Friday, April 19, 2024

Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima

I read this whole series once, when everyone else did, starting in 2000 when this translation was originally published in the US. (I should note here that this volume - I think the whole series - was translated by Dana Lewis.)

But that's more than twenty years ago now, and I thought something like, "You know, maybe a twenty-eight volume series of three-hundred-page books about a guy chopping off heads, accompanied by his never-aging toddler son, set three hundred and fifty years ago in Japan, would be a fun reading project for 2024." So here I am, at the beginning of one of the acknowledged masterpieces of Japanese comics, and of world comics in general.

I probably won't have a lot to say. This series is remarkably resistant to commentary: it is what it is, and it is intensely itself. I gather it is the pinnacle of a whole style or genre of comics, one which was already mostly of historical interest in Japan when the US translation appeared - this is work from the early 1970s, back at the other end of my life, fifty years ago.

So what can I say about Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road? It was not the first collaboration between Kazuo Koike (writer) and Goseki Kojima (artist), but it was their longest, most fruitful project together. That's how canonical works work: they set the tone and the standard, and everything else is compared to them, generally as criticism.

This book contains nine stories, mostly around thirty pages long. It begins with our main characters already in their wandering life; we don't get the explanation until deep into this volume. But we do learn, eventually, that Ogami Ittō was once the shogun's executioner, one of the three main powers of the state, and that the head of the Yagyu ninja clan - the shogun's secret police, basically, another one of those three powers - betrayed him, framed him for treason, and set him up for death. Of course, Ittō instead fought his way free, with his infant son, and now wanders Japan as an assassin for hire.

As I recall, most of the stories are random jobs, like any series about a protagonist who wanders to do things. The central conflict comes back, again and again, and is concluded in the last volume - but that's about eight thousand pages in the future at this point. That's certainly the pattern here: one or two backstory tales, mostly wandering.

All of it is deeply atmospheric, both visually - in that slow-paced way that was such a shock to American audiences when we first saw it - and thematically, as Koike sets his story completely within the mindset of the people of the time. There is no winking, no modern viewpoint, no frame story: this is Ittō's world entirely, and all of the moral choices and societal attitudes are his, all from his point of view.

And he is declaredly on the road to hell, of his own will, to find his vengeance and die.

American comics readers now live in a world with many more options; we've all seen a lot of manga by now. Lone Wolf and Cub may not be as different as it was in 2000, not as stark a contrast - but I think it is still so much its own thing, so well-defined and fully-realized, that is is still as powerful and compelling. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario by Daniel Pinkwater

I've written about Daniel Pinkwater a lot here: see Borgel for my most recent attempt, or just plumb the archives for more. The short version: he's been writing quirky, smart books, ostensibly for an audience of Young Adult or Middle Grade readers, for about fifty years at this point. If you grew up during that period, I hope you found Pinkwater books at the time: if you're reading my blog now, you're probably exactly the right kind of reader for his work.

If you didn't grow up reading Pinkwater, well, are you really sure you're done growing up? There's still time.

I just re-read Pinkwater's 1979 novel Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario, for the first time in probably twenty years. It's currently available in the omnibus 4 Fantastic Novels, alongside three other, well, fantastic books by Pinkwater.

This is the one in which young Eugene Winkleman is living with his Uncle Mel for the summer while his parents take an all-expenses-paid vacation to Europe that they won:

The second prize was a home videotape machine. I would have liked it better if they had won that, because I could have started a collection of science-fiction movies. But they won the trip, and off they went[.]

But then Uncle Mel has to go to Rochester, New York for work - he works on horrible-sounding vending machines that dispense things that are almost entirely unlike food - and brings Eugene with him for those two weeks.

Eugene is just a kid, so at first he doesn't have much to do in downtown Rochester while Mel is doing his training. He goes to the library and reads a bit, trying to avoid the oppressive summer heat. He's worried that he's going to be pretty bored, and not find any other kids to hang out with.

He doesn't find any other kids, but he's not bored.

Eugene sees a documentary and then reads a book, both about Professor Ambrose McFwain, head of a local scientific institute that searches for strange monsters - such as the monster of the title, supposedly resident in the local Great Lake. Eugene, somewhat bored, reaches out to the professor, and is hired as a research assistant for the next two weeks - which McFwain promises will be an exciting time in monster-hunting.

As usual, the Pinkwaterian plot gets more complicated and silly from there, bringing in the eccentric billionaire Colonel Ken Krenwinkle, who sells used cars one day a year and hunts rare and interesting cars whenever he can. Eventually, they're all out on Lake Ontario, at night, looking for the mysterious monster.

They find something, of course. It's not what they expect. It's not what you the reader expects, either. I won't say more than that. There is a big silly ending, as there must be, and it all works out pretty well for everyone involved. 

As always, with Pinkwater, the point is to explore a big, weird world, full of quirky people and ideas - a world that is both weirder and stranger than ours but paradoxically more understandable and friendlier. A world where lakes will obviously have monsters in them, where billionaires do oddball things, and where multiple overlapping businesses can operate out of the basement of a factory making suits for fat men. If you ever wished you lived in a world like that, you are a born Pinkwater reader.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Our Encounters With Evil by Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

This one is the middle, so of course I got to it last.

There seems to be a recent omnibus of the Mignola/Johnson-Cadwell books under almost exactly the same title, which will be somewhat confusing, but what I just read was the original 2019 book Our Encounters with Evil, the second book of the adventures of the intrepid Victorian-era vampire hunters Professor J.T. Meinhardt and Mr. Knox.

Meinhardt and Knox first appeared in Mr. Higgins Comes Home, battling one specific vampire, and then later appeared in Falconspeare, mostly listening to the vampire-fighting tales of the title character of that book. This time, we get to see them in multiple bits of action - Encounters includes several stories of monster-hunting, most of them also including their compatriot Ms. Mary Van Sloan.

Mike Mignola created these characters originally, and wrote Mr. Higgins, but the follow-up books are all Johnson-Cadwell, under only a Mignola cover. (So I wonder if Johnson-Cadwell also somewhat rewrote or adapted the first book, since they all have the same tone.) This is mostly serious monster-hunting, but not quite fully serious monster hunting; there's a background assumption or tone that something is faintly off, or the whole exercise is just a bit silly, or that we've all seen this so many times before that we know exactly how it will happen.

Not funny. Nowhere near a parody. But aware of itself as a genre exercise, just a bit, mostly in tone.

Since core Mignola tends to be deeply serious - with the usual comic-book-people-punching-each-other kinds of quippy humor to lighten it up - that makes these books substantially different in tone, like a nice cup of sorbet after a big meal.

I could talk about the separate stories, but what's the point? This is the middle. If light, not-quite-serious monster-fighting sounds appealing, just take a look at Mr. Higgins. Assuming you enjoy that, you'll be here soon enough: they're all short books. Johnson-Cadwell has an energetic line, just a couple of clicks towards cartoony, in a vaguely European-looking style - like some BD series you've heard of vaguely but never quite tracked down. And otherwise it's vaguely in the Mignola canon: vampires and odder beasts rampaging through the landscapes of "the Balkans," battled by adventurers in sensible garb and a giant pile of mostly-lethal apparatus.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The People of the Abyss by Jack London

Jack London was a socialist, of course. Casual readers can forget that - and his books often phrase things in ways that will tend to make modern readers miss his expected ends - but several of his major works only make sense in that context.

