Thursday, November 30, 2023

Jim by Jim Woodring

So I had the thought that perhaps Jim Woodring's comics were opaque to me because I was reading his wordless "Frank" stories, which depend heavily on a personal mythology that I suspect is difficult to explicate through pictures alone. [1] Maybe, I hoped, if I read Woodring comics where he could also use words to explain himself, everything would be clearer and I could finally understand the essential Jim-ness of his work.

Reader, my hopes were dashed.

The comics in the 2014 collection Jim do have words - often a lot of words; there are a number of basically illustrated prose pieces, lettered by Woodring, that run for multiple pages - but I didn't find that those words actually helped me comprehend what was going on. Rather the opposite a lot of the time, in fact.

The Frank stories often operate on dream-logic, full of transformations and sudden reversals, random cruelty and beauty, with recurring images and characters that the reader has to assume have very specific meanings, even if that reader can't figure out what the meanings are. The "Jim" stories have all of that, plus confusing dialogue, and feature the author himself as the main character a lot of the time. (Hence, as they say, the title.)

Now, it doesn't actually say anywhere in this book that these comics are the records of Woodring's dreams, not in so many words. But he does talk about having recurring dreams repeatedly, and the stories featuring Woodring as a character often have him in pajamas, and they very much run on dream logic, so...I think that's a fair assumption.

I hope so, because the alternative is that this is how Woodring's waking mind operates, and these stories were assembled deliberately this way, that Woodring thinks these are the clearest and most precise ways to say the things he wants to say. And, since he seems to have a normal life, with marriage, job and at least one child - or did, in the years he made these stories, mostly the '80s and '90s - I find that hard to imagine.

In the end, I'm left as I usually am with Woodring stories: pointing and gesturing, making strangled mouth noises, unable to come up with anything coherent. But this time there are those long text pieces - prose poems? also dream descriptions? stories meant to be understood? - which are generally overly wordy in a "storyteller" manner, include lots of seeming extraneous detail, and tend to start from odd premises, wander for a while, and then stop without anything that seemed to me like a point.

Oh! And there also is a sequence of stories about a young couple - yuppies, I guess? - who are self-centered and live in a fine house, but also talk like all the other Woodring characters, and who I can't tell if we're supposed to laugh at or sympathize with. Especially when one of them kills the other. (There's a lot of random death in Woodring comics - again, I hope and assume that's because of dream-logic rules.)

That's where I am. I like looking at Woodring's drawings. I enjoy the ways his stories move. I find them compelling. But I don't think I've come close to understanding any of them. And words clearly don't help.

[1] See, most recently, The Frank Book, Woodring's earliest "Frank" comics. And, before that: Poochytown, Fran, and Weathercraft.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Longer by Michael Blumlein

Some writers are distinctive, even if they don't write all that much: they have a style and a set of concerns all their own. Michael Blumlein was one of those, a doctor by training (and career: writing was, as far as I know, always a side-job) whose work was always about fleshy concerns, often uncomfortably so.

His first story was “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report” in Interzone in 1984. I will not try to describe that story - everyone should read it once - but it is a very chilly and dark story that manages to out-Ballard J.G. Ballard. Blumlein went on from there to write horror-tinged SF, and less commonly fantasy - though some readers might argue about which was the tinge and which was the main genre. You could call it body horror most of the time, though that's hugely reductive of the work of a man who knew the human body much much better than most writers ever could, or would want to.

His last novel was Longer, published around the time of his death in 2019. It's relatively tame for Blumlein - maybe I should say "accessible for non-Blumlein fans" instead - about researchers a hundred or two years in the future (it's the twenty-second century, but Blumlein is quiet about which end), working in a space habitat and arguing about the point of life.

Gunjita and Cav are married, both successful in their fields - he was mostly a surgeon for a long time, and has moved into research as the role for surgery has declined as less intrusive, more bio-targeted solutions have become more and more common.

The biggest one of those solutions is the one implied in the title: life extension. Blumlein doesn't get into a lot of details in this short novel - about life extension, or about a lot of things - but there is a standard, safe, commercially-available rejuvenation procedure, cheap enough, it seems, that most middle-class people can expect to afford it. We don't know how long it has been available, but it's known that it only works twice - so it's been around at least sixty years, and probably longer. The current target is to rejuvenate at the age of eighty-two - Blumlein does a bit of sleight-of-hand around second rejuvenations and the ages of his people, citing what seem to be apparent ages rather than calendar ages, so that people who have juved once or twice aren't called out as being, for example, a hundred and fifty. The vague timeline means we're not clear how many people have come up against the end of their second rejuvenated life - we are told that a few people tried to juve a third time, with horrific results, but not how long ago, and we do know that people like Gunjita and Cav (well, including them) are actively working to make a third juve safe.

The characters note, in what seems to be honesty, that it's mostly a nice world (albeit warmer than ours) without a lot of upheaval and with still-increasing and spreading prosperity. Not a utopia - it's somewhat dominated by corporations, and the profit motive is still deeply important - but a good place to live, especially if you are smart and skilled, experienced and knowledgeable. And, if you are all those things, you can expect three lives at this point. (No one notes that these people possibly were born when no juves were available, and that a third, and so on, may actually become available in their lifetimes, but that seems entirely reasonable to me, given the premises. They're at the edge of that transition, maybe, and could be the first generation not to have to die. No guarantees, of course, but it's entirely plausible from what Blumlein presents.)

Longer is about two things: first, Cav is physically in his mid-eighties, and has been putting off juving. (I think this would be his second, but the text is a bit vague, in this as in so many other things. He may be a lifetime younger than Gunjita.) Gunjita recently juved; she's physically in her twenties. Over the course of the novel, Cav goes from vaguely procrastinating his next rejuvenation to actively thinking about when the end of his life should be.

The other thing Longer is about is called the Ooi. Gunjita and Cav, as a sidebar to other projects, sent out a space probe called Eurydice, about to return with a rocky sample from an asteroid. And, on that asteroid, is...well, something else. Not a piece of the asteroid rock, clearly separate but stuck to that rock. Cav immediately believes it's organic in origin - and not organic-from-Earth, of course. Gunjita is far more reticent about this thing that looks like puke.

So they observe the Ooi. Uninvasively at first, then, tentatively, with the most gentle spectra they can. Finally, they decide to slice at it. To do so, they call in the third character of the novel: Dashaud. Once a protégé of Gunjita, now a follower of Cav, another surgeon with younger, rejuvenated, augmented hands.

It's not a novel of plot: it's mostly Gunjita, Cav, and to a lesser extend Dash thinking, talking to each other, looking at the Ooi, making theories and puncturing each other's theories, making plans and critiquing each other's plans. The Ooi remains enigmatic throughout, but Cav gets more and more convinced of what he always had in the back of his mind.

I find it hard to ignore that this is a novel written by a man who was dying of lung cancer at the time. It is quieter than most of Blumlein's work, more of a microscope than a scalpel. I wished Blumlein had time or space or desire to detail his world more, but he didn't. This is the book we have: knotty in a small space, taut and poised, a story that implies and questions more than it says.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Buni: Happiness Is a State of Mind by Ryan Pagelow

This strip isn't exactly new to me - I've seen a bunch of Buni cartoons over the years, all over the place - but it's not one I ever made an effort to read regularly. So I'm coming at it as a mostly-uninformed reader: I know it's wordless, that the title character is happy and positive in a world that very much tends to the opposite direction, and a vague bit about the other characters.

