Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I haven't read Batman: Arkham Asylum in twenty years, at least. But I wish I could talk to that earlier Andrew Wheeler, who read it soon after publication in 1989, because I desperately want to know.

Did I realize the plot made no sense back then, or was I distracted by the fancy package and the semi-profundities?

In retrospect, this set the tone for a lot of writer Grant Morrison's later work: portentous superhero operas, with characters emoting in high style, skating by on charm and flash and eye-candy to distract from the fact that the moments of the story don't entirely track and that sensible human beings would never actually act in these ways.

(Ah! But you say that long-underwear characters aren't sensible human beings! They're deeply damaged psychological cripples, heroically rising above their problems to fight for love and justice and the pure joy of punching people in the face. And I say to you: phooey. That is the worst kind of special pleading, and you should be ashamed to use it.)

Yes, the set-up is fine. The lunatics break out and take over the asylum, sure. Batman agrees to go in alone because they have hostages, definitely.

Batman stands there and chats with Joker for twenty-plus pages, like the awkward guy at a cocktail party? Um, no. Batman has been many things for many eras, but he's never been talky. And even less the person who gets talked to for an extended period, which is what Morrison does with him here.

(Batman does word-association with a not-really-a-hostage doctor? Oy, that's even worse.)

Yes, it's reasonably good psycho-babble, if your eyes are better than mine and can decipher the heroically mangled lettering of Gaspar Saladino for Joker's speeches without squinting under your glasses and turning the book closer to the light repeatedly. But if you want Batman to listen to psycho-babble, you have to tie him down first. Batman is a character of action: he's only really himself when he's using that ridiculously large cape to swoop through the darkness to paste a thug in the kisser with a gauntleted fist. Standing politely and waiting for the crazy man to finish up his crazy talk is not really in his wheelhouse.

Eventually, Morrison gets Batman on the run through the asylum, chased by the various crazy people -- which is what we signed on for. And he dispatches each of them in a page or two, since the book is already half over -- Joker took up most of it with his grab-ass and chatter. And the end is the usual non-committal superhero stuff, where nothing changes because nothing can change, and all of the toys are carefully packed up so they can do exactly the same thing again as many times as DC can make money off it.

It's not bad. But it is pointless, and faintly silly. And the evidence that Batman may be as crazy as the inmates -- nudge nudge wink wink! -- is the fact that he thinks about bats and his dead parents all of the time, which isn't precisely a stunning revelation.

(Oh, yeah: and, in a parallel story,  ol' Arkham, the guy who founded the asylum goes nuts either because a maniac murdered his family or because the house makes everyone crazy. If the latter, using it to house people already crazy seems like an even better idea -- what's it going to do to them?)

Dave McKean's pages are still amazing, though my aforementioned aging eyes sometimes found them murkier than preferable. His book design has a few elements that are looking more strongly 1989 than we all expected at the time, but that's life. The art is the major draw at this point -- moody, atmospheric, stunning, unique.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The World of Edena by Moebius

I'm not an expert on Moebius's graphic novels -- I read all of the Epic series when they came out, three decades ago, and scattered other works, but haven't made a serious study of it. So I can't say if this is true. But it does seem to me that every Moebius epic inevitably ends with a big-nosed Everyman on the run from a totalitarian strongman in a dream world, pursuing the image of the perfect woman, who is not so much a character as an idea, even if she's supposed to be a real person.

Again: I could be wrong.

But what I got out of The World of Edena is that Moebius is another one of those artists who draws -- and, in his case, often writes -- about what's of interest to him right then, and incorporates it into his current story, even if that story seemed to be going in a different direction before that point.

This tendency is especially marked when a long series is collected together, as here. World of Edena contains what were originally five separate albums -- four of them published as part of that Epic series, actually -- that were published between 1983 and 2001 (the book doesn't make this clear at all, and online searches have not been terribly helpful, either). It looks like the first three came out relatively quickly -- Upon a Star for a Citroen internal promotion in 1983 and then The Gardens of Edena and The Goddess in time to be published in the Epic series in English in 1988 and 1990 -- and then Stel was in the early '90s (in time for an English translation in 1994), but the last piece, SRA, left until this 2016 book to see a US release.