This is one of them: The People of the Abyss, a 1903 non-fiction book based on a few months of living in London, mostly the worst sections of the East End, and investigating the lives of the urban poor. London's conclusion basically says that the rich should have their fortunes seized and those peers put to work doing something productive, to raise the living conditions of these poor people. But he phrases it in a 1903 way, somewhat roundabout as well, presumably so as not to overly shock the audiences of his day, and so the sharpness of the solution can be easy to miss.

But that's the whole point of the book. London spent months living like the poorest of the poor, waiting in line for workhouses, talking to the aged and destitute, living in a single room in the worst neighborhood of Whitechapel and wearing the clothes of the locals.  All of that so he can describe it, mostly to an American audience, for a country where he assumes poverty is not this horrible or grinding because of greater opportunities and more empty land. Whether that was actually true at the time, or just London's idyllic dream, is a question for a historian. I suspect parts of some American cities were at least as bad as this - and some Black people in the US had it even worse.

(Minor consumer note: I read this in the Library of America Novels and Social Writings volume, which seems to be currently out of print. Since London is well out of copyright, there are a lot of editions, and their texts might not be equally authoritative. It's worth seeking out a good edition from a real publisher for OOP material. I recommend LoA strongly for any writer they've published.)

Abyss is a short book with a lot of detail - twenty-seven chapters, each with a separate focus and aim, all reported directly by London, who came as close to actually living this life as any outsider with an escape hatch possibly could.

It's a horrible, grinding, thankless life. I suspect that even the lives of the relatively stable working class, those two or three steps up from London's poorest of the poor, would come across as unbearably arduous and unpleasant to us today, but these people are truly in hell: cast out, forgotten, left to die as quickly and easily as possible. This is not a pleasant read, but London is mostly a crisp, quickly readable, essentially modern writer. He does descend a bit into pseudo-Victorian circumlocutions when he's giving his policy prescriptions, as I noted up top - but he's mostly in muscular, straightforward mode here, as he was for most of his career.

If I were King of the World, every libertarian and techbro would be forced to read People of the Abyss - no, forced to live like those 1902 Londoners for six months or so, long enough to give them a real fear of death and, I hope, finally convince them that other people are real and that even they can be brought low.

I'm not, of course. But I do like to dream.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Portions for Foxes: The Ettes

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

I have two playlists that are all-women, with my usual self-consciously ironic names. I don't want to claim all of music falls into these two buckets, but I find it amusing to divide things into two. So I have Quiet Girly Music and Girls Who Rock.

Today I have a band very much on the Girls Who Rock side, one of the staples of that playlist. These are The Ettes, and the song is Dead and Gone.

The Ettes were masters of short, muscular songs that got in and back out quickly. The longest song I have of theirs is barely three and a half minutes long, and they have a lot of great numbers - this one, Dirty, Blood Red Blood, No More Surprises, Gimmie, I Can't Be True, It Ain't You - that finish up in less than two and a half.

They're not quite punk; it's more of an updated '60s garage-band sound, big anthems in a small space from a tight three-piece band. Singer Lindsay "Coco" Hames - all three members have short one-word nicknames; the others are Jem and Poni - sings with ferocity, especially in this song.

And when you're down
I won't drag you up
I do believe
I've had enough

The first verse also has a great stop-start rhythm, with the guitar riff diving in, loudly, and then stopping - over and over, before the whole song pics up momentum and charges forward.

There's something angry about this song, but it's a cold anger, something that happened a while ago. The voice in the song is going to get what she wants, eventually - we know that. Even if we don't know what that is, or how it will happen.

And when you sleep
Don't close your eyes
That's when you'll get
Your big surprise

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/13/24

Three books arrived this week - two of them in the mail, through the usual publicity channels, and one from the library. I'll take them in that order.

The Runes of Engagement is a novel by Dave Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell, apparently an expansion of their story of the same name in the anthology Operation Arcana. It's military fantasy, of the "modern soldiers battle orcs" style - there was a popular series about a battle group (in an APC, I want to say?) around twenty years ago that this reminds me of, but I never read those books and now can't remember the author. Well, anyway: grunts fighting dragons. That kind of thing. Looks like this one leans into the dark-humor side of it, rather than staying a straight adventure, which sounds like fun.

Runes will be published June 18th in trade paperback and the usual arrangements of electrons by Tachyon Publications.

Also from Tachyon, but already published - since I have a finished paperback in my hands - is Samantha Mills's debut novel The Wings Upon Her Back. Mills won the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon awards last year for her story "Rabbit Test." (And I now have to admit that I haven't read it, since I read essentially no short fiction these days, and keep thinking I should get back into it.) This is a fantasy novel, possibly with steampunky elements - the acolytes of the Mecha God have copper wings that it's implied actually work - about a middle-aged heroine who devoted her life to a cause and a deity that might not be as admirable as she originally thought, and from whose service she is now irrevocably severed.

And that library book - the last from the batch I requested about three weeks ago - is Lunar New Year Love Story, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang (creator of Boxers & Saints, among other things) and LeUyen Pham (who has been a celebrated illustrator of books for young readers for a couple of decades - I'm sure I've seen her work, since that heavily overlaps my kids' growing-up years, but I'm not sure of specifics - including a bunch of comics-formatted things mostly done with Shannon Hale). I'm not sure if this book is officially adult or YA - it might depend on whether there are any curses or on-page sex in it - but it's about a young woman, Val, who may be under a family curse to be unlucky in love and who may have a way to break that curse.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Quote of the Week: You Know He's a King Because He Hasn't Got Shit All Over Him

Suddenly, out of the toilet bowl, there reared up a human arm. It was clad in some white, diaphanous fabric, almost certainly samite, and in its long, slim hand it held a shiny letter-opener in the shape of a knightly sword. Three times it brandished the letter-opener, slow and solemn, as the hand dryer finished its cycle and fell silent.

"Oh come on," Maurice pleaded, but it was no good. The hand was still there.

 - Tom Holt, When It's a Jar, pp.164

Friday, April 12, 2024

This Must Be the Place by Michael Sweater

This book is one of the few records that a strip called Please Keep Warm ever existed. Well, there are launch announcements and excerpts elsewhere, but the actual GoComics strip has fallen into the memory hole, never to be seen again.

The strip launched in February of 2017; this book came out in the summer of 2017. When did the strip end? I have no idea. So this is probably the beginning, but it's unclear how much more more might be lurking in creator Michael Sweater's files, if anything. So This Must Be the Place declares itself to be A "Please Keep Warm" collection, but my suspicions are that it's the only one.

