothing new, it's what she does every day. As the song goes on, it gets harder (especially with that discordant note starting about 3:00 and getting louder thereafter, like a warning siren), but she's the best, she can do it. It's an old station; these things happen.

This all builds for what feels like far too long. Almost three minutes of the envoy's slow procession - we see them approaching the square or plaza where the human leaders wait; from our glimpses of The Kid we understand the layout of the station and the main route. Cutting from them to the human leaders, to human crowds watching from the fringes (shocked or surprised or increasingly frightened), to The Kid, to The Engineer.

Slow build. Slow burn. For three minutes.

The envoys reach the human leaders at 3:42. Everything quiets down. They stop. The camera shows us everything one more time, during that quiet, that waiting. Then, just before 3:59, the first envoy - slightly larger or shinier or boxier; clearly the leader - makes some sort of gesture. And all the dials around The Engineer crash into the red at once; everything shakes and is pushed to the limits.

The station is falling apart. It is doomed.

Mass panic: the crowds run, trample each other. The Kid is cool but clearly amazed, keeping clear of crowds, keeping an eye on the envoys, wondering what just happened and how.

The envoys turn. They don't interact with the human leaders at all. They head back to their ship, only slightly quicker than before. Maybe we see their ship leave, somewhere in the chaos.

The cuts are quicker, the action frenzied and chaotic. Everything is going to hell.

The human leaders are just as panicked as everyone else, heading to lifeboats or whatever. Trying to save themselves. We see mass panic and destruction for about forty seconds, as the music screeches the song of the destruction of this world.

The Kid reaches some kind of escape pod about 4:40. Closes the door, ejects - that cuts the volume of the music. Looks back towards the station. Sees, through some kind of window, The Engineer, in some decaying fragment or another, still at her duty station, even though it's now far too late. She is not dead yet, but she has no way out.

They share a glance. There's no way they can communicate. There's no way The Kid can save her. And, as the song ends, the fragment of the station rotates or bounces away, and The Kid sees The Engineer disappear forever.

That's the story this song gave me. Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Quote of the Week: Storm's A-Brewin'

Many of those who'd gathered at the beach scattered back to the street. The smart ones had already found someplace indoors to shelter. But others still lingered near the waves as they battered the shore. Lightning broke across the sky like cracks in an old silver mirror. The air was humming, and the earth rumbled. The violence of the storm burrowed into my bones, made me feel small. Rain kept pace with the wind, coming down in a torrent, gave the impression that everything people had built here could be broken into bits and disappeared from memory. We could all vanish tomorrow, and the ocean would continue to feed.

 - Josh Rountree, The Legend of Charlie Fish, p.119

Friday, October 27, 2023

Asterix, Vol. 1 by René Gosciny and Albert Uderzo

I'm going to try not to analyze too much here, but looking at sixty-year-old commercial properties, created for children, from another continent, can give one a lot of parallax to shove Deep Thoughts into. I do want to resist that urge. These were meant to be quick entertaining stories for a mostly young audience of French and Belgian Boomers - were they called "Baby Boomers" in Europe the same way as in North America? I realize I don't know - and I want to see them on that level, to be clear about what they're trying to do.

So maybe the way I lead off is by admitting there are a lot of silly names in Asterix, Vol. 1, the recent (2021) US omnibus of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's first three bandee dessinée of that series. Roman camps called Laudanum and Aquarium, major leaders named Vitalstatistix and Marcus Dontmesswithus, Goths named Rhetoric and Lyric and Satiric - that kind of thing.

They're amusing funny names: they work on the level they're aiming for. But a book that starts off with funny names for humor is not going to get sophisticated - it's going to be slapstick and alarums and goofy misunderstandings and a whole lot of stylized, punch-em-up, nobody-really-gets-hurt violence.

It's somewhat classier than the US version of that kind of comedy might be - I tend to think the US jumps right into stoopid humor like the Three Stooges when it descends to slapstick, and Asterix has more thing-everyone-knows-from-history jokes. Well, it would, wouldn't it?

Anyway, let me explain the set-up, for anyone unfamiliar: Asterix is the little guy on the cover. He's a Gaul, in 50 BC, living in the one small plucky village in Gaul (modern France, more or less) that was not conquered by the Romans. Roman camps circle that village; they have not given up. But the Gauls, our heroes, are smarter and sneakier and have powerful magic and are the protagonists, so they will always win. In particular, druid Panoramix makes a magic potion that gives drinkers super-strength, which Asterix (and probably others) use to beat up Roman patrols on the regular.

Gauls are plucky and have names that end with X. Romans are stern (if leaders) and vaguely cowardly and work-avoidant (if legionnaires) and have names that end with "us". There are some Goth (German) stereotypes later, and some people who seem to be Italian (I guess civilians and not from Rome itself) as well. I expect, as the series went on, we got Britons and Poles and Turks and who knows what else, with their characteristic foibles and quirky names, and that they were all always bested by our heroic Gauls.

The three books here originally appeared in French in the early 1960s, and have been translated by Joe Johnson for the 21st century in language that keeps the goofy, kid-friendly, mid-century tone of the originals. (Note my massive assumption there; I don't read French and have never seen "the originals" as such.)

First up is Asterix the Gaul, which sets it all up: small village, Romans circling, trying to find out why the Gauls have been able to hold out, that whole thing. A Roman soldier (Caligula Minus, aka Caliguliminix) infiltrates the village, learns about the potion and runs back to his centurion, Crismus Bonus. So the Romans capture Panoramix, to get the secret of the potion, but Asterix also gets himself captured and the two Gauls outwit the Romans repeatedly before finally "escaping" just as Julius Caesar himself shows up for the big ending.

Asterix and the Golden Sickle sees Asterix and his buddy Obelix (the usual giant soft-hearted guy, who has permanent super-strength from being dipped in the potion as an infant) heading to Lutetia to get Panoramix a new golden sickle from Mettallurgix. Of course it's not that simple: there are bandits and Romans and a sickle-market-control scheme, among other things. Asterix and Obelix are imprisoned multiple times, breaking out each time as soon as it's funniest. Obviously, by the end, they get the sickle they need, foil the bad guys and get Metallurgix back to his shop.

And then there's Asterix and the Goths, which also centers on Panoramix getting kidnapped, which seems like a weird thing to become a standard plot this early. He goes to the annual gathering of druids, yadda yadda yadda, and is dragged over the border by Goths who want to invade and were looking for a secret weapon to help them do that. Asterix and Obelix give chase, getting tangled with Goths and Romans and bandits along the way, before fomenting a massive all-against-all power struggle among the Goths and returning triumphantly with Panoramix.

