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 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.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of March 23, 2024

These books didn't come in the mail; I had an eye doctor appointment this last Monday, and my long-time doctor has an office on the fringes of the Village (or is 13th Street still Chelsea? I'm not dogmatic, or terribly well-informed, about the exact boundaries of Manhattan neighborhoods).

The office was convenient to work for a long time: first a quick subway ride from Times Square, and then a quick subway ride from Rockefeller Center, and then a quick walk from Madison Square Park, and then a quick PATH from Hoboken, and then a slightly more complicated subway ride from the UN area, and then again a quick PATH from Hoboken. But I went full-time work-from-home - somewhat sideways, and not by specific choice - just before or during the pandemic, so now she's not nearly as convenient as she was for almost twenty years. Still, a good doctor is worth a bit of fuss, so once a year I make the trek.

And, since I'm already on 13th Street between Fifth and Sixth, and The Strand is less than five minutes away...well, I have to make a stop, don't I?

I did; these are the books I got there (and one at Forbidden Planet down the block).

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton - a book I've heard about for years, in a nice classy relatively recent edition with an introduction by Jeff Vandermeer. This is the one about a near-future world in which no one dies of random diseases, but one woman is dying, and is secretly recorded for the entertainment of the rest of the world. I get a '70s Ballard vibe from it - media landscapes, death, British pessimism, all that jazz - and that sounds just fine.

Ocean State is a novel by Stewart O'Nan that I didn't realize existed; it was published in 2022 and I got the trade paperback from a year later. (It's been about fifteen years since I obsessively read Publishers Weekly and related materials for work, cataloging every book of interest and maintaining massive lists - and I'm still weirdly surprised that I'm not plugged into every last book being published the way I was when I did all of that. Expectations are weird.) Anyway, I like O'Nan's work, and keep thinking I will catch up on him eventually. This one is about teenage murder, which gives me a vague Speed Queen sense.

Animal Vegetable Criminal was Mary Roach's new book for 2021; she's a fine writer of nonfiction who I've read intermittently. (Well, I say that, but doing a search here, I might not have read anything of hers since Stiff in 2009. OK, maybe I just have a couple of her books on my to-be-read shelves and/or lists, but I think that counts as reading, or at least planning to read.) This one is about animals that get into criminal mischief - or maybe just interfere with human activities. I'm not expecting this to be law-geeky as the wonderful The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance (which you all should read, and which I hope will develop a sequel one day), but I do live in hope, as always.

A Matter of Life is a small graphic novel by Jeffrey Brown, subtitled "An Autobiographical Meditation on Fatherhood and Faith." I've like several of Brown's previous autobio pieces and this is from Top Shelf, who have never steered me wrong before.

Hypercapitalism is a 2018 book that I feel like I've been looking for, every time I was in a book or comics store, since then. I finally saw it in person, so I guess I had to buy it. It's by Larry (Cartoon History of the Universe) Gonick and Tim Kasser, who I gather is the actual expert on economics here. It looks as dense and mixed serious/funny as the rest of Gonick's work, so I hope to get to it more quickly than the six years it took me to find it.

And last is another book I've ben vaguely looking for multiple years: Darwin Carmichael Is Going to Hell, a 2014 book collecting that entire webcomic by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan. I probably read the whole strip, or most of it, when it ran, and I haven't checked to see if it's still online anywhere - it might well be. And I think I almost bought it when it was new, but maybe balked at full retail. Well, it's a decade later, and now it was very slightly cheaper, so yay for procratination.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Quote of the Week: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Mismatched Electrical Fittings

The week before Christmas I had to go out to buy Christmas tree lights at Bon Marché, the Left Bank department store. Ours didn't work, for reasons I don't understand, since a lot of the electric lamps we brought with us do work. Apparently some American lights shine in Paris, and some don't, don't ask why. (Henry James wrote whole novels on this theme, after all.)

 - Adam Gopnik, "The Winter Circus," p.51 in Paris to the Moon

Friday, March 22, 2024

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 1: The Selfish Giant/The Star Child

P. Craig Russell is the most accomplished and mature comics artist - at least that I can think of - who has spent a large chunk of his career specifically adapting the work of other people. He has a long series of opera adaptations, of which I covered one collection recently, and has been at the center of the turning-Neil-Gaiman-prose-into-comics machine, mostly centered around Dark Horse Comics for the past twenty years. (For example: The Problem of Susan.)

And he's also adapted Oscar Wilde's fairy tales into comics, as yet another long-running series of adaptations. (Well, I may mean "long-running" here to mostly mean "some time ago;" Wilde only wrote nine fairy tales and Russell adapted them, except for "The Fisherman and His Soul," into five books between 1992 and 2012.)

I haven't made a special effort to read the Wilde adaptations. I saw the fourth book, and covered it in a roundup, back in 2009, and probably read one or two others before then.

But reading projects are fun, and there's only five of these books, so I just went back to read 1992's first collection: Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 1: The Selfish Giant / The Star Child.

And these two stories were much more conventional and moralistic than I expected. They both come from that traditionally Victorian, very judgmental style of Christianity that assumes everything in the world is horrible and sinful and only The Power of Jesus provides any hope. Russell uses a lot of Wilde's prose and dialogue, which he does in a lot of his adaptations: he picks things, I think, where he loves the language and wants to showcase as much of that language in his art as possible. Luckily, Wilde's prose is famous for being amusing and well-formed; long chunks of god-bothering in the sanctimonious mode - which Wilde runs very close to, a lot of the time, here - are deadly dull, especially when the reader expects to read comics, not Tractarianism.

Anyway, both of these stories teach the same moral: be nice to other people, because they're probably Jesus (or otherwise important) and will curse you if you don't.