Anyway: This Must Be the Place starts with a five-page page-formatted comic - the bit excerpted in Vice - and then turns into a four-tier layout, with each tier (I think) an individual strip, for about eighty pages, and then has a few more page-formatted short stories at the end. (My assumption is that those are from anthologies, either during or after the life of the strip.) The whole thing runs 108 pages of comics, and it's all consistent and coherent - all the same kind of thing. (That's not always the case with new strips; creators often write their way into things and experiment, particularly if they're shifting formats like Warm does.)

Four people live in a house together: the book starts out by centering Clover, who is a kid of unspecified years - probably elementary school, maybe even younger. She lives with her Uncle Stan, who is trying to write a novel; Catman, who I think has some sort of office job and is low-key the Krameresque goofball of the group; and Flower, who doesn't seem to have any sort of central deal other than the fact that her sleeves are longer than her arms. Stan, Catman, and Flower all seem to be mid-20s, pseudo-slackers, the kind of characters who would probably be stoners if this strip appeared somewhere even slightly more counterculture than GoComics. Clover is mostly the center, and has the typical strip-comic kid's random enthusiasms, energy, and big body language while her enthusiasms (death metal, skateboarding) are more "adult" coded.

It comes off as a slightly "alternative" take on a standard family comic strip - found family rather than nuclear, all that jazz - and the humor oscillates between those two poles. At it's best, it finds a sweet spot in the middle, as with Clover's death metal obsession - she loves it like a kid would, but also makes a demo and worries about promo like an professional. Each of the other characters has similar quirks that I'm leaving out here, including several members of the secondary cast who don't live in this house.

It's mostly "nice" with eruptions of "cool," I guess - it might not have run that long because it is trying to be both of those things regularly, and the two audiences might not be hugely compatible. But Please Keep Warm makes its own consistent vibe, has fun with the way it tells stories, features amusing characters, and does pretty much what it sets out to do. That is all just fine with me.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Totem by Laura Pérez

Some graphic novels make connections mostly in words, while others traffic primarily in images.

Totem is a book of images; it has several narrative strands, only about half of which have words at all. So I suspect I'll here somewhat echo the book's descriptive copy, mentioning different strands of images, and maybe find ways to tie them together. But there's no clear story that can be told in words here: this is a book of mood and juxtaposition. It's a book of questions, not answers: it doesn't intend to answer anything.

The clearest thread follows two women, probably a couple. They're traveling across Arizona, on a vacation or a quest - traveling, seeing things, looking for something vague or unspecified. But we begin with one of them, the redhead, some time later, after the dark-haired woman is gone - we initially don't know why or how.

We suspect it's not good, since the redhead is reminded of the brunette by hearing a news report of a dead woman: an architect, Yukio Kitaro - one of the few names in the book - who we later see in another, wordless thread, brooding by a window and staring out into what we assume is wilderness.

Another thread of the story follows the redhead's grandmother Carmen, long ago, when as a girl she went with her own father to see a local oracle, to hear omens from the spirits of the dead.

Yet another wordless thread has a group of girls - one may be the brunette as a child, or Carmen, or maybe neither of them - witnessing a strange group of lights in the sky, after which one of them also communes with the dead.

This is not the kind of book where threads come together. They sit separately, commenting on each other or providing different perspectives on similar things. What are those things? Creator Laura Pérez isn't reductive; Totem is not a book with A Message. It's about communion with spirits, of the dead or otherwise, I suppose, about the ways one can be connected with other people and with "the world," in a deep central sense. There's no specific tradition to that spirituality I can discern, no dogma that would explain it.

This is a world strange and overwhelming and mysterious, where strange things happen for unexplained reasons, and the voices of the dead can sometimes guide us through. Pérez draws that world, in soft blacks for the threads set in the past and quiet, mostly subdued desert colors for the modern day. I found her eyes particularly compelling: dark inky orbs starting out at the reader or diverting to the side, full of mystery and unknowable, just like real people.

This is a book to think about, a book to feel, a book to stare at the pictures and think. It will not tell you what to think: if you're looking for that you'll need to go somewhere else. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

When It's a Jar by Tom Holt

This may be part of a series. But, if it is, the series through-line seems to be the use of doughnuts as dimensional portals, and maybe some mostly-background fictional organizations. So it's not much of a series: that's what I'm saying. I didn't really notice any obvious hooks or references. I think we can all just ignore it if we want to.

When It's a Jar is a 2013 humorous fantasy novel by Tom Holt, I believe his thirty-second novel under his own name and his second book (after Doughnut, which I just alluded to) that year. Holt has also had a second career as the darker fantasy writer K.J. Parker for about twenty-five years, and has written some random other things, too (though mostly near the beginning of his career, back in the 1980s).

So he is prolific in general, and has done a lot of books like this one specifically. Well, "like" this one in that they're light adventure with a generally humorous tone in the narrative, and they have elements of mythology being real, in one way or another, as their fantasy elements. That's a pretty broad "like."

I've read a couple of Holt books, long ago, and some scattered Parker books as well. But I am nothing like an expert. I realized it had been a long time since I read "Holt," and that I should try him again since a) I'm fond of short, light books these days and 2) I've really liked the Parker stuff I have read these last couple of decades.

And this was amusing and entirely pleasant - enough that I want to find the other books about doughnuts, or maybe just random Holt, sometime soon. There might be some element of the "British phrases help sell humorous SFF to Americans" engine working here - people like me who have read a lot of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are prone to think phrases like "luck's not a wheelbarrow; you don't want to push it" are interesting and quirky rather than (as Brits I suppose might) some dull thing Uncle Rupert says every damn day.

This is a multiple-parallel-universes book, though that's not clear for a while. The main character is Maurice, the typical completely normal, deeply boring protagonist of a humorous fantasy novel: he gets dropped into the soup when a dragon appears in his bedroom one night and he accidentally kills it with a bread knife. Of course, even before that he met three women who the reader should realize are The Fates on the London Underground, to clue us in that his life will not be normal going forward.

Maurice is being slotted into a Hero's Journey, complete with his True Love Stephanie stolen away from him and a Quest to get her (not really "back," since they were just friends from childhood) and do other, not entirely specified, heroic deeds. Meanwhile, he's lost his random horrible office job and found a new job at a deeply weird company, where he moves boxes around in a sub-basement. And there's an obnoxious man, Max, who seems to be trapped in some other-dimensional space, who keeps bugging Maurice through various communications media to first retrieve Max and then get on with his obvious heroic destiny.

Maurice, though, is that typically mostly-ineffectual, self-conscious, not particularly good at anything humorous-fantasy protagonist. Killing the dragon - actually a hydra; not nearly as violent or dangerous - was a fluke at best, and he's deeply confused about what's happening to him, what he's supposed to do, and possibly even which universe he's in.

But he is starting to think that he's in the wrong universe.

Eventually, of course, Maurice does retrieve Max - which doesn't really help anything much - and learns more about the multiverse, which is also mostly confusing. And, even later, there is a happy ending, because that's why we read light adventure novels.