But if there's a serious Buni discourse going on, I'm unfamiliar with it. So, as I often do, I need to signpost here that I could be wrong, and that I know it.

Buni has been running - I think consistently three days a week - since 2010, written and drawn by Ryan Pagelow. Buni: Happiness Is a State of Mind is the first, and I think only, collection of the strip so far: it came out in 2018. 

Buni is the main character - that happy-go-lucky guy on the cover. He's a bunny - hence the name - in a world mostly of teddy bears. He's also a happy, positive person in a world where pretty much everyone else hates and attacks and eats each other. (This is not the kind of world where sentients avoid predating on each other - rather the opposite, actually.) His main character notes are that he is almost always sunny, and that he has a unreciprocated (and never will be) crush on BuniGirl, who has a boyfriend.

(Here I might note that all names, besides Buni himself, need to be discovered outside of the comic itself, because of the whole "wordless" thing.)

This seems to collect the strip from the beginning, so we start with Buni himself, see him crushing on BuniGirl (and her instead spending time with the hulking fellow I guess we should call BuniBoyfriend or BuniRival?), see his father (BuniDad) arrive by breaking out of prison and immediately become a ray of gloom and nastiness in Buni's world, and the two bunnies adopt a crippled dog, whom I understand is called either Dogi or BuniDog.

Most of the strips are one-offs, though, in which Buni finds happiness in an unusual way (imagining he's riding a unicorn in a fantasyland while actually on a kiddie ride in a horrible alley), Buni finds his world is sadder and creepier than expected (the sushi restaurant serves body parts of the staff), or - and, as I noted before, this is more common than I expected - someone tries (and often succeeds) to eat another clearly-sentient person in the strip.

There's a fun one, about halfway in, where BuniDad and the next-door neighbor (a bull) hate-eat members of each other's species at each other, which is a pretty emblematic Buni strip. It's about spite, and performative nastiness, on that level, with the title character himself floating above that like a visitor from some happier, sunnier, massively-licensed strip.

It's an interesting combination, and making Buni central is really important: the world would be too much of a one-joke premise for a long-running strip otherwise. It sets up a gigantic, very central conflict that gives Pagelow a lot of room to work with, while also allowing strips that are just quirky odd bits about either Buni or other characters - this world is dark, but it's cartoony dark, and not dark all the time everywhere.

So this is fun, and there's more depth than you might expect for a wordless strip - or that you might realize, seeing one random strip once in a while float across your social feed. (That's how I previously saw Buni: I'm not saying you are me, but I'm assuming it's typical.) And if you're looking for a comic strip way more centrally about cannibalism than you suspected was possible, it's really your only choice.

Monday, November 27, 2023

This Year: 2018

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

Here's another band I kept trying to fit in to this list - they're showing up later than I expected. I knew Okkervil River would be here somewhere, but I first thought it would have to be the brilliant, chilly, dark, overwhelming Westfall. Or maybe The War Criminal Rises and Speaks. John Allyn Smith Sails is utterly crystalline perfection, quoting an older song - I won't spoil which one, in case you haven't heard it - in a way that transforms it amazingly. It was almost Another Radio Song. Down Down the Deep River was close, too.

Maybe those songs were all too negative, too dark. It's tempting to say so. But it was probably more that those years had other songs by other people, and Okkervil River had so many choices, that I was spoiled and could keep picking through.

There are some bands where you love one song above all - and that's the one that has to get into a project like this, so you twist other things around to make it fit. Other bands are more consistent, or you love more of what they do, so you have a choice of riches. Okkervil was one of the latter; I would have been happy with any of the songs I listed above. Maybe two or three others.

Speaking of being happy, maybe that's what did it: in the end, I did go for a happier song, something more positive, as I get towards the end of this project. Well, as happy as you can get in a song called Famous Tracheotomies.

First of all, that two-word title! So much interesting tension there, so much surprise and wonder. 

A tracheotomy is a scary operation: usually done quickly to save someone's life when they can't breathe. But it's not a complicated operation, or a difficult one. It's often done in emergency situations. And you wouldn't think any of them would be famous.

This is a true story, or a collection of true stories. Singer Will Sheff had a tracheotomy as a kid, and I guess something reminded him of it many years later. The song doesn't explain why it exists; not that many songs ever do.

And I was one and a half
I was my parents' only kid
And they had lost two before that

The verses start with Sheff's personal story, and move on from there: Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, Dylan Thomas, Ray Davies. A verse or so about each - sometimes deliberately banal, always conversational, as if Sheff were riffing during a conversation.

But that banality, the matter-of-factness of it all, adds up to more as it goes. Maybe Sheff is borrowing an audience's interest in celebrity, maybe it's the shock of the operation, maybe a whole bunch of things. But it's a bittersweet, lovely, rambling song that's mostly about death and loss...until the end.

Davies had his trach fairly young, like Sheff did - not at the end, after fame, when bodies are declining and medical interventions are rising higher and higher to keep someone alive.

Ray Davies had a tracheotomy
He was at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, aged thirteen
And during his long recovery
Nurses put him in a wheelchair
And they'd wheel him out onto a balcony (on a balcony)

That's the frame: we start with a child, before everything, and we end with another. We end with a musical quote, too - almost as transcendent as the one I mentioned above in Will Allyn Smith Sails - as an iris out.

It's not a song with a single message. It's not a song that leaves the listener feeling just one emotion. It's a song about things jumbled, about good and bad together, about saving lives and losing lives. But it ends with a vision, and a reason for that "Famous" in the title - in the end, it's about the power of art to transcend pain and everyday life, about the way a song can make you happy.

Maybe even this one.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Quote of the Week: Doth Protest Too Much

Yet in these sad days no man can love for seven nights without wanting his way with the woman. All is brittle and untrue, worthless and unstable. Love is soon hot, and sooner cold. Summer gives way unseasonably to winter. In the old days a man and a woman could keep one another company for seven years without any hint of licentiousness. In the days of Camelot lovers could be true and faithful. I take as my example Guinevere, the flower of that court, who proved herself to be a loyal lover and therefore had a good end.

 - Peter Ackroyd, adapting Sir Thomas Mallory, The Death of King Arthur, p.251

Friday, November 24, 2023

Oh No by Alex Norris

This book is very nearly a parody of itself, which is delightful and lovely. It's also a collection of quick-reading webcomics with a bite, which is also quite spiffy.

Oh No is a collection of webcomic name - there's a part of me that wishes that creator Alex Norris used the "real" name for the book, but that's probably much too arch for any conceivable room - named as the thing that ever reader already knows it by and assumes it's titled to begin with. (As a sidebar, not only am I really happy there exists a webcomic called webcomic name, but Norris's strip is about as perfect as anything under that name could be.)