The Selfish Giant returns from a years-long holiday to find children have taken to playing in his garden. He kicks them out and builds a sturdy wall to keep them out. This of course means that Summer avoids his garden forevermore, leaving it racked by winter storms throughout the year. Until one oh-so-beautiful child - the reader will guess who He represents very quickly, as long as that reader has the requisite cultural background - melts the heart of the giant, who tears down the wall and gleefully watches the children play the rest of his long life.

The Star Child is found as an infant, wrapped in a golden cloth, in the woods at the site of a meteor's fall. (I suspect the set-up inspired Gaiman's Stardust, but the two stories go very different directions.) One of the woodcutters who discovered him adopts the baby, specifically against "we can't afford another mouth to feed" objections from both his partner and wife. The boy is gorgeous, but becomes a horrible, evil, selfish brat by the age of ten, the leader of a gang of similarly-aged hoodlums in this medieval town. A beggar woman appears in town then, saying she's been searching for her lost son, who was stolen away in those very woods, wrapped in that very cloth, exactly ten years ago. The boy of course denies his poor, ragged, ugly mother, and is cursed into looking frog-like. And then he's driven from town, since he's ugly now, and goes through various travails until he learns to give up everything to a leper, even at risk of his own death. Then he's restored to beauty and told that the old woman is a beautiful queen, the leper a handsome king, and he their son and heir. (But he dies young, in the xthkbye last sentence.)

I like Russell's art and Wilde's prose better than the stories here - both of those are assured and sophisticated and precise, while the stories are duller and vastly more obvious. These are very much Improving Stories, for anyone in the market for such. But they're told with a verve that hints that Improvement might not be quite as simple as it seems - though only a hint.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

We all have holes in our reading, some more surprising than others. I started reading "comics" seriously about 1986, when I went off to college to a town (Poughkeepsie) with a good shop (Iron Vic's) and bought mostly the weirdest stuff I could find on the racks at that time. There's a lot that I've read since then, sometimes by following the same creators and ideas, sometimes by deliberately paying attention to new things (manga! YA! Eurocomics!). But no one can read everything - no one wants to read everything, to begin with, and it's not physically possible now, if it ever was.

So I've known who Stan Saki was almost since that first trip to a comics shop in 1986 - maybe even earlier, since my kid brother might have already been reading Groo before then - but I've never sought out his central series Usagi Yojimbo, which started in anthologies (the old-fashioned kind, single issues published on a semi-regular schedule) in the mid-80s. As I'm writing this, I looked up the details, discovering that there are thirty-eight Usagi collections to date - well, I don't know if I'll make it to the end, but let's see if I can read at least a few of them.

To make clearer my ignorance: I think the only Sakai book I've read - I have read his stuff in anthologies and collections, and works he contributed to but doesn't own, to be clear - was The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, a pre-Usagi short series of stories I saw a decade ago.

So this is a thing I could have paid attention to, and maybe should, but didn't. And, nearly forty years later, I finally got to the beginning: Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin.

It collects eleven stories, originally published in random single issues, mostly the anthologies Albedo and Critters - all of the scattered Usagi stories from before the main series began in 1987. (This book was also published in 1987, back in the era when trade paperbacks were random and occasional rather than the expected next step of every series. That's a sign of the initial interest or importance of Usagi, I think.)

The stories are episodic, but the world and backstory is clear from the beginning - it's an anthropomorphic version of late Edo-era Japan, with different clans and groups drawn as different animals. Our hero is Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit samurai formerly in the service of an (I think unnamed) lord who was betrayed by one of his generals at the battle of Adachigahara and died there. Usagi now wanders the country, working as a bodyguard (Yojimbo). I gather Lord Hikiji, the evil feudal leader who betrayed Usagi's master, is the major background antagonist of the series, and he shows up here, both in person and through his minions.

So this book is a mixture of early world-building - the very first story tells us the story of Adachigahara in flashback - and random wanderings, which I gather stays the pattern of the series throughout, with longer stories that seem to fall into both categories ("mythology" and "monster of the week," to use not-quite-accurate borrowed terms).

The art is crisp and clear from the beginning, though some angles (especially Usagi looking up) and some of the smaller panels of battle scenes are not as clear as I might like - these are shorter stories, that likely had page limits, and Sakai was trying to tell expansive stories from the beginning. 

I often have a quizzical reaction to anthropomorphic stories - wondering why that style was chosen, and if there are world-building hints buried in the choice of creatures - but this seems to be the old, traditional style of anthropomorphism: the creator's style aims this way, he's leaning into it, and that's all it means. The style is slightly disjoint from the bloody, mostly serious and mostly historical matter, but that doesn't seem to be meant as a source of irony: it's just the way Sakai tells stories.

These are good stories, though they seem somewhat derivative (of samurai movies, mostly) at this point in the series' history. That's not a fatal flaw - lots of things are derivative, maybe most things - but it is pretty central. On the other hand, going in any reader knows this is a long-running comic about a rabbit samurai, so all of the potential deal-breakers are right up front. The good news is that it was strong and assured from the first page: if you are interested in rabbit-samurai stories, you can start with Book 1 very easily.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

I don't know if I ever read this before. I ran through a lot of the standard noir library, back in the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard days, but all those books were destroyed in my 2011 flood, and I mostly read them way back - up through the mid-90s, before I had kids.

I know I read at least one Cain book, so it was either this or Double Indemnity. What's the difference between the two? Well, this one doesn't have a postman in it, if that helps. They both have double indemnity.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was James M. Cain's first novel, published in 1934 after a substantial career in journalism and a less-successful stint at screenwriting. It's since become one of the most famous hardboiled novels, helping set the tone for an entire era of crime fiction. (I read it in a Library of America book, actually - Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s - which is a decent indication of its renown.)

It's a short book, driven by the voice of its main character, Frank Chambers, who tells it in first person. Frank is a tramp, riding the rails from town to town and living randomly. He's poor, but that life suits him - he's about as happy as he expects to be.