Again, these are stories originally made for maybe middle-grade kids: quick, fun, with lots of appropriate jokes and physical comedy, set in a vaguely familiar historical milieu. They come across as slightly more highbrow to Americans, especially three generations later, than I think they did to the original audience. The current editions are a decent size, though smaller than the original album format - and I do think books like this, full of small panels and lots of dialogue, are best read at their original size. And, of course, if you like this one, there are a lot more - I think Asterix #40 was recently published, by a new generation of creators.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang

The publisher describes this graphic novel as a thriller, but I'd put it solidly in noir - that may seem needlessly nitpicky, but if you're the kind of reader who has strong opinions on the location of the border between mystery and thriller, it may be helpful.

It's written and drawn by Rina Ayuyang in a soft, mostly blue palette - I am not an expert on art or tools, but it looks like some kind of art crayon or soft pencil to me, with lots of texture and shades of a few colors but relatively muted lines drawn with a quick, energetic hand.

It's 1929, somewhere in an agricultural field in Northern California. There's a group of fruit pickers, who seem to be all Filipino. They aren't exactly mistreated directly, but the larger white society is prejudiced against them, worker protections are scanty to begin with, and these guys do the poorest-paid, lowest-skill work: it's a hard life. They all, we think, came here to the US to make money to send back home, either intending to return once they made "enough" or to bring more family members over, one by one, to make a new life in the USA.

The story starts centered on three of the workers, but one quickly becomes central: Alessandro "Bobot" Juaňez, trained as a lawyer in the Philippines and married to Elysia, who he hasn't seen since he emigrated and hasn't heard from in longer than he's happy about. (The other two workers are Angel and Edison; they're not unimportant, but Bobot is our viewpoint character.)

Bobot is mercurial, with a strong sense of justice and a tendency to do things when they come into his head rather than thinking them through. He's clearly smart, but doesn't always let his smarts guide him. His life hasn't gone the way he hoped it would, but he seems to still be looking forward, planning a better life in California. But he wishes he would hear from Elysia: it's not clear if he even knows whether she's in the Philippines or America.

Bobot gets a delayed letter from his cousin, Benny, saying Elysia is in San Francisco; he steals Angel's fancy suit - this gives the book its title, The Man in the McIntosh Suit, though the suit itself isn't as important as the weight that title seems to give it - and heads out to find her.

And that's where it gets noir - or more so, since "migrant workers looking for better lives among prejudiced locals" can already be pretty noir, and there were hints of that plot in the first pages - as Bobot looks for Benny, and gets caught up in the local Filippino community in SF. He gets a job in a small restaurant, alongside Danilo and Dulce, who know Benny - he's away on some sort of trip, vaguely explained, when Bobot arrives.

He sees the woman Benny wrote him about: La Estrella, the star of the late-night Baranguay Club (probably a speakeasy of some kind, illegal in at least one way), the center of the nightlife of the Filipino ghetto. His impulses get the better of him, and he runs afoul of Renato, who runs the Baranguay and, as he says, pretty much all of the Filipino community in SF.

Bobot wants to get La Estrella away from the Club, and she's...not uninterested in him. But it's more complicated than it seems, and Renato might either just swat Bobot down or have work for him to do. And some other players have aims that are not entirely aligned with Bobot's - for instance, who did send that letter, and why?

All that adds up to noir: people living tough lives, with tough choices, random violence, and outbursts of anger. Men and women in relationships sometimes hidden, sometimes not what they seem. People not who they seem, hiding or mistaken for others. All of them looking for more, for better, and willing to go to extremes for it. And, above all, people making bad choices: that's the core of noir.

Bobot makes it out at the end of this book; the very last pages imply he will return again. Ayuyang is not done telling the story of this 1929. But McIntosh Suit tells a full story: it stands on its own. It's a deep dive into a murky world, focused on that essential noir hero, the man who can't stop himself from his impulses and keeps getting dragged deeper into problems.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Legend of Charlie Fish by Josh Rountree

There is a humanoid ichthyic personage in this story - he's in the title, this is not a spoiler - and people who know modern horror may expect him to be some variety of Deep One. But he isn't, really: he's much more of a Gill-Man, though one less inclined to sudden violence than his filmic counterparts, and part of a large diverse society in a way we don't see (as far as I remember) in any of those movies.

So, what I'm saying: this isn't Lovecraftian.

I know! It's rare and unexpected for anything roughly in the horror vein to have a trope that could be Lovecraftian but definitively isn't. Just for that, Josh Rountree deserves kudos.

He deserves them for more than that, though: The Legend of Charlie Fish is a remarkably assured first novel, with two different and believable first-person narrators, atmosphere to burn, a great story to tell, and a flair for telling that story just slightly slant to make it more interesting.

My TL; DR would be: I don't generally like horror, and nobody much reads Westerns these days. This is a great horror Western that's well worth your time, short enough to easily read in a day.

For the more-detail version: Floyd Betts is a carpenter in Galveston, in 1900. He mostly keeps to himself, is good at what he does, lives a quiet life in a boarding house. And he has to go out to Old Cypress to bury his father, a spiteful alcoholic he's been estranged from for decades.

Meanwhile, in Old Cypress, lives a young family: the mother is disliked by the town as a witch, though she's never done anything to hurt anyone. The father grew up there, but has been tainted by association. And the kids are Nellie, twelve, and Hank, nine.

Floyd finds Nellie and Hank in Old Cypress, orphaned, and decides to take them back to Galveston. Along the way they meet and save Charlie Fish: the reader knows all of that very early. I won't spoil who they save Charlie Fish from, or why those people want the fish-man back, but they do, and they follow.

Oh, one other thing. Ever heard of the Great Galveston Hurricane? It's on the way.

Rountree never says that Charlie's people have anything to do with the hurricane. He doesn't even really hint in that direction. But I want to believe it, for whatever apocalyptic reason: you may also want to believe that when you read Charlie Fish.

Oddly, this is a less quirky book than I expected, given the plot and the endorsement from Joe R. Lansdale. Nellie has a version of "the sight," so she can communicate, mostly empathically, with Charlie. But that, and Charlie's mere existence, are the only real fantasy elements. Rountree grounds all of the rest soundly in the mud and wood and heat of the time: these are realistic people in a realistic world, facing mortal danger from both nature and man, and living as best they can, according to their own lights and values. There's a surprising lot of philosophy for life in Charlie Fish, too, the hard-won standards of a life lived cross-grain to the people around you.