I'd have liked more of Maurice's relationship with Stephanie (though she wants to be called Steve now), his supposed True Love. She's a more interesting, vibrant character than Maurice to begin with, but isn't given much to do, and we never get her point of view on their potential relationship. If I were complaining about this book, I'd point out that she's treated as a reward that he will get if he successfully navigates the plot complications, rather than as a person with preferences and motivations.

But the point of a book like this is to follow a guy who isn't quite as much of a sad sack as you initially fear, through amusing moments and humorous situations, with a sprightly tone and fun narrative asides, to his eventual triumph. And When It's a Jar delivers on all of those fronts; I read it more quickly than I expected and, as I said, want to find other things in the same vein from the author. I have to count all that as a big success, so if you're looking for a book anything like this, Holt has a long shelf-full of them to try out.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire's friends

My standard complaint about the Black Hammer comics is that they're mostly static, locked into an initial premise that wasn't all that exciting to begin with. I suppose that's in distinction to "real" superhero comics, which rely on the façade of change - someone is always dying, someone's costume is always changing, someone is always making a heel-face turn, and worlds are inevitably always living and dying so that nothing will ever be the same - but it's not self-reflective enough to count as irony.

But some kinds of stories aren't supposed to change anything - the whole point is that they don't, and can't, change the things we already know. Jam comics by entirely different creators tend to fall into that bucket: they're sometimes "real" and sometimes not, but even if they're canonical, they don't push the canon in any direction.

Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 1 is a book like that - it collects four of the eight issues of the title series, each one of which was a separate adventure, by an entirely different team, set in the Black Hammer-verse. It's all sidebar, all "I want to do this story" by people who will do only one Black Hammer story and this is it. So it's self-indulgent in a somewhat different, more inclusive way than the main series.

Since the four issues here are entirely separate - and half of them have no credits within the stories themselves, making me wonder what comics editors do with their time if they can't handle the most basic parts of their jobs - I'll treat them each in turn.

Issue 1 has a story, "Transfer Student," written by comedian Patton Oswalt and drawn by Dean Kotz, which is supposedly about Golden Gail but really is a light retelling of Dan Clowes's Ghost World - I'm 99% sure Oswalt knew it was a comic first, and not just a movie - in the context of the pocket universe. This is pleasant and well-told and has decent emotional depth, but... We the readers know that the Enid character can never get out of this town: there's nowhere else to go. She can't go to college, find new friends, and have a different world to fit into. She is stuck in small-town hell, in the background of someone else's depressive superhero story.

Oddly, the narrative doesn't seem to know this. And that knowledge makes the reading of this story a substantially different experience than I think Oswalt wanted: this is a dark, depressing story with bone-deep irony, saying one thing and meaning the exact opposite.

The second issue sees Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins bring us "The Cabin of Horrors!", a Madame Dragonfly-hosted horror tale. It features what could have been the sensational character find of 1996, Kid Dragonfly, and a nasty serial killer getting his comeuppance. This one feels the most like an actual random issue that could have been part of a larger comics line at the time - well, more like a Secret Origins retelling, cleaning things up maybe a decade later, but still in the same vein.

It's a perfectly acceptable horror/superhero comics story, entirely professional and hitting all of its marks.

In the third installment, Chip Zdarsky writes and Johnnie Christmas draws "Uncle Slam," the obligatory "I'm too old for this shit" story. The person too old for the shit is of course Abraham Slam; that's been his main character note for the entire series. Here, he's sixtyish, retired, running a gym and dating a woman who I think is meant to be a little younger than him but looks childlike (much smaller, very thin, drawn with a young face). But of course a new, more violent hero "takes his name" and he Has To Stand Up for Punching Evil the Right Way (Without So Much Death), which goes about as well as it ever does. He does not die, since he's a superhero-comics protagonist, but other people do, and he loses a lot. The ending tried to move away from And It Is Sad, and would have been OK if this were a standalone story, but we know Abe gets back into the costume like five more times after this point, so it's mostly pointless.

And in the last of these stories, Mariko Tamaki (of all people!) tells a story with Diego Olortegui art that I don't think has a title. It's a fun bit of metafiction, with our core heroes seen in multiple universes, as the viewers of and characters in and actors behind a popular TV show, with different relationships and interactions on each level. It is amusing, a fun exercise in moving the chess pieces around in unexpected but pleasant ways, but it doesn't really turn into a specific story - it's just a sequence of riffs on these characters and their interactions.

On the other hand, that's the most successful and interesting thing in the book, so I can overlook the not-going-anywhere aspects.

So: all in all, it's amusing and is pretty much what you would expect - random quirky takes on these characters and situations by other people, who each get to have one good idea for this setting and then go back to their real careers.

Monday, April 08, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Dragonette

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

I love metaphors: that should be clear by now. This week's song is a great one, complicated like all the best metaphors are.

It's about sex and relationships - about sex as a metaphor for the relationship, about how we talk about sex and relationships, about how happiness spreads and makes both sex and relationships better. It's a bright, bouncy, old-fashioned sounding song from a band that was pretty up-to-the-moment.

It's Get Lucky by Dragonette, a wonderful slice of pop goodness from 2006. Dragonette was mostly a band with a modern dance/electronica sound, but this is more of a retro song, with a semi-Tin Pan Alley sound.

I like my head on your shoulder
I like the way you smile, the way you smile ooh-hoo
And we both think the weather's getting better
So let's get lucky, let's go all the way

I don't want to belabor the metaphor - there's a lot of references to weather (wet and cloudy, fog, a storm that "might be a quickie") and the chorus is about "going all the way." But it's going all the way as the metaphor - that's the wink-wink part of it, and what it stands for is longer-term, the kind of relationship that can make it through any kind of weather, for now and into the future.

Martina Sorbara - then-frontwoman, now the whole of Dragonette - sings it all with a smile in her voice, though some light distortion to make it sound old-fashioned and/or electronic. It's lovely and bouncy and happy, the kind of song that always makes your day just that little bit better.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

Books Read: March 2024

As always, this is an index more than anything else, and not even a useful index until later, when the posts go live and I add links. For now, here's what I recently read:

Salva Rubio & Efa, Monet: Itinerant of Light (digital, 3/2)

Jeff Lemire, et. al., Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 1 (digital, 3/3)

Tom Holt, When It's a Jar (3/3)

Laura Pérez, Totem (digital, 3/9)

Michael Sweater, This Must Be the Place: A Please Keep Warm Collection (digital, 3/10)

Jack London, The People of the Abyss (in Novels & Social Writings, 3/10)

Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, Our Encounters with Evil (digital, 3/16)

Daniel Pinkwater, Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario (in 4 Fantastic Novels, 3/16)

Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road (digital, 3/17)

Jean-Christophe Deveney and PGML, Haruki Murakami: Manga Stories (digital, 3/18)

Jeffrey Brown, A Matter of Life (3/23)

Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan, Darwin Carmichael Is Going to Hell (3/24)

Zerocalcare, The Armadillo Prophecy (digital, 3/30)

Rudy Rucker, Million Mile Road Trip (3/30)

Jeff Smith, Thorn (3/31)


There will be more books next month.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/6/2024

I got four books from the library this week, all things I requested and then picked up when they came in. Here's what they were:

Murakami T is a book of essays by Hauki Murkami about his favorite T-shirts, accompanied by photos of those shirts. It is a completely bizarre idea, and I love that about it. I would have been thrilled to be in the editorial meeting where someone proposed it, just to hear if other editors jumped in with "Well, Morrison has a bunch of cool scarves - can that be next?" or "What about DeLillo's favorite pieces of broken machinery?" (Note: this is probably meanly inaccurate, since the essays first appeared as a series in a Japanese magazine. But still!) It is a book I would have a hard time spending money on, but am very happy to read for free.