Then he wanders into the Twin Oaks Tavern, somewhere out on the open road in Southern California. The owner/proprietor, Nick Papadakis, needs help running that lunchroom and filling station, and Frank thinks it'll be something to do for a few days or weeks, before his feet take him onward. But he falls for Nick's much younger wife, Cora - and she for him.

This is noir, and a short novel, so they quickly start an affair and, not too much later, decide that they need to kill "the Greek." A first attempt fails but puts him in the hospital. The second try is successful, mostly according to plan, but gets Frank and Cora caught up in an inquest and the perceptive local prosecutor. And things get more complicated from there.

Again, it's '30s noir, from the era when first-person criminals ended their stories as they went off to death - so expect that going in. Frank is doomed from page one; that's the whole point of a book like this. His voice is compelling and his viewpoint clear - Cora doesn't come into focus as much, but a man like that in that era wasn't entirely thinking of women as people, so it all works.

It's a very short book, as good thrillers and noir often are: set up a situation, and run it down relentlessly. It's been the template for a thousand variations since, but still strong enough to stand up to those comparisons: you might as well go back to the original.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Forget My Name by Zerocalcare

A reviewer usually takes a position of expertise: I'm going to tell you everything important about this thing, and you will believe me. That works most of the time, even all of the time if a particular reviewer is focused enough or arrogant enough.

Today I'm dropping that pose: I have a quirky book by a creator with a weird pseudonym, a book that starts out like a straightforward family memoir but radically changes genre before the end. I want to admit, up front, that I'm pretty sure this fits into the creator's career in a specific way and was taken by the original audience as a metaphor for something, but I can't tell you with any degree of confidence what those things are.

The creator is Zerocalcare - apparently, that was the jingle for a cleaning product, which the guy named Michele Rech started using as an online handle and then just kept using when he started making comics. (As someone with a blog and other social accounts under the name "G.B.H. Hornswoggler," I understand the impulse.)

The book is Forget My Name, originally published in 2014 in Zerocalcare's native Italy and translated by Carla Roncalli di Montorio for this 2022 American edition from Ablaze. If I'm reading the sequence on his Italian Wikipedia page correctly, it was his fifth book.

Now we get into what I think, or assume, or deduce. I'm pretty sure all of Zerocalcare's comics are about "him" - the guy in the black shirt on the cover is the author stand-in, with a life very much like the author's, who is the narrative voice and who readers are meant to assume is the author. And he least to some degree.

Oh, sure, there's a talking armadillo representing his subconscious or better impulses or whatever, but that's a pretty common comics convention - comics are better at external stuff than internal, so cartoonists externalize dialogues and conflicts to make them clearer to draw. That's baked into comics: Zerocalcare's very first book was The Armadillo Prophecy, so his Italian readers would have been used to that by Forget.

And I took the shadowy figures on the covers similarly: I knew this was a family story, knew that the guy was the author, and figured it was a metaphor. Reader, it may well be a metaphor. But it is also a half-accurate version of an actual scene near the end of the book, taking place in what we are meant to believe is real life, after Zerocalcare learns a stunning (and physically impossible) truth about his family history.

So let me back up. Forget My Name is the story of Zerocalcare's relationship with his maternal grandmother, who died early in his adulthood but was a major figure when he was a child. It mixes light visual fantasy elements from the beginning - Zerocalcare and most of the background characters are drawn as human, but his mother (and her mother) are drawn as chickens and his father (not seen a lot) is a crane or something like that - but that all seems to be on the storytelling level. In the main story, Zerocalcare is helping clean out his grandmother's apartment, telling stories about how he remembered her to a convenient friend, and digging deeper into the secrets of her life.

And here I start wondering how much is "real." The big reveal at the end is some kind of metaphor, obviously - and I would have difficulty talking about what it could be a metaphor for without spoiling the book, so let me leave it as a signpost - but the earlier details, while quirky, all seemed plausible. Sure, this woman born in the 1920s was a semi-orphan, separated from her sister only to reunite much later. Sure, she was French. Sure, she was adopted and raised by émigré Russian aristocrats. Sure, she married a man who disappeared during WWII, with a family story that he was a partisan taken by the Nazis. And, sure, Zerocalcare only later realized that story made no sense since his mother was born in 1951. (Family stories often work like that: they simplify and paper over the uncomfortable bits.)

Each step is believable. Eventually, it leads to the revelation I won't explain. That is not believable. It drags the whole book over into metaphor, making the reader wonder how much of the earlier, plausible stories were equally metaphorical. And, to circle back to what I said at the very beginning, I have only wild theories about what the metaphor signifies. I was expecting something vaguely shameful - maybe the grandfather abandoned his family (once, or repeatedly), or was a collaborator during WWII, or went to prison later for something different, or just was from some racial/ethic group that his descendants don't want to think about.

The quirky thing is that the book isn't about the grandmother and her secrets. It's about Zerocalcare, his neuroses and concerns, his memories of childhood and what kind of person he is during this story. Everyone else is filtered through his viewpoint; other people exist as separate beings, I suppose, but they're not important the way the towering central ego of Zerocalcare is.

And his voice is compelling and personal, confessional and discursive, neurotic and thoughtful and endlessly self-reflective. His art is equally expressive - though, again, focused nearly always on the Zerocalcare character, the voice telling us this story.

I probably need to read more by Zerocalcare to get a better sense of what he's doing - to see how he tells other stories, how they turn into metaphors, how much fantasy he generally uses in his real-life stories. So, I'm left where I started: Forget My Name is interesting and smart and full of fascinating moments, with great insights and expressive art, but I just don't know how to take it. Let me leave it at that. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Cordero

"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 didn't plan it that way, but last week I had a song about bad sex - or, at least, sex with someone who's all wrong - and this week I have a sexy song that I have to believe is about good sex.

It doesn't quite say it that way, but...