The first book is a space fantasy, mixing light mysticism with a post-Star Wars lived-in future, with that long Citroen story seeing space mechanics Stel and Atan crash-landing on a strange planet, traveling to the inevitable enigmatic alien artifact, and equally inevitably being the people prophesied for seven hundred thousand years to transform the artifact and transport themselves and all of the other assembled sentients to the fabled paradise planet, Edena. (Before that is a related short story, "Repairs," which the book also fails to explain. Did Moebius create this before the Citroen commission, and decided to re-use the characters? Was it a warm-up for the longer Citroen piece? How much earlier was it written and drawn? Despite a lot of text pieces about how wonderful and philosophical and thoughtful Moebius was, the tedious details of dates and provenance are neglected.)

The Gardens of Edena picks up on that supposed paradise world, but Moebius has a new hobby-horse in the raw-foods movement. So Stel and Atan are thrown onto Edena alone together, and none of the other sentients from the first book (with one exception, much later) are ever seen again, referenced, or given a second of concern. Instead, our heroes find themselves roughing it in an Earthlike savanna landscape, left without their usual machine-created food and health-regulating tech. So they are forced to become "natural," which of course is vastly better than modern medicine -- Moebius is telling this story, so they don't get dysentery or get eaten by a predator or get injured in a way that leads to septicemia or gangrene. No, this is nice nature, the kind that civilized Frenchmen can rhapsodize about at length from posh hotels around the world as they draw their comics pages. The kind of nature that has sparkly fairy creatures massing at night to make gorgeous comics pages of transcendence and love -- pages that will almost convince you.

Along the way, it turns out that their diet was suppressing their natural sexuality, and that Atan is actually female. Stel, the pilot with the big nose, is of course male, and of course gets most of the pages and action from this point forward. Very soon after this revelation, Stel attempts to rape Atan -- Moebius probably wouldn't put it that way, but it's what happens -- and they separate.

The Goddess follows Atana -- she has to change her name, apparently, since a gender-neutral name is only suitable for a man -- on her wanderings through this natural world. But Moebius's hobby-horse has mutated, so she's captured by the hyper-technological denizens of The Nest -- all human, and, as we learn later, the descendants of the other humans from Upon a Star -- and sees how horribly non-natural they are in their underground bunker and full-body suits. She quickly becomes the figurehead of their rebellion, against the mysterious Paternum, who also appears to her in nightmarish dreams. And she appears to be successful in the end.

Then we return to Stel, who does not have to change his name when he transitions from sexless to male, because male is the default, right? (There could be a major feminist critique of World of Edena, and the names would be only the beginning.) He also gets caught up in the Nest and the Paternum, which is not as defeated as we thought. Atana is now sleeping somewhere, and Stel is prophesied to be the god who will save her, uniting their powers to save the world. There's a lot of running around and a lot of two-bit philosophy and a lot of supposedly profound dreams for close to a hundred pages. Moebius draws all of this beautifully, even if I couldn't precisely believe it. And it ends of a massive cliff-hanger, but luckily we don't have to wait a decade, as the original French readers did.

The final book, SRA, continues the adventures of he-man Stel, as Atana is still missing and believed sleeping. All or most of it takes place in dream-worlds, as Stel battles the person barely mentioned in Upon a Star that became the evil Paternum, with the aid of Edena's fairy-like sprites, another supernatural character on his side, and possibly the mysterious powers of still-sleeping Atana. And, yes, the big-nose guy is on the run in a world controlled by the evil totalitarian, to save or be saved by the perfect woman who he hasn't seen for years, tried to rape the last time he saw her, and doesn't really know at all.

Ah, romance!

The ending is oddly enigmatic for that set-up: we don't even see Stel and Atan(a) meet. The supposed god and goddess of this world are separated for most of the book, pretty much from the moment they get differentiated by sex, and one or more of them are dead on one or more levels of reality. A cynical reader might think that Moebius wasn't actually finished, and that this book doesn't so much end as stop, before a final book that might have actually tied up everything and actually got Stel and Atana together and friendly with each other, finally. Luckily no such cynical reader is right here.