You've seen these online, sometime since Norris started the strip in 2016: three panels, generally of brightly-colored blobby forms that are generally to be taken as humans, in which a situation is set up, complicated, and then knocked down by the inevitable punchline. It's a formalist joke, I guess: a reaction to all of the "relatable comics" that were popular at the time, distilling them down to the essence: here is a thing, here is more about the thing, ironic conclusion!

The book collects about a hundred and twenty-five of those strips, on various topics and ideas, from the first three years of webcomic name. (The book appeared in 2019. Linear time being what it is, it cannot include strips created after that.)

If you like those "oh, no" comics - and, let's be real, that's what you call them - you might as well check out the book. It's the same thing, just more of it, and we all know Americans can't get enough of more. (Note: Alex Norris is not American. This does not alter my point, but I say it because otherwise someone will attempt to win Internet Points by saying it first. No. All the Internet Points are mine, here on my very 2007-style blog.)

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Funny Things by Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi

There aren't all that many books where the format is an inspired choice - most books are what they are, arranged in the same way as a thousand others much like them. Every so often, you see a novel in epic verse, or a non-fiction book of advocacy that's basically one big infographic, but those are rare.

Funny Things is part of that rare company: it may take a couple of pages to realize it, but this biography of Charles M. "Peanuts" Schulz is laid out like a book of Peanuts strips. Generally six dailies - though it starts with a short week of five - and then a Sunday, over and over again, just like Schulz's own working life for fifty years.

The subtitle gives that away, if you catch the reference: it's called "A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz." But that's easy to miss; it's not like "a comic strip biography" is an established thing. Maybe it should be - I don't know if other creators could do something as interesting as Luca Debus (co-writer and artist) and Francesco Matteuzzi (co-writer) do here, but it's a great concept, and great concepts deserve to be used more than once.

(Is this the first big biography of Schulz since the Michaelis Schulz and Peanuts prose book back in 2007? I just checked my old ComicMix review of that from back in the day to remind myself of how someone else showed the contours of Schulz's life, and was reminded of the kerfuffle over how Michaelis portrayed Schulz's divorce. Luca and Matteuzzi are more allusive here - much less specific - but they seem to be telling the same story Michaelis did.)

As usual for a biography, Funny Things spends the bulk of its space covering Schulz's pre-fame life; the early years of toil and struggle are always more interesting than the fat years of fame and relentless work at a drawing board. Otherwise, it's a biography: it covers Schulz's life from childhood up to a few days before his death, in about as much detail as you'd expect from a biography in comics form. It all seemed reasonable, vaguely similar to the Michaelis and other things I've read about Schulz's life - Luca and Matteuzzi don't turn Schulz into an avatar of Snoopy or anything weird like that.

Luca draws this in a style reminiscent of Schulz without trying to mimic Schulz's character designs or linework, which is a good choice. It looks the most like Peanuts in the early going, of course, when Schulz and a lot of the people he interacts with are kids. Luca and Matteuzzi also signpost a lot of interesting moments or references - people named Van Pelt, Schroeder, and "Charlie Brown," for example - without making a big deal out of them. They're cartoonists; they're used to needing to keep words few and precise.

I didn't find the need for a "punchline" in every "strip" was a problem, but it might seem artificial to some readers - this is a book with a very particular rhythm and feeling, deeply baked into that idiosyncratic format. But that format is so appropriate for Schulz that I thought it strengthened the book: Schulz was a man who struggled with being happy, and one of the ways he found happiness was to make it, crafting a funny or thoughtful moment for every day of fifty years. So having that same rhythm, that same drive, built into the structure of the book itself underlined that core of Schulz's persona, giving a strong through-line to his story.

So this is a fine biography in a quirky, very successful format, about a creator worth celebrating who lived an interesting life. It's one of the more interesting drawn books this year, and I hope a lot of people find and enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Ashes by Álvaro Ortiz

I really like how cartoonists are no longer tied down to linear time. In the bad old days, a comics story might have a flashback - one big one, with huge caption boxes and every other signpost the creators could think of - but that was about it; the audience was assumed to be too young and/or unsophisticated to handle complicated transitions.

But I've read a number of books recently that play much fancier tricks with narrative and order-of-events, and all of them have been perfectly clear. Onion Skin, for example. The Bend of Luck.

Ashes isn't even that complex, in this company. It starts out with the comics equivalent of a cold open, setting the scene, and then has something like a flashback prologue to explain who the characters are and how they got into this situation. (It even plays a small trick with the narrator's voice, which I won't spoil.) The main body of the story is told in chapters, one for each day of this road trip, and then there's a leap forward at the end, in the way of a post-credits sequence. It does all that effortlessly and cleanly, telling this story in a slightly non-linear way to hit the right moments in the right order, which is what storytelling is all about. Again, I love that comics can do that these days, that it's equal to the older, more established media in its flexibility and options.

Álvaro Ortiz - not the golfer, I'm pretty sure, in the same way I am not the Wikipedia-notable Andrew Wheeler (hack, spit) - is the creator of Ashes; it was published in English earlier this year (though, if I'm reading the copyright page, originally came out in 2012 in Spain) and seems to be his first book to be translated. (This one was translated by Eva Ibarzabal.) I think, from internal evidence, that Ortiz was an established cartoonist in shorter forms before that, and I'm hoping, from the fact that Ashes just got translated in 2023, that he's had a successful career since then, with more books waiting to come over to my shores.

Because Ortiz comes across as quite assured and mature here, both in his story structures, as I just said, and his dot-eye cartoony drawings, which give me a distant echo of Guy Delisle. This may have been his first book, but it wasn't his first rodeo, if you get me.

Anyway, Ashes is the story of the three people on the cover: Piter, Moho, and Polly, reading left to right. They were friends, some years ago, but drifted apart since then. They're all around thirty, hitting that "what the heck do I do with the rest of my life?" moment in their own ways.

There was a fourth friend: Héctor. The three of them are on this road trip because of Héctor.

It's a slight spoiler why, but it's revealed very early, is alluded to by the title, and is central to the book. Héctor is dead; they're following his last wishes, to take his ashes somewhere specific to be scattered. There are interstitial pages, throughout the book, about the history of cremation, in various times and nations - Ortiz says in his backmatter that they were adapted from Lazaro Vitro's A Brief History of Cremation.

It's a long trip, several days of driving to get from "the city" to a much more rural area - Ortiz doesn't use place-names to make it more general; I assume this is set in Spain but it doesn't need to be. It's anywhere with at least one big city and stretches of wilder terrain, rivers and islands and roads connecting them all.

And the interpersonal drama of the three of them meeting again, bouncing off each other again, after several years apart isn't our only plot thread. There's a thriller element - never overwhelming, generally semi-serious - following them as well, tied closely to details in the lives of these three people. Eventually, they get to their destination, and find what Héctor hoped they would find there.

It ends well. It began well and went along well, so I expected that, but it's always great when everything clicks. I found the ending appropriate but maybe slightly too nice: it's one of those "everything went better than expected" endings. I am old and cynical; I tend to think nothing is ever better than expected, unless you're expecting utter disaster. But it's earned, I suppose, and it ties together a lot of moments and ideas earlier in the book.