Come on dear lay down on me
I fear I’ll harm myself.
Come on dear just hold me down.
I’ve lost my fear of death.

This is Come On Dear by Cordero. I don't think the band as they existed then are still active, but it looks like bandleader Ani Cordero is out there making music. Back in the early days of this century, she formed her namesake band, fusing a bunch of disparate musical influences and bouncing back and forth between English-language and Spanish-language songs. 

They did a lot of great music; I still listen to their records. This peppy, sexy, compulsive song - Ani Cordero started as a drummer, and this is very much a drum-driven song, full of quick beats - is one of their best.

Come on shake me you can’t break me I need to feel something else.
Why don’t you hold me down.
Please won’t you hold me down.

Sex songs are usually about metaphors - this one is more direct than most, but still subtle enough to miss if you don't think about it. That's what makes it a song and not just a demand, what makes it sexy rather than just a record of sex.

Punchy, smart, fast-paced, just loud and fast enough - it's a great song. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Quote of the Week: Insanely Insane

Let me tell you what Silicon Valley is like: the mountain edges of the valley rise up like the lip of a great big copper-bottomed frying pan of overpriced Revere Ware, and on the high heat of burning money everything and everyone in there melts into a boiling, spattering, frenetic stew. Boston is like a nicely arranged four-food-group meal on Sunday china, and Seattle is a huge hunk of Microsoft barbecue with a few thawed peas rolling off the paper plate, but Silicon Valley, California, is not just a stew, it's a stew that never comes off the gas heat. The juices meld, and the histories intertwine, and it's spiced up with high achievers from every nook of the world. Heat waffles off the ground, distorting it all into an earth-toned prism. Entangled superexpressways pass over industrial megaparks and shady 3BR/2BA ranch-style homes and provide occasional vistas of scorched tan acreage protected as natural habitants for scrappy, trash-can-scrounging coyotes. The tallest landmarks are power towers and phone poles. The real work is done in silence, sitting in cubicles, staring at screens. Everyone is attempting to make things that have not existed before.

 - Po Bronson, The Nudist on the Last Shift, pp.214-215

Friday, March 15, 2024

One Hundred Tales by Osamu Tezuka

It's tough to be a fan of someone when you're not quite sure what aspect of their work you're a fan of. I read a big bunch of Osamu Tezuka books, mostly published by Vertical, more than a decade ago - MW, Ayako, Ode to Kirihito, Apollo's Song, a few others - and liked them all a lot. They were smart, sophisticated, serious books for adults, with a striking depth of expression and focused imaginative power.

Vertical might have published everything Tezuka did in that vein; I really don't know. But I haven't seen anything else similar from Tezuka in my scattered reading since then. The latest attempt was One Hundred Tales, originally published in Shonen Jump magazine in installments in 1971 under the title Hyaku Monogatari and translated by Iyasu Adair Nagata for this 2023 Ablaze edition. (It was part of a series called "Lion Books" that some awkwardly-worded backmatter in the this book attempts to explain, but doesn't do a great job of - they don't seem to have been "books" in the first place, but multiple-segment manga stories published in SJ; the narrative slides from talking about this series to other manga projects to anime projects without a whole lot of clarity; and there's no explanation of what "Lion" is meant to mean in this context.)

Tales is, I think, part of the main flow of Tezuka's career, the huge flood of stories mostly for teen (and younger) boys that he created for so long at such volume. There are elements that resonate with adults, but it's mostly an adventure story with minor pretentions of philosophical depth, with the usual random Tezuka comic relief and contemporary cultural references thrown in willy-nilly.

The title makes it sound like a retelling of the Arabian Nights, but it's actually a loose retelling of Faust, set in a vaguely historical-fantasy Japanese setting. The main character is a mousy accountant/samurai (shades of "Office? Submarine!"), Ichiru Hanri, sentenced to commit ritual suicide for his very minor role in a coup plot against his feudal lord. He doesn't want to die, and offers his soul if he can survive - so a demon (yokai, more accurately) in the form of a beautiful woman, Sudama, offers to buy his soul in exchange for three wishes.

Ichiru wishes to live his life over again, to have the most beautiful woman in the world, and to rule his own country and castle. And so the episodic story moves forward - first Sudama makes Ichiru young and handsome, then he visits (in his new face and under an assumed name) his horrible wife and lovely young daughter, then he chases his choice for most beautiful woman (Tamano no Mae, a powerful yokai) with no good result, then has the requisite training montage to become a stronger and better sword-fighter, and finally spends the back half of the story working for another minor feudal lord, massively enriching that lord and then overthrowing him.

It's all pretty zig-zag. It does add up to a coherent story, but it only maps to the wishes fairly loosely. Sudama is also vastly more "helpful attractive supernatural woman" than she is "powerful scary demon" - the Faust parallels are mostly superficial, and drop away for the required happy ending.

Tezuka was an energetic cartoonist - sometimes too much so, to my eye, since this book starts off with Ichiru in full comic-relief mode, all goofy panic and silly faces, and the tide of comic relief comes in several more times as the book goes on. But, if you think of this as an adventure story made very quickly for publication in a massive weekly comics magazine for boys - which is exactly what it is - it's admirable and pretty accomplished in that context.

Whether that context is enough to overcome the negatives is up to every reader to decide. Tezuka is a world-renowned creator of stories in comics form, but his standard mode is very idiosyncratic and very tied to the specifics of the Japanese market and audience at the time.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson

Books can't just stay on to-be-read shelves forever. Each book has a shelf-life, a time when it's relevant, and if you don't get to it during that time, it turns like milk.

If I were more ambitious, I'd lay out some kind of mathematical formula for that shelf-life - with variables for when the book was published (brand-new books generally age quickly; books older than you can last forever, like Twinkies) and its topic (non-fiction ages faster than fiction, in most cases) and so on.

But I'm not.