Roaming is the new (relatively; it's about six months old) graphic novel by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, renowned for Skim and This One Summer and possibly other books in between that I missed, since I realize those two are a decade old now. It's another YAish story - the flap copy calls it "a deft foray into adult fiction," but I'm not sure a story about nineteen-year-olds unsure about their lives is all that different from one about fifteen-year-olds unsure of their lives - about a trip to NYC by a group of young Torontonians, possibly lightly based on the creators, in 2009 at the age of nineteen.

The Divided Earth is the third - and maybe final? - book in Faith Erin Hicks' "Nameless City" series. It came out in 2018; I somehow missed it then and only realized that now when I saw Hicks had a new book out. The first two books in the series are The Nameless City itself, and then The Stone Heart.

And then there's Amulet, Book Nine: Waverider, the end of the long-running and best-selling YA fantasy graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi. The first Amulet book, Stonekeeper, came out about fifteen years ago, so I feel sorry for anyone who was a middle-grader then and thought they'd see the end of the series before they got out of grad school.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

Quote of the Week: A Sound Commercial Basis

The waiter seemed a little offended about the flowers of the Pyrenees, so I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.

 - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, p.237

Friday, April 05, 2024

Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio & Efa

There are people who can keep all of the Impressionists straight - who can even say which of those famous 19th century French painters are really Impressionists and which aren't. They can quickly and easily explain the differences between Manet and Monet, have strong opinions on Renoir and Degas, and their minds contain at all times an accurate timeline of the major exhibitions.

I am not not one of them. I know I've seen Monet's paintings here and there, and can nod appreciatively at them, but if you showed me a big sheaf of unlabeled Impressionist paintings and asked me to match them with painters, I can confidently say I would attribute most of them wrongly in defiance of all laws of probability.

So I come to Monet: Itinerant of Light, a 2017 graphic novel written by Salva Rubio, painted by (Ricard) Efa, and translated by Montana Kane, with the attitude of a student or a dilettante. I will not be able to tell you if Rubio - a historian by training - got the facts and dates right, though I assume he did and his notes tend to back that up. I will not be able to give any deep explication to the many times Efa references or mirrors a famous painting - by Monet, or by others - as a panel or full page in this book, though there's about a dozen pages of notes and images in the back of this book pointing out many of those.

I'm pretty sure this is definitive and true, visually as well as factually. Efa does the book in what I think are full paints, and his pages are gorgeous, full of color and energy and of course delighting in the play of light where appropriate. But I do have to assume all of that.

It's organized as a fairly standard biography, starting with an aged Monet getting a cataract operation and then flashing back, through his memory, to tell the vast bulk of the story in normal sequence, starting with Monet as a young teen first starting to paint. The Impressionists were upstarts and rebels, which means a lot of the story is about poverty and strife, as Monet spent years painting things that made only a little money and got only scorn from the critics.

We all love that story, since we're reading it a century later, and we can be on the side of the eventual later critical consensus without any effort. The fact that it's a true story makes it even better, of course.

Monet is gorgeous and interesting and I have to assume true. It is best, I think, as an introduction, and a graphic novel is, in my opinion, the very best format for a biography of a visual artist, since it can show what the work looks like in a natural, organic way. I hope some of it will stick, and I will be slightly better at Impressionist-spotting going forward, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I'm not sure if it was just my choice of courses, or a trend in literary favor, but I basically didn't read any Hemingway as a student, even though I got an English degree from Vassar in 1990. (I did tend to gravitate to the 19th century and the British, though, and the English department had no distribution requirements at the time, so each student could build their own version of the canon idiosyncratically.)

What I mean is: I think I got A Moveable Feast as a "here's what it was like living in those days" book - very clearly not a "read this as a Major Important Novel" book - but none of the stories and none of the major novels.

(Hemingway isn't the only one: I read Moby-Dick the spring of my senior year, entirely on my own, since I realized at that point it would never be assigned reading, and I might as well get to it while I was still in fighting trim for books like that.)

Of course, we all have holes in our reading: no one can read everything. No one can even read all the things they want to read, which is a vastly smaller universe. And I didn't have a burning desire to read Hemingway for a long time - the mental image I've mostly had is of him as an old man, grumpy and self-indulgent, a caricature of toxic manhood if ever there was one.

But one weird thing about getting older is that I find it's easier to see creators at different points in their lives - that parallax of my own life making it clearer that this is a young man's book and that is from the older version.

And so, as we're coming up on a hundred years later, I've been vaguely interested in Young Hemingway, the guy who was a reporter, ran off to The Great War, and then decided to make himself A Great Writer. That's why I read The Sun Also Rises, his first novel, originally published in 1926, soon after a couple of story collections started to make his name.

Sun is mildly autobiographical, all of the critics agree - or, rather, that it started that way and shifted as Hemingway wrote it. Jake Barnes, the narrator, is a reporter (check) in Paris (check) who was wounded in WW I (check). But Hemingway makes Barnes mostly an observer to events, and my sense is that Hemingway was more involved - yes, writers always take notes and re-use things they see, but I think Hemingway shifted a lot of "something like this happened to me" over to other characters in the process of fictionalizing it.

Maybe, what I'm trying to say - in the crudest possible way - is that The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway asking the literary question "What if I'd gotten my dick shot off in the war, so I couldn't have the complicated affairs I do have? What would that be like?"

Jake Barnes is perhaps the prototype of the Guy Who Can't Get the Girl, because of that wound which is referenced a lot but never quite explained. (Because no book in 1926 could bluntly say "his  war wound left him permanently impotent.") Because he can't have her, his pursuit of Lady Brett Ashley is purer and his relationship with her less conflicted. He can be her good friend because they both know he's no competition.

And there's a lot of competition.

Brett is a mess in multiple ways, but the attractive kind of mess - a woman old enough to know what she wants and what she can do and still young enough to be alluring and to get it. She also has a minor British title from her nearly-discarded current husband and the cultural background to live up to that title and embody what it means; the book doesn't make her background entirely clear but she must have grown up among upper-class Brits, since she can live that way thoughtlessly.

And I mean "thoughtlessly" in nearly every sense; that's how Brett does everything.

Barnes is the core of the story, our narrator and still center, of course - Brett loops in and out of the story multiple times; she's the kind of woman who's always running around Doing Things (with men paying for it), just a little bit too much effort and going just a bit too far. It's slightly overstating it to say Sun Also Rises is the story of how Jake's normal life is smacked repeatedly by the wrecking ball of Lady Ashley, but only slightly.