So I recommend Ashes: it looks great, it moves well, it's smart and full of quirky people and interesting cremation facts, and the story is told precisely in a slightly unusual way that completely works.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Death of King Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory and Peter Ackroyd

My headline has echoes of "by William Shakespeare; additional dialog by Sam Taylor," I know. The book itself is clearer, though more wordy.

The title is The Death of King Arthur. The subtitle is Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur. And the by-line is "A retelling by Peter Ackroyd." That pretty much tells the tale - Ackroyd worked from Mallory's Middle English original, and did a modern English version of the text without exactly "translating" it or attempting to be overly faithful to the original.

And I have to confess: this is a book I got for review and neglected. For an entire decade. [1] (If I occasionally mention that I don't get books for review much anymore - and don't seem to be complaining, I hope, since I'm not - that's why. I was very bad at the actually reviewing things in a timely manner part of the gig, as well as the telling people I posted a review part, which is also pretty important.) My copy still has the cover letter, so, if Holly Watson is still out there doing publicity for book publishers, I'm very sorry.

Anyway. You know the story here: Mallory codified the various Arthurian legends up to his time - he died in 1471, this was published in 1485, and exactly when he wrote it is unclear and probably never will be clear. Mallory's version, from a bunch of French romances and Welsh legends and general English sources, has been the basis of most Arthuriana for the following five hundred years, from Steinbeck to Lerner and Loewe to Monty Python. (I was personally impressed by how many things I appreciated more in Monty Python and the Holy Grail from reading this: their randomly-murderous Lancelot is actually vastly more canonical than I knew.)

Ackroyd is a novelist and historian; I've read a few books of his over the years and still have a bookmark in his magisterial London: A Biography. He's a fine prose stylist and a deep thinker in his own works; I won't say that he's slumming here with Mallory, but the narrative is much more straightforward here than Ackroyd does on his own. (Knight goes here, fights other knight. It take two hours. One is killed, or not. Someone praises God and becomes a hermit. There's a vision of the Grail. That sort of thing.) The prose is Ackroyd: modern and clear, mostly, though with the flavor of medieval romance to suit the matter, which is entirely medieval romance, as it must be.

It follows the Mallory original, and the stories most of us know very well: first Arthur's birth and ascension to the throne, with Merlin and Uther Pendragon and so on, then some Lancelot stories, then Tristram and Isolde, the Grail quest and Galahad, then the whole Lancelot-Guinevere thing, and finally the ensuing war and death of most of the major characters (Arthur, Gwen, Gawain, and finally Lance to close it out).

Ackroyd is faithful to the religious tone of Mallory's original: they all praise God a lot and are firmly convinced that beating someone up in a joust proves that you're true and righteous, which is a comforting thing for bullies and the strong to believe in all ages. Ackroyd plays all of that straight: he's writing in modern language, but about medieval people, so they have the mindsets and obsessions of the Mallory original. This is not a recasting or modernization of the stories, just of the language - an engrossing, vastly easier to read, gripping, crisp version of Mallory that can be read and enjoyed and understood by modern audiences.

[1] Even worse than that, I think: I got the hardcover in 2011, replaced it with this paperback in 2012, and only got it down from the shelf in 2023. So it took two mailings and twelve years to get me to review it, which is not what any sensible publicist wants.

Monday, November 20, 2023

This Year: 2017

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

I edited SF and Fantasy books for more than a decade: I love a good apocalypse, and a good mythological reference. My song for 2017 has both of those.

This time out, I want to talk about Ragnarok by Charming Disaster.

It is what it says it is: a musical retelling of the Norse myth of Ragnarok - familiar to my generation from the legends of Don Blake and his alter ego - in a basically straightforward and myth-appropriate way. It gets big, because it's about the end of the world.

(Close readers may have noticed that a lot of these songs "get big" - well, the songs you remember for a long time, that are important and special. are going to be the ones that demand a lot and stake out a lot of ground, aren't they?)

Charming Disaster is another one of those bands with two singers, male and female, which is something that is absolutely lightning in a bottle when it works well. (Richard and Linda Thompson, for example. Closer to now, The Indelicates. Sometimes Low. And so on.) Charming Disaster songs regularly see the two of them trading lines back and forth, and that works brilliantly here.

maybe the wolves will eat the moon and the sun 
and we won’t have to face the consequences of the things we’ve done 

It's personal, too - this isn't just something happening, it's happening to these two characters, who have their own reasons for wanting or fearing the world to end.

go out and buy some cigarettes cause what the fuck 
you might as well enjoy yourself till ragnarok ragnarok

It's not my philosophy of life - oh, I appreciate it, but I never have or could live that way. But it's a great musical philosophy of life, and it rocks here. And that's all you need: a clever idea, good music, all done well.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Quote of the Week: That's a Metaphor, All Right

He was so exhausted that he could not trust his sense of relief. It was the relief of the tired mother when the baby stops crying at last; the realization of its death comes much later.

 - Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King, (p. 479 in Novels 1944-1962)

Friday, November 17, 2023

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman & Rafael Albuquerque

Neil Gaiman's most famous short stories are mostly from his earlier career (not entirely; he writes less short fiction these days but still does the same kind of thing) and at least mildly stunt-like - all stories where he said "what if I did this with that?" In the way of strong short fiction, they're carried equally by the idea itself and his crisp, precise prose - even thirty-plus years ago, Gaiman was a writer who chose just the right word, and only the right number of words.

Dark Horse has been turning those stories into graphic novels, adapted and drawn by various hands, for at least a decade now - mining all of his work with a tropism to the earlier collections, the ones that his fans know and have loved for some time. And I've been reading them, here and there: see my posts on Only the End of the World Again; Chivalry; Snow, Glass , Apples; Troll Bridge; and How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

In 2018, Rafael Albuquerque adapted a Gaiman story, as part of that loose series: A Study in Emerald. If you want to be reductive, it can be pigeonholed: this is the Holmes/Lovecraft pastiche.

And, as often with these adaptations, I find them good but somehow lesser than the originals. They're about as faithful adaptations as you can imagine, but even here no one tries to reproduce all of Gaiman's prose. It sometimes seems close, though: these are very faithful adaptations, since Gaiman's fans are legion and quite nitpicky. But, still, a short story is a flimsy thing, taut and precise - taking the same idea and running it in a different format, keeping the concept but not the prose, will always change it, and changing something already very strong will probably not make it better.

There may be spoilers from here on; frankly, saying this is "Lovecraftian" could be considered a spoiler. It was originally published in an anthology of Holmesian stories, though, so that's an absolute given. 

As the title implies, this is a riff on "A Study in Scarlet" - an unnamed, Holmesian consulting detective in Victorian London is brought in to investigate a strange death, of a minor German princeling. But, in this world, pretty much all of royalty are...well, not human. The Elder Gods rose a few centuries before, and put mankind under their (relatively benevolent, for a Lovecraftian story; there are no obvious pyramids of skulls) rule. Victoria is Cthulhu, more or less, and it seems that Nyalathotep and Hastur and the others have carved up the human world, in a way that seems much more polite and genteel than would be natural for those vast and unsympathetic entities.

But that's the premise, and we have to allow stories their premises. The detective is smart and incisive and deduces vast amounts (correctly!) from tiny bits of evidence, but...that would be even more of a spoiler.