So, instead, that is why I read this book. A twenty-five-year-old pop non-fiction book about the first Silicon Valley boom, published in 1999, is still vaguely relevant now, but it's receding into the distance. Our world of rapacious tech billionaires is not at all the same as the early days of scrambling for a mere (but oh-so-coveted) $20 million. But I thought the blinkeredness, that intertwined drive for massive profits and massive disruption, the obnoxious workaholism, and endless neophilia - all of that would probably be roughly the same.

So I finally read Pro Bronson's first non-fiction book, The Nudist on the Late Shift. I have long been a huge fan of his first novel, Bombardiers - it's as close to a "Catch-22 for business" as we're likely to get - but I've mostly avoided his later books, which seemed to be very touchy-feely life-coach stuff. This was the last book before he went full goo-goo, so I've long wanted to take a look at it. And I finally did.

It's a pretty typical reported "check out this scene" book, divided into eight chapters, each one focusing on a subset of Silicon Valley people. Bronson went to Stanford; his first novel was about San Francisco finance and his second about tech companies; he'd been writing for Wired and other outlets about Silicon Valley for a few years at this point. So he was plugged in: he knew enough people to get introductions to other people, and was in about the best-possible position to write a book like this. And, in retrospect, writing mostly in 1998 to publish in 1999 is close to the perfect time, too - sure, pushing it back a year or eighteen months, to the edge of the eventual crash, might have been even more extreme, but no one can time a market peak like that.

Bronson is positive and optimistic throughout, as if he really believes all of these men working eighteen-hour days to code a new Java-powered widget and get Microsoft to buy it for multiple millions are doing something worthwhile and useful. Oh, sure, some of this benefited people other than the ones getting the truckloads of money backed up to their garages - but not all that much. And it all fell apart as everyone outside the bubble knew it would.

So this is a book about, mostly, crazy optimists who are mostly in their mid-twenties, mostly have never failed at anything in their lives, and mostly have never seen a problem they couldn't just solve by working harder. It comes across as at least slightly naïve now, but this kind of book always does: the "line always goes up!" story is only plausible when no one has a memory of line going way down, suddenly.

But it's amusing, and full of fun stories, and Bronson was, as ever, an engaging and exciting writer on a sentence level (though he's less pyrotechnic here than in Bombardiers). My schadenfreude wishes there was a twenty-fifth anniversary edition updating all of these people, but that probably would be a parade of dead, selling Acuras in Burbank, dead, retired at thirty and running an obscure futurist thinktank, major VC player, mid-level manager at Intel, disappeared during Burning Man in 2006, in federal prison for financial crimes almost no one understands.

And who wants that? The whole point of a book like this is the dream - that we can believe that they all hit it big, all got their dreams, all made the Brand New Thing and cashed out and were awesome at everything. Leaving it a time capsule preserves that dream.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Nina Simone in Comics by Sophie Adriansen and various artists

Nina Simone was a prickly, complicated, contradictory person - like all of the best, most interesting people. She lived a long life, through lots of turmoil, and made great songs for decades. Most importantly, she grew up poor and Black in the Jim Crow south, though she was somewhat insulated from the worst of that as a young child by her clear talent and drive. But, then, the shock of reality when the insulation drops away is even sharper, isn't it?

Nina Simone in Comics is a hybrid of an old-fashioned illustrated biography and a modern comics biography, written by French comics scripter Sophie Adriansen and featuring art from nineteen different European artists and colorists. It's organized into twenty chapters, covering all of Simone's life: each one starts with a vignette in comics form, a scene or sequence of events, and then a text section follows to explain that part of her life in more detail. Anne Royant provides the first and last chapters, but most artists only show up once here.

It should be clear from that structure that Nina Simone is a lot wordier and denser than the reader would expect from a book with "in comics" in the title - a positive if you want more details about Simone, possibly a negative if you just want to skim something for a quick seventh-grade book report. It also has extensive notes on sources and Simone's recording career: it is a fabulous way into her life, providing multiple paths forward for any reader interested in learning more or just starting to listen to her music.

Simone was born Eunice Waymon in 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina, to a family that already had five children and was anchored by a deep religious devotion: her mother became an ordained minister of the AME Church during her childhood. Young Eunice quickly showed a talent for music and particularly for piano, which was nourished by lessons from local teachers - which in turn had to be paid for by a "support fund" raised from her family's neighbors and friends and apparently repeatedly replenished throughout her childhood.

The family moved north after her high school graduation as valedictorian, probably partially to support Simone's ambitions to become a classical concert pianist - though Black families were moving north before and during the '40s and '50s for all kinds of reasons anyway; my guess is that was one thread but not the whole reason. She studied at Julliard in New York, and auditioned for a scholarship to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, and was rejected. She kept studying and taking lessons, but also began playing jazz music in clubs both in Philadelphia, where she lived at the time, and over the summer season in Atlantic City. That's where the "Nina Simone" name came: her family didn't like popular music, and she wanted to save her real name for the real, "serious" career she still expected to have.

But it didn't work out that way. Adriansen wasn't quite clear if she applied to Curtis again later, though she definitely had tutors who thought she was very qualified. But her jazz career got momentum quickly, as Adriansen presents it, and she signed with a record company and recorded her first album.

Teasing out the sequence further: her failed audition was in April of 1951. Her first summer playing in Atlantic City was 1954. That first record, with the very late-50s title Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, was recorded in one day and released in 1959. She clearly spent nearly a decade practicing music, playing music, taking and giving music lessons, as her ambitions shifted from the concert hall to the jazz club.

Nina Simone was immediately a small success in her musical career, in the way Eunice Waymon wasn't. Simone herself seems to have thought implied racism was a large part of that, and it's very plausible: it was clearly much easier for the world to see a talented Black singer and piano player as a sultry jazz icon rather than a high-culture interpreter of Bach.