It's a short book that feels expansive, a Western that feels modern, a horror novel that feels hopeful. That's one hell of a Legend, and I recommend it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Amulet, Book Eight: Supernova by Kazu Kibuishi

There was a big delay in this series, but it was after this book, not before it. If you care about this series, or middle-grade graphic novels in general, you probably already know that. If not: I'm getting to this 2018 book pretty late, but the concluding book in the series is not yet out; it's scheduled for early next year. (And a five-year delay is nearly infinite in a series for young readers; that's an entire elementary-school life.)

Amulet is a very popular series, though, so I expect all of the kids starting school over the past half-decade have seen the earlier books on the shelves, and a lot of those kids have probably read some or all. Fantasy about magical kids is always popular among kids who wish they were magical.

The series started in 2008, so the first kids that read it are now at least in college. The previous books were The Stonekeeper, The Stonekeeper's Curse, The Cloud Searchers, The Last Council, Prince of the Elves, Escape from Lucien, and Firelight. Looking back at what I've written, I've compared it to prose epic fantasy a lot, and it does have that kind of feeling. There's a large cast, which gets separated and reunited, there are Plot Tokens that need to be collected, several characters are Magically Chosen and/or Special, and the plot has ranged over the entire map provided in the first book - and even beyond.

And then, five years ago, came this eighth, penultimate (I don't think we knew that at the time) book: Supernova.

It's still more middle, like the previous six books, but it's middle that seems to be closing out things more than opening them up, which implies that the next book will indeed be last. (And, as I've said at least once before writing about this series: you can always end a series in the next book. Rocks fall; everyone dies.)

I could talk about the characters, I guess: this one is split roughly equally between the siblings Emily and Navin, our two most central characters, who are mostly separated here. And Emily does get a semi-confrontation scene with the Big Bad, who may not be quite as "Bad" as readers think.

But it's full of event and incident and action, including a random bike-race down a mountain chased by shadowy nasties. And we're at the point in a series where there starts to be a vague sense that all that activity is just waffling to fill up pages before the Actual Ending. The end is now in view, though, so we just need to hold on and get there.

This is still fun, and Kibuishi's art is mildly cartoony, easy to follow, and lively on every page, with great support by what seems to be an army of colorists. (The end credits page lists a dozen people under "colors and backgrounds" and another seven for "page flatting.") If anyone is waiting for this to be finished before starting: the wait is almost over. Anyone else contemplating reading the series: do you like the endless complication of epic fantasy? That's the core question to ask yourself here.

Monday, October 23, 2023

This Year: 2011b

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

2011 is the second year with two choices, after 1982. Last week was 2011a, and next week will go right to 2013. I make no apologies for bending my self-imposed rules to fit my own fancies.

I could have put the two 2011 songs together into one post. There's enough thematic similarities, to my ear at least, to justify it. But the whole point of this series is to write about one song a week: why break that?

And I couldn't decide between the two of them. And I had nothing nearly as strong for 2012. So I'm here again, with another song from 2011.

This is another slow-build song, but it breaks out more directly. There's a moment where the guitar leaps forward, nearly three minutes in: almost screaming, screeching, crying out. The lyrics are over, the song has said what it has to say, and now is the time for sound. It's a magnificent moment, a great solo - I always love music willing to teeter on the edge of noise, unfazed by the possibility of falling over the edge.

My other song for 2011 is Civilian by Wye Oak. It's a love song...in the way a lot of the things I've been writing about are love songs. Which is to say: the twists and tangles of relationships, the complicated feelings and pasts we all bring to each other.

Perfectly able to hold my own hand
But I still can't kiss my own neck

There are things you just need other people for, no matter how much you wish you didn't. And things you need from other people because they're just not in you.

I know my faults
Can't live with them

The song doesn't explain why it's called Civilian. That's the last word of the lyrics, repeated: the first time, the only time we hear it. My guess is it's the usual thing with calling other people "civilians" - they're not part of this group, they haven't been through what we've been through.

If so...this is a song by a woman. I think it might be men who are civilians. All of us. All the time.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Quote of the Week: Sensible Precautions

Trees are unchancy in Fantasyland. There are four kinds: …

4. Supernatural. These are: …

c) an Ash Woman. She will look exactly like a real woman and try to seduce any male Tourists lost in a Wood, but if you go round behind her you will find she has no back. She is the shell of a female imprinted on a bent piece of bark. Ash Women can be dangerous. If you find a strange woman in a wood, always go round behind her and check before getting seduced.

 - Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, pp.207-8

Friday, October 20, 2023

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

I may have picked this book back up because I've been playing Skyrim lately, and some clichés seemed very familiar. Or maybe I only realized that while reading: I don't remember, exactly. But Diana Wynne Jones's dissection of epic fantasy tropes is not only applicable to book-format works: this is what I'm saying.

Anyway, I re-read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, for what I think is the third time. If you read fantasy at all, I hope you've already heard about this book. If you read fantasy more than occasionally, I hope you've already read it. If not: you're in luck. It's not very long, it's funny on every page, and it's true in ways that will sour bad books for you forever - which is a good thing, since who wants to waste time on bad books?

(I saw - and will not link, since I don't want to pile on - a very very long "review" of this book on Amazon by a would-be writer who is exactly the kind of person Jones was writing about, who has completely missed the point of the book, and who complains that it doesn't have a middle or an end. So I can safely say that the reason for this book still exists.)

The origin of this book is legendary, and retold in a short afterword in the edition I read (a book-club edition of the 2006 Firebird revision). Jones was part of the editorial team for the first edition of Encyclopedia of Fantasy in the early '90s, and was getting fed up by the way that so many books were essentially the same. So she decided to write the travel guide to the country they all seemed to be set in: Fantasyland.

As that sad Amazon reviewer did not realize or appreciate, it's formatted as a travel book: map up front, then instructions on how to use the book and a page of helpful icons, then the main body of the book, in a series of alphabetically-arranged entries from Adept to Zombies.