Again, it's originally a short story, so it's a smart idea, deployed well and quickly. The joy is in the discovery, in seeing somewhat familiar things transformed - just a bit, not too far, so that they're still mostly familiar. And, as usual, I like the books in this series while still finding they tend to flatten their originals just slightly.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Last Days of Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Stefano Simeone

A cynical reader, such as me, could look at that title and think "oh, good, they're finally ending this repetitive superhero waffling that never actually goes anywhere." But that reader would be wrong.

This is not "last" in the sense of anything actually ending. This is a superhero "last," meaning it's about something in the past, and retelling a story already at least half-told multiple times before - but now telling it in greater detail. Even more so, what we have here pretends to be the actual issues of the 1986-era comic in which the original Black Hammer snuffed it, with covers that have fake high numbers and everything.

So The Last Days of Black Hammer is actually a prequel to nearly all of the Black Hammer stories we've already seen. (Black Hammer '45 takes place almost entirely before this, as does Barbalien: Red Planet, but I think those are the only ones - OK, maybe Doctor Andromeda, too.)

The whole premise of the entire vast Black Hammer-i-verse was that there was a big superhero fight (cough Crisis! cough) against the "Anti-God," who looks nothing like Darkseid, in the sky over Spiral City, which apparently also turned the skies of the rest of the world red, because that's the thing comics geeks still latch onto from Crisis even thirty years later, and that the Greatest Hero of All Time, Black Hammer, whacked said Anti-God with his big, um, Black Hammer, and that made the Anti-God go all "ouchie!" and run away forever and forever but also alas! killed Black Hammer in the same way that every superhero dies at least once.

For the dull ones in back: Black Hammer is the Silver Age Flash. He died so worlds can live. Got it? (Character-wise, he's actually more like the Black Racer crossed with Thor, but that's a different kind of derivative-ness.)

This pretends to be the 1986-era issues 234-237 issues of the Black Hammer comic book, including both a "hero no more!" and an "all-new! all-different!" cover, plus the double-sized epic conclusion. There's also a coda or epilogue at the end, outside that "old comics" schema, to show how Sad it all was, how Important was The Sacrifice of Black Hammer To Save Us All, and that His Daughter had to Grow Up Without a Father, Alas! 

Otherwise, though, this is exactly what we already know and what we expect. Black Hammer is conflicted, and wants to give up hitting things with a big hammer to Spend More Time With His Family Before It Is Too Late. But, alas! He Is Needed, because The Bad Guys Will Destroy The World And Only Black Hammer Can Stop Them. The superhero group that still doesn't have a name - the Spiral City Sluggers? the Saviors? the Bad Guy Whompers? the Fabulous Dudes? - more or less breaks up after the events of the first "issue" here, having stopped what was believed to be Their Greatest Threat, and several of them need to be brought back out of retirement - quickly, perfunctorily - for the big ending.

Reader, there is nothing here you will not predict, nothing that gives a true moment of surprise or wonder, nothing that isn't entirely derivative and utterly pre-determined. This is a piece of product, an engineered jigsaw puzzle piece that slots in exactly in the middle of all of the other pieces to make a bland picture of people punching each other.

I usually praise creator Jeff Lemire's writing when I talk about these books, though I know it feels like faint praise. (He can, and does, do a lot better than this. But the Black Hammer books are professional, and the characters are as dimensional as anything in generic superhero-dom can be.) This time, the art is from Stefano Simone, who has a looser, sketchier line that might not quite say "1986 Big Event Comics" to me, but it's energetic and fun and doesn't look like fifty years of superhero comics, so I count that as a plus.

But, as always, I question the whole point of the exercise. We know everything here already. Last Days adds nothing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell

I don't claim to be an expert in everything I read. Sometimes I have history or experience that's relevant. Sometimes I'm just a reader, finally getting to something I maybe should have read decades ago. But I like writing here about the books I just read to crystalize the thoughts that book inspired - positive or negative, interesting or banal, useful or ridiculous.

I've never read Dawn Powell before. I had two volumes of her novels, in gorgeous green-cloth Library of America editions, sitting on a shelf for a decade or two - long enough ago that I've never mentioned her on this blog at all. She was a novelist of the interwar and post-war era, one of the many who came from somewhere else (Ohio, in her case) to New York and wrote largely about New York. She had a cutting tongue and an unflinching eye, two things I've always admired in writers; I thought I wanted to read her works for a long time, and I finally did.

The Locusts Have No King is her 1948 novel, considered one of her best and most characteristic. (I did a little research, weighing this one against A Time to Be Born and finally choosing Locust because I found its kaleidoscopic first paragraph meatier.)

In the cliché of literary fiction, it's the story of one affair: married playwright Lyle Gaynor, female despite the confusing name, has taken up quietly with literary essayist Frederick Olliver. Most of the main plot of the novel, such as it is - it's more a swirling social satire than a straightforwardly plotted novel - is about how they separate for a while but eventually come back together.

(In a way, it feels like the relationship version of that old plot, where a bad character reforms and a good character goes to hell, and they pass each other along the way - except that Lyle and Frederick somewhat switch social circles and outlooks on life for a while. They're both bad or both good, I suppose - Powell doesn't really do absolutes like that.)

We are not meant to sympathize with Lyle's husband and collaborator Alan, who is cruel and obnoxious to her in the few scenes where we see him. He's an invalid - some kind of leg injury put him in a wheelchair, years before, and turned him from an actor/director into the weak link in the playwriting Gaynor marriage - though that does make him an echo of Lady Chatterly's Sir Clifford, which I have to assume is on purpose. (Alan is assumed to be incapable of seduction, by Lyle as by everyone else, though that turns out, very late in the novel, not to be true.)

We are meant to like Lyle and Frederick equally: she's smart and hard-working, social but not snobbish. He's a bit of a stuffed shirt, but in an endearing way - devoted to doing his work well and, as the novel begins, just coming up for air after finishing a major work that is described very vaguely and never even given a title. (It seems to be non-fiction of some kind, maybe some kind of wide-range literary criticism shading into social history.)

So they have been having an affair, which is mostly secret. In what I think may be a typical piece of Powell irony, rumors only start to circulate about the two of them after they're not longer seeing each other. They have some tension, mostly involving their social sets - Lyle is plugged into a fairly commercial literary/high society/Broadway world, which Frederick claims to detest. Frederick in turn is central in a more downtown, "authentic" literary world anchored by Edwin Stalk and the small Swan magazine.

Lyle seems to be happy in the affair; Frederick, though, suffers pains in Lyle's world, where he has to spend a lot of time slightly distanced from her:

But being too reasonable to wish for complete fulfilment did not keep the denial from corroding inside you, until the constant analysis bared a torturing sense of injustice. Even in this resentful mood he could not stay away from her, must follow her to any party, be introduced again and again to people interested only in flamboyant success, be conscious of his inadequate tailoring, lack of small talk and find himself shamed by a fretful desire for millions merely to avoid adolescent humiliation. (p. 253 in Novels 1944-1962)

But Frederick has two big upheavals in his life: second, his work at the publishing house run by Benedick Strafford - formerly mostly ceremonial, as an editorial advisor to the list - is increased when he's given the crude but popular magazine Haw, just bought by Strafford's, to edit. And, first, he meets Dodo Brennan, a much younger woman just arrived in New York and on the hunt for men. She is demanding and coquettish and frankly horrible in a lot of ways, but Frederick is weirdly fascinated - perhaps because they met in a bar and no one in this novel thinks straight when drunk, and they're drinking all the time - so Frederick ends up taking up with Dodo.