Hemingway's prose, at this point in his career, is relatively simple but doesn't come across as simplistic, as some of his later works can. There's a journalistic vigor in the way it tells the story, with a tight focus on facts and specifics. Here is A Thing, the prose says: look at it. Emotional states and self-reflection are elided; deep meanings are left to be inferred. That, I think, has made it a good book for teaching purposes: Hemingway points at things he doesn't say, and teachers can use that to explain how Fine Prose works.

I don't believe that Brett and Jake could ever have worked. But I don't believe Jake thinks that, either - as the last line telegraphs. Brett probably believed it; she's a person who can always believe in something, if it's intriguing or convenient or fun in the moment. That's the point, of course: The Sun Also Rises is a novel about wanting something you can't have, and, in the most typical old-fashioned way, that "thing" is a woman and the one wanting it is a man.

It's a slow book, a book made up of mostly small moments. Some encounters in Paris, a long vacation in Spain, people that you see for a while and then go away, only to come back later. There's a whole larger cast I'm ignoring here, the circle that Jake and Brett run with, people who also drop in and out, show up here and there.

In the end, I was impressed. I don't know if I'm all the way won over by Early Hemingway - there's still something faintly artificial around the edges - but it's a strong and supple style that works well to tell this story about these people, and that's what matters for a novel.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

The Art of Living by Grant Snider

I have never been a particularly positive person. I think I've mellowed as I've gotten older, from the cynical grump I was in my twenties, but I'm not now, and probably never will be, the person you'd expect to read a book about mindfulness.

But sometimes you just follow creators that you read, even if they go in directions you normally wouldn't. And so I found myself reading a collection of comics with the subtitle Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life.

The main title is The Art of Living - a bit grand, yes? the cynicism rises in me one more time to think it's claiming a bit much there - and it's by Grant Snider, a fine thoughtful cartoonist who is also a working orthodontist, a wonderful detail that I have to bring up every time I mention him.

It's a collection of his comics, originally published on his site Incidental Comics or in paying venues like The Believer. So if you have Incidental in your RSS reader, or otherwise check it regularly, some of this will be at least vaguely familiar.

And it is all on that rough theme laid out in the subtitle - paying attention to the world in front of you, slowing down to enjoy things, finding beauty where you can, that kind of thing. Enjoying life as it is, which I have to admit is sometimes the hardest thing in the world.

Snider has a hand-lettered "Attention Manifesto" up front, after a couple of cartoons to set a mood, and that list of things to do defines the sections of the book. They're all pretty standard mindfulness prompts: we can all admit that we know how to do all of this, it's just that actually doing it is not as simple.

Snider's work is a bit puckish, his drawing light and quick-looking and his people slightly sketchy-looking and standardized, the same unnamed cast going through life with the same concerns and problems. These comics aren't funny, since they're not trying to be - they're meditative, exploring a mood or a feeling or a thought, trying to focus or exploring why focus is so difficult.

I probably read this too quickly and didn't engage with it deeply enough, but I did find it a lovely palate cleaner, an extended moment of Zen to readjust my view of the world. I might not be as much the ideal audience for this as I was for Snider's previous book I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelves, but I enjoyed it more than I was worried I would. If you can calibrate that with your own interest in mindfulness, you should be able to tell if it will be helpful for you as well.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley

I've been vaguely thinking about watching the Scott Pilgrim movie again with my kids - we watch a movie together every Wednesday night, while The Wife is off at Bingo - but I am always the kind of person who goes back to the book given half a chance.

So here I am: it's twenty years later, and I'm wondering how Scott Pilgrim holds up. The first time around, I read this series mostly in 2009 - five years after it started - and wrote short paragraphs for monthly round-ups. I'm not sure I'll have thoughts any more detailed or profound, but this time they'll have individual posts, for whatever that's worth.

The series has also been colored, by Nathan Fairbairn, since I last read it: I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's appropriate, mostly subdued color, and it looks like it could have been there the whole time, but it is Different and New (though New in this case means 2012) and I'm not huge fans of those guys.

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life was originally published in 2004; in its original black-and-white it was an all-Bryan Lee O'Malley project. (Now, as I just said, there are also Nathan Fairbairn colors.)

Scot Pilgrim himself is a twenty-three year old Toronto slacker, just a bit surface-y and shallow in the way all twenty-three-year-olds tend to be. He's happy and vibrant, a mostly good person whose biggest flaw is his massive tendency to avoid doing the difficult stuff.

He's the bassist for the band Sex Bob-Om, and otherwise unemployed, sponging off his roommate Wallace Wells. And, as this first book opens, he's just started dating a high-schooler, lampshading his clearly arrested development in a way the rest of the cast (Wells, his bandmates Stephen Stills and Kim Pine) comment on repeatedly in the opening pages.

So that's the text, not even subtext: Scott is immature, in such obvious ways that it's the basis of the standard jokes of the group. His new girlfriend, Knives Chau, is nice but very high-schooler-y: starstruck to be watching this crappy band practice, talking about yearbook club and teen-girl gossip, etc.

It looks like this is just another episode in Scott's life, which will continue to meander on, with nothing too difficult or serious to impede him, just the way he likes it.

But then he sees a strange woman in his dreams, roller-skating through, and is immediately fascinated. And then he sees her in the real world, and starts to be, in his low-key slacker don't-be-too-energetic way, completely obsessed.

She's Ramona Flowers, an American - this is exotic and special, to at least this circle in Toronto - and works in delivery for Amazon.ca. Scott meets her, and they start to hang out and sort-of date very quickly. (Close readers will notice that I have not mentioned breaking up with the highschool girlfriend before chasing Ramona. Conflict-averse, go-with-the-flow Scott did no such thing.)

Ramona is pretty enigmatic and mysterious, but she does tell Scott one thing: if he's going to date her, he'll have to fight and defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. In the world of this story, this seems to only be mildly weird - Scott is said to be the best fighter in Ontario.

And that gets us all the way to what everyone already knows about Scott Pilgrim: the video-game inspired rock-and-roll boss fights. The first evil ex is Matthew Patel, who kissed Ramona and fought a bunch of jocks with her - they called each other boyfriend and girlfriend for about a week, so it totally counts - and who first sends Scott polite messages (which he ignores) and then calls Scott out during a concert. That gives us the big ending of the book, with Scott and his friends facing off against Matthew and his backing dancers/demon hipster chicks in an all-singing, all fireball-throwing, all Mortal Kombat-style extravaganza. And of course Scott wins: there wouldn't be much of a series if he didn't.

Other people have done similar things, before and since, but O'Malley's joyful mixing of manga and videogame fighting tropes into a thoroughly modern, North American world just clicks, from the very beginning. It all feels consistent, from the little info-cards that pop up to define newly appeared characters up to the big fight and the coins that defeated enemies drop. It's weird and specific in all the right ways: that's what makes it work as a story.