I enjoyed The World of Edena without taking it seriously for a second once it hit that paradise planet. It is lovely and sumptuous and stuffed full of half-digested (and frequently silly and sophomoric) ideas. Moebius draws magnificently, so it's a shame that his people are so cardboard and his moral dilemmas are so dull.

Also, every time I see the title, my mind sings it to match this song. So let me infect you with the same earworm:


Monday, March 20, 2017

Incoming Books: Early March

So, about a week ago, I got a box of books that I'd ordered about a week before that -- dates get vague when you're not keeping track and no one actually cares to begin with -- because my usual comics store was having a 50% off sale on some clearance stuff. So the books below are pretty random and tend to be older, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Here's what I did get, and expect to be reading sometime relatively soon:

Kyle Baker Cartoonist, Vol. 2 -- another one of the books Baker self-published back a decade or so ago, this one is mostly filled with strips and single-panel stuff about his then-young family. (I presume, like all of the rest of us, they're slightly older now.)

Gobler Toys: The Fun We Can't Remember by Steve Casino and Steve Fink -- I came across the website for Gobler Toys -- the toy company you don't remember because it never actually existed -- years ago, and have gone back to it now and then. At some point, I learned there was a book, too, and i finally found it. I have a weakness for fake history and fake non-fiction in all forms, so this is right up my alley.

Troop 142 by Mike Dawson -- Dawson is a fellow New Jerseyan, and he's been killing it with his short comics (mostly for The Nib) over the past year. (Many collected in Rules for Dating My Daughter, along with other stuff.) So that's enough to dig out this slightly older GN of his about a Boy Scout troop.

Hot Dog Taste Test -- a collection of comics by Lisa Hanawalt, mostly in the humorous vein. I have to admit that I keep mixing up Hanawalt with Gemma Correll for no good reason -- but I hope reading a concentrated dose of Hanawalt will clear my brain-cache and allow me to make the distinction in future.

The Collected Hutch Owen by Tom Hart -- Hart impressed me with Rosalie Lightning (as he's impressed every one who's seen that book), which overcame my past aversion to his often sketchy, big-nose style. This seems to have been his major work pre-Rosalie, so I wanted to check it out.

Sunny, Vol. 6 by Taiyo Matsumoto -- I think this is the last in the excellent series by the creator still best known for Tekkon Kinkreet. Great slice-of-life comics about orphans in 1970s Japan -- really particularly and psychologically real.

Sparky O'Hare by Mawil -- Mawil is a German cartoonist; I've seen two of his books, including this one. He's got a nice loose line, a knack for being funny, and is otherwise almost completely unknown to me. (I say "he" because of the male gaze of the stories and the usual cultural baggage -- I don't think I'm wrong there but I could be.)

Bizarro Heroes by Dan Piraro -- One of the many collections of Piraro's long-running Bizarro single-panel cartoon. This one came out from Last Gasp and focuses entirely on cartoons about people in long underwear, capes, and domino masks.

Paul Moves Out by Michel Rabagliati -- One in the long series of semi-autobiographical books by Quebecois cartoonist Rabagliati, this is a book I used to own (pre-flood) and now do again.

Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz -- In the '50s and '60s Schulz did other stuff, before the ever-growing Peanuts licensing empire took over his life entirely. One of the major other pieces of that work was a series of single-panel gag cartoons about teenagers, and this book collects all of 'em.

Sweaterweather by Sara Varon -- This is a collection of short comics (and, I think, maybe other things, too) by the creator of Robot Dreams. She's got a nice picture-book style and manner, and it's interesting to see that deployed into somewhat more traditional comics formats.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/18

Every week, I list the books that came in the mail the week before -- the ones sent by publicists looking for publicity, I mean; if I ever got SECRET BOOKS from SECRET CONTACTS I would never even mention it.

Some weeks there's a whole bunch, some not so many.

This week there were none.