From there, it's the usual story of a creative life: problems with agents and managers and spouses and lovers and record labels - sometimes several of those wrapped up into one big problem - and shifts in creative energies, sometimes popular and sometimes not. In particular, Simone became known as a "protest singer" in the mid-60s and never shed that label afterward. But, again, she was committed and Black, friendly with Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes: it's hard to see how anyone like that would not be politically active and loudly in favor of the core rights of her own people.

Her life got more complicated from the 1970s and onward, which is also the point where a biography - any biography, including this one - tends to start skipping years and covering entire creative phases in a short paragraph. Lives are long, and the early shiny moments are the most enticing: the long tedious race through middle years rarely provides as clear or exciting a story. She had a daughter, she had several failed marriages - one of which, to her manager at the time, seems to have severely damaged her career and finances right at the time the market was turning against her protest music.

She moved away from the US, eventually settling in France for the last twenty years or so of her life. (Finally explaining, to me at least, why she was the subject of such a big, ambitious book by such a French group of creators.) The end of Nina Simone in Comics mixes personal turmoil - she had some chronic issues, including what seems to be often-untreated bipolar disorder - with a series of musical comebacks, giving a mixed picture of the mostly comfortable but probably not mostly happy later years in the life of a major, transformative figure.

Every life is a tragedy, since it ends in death. But people who lived well, who accomplished a lot, are smaller tragedies: so it was with Nina Simone.

Nina Simone in Comics feels mostly like an old-fashioned biography, since the "comics" pieces here don't tell her life story by themselves. They illustrate and illuminate, in a variety of energetic, eye-catching styles, with the text features forming the core of the book. But Simone's was a long life with a lot of events to cover; I can't fault the choices here, and this book is deeper and more detailed than any pure-comics bio I've read. I have to count that as a big positive; that's the whole point of a biography.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Falconspeare by Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

I know that the books about the Mignola-verse - or maybe we should call it the Hellboy-verse? - have continued to pile up, even after its main character died a decade ago and the second main pillar book, B.P.R.D., ran through a fairly comprehensive and long list of apocalypses. But I am not sure what is going on there, since I seem to have missed a bunch of those books.

Thinking that I might want to get back in, I looked for a place to dip my toe. I found something that looked standalone, that was definitely short, and took a leap.

Falconspeare is a 2022 book credited to Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell - they previously did Mr. Higgins Comes Home (which I saw, back in 2018) and Our Encounters With Evil (which I have not, but will now look for) together. But when I checked the credits more carefully, Mignola did the cover and the whole thing is "based on characters created by" him and Johnson-Cadwell. Otherwise, Johnson-Cadwell wrote, drew, and colored the whole thing, with letters by Clem Robins.

Also: it's set (as was Higgins, which I had forgotten) in a vaguely Victorian world, a bit quirkier and nonspecific than the core Mignolaverse - oh, definitely full of vampires and other mythological monsters that need to be dealt with, but without, as far as I can see, the whole dude-from-hell and otherdimensional Lovecraftian gods and multiple-apocalypses thing.

So this was not, in the end, a way back into that universe, but is just fine on its own.

A group of intrepid vampire hunters had a heyday fifteen years ago - signposted by captions saying exactly that - but it is now fifteen years later, and one of them, the title dude, has been missing for a while. The others are summoned by a mysterious message to the usual Balkan landscape, meet their long-lost comrade, and hear his strange and compelling story.

There is a twist at the end, of course. And it's all in a quirkier register than the regular Mignola books -not quite as odd as I recall Higgins being, but just a bit pantomime, as if we all know how this story is going to go, so we can just sit back and enjoy it without worrying about anything.

Johnson-Cadwell has a much looser line than usual for Mignola collaborators: again, this is not unserious, but it's not overly serious the way most Mignola books are. I compared Higgins to Eurocomics, in particular the Dungeon books, and I still see that similarity here, that same viewpoint and style.

It's probably not for readers who want hardcore mythology and megadeath from Mignola - it's mostly not Mignola, after all - but for a lighter, more amusing read, it definitely hits the spot.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Stephie Coplan and the Pedestrians

"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 sometimes wonder if I'm digging up half-forgotten or completely-abandoned careers with this series of posts - the bulk of the songs I'm writing about are from ten to fifteen years ago (when I was either paying more attention to popular music or popular music was clicking with me more strongly; take your pick), and that's long enough for all the members of a band to completely hate each other and solo artists to have run through two or three entirely unrelated careers afterward.

But the whole point of art is that it's there. It doesn't depend on the artist any more, once it's out in the world. I don't want to go full death-of-the-artist, but released work has an escape velocity; it goes on to its own life.

My song for this week was part of a burst of creativity from one woman and her band - she had a series called "Yes, I'm Really Writing A Song A Week" back in 2013 - and, like every burst of creativity, it eventually ended. But it happened, and there's a fun cluster of songs from it.

The band is Stephie Coplan and the Pedestrians. The song is, if I have the orthography right, JERK!

It's yet another "this person is so wrong for me" song, more angry than despairing, more loud than lamenting, and it rocks out so much.

But what's fun about it is how visceral it is. Coplan doesn't get into body parts, but this is very much a song about a guy that's fun to fuck, but no good for the narrator in any other way.

Make it count, make it loud, make it real, make it sick, make it good
Let it scream, let it roll, let it roar, let it hurt like it should
Sh-sh-shake it like a soda with a pop top ready to explode
Come on, baby, keep it coming 'til you toss me like a gum wrapper stuck on the road

The voice isn't totally happy with this - who would be? - but there's an attraction she can't deny, even as the song is set in that post-coital disgust for the whole thing.

Coulda been your eyes
Coulda been your smile
Coulda been your I-don't-give-a-fuck style
Coulda been your anger
Your jaded middle finger
But you're the jerk who just keeps turning me on

A song like this could easily turn into "how could I do something so stupid," but Coplan keeps the focus on the Jerk. He's horrible in a sexy way, and the whole song is charging headlong into that twisted cluster of emotion, that core moment of doing something you know you'll regret - that you're already regretting as you do it - but the moment is so compelling that you just do it.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Quote of the Week: A Better Version of the Problem

He knows where I live. And Momma, too.