For example:

Caverns are large underground systems with RIVERS running through them,. They can be entered from SECRET PASSAGES, behind WATERFALLS, and from holes in the hillside. At first there will be large grottoes with stalactites, followed, when your torch fails, by areas that glow on their own. Shortly you will come upon a major centre of population, which can be of Other PEOPLES or of troglodytic humans. Here you will be prudent to buy a BOAT (or steal one if the Cavern Dwellers are hostile), load yourselves, your wounded, and any provisions aboard it, and set off down the underground River. Your least favorite COMPANION will probably die at this point. After quite a few days you will come out in a Hidden VALLEY, often occupied by DRAGONS. This is the main way in which male Tourists get to meet Dragons and you should not miss the experience. Even if there are no Dragons, all Tourists must expect to spend some days in a Cavern at some point in the Tour. (p.32)

Jones keeps that tone crisp and precise throughout: she's authoritative and detailed while still keeping things short and punchy. The wit is dry and understated - that afterword refers to "jokes," but I wouldn't characterize most of the humor in Tough Guide that way: they're observations and pointed asides and cruel examples. Oh, let me throw in another bit I really like:

Missing Heirs occur with great frequency. At any given time, half the COUNTRIES in Fantasyland will have mislaid their Crown PRINCESS/PRINCE, but the Rule is that only one Missing Heir can join your Tour at a time. Yours will join as a COMPANION selected from among the CHILD, the TALENTED GIRL, or the TEENAGE BOY, and as part of your QUEST you will have to get them back to the Kingdom where they belong. This can be a right nuisance. (p.126)

Many readers will not realize that Tough Guide is satirical. Again, those are the people Jones is complaining about, particularly when they come to write seven-volume trilogies full of names punctuated by apostrophes and mountain ranges ignorant of rain shadows.

I suspect that the fantasy novel has changed and altered in the years since Jones published this in 1996. There may not be quite as much epic fantasy yardgoods now as there was in the '80s and '90s, or the clichés may have shifted in ways I haven't kept up with. So this might not be quite as obvious and pointed as it was at publication - or maybe it is; bad writing springs eternal. In any case, it's funny and smart and relentless in stabbing all of the stupid thoughtless ideas of bad fantasy writing of its era; it's an important book as well as a deeply entertaining one.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

Identity is important in American life - the "what are you" question that probably can be asked politely, but rarely is. We're a nation that needs to put people into specific boxes, to celebrate or denigrate based on what your parents and ancestors were and did - or, more reductively, what you look like.

I'm sure similar things happen in other nations. But it's so central to American life, especially if you're not the default. As it happens, I am the default: male, Northeastern, very WASPy, and now middle-aged. But even people like me can see how it works if we pay attention.

So the result is: many, possibly most immigrant memoirs by first- or second-generation Americans boil down to: this is who I am, this is where I came from, this is what's important to me and my family, and this is why that matters. Those are the questions they keep hearing, so they answer them. Those are the things that are assumed to be central to an American identity: what's on the left side of the "something-American" hyphen?

Malaka Gharib grew up in a diverse city - Cerrittos, California, mostly in the '90s - and still had to deal with that question more than most of her peers, because her family wasn't one thing, like most of her schoolmates. (There's a page here where she shows a schematic of her highschool, with every group - Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipino, Pakistani, Portuguese, Mexican - in their clusters, and her all alone in the middle.)

The back cover of I Was Their American Dream, Gharib's debut graphic novel from 2019, is a very slightly different version of a page from the book asking that very question, in that blunt American way: "Malaka, what are you?" (And note, of course, it's always what, like a thing, and not who, like a person.) The book is her answer.

The short answer is that her mother was Filipino and her father was Egyptian; they met in California, fell in love, married, and had this one daughter before divorcing. Gharib tells that story here: that's the start of every American story, explaining who your people are. But Gharib has two kinds of people: the Filipinos and the Egyptians. She lives mostly with the extended family of her mother, but spends summers with her father in Egypt.

They're both part of her identity. She's different, special, unique. Which is not known for being a comfortable thing for a teenager.

American Dream tells that story - how she grew up, discovered she wasn't typical, and how that worked out for her through school and college and early adult life. (She was around thirty when she drew this book.) The voice is the adult Gharib looking back: this is a book that could be read by younger readers, but not one specifically pitched to them.

Gharib had a second memoir, the more tightly focused It Won't Always Be Like This, a few years later. That book is more thoughtful and specific, but American Dream is bigger - this would be the one to start with, I think. And Gharib has a mostly breezy tone and an appealingly loose art style throughout - she may be grappling with some serious themes, but not in a heavy-handed way. She seems to have had a happy childhood, and is celebrating that - comics memoirs so often come out of the opposite impulse that it's important to mention that. This is the story of a happy childhood, in large part because it was quirky and specific and filled with interesting, loving people from two different cultures.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Inside Moebius, Part III by Jean "Moebius" Giraud

This book is probably close to incomprehensible without its predecessors, so I might have just a short post today.

In the Aughts, Jean Giraud - a French cartoonist who worked mostly as Moebius (for a long sequence of SFnal and imagistic stories, from The Airtight Garage and the Incal stories with Alejandro Jodorowsky to a bunch of film conceptual work in the '80s) and as Gir (for the long, very popular, Blueberry western series with writer Jean-Michel Charlier) - wanted to quit smoking pot.

So he spent six years making a six-volume, roughly seven-hundred-page metafictional epic, mostly in a quicker, sketchbook style than his usual work, in which "he" ruled and/or explored "Desert B" (a complicated pun in French - it's pronounced the same as désherber, the slang term for quitting smoking, and also is an allusion to bande dessinée, the French term for comics), as his most famous characters remonstrated with him to give them more interesting things to do and his younger self also kibitzed, and a manifestation of the unconscious briefly looked to become an important character before disappearing entirely. The author stand-in on the page spent a lot of time flying through this barren landscape (bodily flying, by jumping off a roof and missing the ground, in best Douglas Adams fashion), and rummaging through random doors in a vast "ego-bunker" that led him to various places and times, mostly as pages of comics he created. Oh, and Osama bin Laden was also an important character, before he was turned into a sexy girl.

Yes, exactly.

Inside Moebius is quirky, deeply self-indulgent, and wouldn't have been published if Moebius were not Moebius. But he was, and so it was. It still took nearly a decade to get translated into English, where it was published as three two-in-one volumes, perhaps assuming an American audience could be induced to pay for this weirdness three times, but not more than that.

So earlier this year I read Part I and then Part II. (See those links for more details and my attempt to explicate the plot, such as it is.) Now I'm at the end, with Part III.

And I have to say the end is even looser and less focused than the beginning. The entire second half of the final book is made up of mostly single-page surrealistic illustrations, in Moebius's full-art style, of bizarre transformations and organic forms, mostly involving him. And what comes before that isn't much clearer and focused: this reads a lot like Moebius had gotten all of his random thoughts and ideas down on the page in the prior volumes, and was casting about for something else to do with them, some way to tie them up neatly and make an ending.