Scott is still sort of a jerk at the end here, of course: we all know that. He's got five more books to grow up in, and six more evil exes to get through. But he's starting on that path, and we think he's at least starting to get better and take at least a little bit of responsibility, maybe, once in a while.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Tanya Donelly

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

Some of the songs in this series are more personal - ones I've listened to for years, thought about a lot, full of lines that take up space in my head. This is one of those.

I've written about Tanya Donelly before here - as bandleader of Belly, as part of The Breeders, maybe as a solo artist, too. This is one of my favorite songs of hers: maybe the favorite from her solo work. It's one that almost made it onto last year's list, to be edged out by a Belly song.

This is Mysteries of the Unexplained, a 1997 song that I think references specific things I've never quite wanted to run down and nail to the wall, a song about a feeling of being in a world that isn't right in fundamental ways...but is still worth it, in the end.

Well, maybe:

And anyway I predict the next meteor to hit will be a monster
And I for one am looking forward to it

It's about a media landscape - the first verse is clearly the music industry, with a song that gets played all the time because "the greaser sent them t's and toys." The second is about a movie "where everyone got killed, and the crowd went wild." The singer doesn't like the landscape, isn't happy with the choices, doesn't believe in that at all. But the world is bigger and more interesting than media:

'Cause sometimes
It rains fish from the sky and the statues all start to cry
And someone writes another beautiful song.

So even media is redeemable - sometimes. Maybe. 

It's the chorus that's lived in the back of my head, on and off for almost thirty years: All of your heroes are whores.

That's still talking about media: all the pop stars, movie icons, reality TV-stars. Add in influencers and whoever else for the decades since: they all count. And it's not "whores" as a generic insult; Donelly means it specifically. They are whores because they're putting out their inner selves, deliberately making bad art, to please the "tinkertoy world."

Good art is still possible; it happens. But the world is full of sad songs on WSUK and movies where you can't spot the good guy. All we can do is watch and hope, remembering all of our heroes are whores, and think of how it could be:

I had a dream: a shining bright city, perfect and clean.
I made a wish for a sky full of fish.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/30/2024

Three books this week: one that actually did come in the mail (after I paid for it) and two that I found at the yearly library sale at the next town over.

The book in the mail was Thorn: The Complete Proto-Bone College Strips 1982-1986 by Jeff Smith, which I got because I (like what I think was several thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people) backed the Kickstarter. The book has a real ISBN and price printed on it, and Smith has had a real publishing company, Cartoon Books, for a good thirty years now, so I think this is a "real" book that will also be available other places. (Update, thirty seconds later: Yes, since I was able to grab an Amazon link for it with a pub date of July 30, I'm pretty confident it will be widely available.)

As the subtitle says, these are really early work by Smith, from his college paper, featuring early versions of the characters he later used in Bone. I've never read any of this stuff before, so I have no expectations.

The two books from the library sale were both random non-fiction that looked vaguely interesting in a sea of David Baldacci and similar bestsellers:

How to Be a Victorian by the historian Ruth Goodman, a 2014 trade paperback that goes through everyday life in the Victorian age. I gather this focuses mostly on middle-class people, not the aristocracy, and "Victorian" is a pretty wide swath of time, too. I'm fascinated by books on small details, and this looks like one full of them.

Five-Finger Discount is a memoir from 2002 by reporter Helene Stapinski, who grew up (according to the blurb on this book) in an "unforgettable [Jersey City] family of swindlers, bookies, embezzlers, and mobster-wannabes." Hey, local color!  And I also like seeing reporters tell bigger and/or more personal stories.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Quote of the Week: Note That The Style of Bathing Costumes May Have Changed in the Subsequent Hundred Years

Of all outdoor sports, few are more stimulating that watching middle-aged Frenchmen bathe. Drama, action, suspense, all are here. From the first stealthy testing of the water with an apprehensive toe to the final seal-like plunge, there is never a dull moment. And apart from the excitement of the thing, judging it from a purely aesthetic standpoint, his must be a dull soul who can fail to be uplifted by the spectacle of a series of very stout men with whiskers, seen in tight bathing suits against a background of brightest blue.

 - P. G. Wodehouse, The Adventures of Sally, p.35

Friday, March 29, 2024

Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford

This is not an afterlife fantasy. The main character is still alive. But it's about him wandering the night landscape of his home town, very much like a ghost, so - since out-of-body fantasy is not really a thing - it feels a lot like an afterlife fantasy, of the exploring-one's-former-life type.

It's also by Jeffrey Ford, so you know going in that it's smart and well-written and told carefully.

Out of Body is a short novel, probably a novella. I think it's set in New Jersey, from references to nearby "pine barrens," but it doesn't say that. It doesn't say what county it's set in, either, though a county is mentioned. The town is the fictional Westwend, a small suburb in what seems to be a cluster of small suburbs - New Jersey is like that - near those pine barrens, one more small place in a region of small places.

Our hero is a small man in that small place: Owen, the librarian of the town library, a quiet, self-effacing man of ingrained habits and minor dreams.

One day, on his way to work, he's caught up in a horrific scene at the convenience store he stops every morning. He's the only survivor of what seems to be a senseless robbery attempt, knocked out and knocked around but not seriously hurt, while the gunman and the young counter clerk both die.

And, that night, the sleep paralysis he had as a child starts back up. But, this time, he has an out-of-body experience, traveling the streets of Westwend in a ghostly form, seeing the midnight world.

He meets others who can do the same thing: friendly and deadly. He learns of other dangers in the midnight world, and the things he can learn there. He learns of an long-living person, preying on the locals for decades, and gets caught up in a secret organization devoted to destroying those monsters.

Again, this is a novella: it's taught and focused, the story of a few days that transformed Owen, the most important moments of his life. Some people say novellas are the ideal form for SFF, and, when I read books like this, I tend to agree with them.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Fungirl: You Are Revolting by Elizabeth Pich

I've gotten out of the habit of reading individual comics issues - because I first got out of the habit of buying them. There were a lot of factors there, but an already-ebbing stream turned to nothing after the 2011 flood destroyed all of my existing floppies. Since then, if it's not in book form, I basically don't read it.

But my library app - Hoopla, another silly name because everything Internetty is required to have a silly name - includes individual issues, all mixed in their general "Comics" section in a way that sometimes makes it hard to tell if something is a book or a floppy. (Well, they all have page counts: that's a big clue. When I forget to check that, it's entirely on me.) So I now can read floppy comics, at least some of them, about as regularly as I want.

I still haven't really done it much.

But I did read the big collection of Fungirl comics by Elizabeth Pich recently, and noticed there were two other newer "books" - both fairly short - and decided to give this one a go on a recent busy Saturday.

Fungirl: You Are Revolting is 32 pages, so I'm pretty sure it was a floppy comic in its corruptible, mortal state. It calls itself a "one-shot," which is mostly a floppy-comics term. (Books can be in a series, but rarely see the need to announce that they're not.) And it, like the first book and all things Fungirl, is resolutely not for younger or more impressionable readers.