(This is not exclusive. I don't think there's a single relationship in the novel that is within spitting distance of exclusive. Everyone is obsessed with someone else, except for the few who are obsessed with Art or Money. And probably them, too, come to think of it.)

Frederick starts avoiding Lyle, and things spin from there. At the same time, the various complications surrounding Frederick's roommate Murray Cahill also pile up, circling the same parties and dinners and bars and people as Lyle and Frederick's sets. Murray's ex-wife Gerda hits town, looking to rekindle things just as he has a young painter, Judy Dahl, more-or-less living in their apartment and has mostly disentangled himself from two other women, Caroline and Lorna, one of whom is Gerda's old best friend and the other one lives next door. (And Caroline and Lorna are also close friends, for most of the novel.)

There are a lot of characters and a lot of scenes and a lot of great sentences - I dog-eared five quotes, when I usually try to limit myself to two - but not a clear obvious plot. This is a book about people who keep getting involved - professionally, romantically, randomly - with each other, with positive and negative changes to their lives along the way. It all rolls out over what seems to be more than a year, though the timeline is deliberately vague.

I should also mention that these people don't necessarily like each other - even the ones having affairs seem, often, to have more hate than love. And, as a group, they have deep wells of scorn and dislike. For one example:

Both were astonished to discover themselves linked in the warmest friendship by mutual dislike of their host. To Strafford, his first visit to the Beckley home was a needling reminder of his own inadequacies in business. … Frederick's feelings were similar; in Strafford he saw the only person here besides Lyle who remembered his name and respected (without quite understanding) his talents. (p.261 in Novels 1944-1962)

It's a book of thoughts and gossip and people's conceptions of themselves and each other, a book set in and around the literary world in its various incarnations - small magazine, commercial publishing house, Broadway, the improving lecture series - that is quite happy to satirize and disparage every single one of those worlds. (But quietly, in an undertone, so that you could miss the blade if you're not paying attention.)

I enjoyed it, and found the characters true and well-drawn, even if I felt they were left at a distance. The writing is wonderful, full of amusing thoughts and deep insights and quirky takes. It's not a novel for everyone - I think Powell is a novelist you have to want to read; you need to be interested in that kind of satire and literary polish - but it's deep and capacious for a relatively short book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Finder: Five Crazy Women by Carla Speed McNeil

This was the eighth storyline from Carla Speed McNeil's Finder series, and, if I'm reading correctly, the breakpoint where she transitioned from initial publication as floppy-comics issues to page-by-page on the web. Also, as a technical matter, it was last available as the back quarter of The Finder Library, Vol. 2 and is now deeply out of print in all formats, so it's neither a good starting point for the series nor one that readers are likely to stumble over.

I've found McNeil's world-building intriguing and occasionally frustrating; she has extensive notes in the Library editions but tends to focus on anthropological details, which never come anywhere near answering my questions about the world. (This time out, the big one is: how are these domed cities actually constructed? Her notes talk about "towns stacked on top of each other" and looking up at the "undersides of buildings," without any hint of a superstructure to keep those buildings up in the air. [1] There are also streets with fast vehicle traffic in the middle of these cities, which makes it seem more like a blown-up version of downtown Chicago than a traditional futuristic domed city. My central concern keeps being that everything feels contingent and jury-rigged, that nothing in this world was ever planned or organized or engineered by anyone, that there's no government or controlling authority of anything, anywhere.)

On the other hand, this is the book where series hero Jaeger is finally called out on his (central, annoying) bullshit. So, even though I'm reading this close to twenty years after McNeil made these stories, she anticipated at least some of the things that I've been writing about Finder.

Speaking of which, here's the back-links: Library Vol. 1, Dream SequenceMystery Date, and The Rescuers. Oh, and also Talisman, which I read as a one-off a decade ago and then re-read in the first Library edition.

So: I'm going to take as read all of the background questions and arguments I've been having with this series, in all of those old posts.

This time, Jaeger is back in Anvard, and looking to find some girl to sleep with for a day or so, as he always is. The book is called Five Crazy Women, but, frankly...well, you know the old saying? Meet an asshole in the morning, you met an asshole. Meet assholes all day long, you're the asshole.

Every girl Jaeger meets, everywhere, all the time, is crazy. You get it. [2]

There's a loose frame story of Jaeger talking about his woman troubles with an old friend - who is a gay guy, so McNeil can side-step any sense of competition or immediately relevant "here's what I would do."

As usual with McNeil, there are anthropological reasons behind everything. Jaeger is a half-Ascian (the name-swapped Noble Savages Native Americans of this far-future world), whose central, unbreakable fate in life - Finder is stuffed full of such things, on every goddamn page - is to be a sin-eater. That means he's seemingly even more nomadic than normal for Ascian men, and that the hot young Ascian women - I may be reading between the lines here - are not interested in him, though their aunts may be.

But hot young city girls see him as exotic and exciting - at least the crazy ones do, since he's the kind of guy who comes to town unexpectedly, crashes at a girl's house to fuck her, clean up, and disappear in the morning, and repeats with as many girls as he can manage before running off somewhere else to do some violence.

At the beginning of this book, though, his little black book is failing him. He calls some expected good prospects, but multiple girls - presumably previously hot and young and crazy, conquests in a previous trip to town - have settled down enough that unpredictable sexy asshole from the sticks calling her out of the blue looking for a piece of bed and a piece of ass is no longer an enticing proposition. So he gets called out, he gets shouted at, he gets the "how dare you" reaction.

And, of course, this means they are crazy.

Luckily for Jaeger, he's still young enough - I'm thinking maybe thirty here, probably not quite that - and enticing enough that there's still a solid number of hot young crazy girls willing to take him home. He meets a new crazy girl in the course of this story, and is stuck with her for longer than usual because he managed to get himself seriously injured.

In the end, he doesn't learn anything, as we expected. He will get older, though - I think, he has some kind of minor healing factor that might keep him young-looking semi-permanently, which would alter my predictions - and find that hot young crazy city girls who also have daddy issues are not just even more crazy but also somewhat scarcer. And their aunts and mothers will probably start warning them about Jaeger...which, come to think of it, is probably enticing to the craziest ones. But that's all concerns for the future: right now, Jaeger got his wick dipped and he's about to head out of town, just like always.

I found this to be lighter in tone than a lot of the Finder stories; Jaeger has plot armor in ways the other characters don't, so we know he'll always come out in the end, exactly the same as he went in. Though, in the end, he may be a charismatic, talented, interesting asshole...but he's still an asshole.

[1] Though, at work, I've just been connected to someone who used to work for a company that I'm told figured out how to "build skyscrapers from the top down," so maybe it's me that's unimaginative here.