I don't want to call Inside Moebius a failure, because it's not aiming to do anything specific enough to define success. It is weird and borderline offensive in its beginning, bizarre and self-indulgent throughout, and descends into random second-hand mysticism and pure image at the end to force a climax. It is very much only for people who are already Moebius fans, those willing to see how far he will go when he has no bounds or controls or script.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Dungeon: Zenith, Vol. 5: Fog and Tears by Sfar, Trondheim, and Boulet

Zenith is the one that will run forever, or as close to forever as human life allows. The Dungeon series started with Zenith, with Marvin and Herbert and the Dungeon itself at its height, and I expect as long as there are any Dungeon books, there will be Zenith titles. (Twilight ended once, though it seems to have restarted. Early Years could easily end. The sidebars - Parade, Monstres, Antipodes - are all separate books to begin with, and so begin and end in the same book.)

Dungeon, as a world and an overall series, took a long hiatus in the last decade or so, after the initial burst around the turn of the century: there was one book in 2009, two simultaneously in 2014, and then nothing until 2020. But it has roared back since then: according to the list of publications in French, there were five volumes in 2020, four in 2021, five more last year, two already in 2023 with one more coming out this month, and nine more announced for the next two years. I'm not the only one watching NBM, the US publisher of Dungeon, hoping they can keep up, and I've been happy to see a new Early Years omnibus this past spring and the previous Zenith omnibus last year.

Perhaps I should back up, for the new readers. Dungeon, as I've hinted, is a big epic fantasy series, set in a world populated by monsters and anthropomorphic people and odder things, in several sub-series set in different time periods, written by the French creators Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim and drawn by...well, just about everyone in French comics, by this point. [1] Their influences are probably more from fantasy gaming - mostly TTRPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, where anything can happen and probably will - than from epic fantasy books, but there's a lot of ideas in the stew. 

The series is published by Delcourt in France, and here by NBM in omnibus editions, tending to be 2-in-1s at first publication and then reorganized into 4-in-1s later in their lives, with translations that I think have all been by Joe Johnson. As of right this moment (assuming the new book, Changement de programme, is out in Europe), there have been fifty-three books:

  • Zenith, the first sub-series, is about a fantasy Dungeon at the height of its fame and power; there are ten books so far (all now available in English).
  • Early Years, about the young man who will later become Keeper of that Dungeon, with six books so far (all available in English).
  • Twilight, in which Dungeon, and the world it's on, suffer a major epic-fantasy apocalypse, partially caused by the now-Dark-Lord-ish Herbert, in nine books so far with one announced for next year (the first eight are available in English; I wouldn't be surprised if NBM is looking to do another volume late next year).
  • Parade is a deliberately sillier sub-series, with adventures of Marvin and Herbert set early in Zenith; there have been six so far, with six more announced for 2024-25; only the first four have been published in English.
  • Monstres was the original "sidebar stories" catch-all, which I thought could be set anywhere in the timeline - the official description calls it "great adventures of secondary characters." There have been seventeen so far, with one more coming out next year; twelve of them  - the whole classic era, but none of the new batch - are available in English.
  • And with the resurgence of Dungeon, two new subseries were announced: Antipodes- and Antipodes+, which tell stories set far in the past and future, respectively; there have been two minus books, two plus books before this month, the new one in October, and one more plus for next year; none of these have been translated yet.

During the hiatus, in 2018, I had a series here on the blog running through the (then-existent) series, in something like a coherent order, under the overall title Dungeon Fortnight. I've kept that tag for the new books for simplicity.

That's a lot of links, a lot of backstory, a lot of books. But this is epic fantasy: there's always wads of backstory - call it lore or legends or geas or destiny - even at the very beginning of an adventure. And you can always just dive in anywhere; none of this is forbidding or gate-keeping.

So Dungeon: Zenith, Vol. 5: Fog and Tears collects the most recent two books about the height of Dungeon, Larmes et brouillard (Nov '22) and Formule incantatoire (Apr '23), both drawn by Boulet in an intricate style filled with crosshatching that sometimes looks too detailed for this world to me.

The first of those books is mostly unrelated to the overall get-back-the-Dungeon plot that's been running for three or four books now; series hero Herbert (a duck) and his wife Isis (a Kochak, and also a cat, which I think means the same thing here) are expecting their first child any minute now. Herbert learns, to his great surprise, that the Kochaks, who they are living with, have some unusual birth customs. Namely, "baptism" means dropping the newborn into a pit with a bunch of wolves, to win or die.

Herbert does not think a half-duck will do terribly well in this ordeal, and so first tries to argue against it and then steals away his newborn son to stymie the plans. This, of course, means that a tribe of ferocious, and angry, nomadic warriors are chasing him, led by his now-very-pissed wife. And there are other complications as well, as of course there must be.

(I don't want to get into more of the plot than that, but it ends happier than you'd expect for Dungeon.)

The second book gets back to that main plot, with Marvin - who also has just had a baby with his magician wife, and who also has complicated and weird rituals about that baby to follow as part of his own culture - is pulled into stopping a minor magical apocalypse unleashed by Delacort, the usurper of the Dungeon, during a mostly-successful assault by Our Heroes. There's a lot of running around, a lot of Marvin's blunt style not meshing well with the detailed plans and work of a bunch of magicians, and a big bang at the end. But it does, mostly, resolve that long-running plot...in a way that I'm sure sets hooks for the next two or three books.

As always, Dungeon is full of humor - mostly dark, always dry, usually quick in ways an unsuspecting reader could miss, but very funny a lot of the time in a lot of ways. It's a world full of extremes, with death lurking around every corner: an epic fantasy world, where everything is keyed up as high as possible almost all of the time. This is yet another wonderful romp in that world, and looking at the list of unpublished-in-the-US books just makes me want three or four more books like this right now.

[1] I think the original idea, between Sfar and Trondheim, was "you draw this one and I'll draw that one and we'll get our friends to do the others!" Sfar drew the first three Twilight books and Trondheim the first four Zenith, but they handed even those sub-series off to others afterward.

Monday, October 16, 2023

This Year: 2011a

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

2011 is the second year with two choices, after 1982. To keep things even, next week will have 2011b, and then go right to 2013.

Sometimes I quote a lot of lyrics in these posts: that won't be the case this time. This is a minimalist, slowcore song - loud, certainly (or it should be), and one that builds to a tremendous crescendo in its slow relentless way - but the lyrics are minimal. They say all they need to say.