There's one story here, following from the end of the big book. Becky, Fungirl's roommate, is off at med school in another town, so Fungirl is looking for someone to rent Becky's old room. Quirkily, Peter (Becky's boyfriend) is both lampshaded as "not living here" - so he's not going to take over the sublet - and also there all the time, including first thing in the morning in his sleeping clothes, looking like he is living there. But that's the premise, so no complaints.

A potential roommate arrives, after a portentous dream of Fungirl's. She's dressed all in pink, Fungirl immediately lusts for her, she takes the room, and she never gives her name. The plot from there is mostly sex and jealousy: Peter is trying to quell his worries about Becky, away in a distant city with people who are not him, and Fungirl starts screwing New Girl, who is crazy, or has a big secret, or something like that.

It all escalates quickly, and New Girl is not what she seems. I'm not sure what she is - after the dream opening, the whole thing might even be a dream - but she is something, and Fungirl has to Stop Her. I won't spoil the way Fungirl does stop her, but it's both very on-brand and very adult.

Fungirl is still wild and wacky, her stories boundary-pushing and frantic. I'm glad to see there's one more book: this is like nothing else and very funny in its demented, deeply female-centric way.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Zombies According to Savage Chickens by Doug Savage

It can be a feature or a bug, depending on how you look at it, but it's a fact that a digital-book file doesn't clearly tell you how big it is the same way a physical book does. Sure, there's probably a page-count somewhere, but with reflowing and choice of font size and all that hoohaw, it's not definitive even if you notice it.

Whereas a physical book is a thing, and you can see how big the thing is.

Zombies According to Savage Chickens, I learned while reading it, is one of a series of quite short books by Doug Savage, collecting themed entries from his quite funny (and long-running, at this point) scribbled-on-Post-It-Notes strip Savage Chickens.

I picked it up because I thought it was in a similar format to the original, published-on-paper book Savage Chickens, which I shudder to realize is a dozen years old at this point.

Now, Zombies does collect a cluster of themed comics, and it is funny, and I enjoyed it a lot. (And I got it free from my library, too, so there's literally no downside for me.) But it was shorter than I thought it was, which means I hit the end much faster than I expected. That's mildly sad, and worth mentioning.

Specifically, the library app I use says that Zombies is 100 pages long, which must be the result of an error somewhere: it contains 50 cartoons, each on a single page, and a couple of pages of the usual "hey, this is a book!" stuff.

They're fifty good cartoons, all in that style - rounded fat black lines on yellow paper - with smart wordplay and more different jokes about brain-eating than you'd think were possible. So the book gets a thumbs-up, though my skills at book-size-determining clearly need some work.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Adventures of Sally by P.G. Wodehouse

Reading hundred-year-old novels can be less distancing than you expect. Oh, sure, some writers are "older" than others. And some plots are creakier, some social set-ups more outdated, some expectations more forgotten. And maybe light fiction is less likely to be affected than the heavier, more serious stuff.

The Adventures of Sally was P.G. Wodehouse's new novel in 1922 - well, his second new novel that year, after The Girl on the Boat. (Wodehouse was incredibly prolific, with over a hundred books published in his long life.) It's somewhat transitional, fusing a mostly traditional episodic and mildly melodramatic plot with Wodehouse's looser, lighter, funnier narration - not quite all the way to the side of his funny pieces, but very close.

To put it in perspective, Wodehouse was born in 1881 and published his first school stories in 1902. By the end of that decade, he was writing comedy in short-story form, with the Psmith and Ukridge stories, and turning those into books as well. The first Jeeves and Wooster story came in 1915, and their first collection in 1919. He was writing at least a couple of serials for magazines a year - Sally appeared first in Colliers - and my assumption is that market still wanted things that were more conventional than pure Wodehouse, but he was moving them in that direction in the late Teens and through the Twenties.

Last year I read Sam the Sudden, from the same era - that was a 1925 novel, slightly goofier in its set-up but still somewhat grounded in conventional plots and aiming for conventional emotional payoffs near the ending. I think Wodehouse's non-series Twenties novels would be an interesting study - Money for Nothing came out in 1928, and was the full mature soufflé, with nothing left of the serious novel in it.

I'm wasting space here comparing Sally to other books mostly because Wodehouse is hard to write about. Transitional Wodehouse is a bit easier, since I can point to the comparisons and make a vague claim that this is at about 80% of his full comic power.

But the story here will sound very conventional: Sally is a young American woman, living just a year or two before the publication date (the raging Spanish flu is a plot point). She and her older brother Fillmore were kicked out a few years back by the requisite hard-hearted uncle, keeper of their money, but she is now twenty-one and he twenty-five, meaning they came into their full inheritances and no longer need to live in a cheap boarding-house and work as a taxi dancer (her) or a waiter (him).

Sally is secretly engaged to a wannabe playwright, the production of whose first play Fillmore is loosely connected to. Also looped into the action are two Englishmen, a red-headed ne'er-do-well who becomes the main love interest very late and his cousin, a rich supercilious lawyer and representative of the serious side of the family.

Sally goes to a beach in France with her inheritance, chases the in-rehearsals play through a try-out town or two, and has a succession of moments related to one or more of those complications. Wodehouse runs them mostly out on a string here, one complication following another rather than the escalating cascade of his best major work - and also plays the plot basically seriously, though his narrative voice is supple, funny, and doesn't entirely treat it seriously. It is all episodic; this is one of the books that really shows that it was originally a serial.

But it's full of funny asides - the action is straightforward light-adventure; the narration and descriptions is the source of the comedy - and the prose is very Wodehousian. Again: transitional. Interesting both as a pretty funny Wodehouse book, and as a book in which Wodehouse was writing his way closer to being the Wodehouse we expect.

Let me close with a quote - this the kind of thing you can expect from The Adventures of Sally. If it appeals, try something from this Wodehousian era:

The world of the theatre is simply a large nursery and its inhabitants children who readily become fretful if anything goes wrong. The waiting and uncertainty, the loafing about in strange hotels in a strange city, the dreary rehearsing of lines which had been polished to the last syllable more than a week ago - these things had snapped the nerve of the Primrose Way company and demoralization had set in. It would require only a trifle to produce an explosion. (pp.96-97)

Monday, March 25, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Creature

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

Some songs you know just what they're about. Some songs...you don't.

This week, I have one of the latter. I love it: it makes me happy with its peppy energy. But I couldn't explain it if you paid me.

This is Bridgette Bardot by Creature. It's kinda sorta about the French actress, maybe, not really.

Would you say no to Brigitte Bardot?
I would never!
Kids say they know Brigitte Bardot
I know her better!
Make an escape like Brigitte Bardot
Get me out of here!

Um, yeah. I vaguely thought the band were European, maybe singing in a language not their own, but, while working on this post, I just discovered that they're Canadian, so...I now think the randomness and quirkiness are just the dance-music influence.

And, anyway, a song doesn't need to mean anything. It just need to sound right. This one sounds great, and if I were the kind of person who actually likes to dance, it would get my feet moving right quick. Hope it does the same for yours.