Squib was marked and he knew it.

I gotta sort this out, he thought. I gotta get out from under that dragon.

Which is not a problem most people have to solve in their lifetimes,. In general, most folk who get to meet a dragon only get to think about it that one time for about five seconds.

 - Eoin Colfer, Highfire, p.82

Friday, March 08, 2024

Highfire by Eoin Colfer

I never know how to write about books that I found perfectly fine but didn't really love. You know how sometimes you find that you have to force yourself to go back to a book, telling yourself things like "it's fun to read, isn't it? You like that element, and the narrative is zippy, and you can finish it quickly, so why don't you want to get back into it?"

Highfire was like that for me: good at what it does, energetic and colorful and specific, set in an interesting place with quirky characters, but I just want to pick at the narrative voice and how it organizes the story in ways that I'm not as fond of.

(To be blunt: there are three major characters here, and I think, in the back of my head, I really wanted the multiple-first-person narration version of the story, to get deeper into the characters. Instead, this is told in an omniscient third-person that has quirks of language and seems to have a viewpoint, but stays a voice rather than becoming a person. It's also a breezy, somewhat surface-y voice - great for the story being told, but not quite what I was looking for.)

Those are all Me Problems. I'll try to sidestep them as much as possible.

Highfire is billed as an adult fantasy novel: it's written by Eoin Colfer, best-known for the YA "Artemis Fowl" series. I found that it had elements that might keep it - in my memory, realizing that I've been out of SFF publishing for sixteen years now - from being published as YA, but it centers on a teen protagonist and the tone and style had a YA flavor to me.

The three main characters are:

  • Everett "Squib" Moreau, a fifteen-year-old guy living in a small Louisiana swamp town, without a whole lot of distinctive characteristics. He's fairly smart but not interested in school, he has one close friend who is mentioned a lot but never appears on the page, he's talky but Colfer doesn't let him spin yarns. He's the reader stand-in, I guess: a normal guy at the middle of weirdness.
  • Regence Hooke is the villain, a deeply corrupt, probably sociopathic local constable who wants to get with Squib's still-hot nurse mother Elodie, wants to supplant his mobster semi-boss, Ivory Conti, and somewhat wants to get rid of Squib as well. He's bad news in every possible way, smarter and nastier and better-prepared than his type often is.
  • "Vern," a three-thousand-year-old dragon whose real name is Wyvern, Lord Highfire. He's possibly the last of his kind, living quietly in a shack way out in the swamp, with a local quirky character - Waxman, who is another variety of mythological being - as his only point of contact with the human world. He's a "dragon," but Colfer presents him as roughly human-sized and shaped, able to use normal furniture and wear normal clothes. (I never got a good mental image of what he actually looks like, or how his wings work, or anything like that.) His overwhelming desire is to stay below the radar, to keep humans from knowing about him, and to just keep on - and he's entirely happy to barbecue or otherwise vanish anything and anyone that threatens that.

The action kicks off when Squib semi-accidentally witnesses Hooke murdering someone for Conti, one late night way out in the swamp, and then flees right into Vern's lap. Squib manages to convince Vern not to kill him, and eventually becomes Vern's new go-between to the human world. But Hooke is still out there, and knows someone witnessed the murder. And Hooke has other plots that intersect Squib's world, most notably his pursuit of Elodie.

Action setpieces pop up every sixty to eighty pages, mostly with Vern breathing dragonfire and/or flying to destroy things. Squib gets battered nearly as much as a Tim Powers protagonist. Hooke is sneaky and tricky and full of plans and has access to all manner of exciting and exotic weaponry, but never quite feels evil for some reason.

There is a happy ending, as there has to be. Along the way, lots of things blow up real good, there's a surprisingly large body count that Colfer mostly mentions in passing, and only fairly small bits of New Orleans get trashed by a dragon. It didn't quite grab me the way I was hoping it would, but it's fun and pretty much exactly what it's billed as: a kick-ass dragon/crime story in the modern world, by a hugely bestselling YA writer.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Tank Girl Full Color Classics, Vol. 3: 1993-1995 by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin

The thing about Tank Girl was that it was obviously a goofy lark - something that could be an anarchic entry in a larger comics anthology (Deadline), a few pages of craziness each month, with punk attitude to spare and only the most minimal respect for normal narrative rules and norms. That each month would be whatever the creators - at the very beginning, just Jamie Hewlett, but soon including Alan Martin to letter, write and/or script, and sometimes with other hands on art here and there as time went on - had in their heads at the time, thrown down on paper in a rush to meet the deadline and even more Tank Girl for any resulting incoherence and randomness.

But then Tank Girl got hugely popular, and had to be in every issue of Deadline. And her stories got reprinted first as comics issues and then as books, as if there was a coherent narrative through-line and consistent story to them all. But there wasn't. There never was in the first place, and the impulse to create one sent Hewlett and Martin even further away from narrative consistency.

It didn't seem to matter, though: the stories stayed popular, and a movie deal materialized. Even more surprisingly, the movie actually happened. Hewlett and Martin spent some time on set - in the American southwest, which may be one clue that an American adaptation of two very British guys' piss-take on a fantasy version of Australia might have been stretched far out of recognition.

These are the stories that came out just before the movie - the ones that know, in some sense, that there will be a movie - and are the height of that initial anarchic popularity. There was nowhere to go from here but down, and the reaction to the movie sent it all down very quickly.

The current reprint series of Tank Girl was recolored and reissued about five years ago - clearly, the series is still selling well, since it keeps getting reprinted and repackaged; books don't stay on the market if they don't hit an audience. But I think this is still basically the same material: a little nicer package, coloring that looks much more 2018 than 1993, a bunch of on-set photos from the movie and other sketches and ephemera to bulk up the package, but still the same core stories.