I'm nothing but heart

My song for 2011 is Nothing But Heart by Low, an eight-minute slow boil of skittering guitars, more than a little noise, minimalist drums relentlessly keeping that slow beat in the background, and a swirl - growing slowly, oh so slowly - of catharsis and redemption.

This is another song I would play very loud in my car, driving to and from my train station, over and over in the fall of 2011. I can't tell you exactly what it means: as a song on its own, or what it meant to me at that moment. But it was a real, true thing, a mantra and method for getting through life, and it was exactly what I needed.

It's on my list because of those moments, because of what it meant then. And still can mean to me, any day I need it. Or to you. Or anyone. That's what makes it a great song.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Quote of the Week: Graphic Design Is My Passion

He never met a font he didn't like; the more the merrier. His layouts looked like the menu at a Mediterranean restaurant. He used Photoshop the way a kid uses a knife to spread peanut butter. I thought he was just incompetent, until I realized how malevolent he was.

 - Nick Mamatas, I Am Providence, p.159

Friday, October 13, 2023

Keeping Two by Jordan Crane

Each reader brings a different perspective to a book. A lot of the discussion about this book has focused on the central couple's squabbling - about how couples fight each other, that snippiness you get with someone you love and don't want to really hurt but still want to win when you're exasperated with each other.

And that's in there, to be clear. But it's not as central, to my mind.

Instead, I read Keeping Two - a magnificent, encompassing, deep graphic novel Jordan Crane put out last year - as a meditation and exploration of catastrophizing, of all the ways we think through what is happening now and what might have happened and how will I go on if it's really the worst.

We open with a couple in a car, coming home from what was supposed to be a restful holiday weekend. Connie and Will are grumpy: maybe at that point where they're just a bit sick of each other after so much time together in close spaces. Traffic is horrible - stop and go - and Will is driving too aggressively, following too close. Connie is reading a story out loud, some kind of literary novel about a couple (like them, not like them) and the tragedy of a pregnancy.

Crane uses that novel as a way to show the reader how to read Keeping Two: flashbacks, dreams, fiction, imaginings will be presented with wavy panel borders. Reality has solid straight borders. It's a small difference, easy to mistake, so the reader has to pay careful attention as panels bounce back and forth between real and imagined. The mind can slip into fantasy at any moment - a stream of thought moving from what is to oh god, what if at any time.

It begins slowly. They do get home, before too many pages. They're still snippy with each other, but clearly love each other - the couple in the novel are nastier, saying more cutting, thoughtless things, in a worse situation.

One of them goes out to pick up food for dinner; the other one stays to wash up the dishes left in the sink. And time passes.

Again, this is a book about catastrophizing. About those intrusive thoughts of they've been gone too long and what could have happened and what if they're lying dead in a ditch. (In my family, the term is usually "if I get hit by a bus.")

So reality is intertwined with the novel - we see the end of that couple's story, and Connie pointedly says that story ends at a moment of inevitability but before we know what really happens, so the ending is our decision, each individually - and with those worries and intrusive thoughts, all the horrors we all imagine all the time. (We do, right? It's not just me?)

It ends brilliantly. That's all I'll say about that part of it. I do wonder if Connie's point about the novel's ending is a clue about this ending, though I have to be very elliptical to avoid spoilers. There's no obvious impending threat for Connie and Will, as there is for the novel's couple - but something happened, and has not been, um, addressed before the last page, and so could have complications for one of them - potentially very serious complications. I don't think that's a "Lady or the Tiger" ending, the way the novel is: I think Crane's ending is more straightforward - as evidenced by the fact that the last dozen pages have consistently solid borders: they're together, in reality, living now.

Well, except. The very very end, the iris out. The panel borders disappear entirely, hidden on most of one full-page panel and gone on the closing double-page spread. It's beautiful, emotionally satisfying, a perfect moment: a clear ending for Connie and Will.

All the catastrophizing is over, for this moment at least. Everything is all happening at once. And they are together for it.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Bend of Luck by Peter and Maria Hoey

Peter and Maria Hoey - they're brother and sister, and work together despite living at opposite ends of the North American continent - make comics that look like no one else's.

They look like other things, though: when I read Animal Stories, I thought the visual style was reminiscent of online Flash-game graphics, something flat and clear and schematic. Reading another one of their books, I see similarities to advertising art, or some kind of informative pamphlet.

It looks impersonal, maybe official. There's a chilliness baked in on a basic level, in the backgrounds and facial expressions. And their writing leans into that feeling, too - it's clearly deeply purposeful - with distanced narration and a flat affect.

None of the characters in The Bend of Luck are named. For any particular scene, "the man" and "the woman" and "his partner" and "his father" works fine - occasionally, they need to specify "the old man." The Hoeys mostly lay this out in an unconventional five-panel layout: four squarish panels for the four corners, a circular inset in the middle, reading rigidly NW, NE, center, SW, SE. Characters live in environments that look like they came out of a template: city streets, wilderness, mid-century urban interiors. Clothing is similarly templated, precise, looking just like the abstraction of itself from an official government handout.

The story the Hoeys tell here is expansive, and takes time to come into focus. They tell it in fragments, in fourteen separate chapters that cover what eventually is clearly two generations of the same family, in San Francisco and a wilderness region, suitable for mining, somewhere more-or-less nearby. The two generations aren't this generation - the more modern sections seem to take place in the 1930s, or the '50s - but dates aren't important to begin with.

In this fictional world, luck has a physical form. It can be found and mined, retrieved and sold. It is fragile, dissolving on contact with air. It is valuable but illegal, sought by gamblers and other underworld types. And two prospectors, down on their luck, find a vein of it, under a river, in the earlier generation.

Meanwhile, a generation later, we see a man disappear, and his wife cope with his loss.

The main prospector - the other is, pointedly, "his partner" - and the man in San Francisco are the central characters, and turn out to be father and son, but we will meet many other people along the way: sailors and gangsters, hat shoppers and Western thugs. And we learn more about how luck works, by the end: in particular, that our assumption that "luck" means "good luck" is not necessarily true.

Again, it's all chilly, deliberately distanced. Not quite a fable, but inevitable, inexorable, already determined. All in a look and an idiom like no one else's comics. It's good stuff, rich and deep and worth spending the time to think through and pay close attention to. And I'm happy to see the Hoeys have another book coming out soon to look forward to.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Onion Skin by Edgar Camacho

Two young people meet cute, share their dreams with each other over the course of a long drunken night, find they have a lot in common, separate for a while, and find each other again to achieve those dreams.