[2] From the evidence here, I also tentatively conclude that crazy girls have an expressed preference for cowgirl. Further research is clearly warranted, so if the committee funds this grant request, I will....

Monday, November 13, 2023

This Year: 2016

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

2015 was a scratch, like 1971 - as I was making this list, I ended with fifty-two songs, exactly matching the weeks of the year, and thought that was exactly what I wanted. So I jump forward two years this week, to 2016.

I wanted a song by Lydia Loveless on this list, and for a while I thought it would be Head, which is quietly devastating, or maybe European, which could come across as a joke to some people. (It isn't: or, rather, it's the kind of joke someone makes in the moment to play off a moment of pure emotional honesty that hits so horribly wrong.) Boy Crazy is a lot of fun; her cover of Elvis Costello's Allison is lovely; Can't Change Me and More Like Them might be more quintessential Loveless attitude.

But, instead, it came down to Same To You. I've had a lot of break-up songs this year, but this one, well - can you break something that wasn't in one piece to begin with?

Well is there nothing I could do to make you look at me that way again?
I’m not gonna fall in love with you man but if that’s really it
Could you just wave goodbye?

I like the tension in this song, the way it feels like the singer gives as good as she gets - both I’ll have to take a few so I don’t talk back and That’s where I almost killed you but honey give me one more chance. The relationship isn't clear - probably on purpose. This could be new and not clicking, it could be old and falling apart.

(It reminds me, a bit, of the "Alpha Couple" from a lot of Mountain Goats songs, especially the record Talahassee. This is another couple that isn't good for each other, though not as pyrotechnically.)

One last thing: I always heard the refrain as If it's the same to you, then I'm gone.

But the lyrics on the Bandcamp page have it as If it's the same to you that I'm gone, making the whole refrain a longer, more complicated question.

And that's what I love about great songs: they have further depths, more questions. As this one does, they open up instead of closing down.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Quote of the Week: Today, in Confusing Theatrical Terms Used Blithely

Lady Malvern was a hearty, happy, healthy, overpowering sort of dashed female, not so very tall but making up for it by measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side. She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built around her by some one who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest," (p.78 in Enter Jeeves)

Friday, November 10, 2023

Enter Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Some books exist because they could; this is one of them.

Someone - presumably editor David A. Jasen, though also possibly some functionary at Dover Publications - realized, in the late '90s, that the first eight Jeeves stories were all published before 1923, and therefore already in the public domain, in that long period where nothing was entering the PD each year.

But those eight stories would only add up to about 130 pages, which would be an awfully slim book.

Wodehouse, though, was very prolific, and had another series of stories, somewhat similar, and just prior to those earliest Jeeves-and-Wooster pieces: 7 stories about a somewhat dim young man named Reggie Pepper, who had wodges of the stuff, friends with romantic complications, but no near-supernatural valet to navigate all of that.

The Reggie Pepper stories were also already in the public domain, and PD was Dover's bread-and-butter. (I saw "was," but I think they're still out there; I hope so. They were never big, or major, but they republished a lot of quirky, interesting stuff over the years and I love having a Dover Publications in the world.)

And so Enter Jeeves was born. It collects first those eight Jeeves stories, mostly from The Saturday Evening Post and originally published between 1915 and 1921, and then the seven Reggie Pepper stories, which appeared various places from 1911 to 1915.

Wodehouse was in his early thirties and fairly well established as a writer by that point; he'd moved from his early school stories into comedy with the first Ukridge and Psmith stories, and was writing for a lot of the top magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, living on the New York side as much as in England. (Wodehouse's is a deliberately archaic, unreal, story-book world: it is a world of England rather than the UK.) So these are reasonably mature works: both groups of stories see him casting about to find comic material and trying out different premises, but all are funny and written with his customary tone and energy.

Things shifted later, but, in these stories, Bertie Wooster was not so much a general dim bulb reliant on Jeeves as he was a fashion plate whose horrible decisions in the matter of socks, hats, and ties needed to be overruled by the ends of each story. That was a thin row to hoe, so it's pretty clear why Wodehouse found his way out of it - but he makes it work for the course of these stories.

Reggie was even less defined, just a first-person voice that was vaguely aristocratic in that Wodehouse way, young and upstanding and silly. His background shifts back and forth across the Atlantic during the stories: he's English in most of them, but American for at least one in the middle. He's also resident variously in London and New York with no explanation. (The Jeeves stories take place primarily in New York, but that's built into the premise and explained: I assume that means Wodehouse learned from the Reggie pieces and set out to be a bit more consistent the next time.)

Organizing the book with Jeeves before Reggie tends to put the good stuff up front; the Reggie stories are clearly more minor, decent work but eventually a dead end in Wodehouse's career. Oh, it's all breezy Wodehouse fun, so I don't recommend stopping in the middle, but anyone coming to this book should know that Reggie is just inherently less interesting than Bertie, though his plots get more convoluted and his stories tend to end with more of a snapper.

I believe the Jeeves stories have also been collected, at least once, in a big omnibus of all the short Jeeves-and-Wooster work: anyone who wants a deeper dive should look for one of those books. But this one is cheap, available, fun, and does everything it says it will.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto by Jean-David Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, David Evrard, and Walter

I'm treating this as a book made for younger readers - which I think is true - but it touches on a lot of things that a lot of adults would be hesitant to lay in front of children. It definitely not a book for young children, or any particular sensitive ones. But the world is vast and full of cruelty, which children need to learn as soon as is reasonable: this could help show that it's not just full of cruelty.

Irena Sendlerowa was one of the last-discovered heroes of WWII. She worked for the Social Welfare Department of Warsaw, Poland, where - to be blunt about it - she spearheaded a vast conspiracy that snuck 2,5000 children out of the Jewish Ghetto and saved their lives over the course of the war. [1] She was discovered, imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis late in 1943, but didn't give up any of her compatriots. After leaving prison, she worked as a nurse for the end of the war and was wounded then. And she went on to a long career in public service, mostly for children, after the war, only dying in 2008 at nearly a hundred.

Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto collects two French albums, of a six-book series (there are two further US editions, collecting the rest), telling Sendlerowa's story. It was written by Jean-David Morvan and Séverine Tréfouël, drawn by David Evrard, colored by Walter, and translated by Dan Christensen.

I think the second volume tells the story of the end of the war, and probably the immediate aftermath. The third volume seems to cover the rest of Sendlerowa's long life, and how she became famous outside Poland much later - Israeli accolades began in the 1960s, and American attention followed in the late '90s, which, as usually happens, brought her to the attention of the rest of the Westernized world.

But this book is the core of her story: 1940 to 1943. The beginnings of the conspiracy, how it ran, the dangers they were in, the tightening grip of the occupying Nazis on the ghetto, and on all Poles. Her torture happens on these pages, and is presented tastefully but without flinching.

There's a two-page spread, about half-way into the first album, with a map of the ghetto, a few comics panels, and text boxes detailing the relentless encroachment of Nazi controls on Jewish life from 1939 to 1943, showing how the noose was set - businesses confiscated, curfews instated, removal to the ghetto, the required armband, death sentences to Poles trying to help Jews escape - on and on and on. There are other, equally crystalline moments here, but that's the best, first one: the one that sparks the "what would you do" thoughts.