I read the first two Tank Girl collections right around the time of this most recent repackaging, in the previous (mid-Aughts?) editions: Tank Girl and Tank Girl Two. That first book is still the core Tank Girl experience: frankly, if there had never been anything else it would have been fine. That was A Thing, and Hewlett and Martin did it well. The second book is weirder and more random, which is fun in its own way, but about as self-indulgent as a thing can be.

Tank Girl Full Color Classics, Vol. 3: 1993-1995 reins in a bit from the pure randomness of the second book - perhaps someone pointed out to Hewlett and Martin that the movie was in-process, so they should do stories actually about Tank Girl most of the time, not their own childhoods - but it's still pretty nutty and random, with several stories in which a TG-looking person either wakes up at the end or appears once to comment on the action. They do all generally at least feature versions of the other main characters, though - Booga or Jet Girl will be the center of those odder stories.

I'm not going to describe the stories: they're mostly "Tank Girl goes somewhere, engages in loony violence while quipping, and then gets out," but there are many layers to that style, and one of the biggest ones here is random references to then-famous (or, even worse for this American, previously-famous) very British figures who are used as running gags or plot supports. There will come a time when a lot of Tank Girl stories require annotation for the average non-UK reader, and that time may be basically now.

I guess what I'm saying is that this is Baby Bear Tank Girl: the first book was hot, capturing lightning in a bottle, as good as these stories could ever be. The second book was very cold, going off in random directions and doing a lot of interesting things despite the massive self-indulgence. This one pulls back into the middle: it's more lukewarm, with plots that are mostly coherent for the length of their six or eight pages, characters who are mostly consistent, art that's always awesome but is occasionally cramped to get it all down on a page, and an eye on a bigger prize glittering in the Arizona desert.

It wasn't much of a prize, in the end. Tank Girl the movie was a famous flop on all levels. But that's how it goes, sometimes.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Making Friends: Together Forever by Kristen Gudsnuk

I'm pretty sure this is the real end. But any series that has run four books already could always have more, so I'll make that an assumption rather than a declaration. Kristen Gudsnuk will probably move on to do other wonderful, goofy, jokey graphic novels - for adults or middle-graders or who knows what audience next - but the "Making Friends" series is solidly wrapped up here.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about: Making Friends: Together Forever, as I implied, is fourth in a fantasy GN series from Scholastic, aimed at middle-graders. First was Making Friends, followed by Back to the Drawing Board and Third Time's a Charm. Gudsnuk is also the author of the excellent supervillain adventure Henchgirl, which I still recommend as the best place for an adult reader to start with her work.

Making Friends is about Dany: when the series started, she was just going into seventh grade and feeling lonely, in a new middle school where her old friends had completely disjoint schedules. And, when she got a heirloom sketchbook from her recently deceased Great-Aunt Elma, she started drawing in it - and discovered that anything she draws there pops into the real world.

So she drew a best friend: Madison Fontaine, just moved from NYC, cool and good at all of the things Dany thinks she's bad at. And things got complicated from there. Three books worth of complicated, which is more complicated than I can get into here. Let me also note that Gudsnuk, as a creator, does not shy away from complication but instead revels in it and builds it up to fantastic, wacky, amazing heights.

You may have an image in your head of how a GN about "girl is sad in middle school, then creates a best friend" might go. I would bet large sums of money that image is not nearly Gudsnukian enough. She has a humorously skewed point of view, the love of complication I just mentioned, and a bone-deep sense of just how silly she can push any situation - every last bit of this series is right up to the red line of cool/silly, without ever going over.

OK, maybe examples would help. There are two different artifacts of Dany's world in the early pages of this book I low-key want for myself. On the second page, there's a poster of a unicorn in sunglasses, in front of a rainbow, burning a dollar and saying "Stop buying stuff, you corporate stooge". And Dany slightly later wears a shirt that says "Race for The Cure" with a caricature of '80s-era Robert Smith. (Honestly, I would wear that right now if it existed.)

Together Forever, like the previous books, is full of little asides like that - one other example, which is actually thematically important, is the Toy Story-equivalent movie series, which is about sippy cups and is just as goofy (but actually funnier) than you expect.

Anyway: reality has been saved and rewritten and damaged multiple times already, by the notebook itself and by other forces looking to repair the world, or conquer it, or something in between, in the previous three books. At the end of the third book, Powerful Forces imposed a new order on reality, which seemed to be overall a good thing, to keep world-altering plots and crazy fabric-of-reality-destroying magic controlled, but it did leave Dany with only a tiny scrap of the notebook and stuck in a new world where no one else remembered what had happened. (Oh, and she has an alien impostor for a mom, to keep an eye on her.)

Worse, Madison was whisked away by those Powerful Forces, so Dany was back - somewhere in the winter or spring of a seventh grade that just would not end - somewhat lonely and wanting to change. But then Dany sees a new TV show, My Magical Best Friend, that stars Madison and seems to be based on her actual (pre-reality changes) life.

Dany wants her best friend back, and she's annoyed at the way this TV show presents her life. So she's going to use that tiny scrap of notebook in one last crazy plan to save Madison, get away from alien impostor mom, and become the Dany she knows she can be. (Possibly one full of "Le Existentialism" from reading Jean Paul Blart.)

It all goes goofy and complicated from there: this is a Kristen Gudsnuk book. And, as the jingle for the annoying TV show goes, "with magic and friendship anything is possible!"

There's a real ending, which closes out the series well. There's a lot of great dialogue - some heartfelt, some deeply goofy. And, like the previous three books, it's aimed at tween girls without being limited to them - if you ever were a goofball who wasn't sure how to fit into life, and wished you had magic to fix things, the Making Friends books are for you.