He's Rolando; she's Nera. Unusually for a story like this, there's no romance or hint of it - no reason not to, it just doesn't happen. They connect in other ways, the way any two people do.

This is Edgar Camacho's graphic novel Onion Skin. Other stuff happens, too - and he doesn't tell the story in order to begin with - but I'll get to that. There's only one copyright date in the book, 2021, so maybe it was translated quickly (by Camacho himself) for US publication after it originally appeared in Mexico? Or maybe the date of US publication just isn't listed, and it made its way north in '22 or this year.

Rolando worked as a graphic designer in advertising; he hated it. He hated it so much he injured himself - not quite deliberately, but maybe unconsciously - in order to lose the job and free himself. He wants to do something else - probably related to art - but he's a bit vague.

Nera lives in a broken-down food truck. She's self-sufficient and self-assured, but wants to be cooking food for people and has no idea how to get there.

None of that is where we start in Onion Skin. We start with the food truck Dawg Burger - they don't seem to serve burgers, but never mind that - on the run from three bikers, on a lonely road somewhere in Mexico. There are two people in the truck: we don't know yet they are Rolando and Nera. They get away.

And then we flash back, and we realize this story will be told in at least two timeframes: something like "now" and something like "then." We meet Rolando; we meet Nera. Eventually, they meet each other. And we keep flashing forward to the two of them in that truck, some time later - traveling around, making great food, gathering a big following, attracting the attention of those bikers, getting into danger and out of it.

Camacho is serious about his characters and their concerns, but not overly serious. The big conflict with those bikers is just a couple of clicks down from cartoony: they are clearly dangerous, but not homicidal, and we're pretty clear Rolando and Nera will make it out OK in the end. And telling the story inside-out as he does lets him breathe new life into a kind of story we've all seen many times before: he can bounce between the high points and interesting moments and never get bogged down in getting from Point A to Point B.

He also brings a stylized art style, design-y and modern, to add more energy. He's particularly fond of quirky sound effects, another source of fun here. On top of all that, the focus on food is making me want to eat chilaquiles!

Onion Skin is a fun, energetic, visually interesting book by a strong new creator, telling its story with verve and excitement. It already won a couple of awards in Mexico, including the first National Young Graphic Novel Award, which I hope will be enough encouragement for Camacho to keep going and make more books like this.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is a genre-fiction writer, but this 2016 novel is not in the genre you might expect. It's a book about Lovecraftians rather than a book that is Lovecraftian. Nothing squamous or rugose shambles through the pages here; no one has a momentary vision of the depths of geological time and his place in the universe that sends him quavering into madness.

On the other hand, I'm not going to say the characters here are entirely sane to begin with.

I Am Providence is a murder mystery set at the Summer Tentacular, an annual horror convention devoted to H.P. Lovecraft and taking place in steamy August in (of course) Providence, Rhode Island. Anyone who knows Mamatas's online presence over the past two decades can guess that he does not have a positive and friendly opinion about those people and that scene and the whole concept of making Lovecraft central to a kind of literature or a fan lifestyle.

I am convinced that all, or maybe just most, of the characters in Providence are versions of real people in the horror/Lovecraftian world, though I was only tangentially connected there (and that fifteen years ago), so I'm not going to try to trace them. (OK, just one: Bhanushali is so obviously a gender-swapped S.T. Joshi that no one will miss that.)

Well, maybe one more, the central one: Panossian, the murder victim. He's dead on page one, and he narrates alternate chapters in first person, posthumously [1] - the even-numbered chapters are from a tight third-person POV on Colleen Danzig, a new writer coming to her first convention, expecting to room with Panossian and instead finding herself amateur-sleuthing her way around the BNFs. [2] Panossian is a gadfly, a deliberately annoying minor writer whose single novel, The Catcher in R'lyeh, is seemingly too clever by half (especially for the very traditionalist Lovecraftian crowd) and sank almost without a trace.

Panossian is Mamatas himself, slightly transmuted (Greek to Armenian, Move Under Ground to Catcher, etc.). That's the metafictional joke here: Mamatas is saying, somewhere between jokingly and honestly, "these people probably want to kill me for making novels like this and admitting Lovecraft was a massive racist, among other things."

Providence is not just a gigantic in-joke, but the in-jokiness is central. It rambles around the convention for three days, alternating between Panossian's newly-dead ruminations and Danzig's investigations, which ape the form of a play-fair mystery but end up more like a shaggy dog story. Frankly, there's no good reason for Danzig to care that much about Panossian's death, and spend all her time playing Nancy Drew - but that's the novel, so it's what she does.

It's OK as a mystery; it's killer as a stab in the back of Lovecraftians. "Is there a reason for a literate person to read century-old pulp fiction? For the most part, no, which is why most of it has been forgotten by all except obsessives and weirdoes." (p.3)

There are a lot of events in Providence; there's a lot of opportunity for Lovecratians to demonstrate the various ways they are obsessives and weirdoes; there's a lot of theorizing about the murder from various people. Mamatas is more or less in control of the plot, but there are several Signals from Fred, as when Danzig realizes, more than half-way through the book, that she's talked to several different uniformed cops but never even seen the detective running the case. That's the shaggy-dogness again; this is a book that rambles and wanders, to hit all of the scenes and ideas Mamatas had and to showcase all of these people in their (un)natural habitat.

I dog-eared a bunch of quotes while reading it: Mamatas is excellent at the cutting takedown, the epigrammatic attack. Here's some good ones:

  • Hiram seemed harmless, but only in the way a heavily medicated inpatient at a lunatic asylum seemed harmless. (p.107) 
  • Ranger was pretty important in Lovecraftian fandom, after all, since he had access to a photocopy machine and made his little 'zine, Dreamlands, with it sometimes. (p.189)
  • Most people who are inexplicably confident despite being talentless and more than a little stupid have warm, affectionate parents. (p.232)

I didn't entirely believe in Colleen, the sleuth. I completely believed Panossian, the self-loathing dead loser. I somewhat recognized all of the other weirdoes and obsessives at the Tentacular. And I read Providence with some joy and multiple laughs and a lot of recognition. I think this book got a bad reception, because it's for that thin segment of fandom that both understands the jokes and can take them; fandom is famously humorless when it comes to itself. If you think you fit in that segment, check it out, but don't be surprised if you feel "attacked."

[1] To put in Panossian's own words, from p.4: "We dwell in darkness, anxious and panicked and alone without the benefit of senses or a future, and for who knows how long after death."