Sendlerowa was a hero, period. At great cost to herself - she was very nearly executed - she not only did her job (feeding the poor of the ghetto, taking care of their health) but actively fought against an evil occupying army attempting to genocide her fellow Varsovians. And this book tells a clear, focused version of her story, as appropriate for young readers as it's capable of being.

Evrard uses a cartoony style which softens it a bit - just enough to make it bearable, which a more realistic or action-adventure style would crush. This is about the ones who survived, because it's about Sendlerowa and the children - mostly babies, as we see it here - she smuggled out. But the ones who didn't survive are behind them, in their long line, in our heads, throughout.

[1] The clearest proof that their lives were saved is that, according to all accounts, when after the war the records of the children were unearthed (literally), essentially none of them could be connected to living relatives: the children were the only survivors of their families.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Tin Man by Justin Madison

First up, I have to answer the question I had when I picked up this book: yes, that tin man. Well, one of those tin men, to be clearer.

Justin Madison's debut graphic novel Tin Man is set in a version of L. Frank Baum's Oz, and his tin man, Campbell, has the familiar shape and form Americans expect from their tin men since 1939. But that's not particularly clear at the beginning of the story, and it's never important. It's something bigger than an Easter egg, I guess, since there are plenty of references to Baum here, but it's all background.

We're in a recognizably modern world: suburbia, TV news, two-paycheck families, junkyards, high school students who play video games and hang out to do mischief. The land is called Oz, which is mentioned but not emphasized. It looks mostly like our world, with a few tweaks.

There's a major space industry, and people can build space-capable ships in their backyards, in best Tom Swift fashion. Kids can aspire to get out of their dead-end towns by getting into the very selective VASTE Institute, something like a STEM magnet high school with much more emphasis on spaceships and big wrenches.

But they're still kids, and that's what Tin Man is about. Three young people who each want something - though they don't all exactly know what they want, when the book begins - who meet, and who each find something like what they want (or need) by the end.

One of them is Campbell, the tin man. He grew up with his people, in the forest, chopping down trees. But he heard of a wizard, in a far-off city, who makes mechanical hearts for tin men that allows them to feel, and Campbell wanted that for himself. His father didn't understand why; they fought; Campbell ran away. There's a bit more to the story, but that comes out in the course of the book.

Campbell meets Fenn in a junkyard. Campbell is there: living or hanging out or just existing. Fenn is a local kid, maybe ten or so. He's obsessed with space; his hero is Jed Astro, a famous explorer. And Fenn is picking through junkyards as he tries to build a spaceship himself - he finds a mechanical heart, he befriends Campbell, he's the glue that pulls this story together.

The third character is Fenn's older sister, Solar. She used to be an academic whiz, head of the class at her high school, recruited for VASTE. But she's hanging with the stoners and bullies now, dating the worst of them: slacking off, skipping school, avoiding work and responsibility, looking to get a job at a local garage and give up on all expectations.

Fenn wants his old sister back: the one who cared about space and science and the future. The one that worked with him and was good at the same things he cares about.

Solar wants... Well, she used to want to go to VASTE, to go to space, to get out of this town and make something of herself. Now, she doesn't seem to want anything.

Campbell wants that mechanical heart, we think - but we learn that he'd already gotten it, and how that went.

Meanwhile, Terrible Twisters are running through Oz, getting closer. And Solar's new friends - especially her boyfriend, Merrick, their leader - are mean and destructive and getting worse. And we learn why Solar changed, what happened in her life (and Fenn's) recently that soured her on life.

And they all get what they want, or maybe need, at the end, as the twisters hit and Merrick continues to be a horrible human being and Fenn's homemade spaceship turns out to be unexpectedly useful.

Madison has a somewhat indy-comics style, a little grungy, with dot eyes: it reminds me a little of Jeff Lemire, though not that grungy. His places are real, his people expressive, his colors crisp and bright. And he's just sneaky enough, with his Oz references and unobtrusive storytelling, for a reader like me who eats that stuff up. Tin Man is another one of the flood of recent graphic stories aimed at teens, but, like the best of that flood, it's not limited to them.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

In Waves by A.J. Dungo

A.J. Dungo obscures the central theme of his first graphic novel for a long time. The cover copy only hints at it. I have to assume that's all on purpose. And, to be a fair reviewer, I feel like I should do the same.

But know that In Waves is a true story, that it's about something major and important in Dungo's life - I hate to say "that happened to him," for reasons that would only be clear to people who've read the book - and that is related to but very distinct from what In Waves says it is about. I might say a little more, at the very end here, if I can do it without spoiling.

In Waves says it's about surfing. And it is: it's a four-hundred page graphic novel that largely traces the history of the sport, from pre-contact Hawaii through the greats of the early twentieth century.  It's informed and interesting, a cultural history rather than the story of a sport's winners and rules and contests. But that's just one-half of the book; as the minimal back-cover copy puts it, the other half of In Waves consists of Dungo's "personal narrative of love, loss, and the solace of surfing."

Dungo came late to surfing, personally, despite - as far as I can see - growing up in Sothern California, somewhere near the beach. His girlfriend, Kristen, loved to surf, as did many other members of her family, so that's how Dungo got into it. That half of the book is the personal part, the part I'm going to avoid talking in detail about. It is a narrative of loss, in the end - Dungo constructs the story so the loss happens about mid-way through the book, but it's clear from early on that this will not be an entirely happy story.

Dungo tells those two stories on crisp light pages - the present-day storyline in a green-blue, a couple of shades lighter than the cover, and the past in a similarly light amber. He gives them both lots of pages, plenty of room to tell the story, to have small moments in both timeframes. The modern story is more personal, more immediate than the historical one, as of course it has to be. The historical story is mostly background or explanation: what this all means, the deeper history or significance, and maybe what Dungo researched and learned about to process that loss. But the core of In Waves is his story, as it should be.

Monday, November 06, 2023

This Year: 2014

"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 back to the old well again: another song of heartbreak and desolation. It's the kind of song I love best, I think.

And this is a great one, from a fine songwriter who also has a lovely voice just right for her material, especially this song: breathy and quiet, already devastated.

For 2014, I want to tell you about Let Me Go by Kate Tucker and the Sons of Sweden.

It’s my fault
It’s your fault
If you don’t give a damn
Forget about it

It's a break-up song; it starts quietly. If you know anything about break-ups, you understand it won't stay quiet.

There's a chugging drum line that starts in right after the first verse. I want to say it picks up speed, a bit at a time, as the song goes on, but I may be mishearing power and volume for speed. This is a song that gets bigger and bigger, more and more demanding, verse by chorus by verse, as Tucker runs through this break-up moment.

It's not even a strident break-up song: Tucker isn't complaining or listing faults, just talking about this moment and how everything is broken and irreparable.

And it doesn't get that loud: just loud enough. Just clear enough. Just, precisely, to be clear how entirely over it all is, right at this moment.

Find a fire to light
Go set your flares off in the night
I’ll be miles out of sight
Cause you just let me go like that

And it's all done in three-and-a-half minutes, that perfect pop-song length.

You go you go
You go on down
You dream you dream
You dream out loud
You eat your heart out