[2] Big Name Fans. Not entirely accurate: Lovecraftiana is a small, incestuous pool, and nearly everyone in it is a filthy pro, at least in their own heads. But Providence is a book all about in-group behavior and markers, so the term is appropriate.

Monday, October 09, 2023

This Year: 2010

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

I'm trying to be personal in this series, but not confessional. I may have said too much, some weeks - that's always the danger. And this one has that potential as well. Let's see if I can navigate that stormy sea.

Josh Ritter is one of my favorite artists: full stop. I initially thought the song I'd pick for him in this series would be To the Dogs or Whoever, an absolute barn-burner from 2007 that encapsulates everything he does well and was the first song of his I heard. From the same year, there's also The Temptation of Adam, a wonderful, deep, twisty story-song that I memorized without trying and own a T-shirt with the first line. To be hipster-y, there was also A Country Song, the early version of Golden Age of Radio, title song of his first big-label record.

But this one eventually won out. Partially because of how powerful, how loud it is live; partially because of the emotion in it. And partially because my wife and I both really like a song that is, well, about a deeply unhappy relationship on the verge of breaking up. (And that is understating the case in several ways.) I think we both love the power and the intensity and the emotion of it, especially that tat-tat-tat-tat-tat drumstick sound, over and over and over and over again [1] - but, still, it is weird for a couple to both love a song so much about a breakup.

So my song for 2010 is Rattling Locks, another song about love gone bad, frustration, and that feeling that the world doesn't fit, at all.

All along I thought I was giving you my love
But you were just stealin' it, now I want it back
Every single thing you took

I always like metaphors in songs, and times singers can sneak something by the audience, so this bit was particularly fun - and I wonder how many people don't get both ways it can be taken?

But something has changed, it's all wrong
I'm out here in the cold with a wet face
A-rattling your locks

But, again, this song is mostly about that relentless beat: unchanging, demanding, loud, pounding. Like the blood in your head as you have a not-quite-argument with the person you realize isn't special anymore. It's better live - so many of the greatest songs are, of course - but the studio version is loud and demanding enough for most purposes. And I like a spot of nihilism in my songs....

I had a dream where I was dyin'
But it wasn't no nightmare
I was peaceful as I fell

[1] In concert, several other members of the band would have drumsticks and hammer out that beat, as the actual drummer hit the more complicated bits. It was all beat, all staccato, all relentless. Here's a performance from Jimmy Kimmel that has some of that energy, but it hit much stronger at about the hour-twenty mark of a headliner set in a theatre.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Quote of the Week: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The Fountain Café (Proprietor Miss Gloria Adam) was all Tudor and horse brasses and local honey at sixpence more than anywhere else. Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as "My Friends." Miss Adam did not do business with friends, but simply robbed them, which somehow added to the illusion of genteel amateurism which Miss Adam was so anxious to preserve. Her origin was obscure, but she often spoke of her late father as "The Colonel." It was rumored among those of Miss Adam's friends who had paid dearly for their friendship that the colonelcy in question had been granted by the Salvation Army.

 - John Le Carré, Call for the Dead, p.27

Friday, October 06, 2023

Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron by Charles M. Schulz

I have to assume Charles Schulz would have approved of this book. He didn't rubber-stamp every bit of merchandise and brand extension - he had high standards, and kept a close eye on his licensors - but he liked to do different packages, and he clearly enjoyed putting more well-made Peanuts stuff out into the world.

He might have even had this idea, eventually - though, if he did, I bet he would have done some new work, at least a page or so, for the book.

Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron is a thematic Peanuts collection; this 2015 book collects what I think are all of the strips in which Snoopy appears as "the World War I flying ace." [1] I think the strips are more-or-less in chronological order from page to page, but there are several unexplained sections in the book - I think roughly "longer sequences," "one-off strips," and "Sundays." It's in the same format as the Complete Peanuts series, wider than it is tall, with generally three dailies or one Sunday per page.

And my mind immediately turns to my old publishing-hand track: I wonder "how did they do that?" This was towards the end of the two-plus-decade Complete Peanuts project (see a whole lot of my posts on the series over the years), so my assumption is that the folks at Fantagraphics were seeing that end in sight and brainstorming other ideas for books. Maybe they even had a big database of the strips, since I think they had to scan and clean up all of them as part of the project, and - here's where my flights of fancy take over - maybe they even tagged the strips, so they could run a search like "give me all the Rerun strips" or, if they were insane, "every Charlotte Braun appearance."

I belabor that point because, if I'm right and the Big Brains at Fanta do have a detailed tagging system, we could presumably get a near-infinite number of quirky, specific Peanuts books, from Schroeder Celebrates Beethoven's Birthday to Spike's Greatest Excursions. Sure: most of those would never sell, but that's what ebooks are for!

Anyway, this book is full of the sillier side of Peanuts, featuring a beagle sitting on his doghouse and pretending to dogfight (and lose, always - Peanuts is Peanuts to its core) with the Red Baron and then running around a suburban neighborhood pretending it's either behind enemy lines or wartime Paris. He drinks a lot of root beer, and curses the war. He even flies some commercial airplanes "after the war" to take other cast members various places.

I don't want to anatomize this: it's silly and fun, and silly fun things don't deserve to be dissected. But I'll just mention two things Schulz does that I saw several times and appreciated.

First is a tiny thing: when flying out, Snoopy faces right. When coming back to base, or running away from a flock of Fokkers, he turns and faces left. It's such a comics thing: funny, understated, unremarked.

Second is how Schulz weaves his different bits of business together. These are all Red Baron strips, but that doesn't mean they're only Red Baron strips. The World War I flying ace went on a POW train to a detention camp off with Charlie Brown to summer camp several times. He even shows up on the baseball field a couple of times. Peanuts was a tapestry, with different threads rising and falling in the weave over the years, but it was all of a piece, from the more serious sequences like "Mr. Sack" to the silliest Red Baron strip.

And this is the silliest stuff - there's a lot of fine Schulz wordplay and slapstick. (Snoopy pushes Peppermint Pattie "out of the plane" at least five times, always drawn the same way.) And I love the way he draws the doghouse/plane riddled with bullet holes: it's so good at selling the idea.

If you want to read one Peanuts book, and want it to be a frivolous one, this is a great choice. But I warn you: reading a bit of Peanuts will probably make you want to dive into the whole thing.

[1] Do not confuse it with Snoopy and the Red Baron, a 1966 book reformatting some of the early Red Baron stories into a small-format hardcover, part of the same loose series of Peanuts books as Happiness Is a Warm Puppy and Snoopy and "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night".