So, herewith, the list:
  1.  
But I do expect to have an "Incoming Books" post later today to list some books I bought, which is totally different.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

My role here is mostly superfluous -- if you happened to miss that Neil Gaiman had a new short-story collection in 2015 (despite all of William Morrow's most strenuous efforts), you've suddenly realized it now. I suppose it's not precisely impossible that someone may be reading this blog on the Internet and not be familiar with Gaiman, but I find that unlikely on the raining-pennies-from-heaven level.

So, at this point, I'm talking to two audiences. First, the people who like Gaiman's work, and either have already read Trigger Warning or have it on that big shelf of things they fully intend to get to "someday." And, secondly, the people who just don't like Gaiman.

I won't try to characterize the second group, since taste is so subjective. There are writers I respect but never will warm to (that old dullard Henry James primary among them), and writers I haven't the least bit of respect for but will never say so in public. I'm sure it's the same way with Gaiman. He often has a tinge of horror to his work, especially in the shorter forms, and, as a reader who generally hates horror, I can see that turning off a number of readers. Maybe some people find him too twee, or two verbose, or too roundabout, or just too British. Or the opposite of all of those things, for all I know: we are all idiosyncratic.

Anyway: I doubt I'll convince you, folks in Group Two. I might suggest that you might not just have clicked, and a look at some of his best short stories ("Snow, Glass, Apples" is still my choice there, or "The Problem With Susan," though this book's "'The Truth Is a Cave In the Black Mountains...'" is very close) or graphic novels (Violent Cases with Dave McKean, or Black Orchid also with McKean) or novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Coraline, both nicely compact) could perhaps show you something you actually do like.

But time is short and books are near-infinite. You have no obligation to give anyone a second chance -- or a first one, for that matter.

I do think you're missing something, though: Gaiman is that unicorn of the literary world, a subtle writer who is a regular bestseller. He's a writer's writer who somehow wrote himself into a reader's reader audience, and has maintained it for close to thirty years now, across two and a half media (comics and prose and somewhat movies). That's rare and worth celebrating; writers like Gaiman are usually the ones who their compatriots love and whose books appear in small editions from presses with strange names.

But Trigger Warning, despite being that very unfashionable thing, a collection of short stories --  containing a fair bit of poetry as well -- was a major bestseller a couple of years back, and is now a very respectable trade paperback with a book-club guide in the back and everything. (And Gaiman has another bestseller at the moment in his retelling of Norse Mythology; I begin to suspect he made a pact with an infernal power many years back for such success at unlikely writing projects.)

I should provide some consumer information here: Trigger Warning contains exactly two dozen works of prose and poetry -- much more of the former than the latter, for those of you allergic to verse -- all but one and a half of which were originally published between 2004 and 2013. (The American Gods-related novella "Black Dog" is completely original, and "The Return of the Thin White Duke" contains a first half published in V Magazine -- no, I've never heard of it, either -- and a second half only written when Gaiman assembled this collection in 2014.) Gaiman completists will likely have read much of this -- "'The Truth Is a Cave In the Black Mountains...'" and "The Sleeper and the Spindle" both appeared as individual, illustrated books in the past several years, for example. But much of it, particularly the poetry, is more obscure, and will be new to all but a few obsessives.

There are a number of quite short, mostly borderline-horror stories, including "A Calendar of Tales," which is twelve of them all together -- all well-done, but of necessity small things -- and a story about Gaiman's particular favorite Dr. Who incarnation, which is quite good for sharecropping work. The long stories -- "Nothing O'Clock," the Dr. Who piece, along with "Black Dog" and the two already published in illustrated form -- are the standouts here, as one would expect.

If you've never read any Gaiman short fiction, go to Smoke and Mirrors first. It's not so much that he was better when he was younger as that his time was spent more on short fiction then, so there's more strongly invested work there. But if you're keeping up with him, more or less, this is an excellent collection of work by a writer who is never satisfied with the almost-right word or a story that blatantly tells you what it's about.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/11

Since this is a Monday, it's time for Reviewing the Mail, the fan-favorite blog feature in which Your Humble Blogger roots through his mail from the week before to find books to surprise and delight you.

(Note: surprise and/or delight are not guaranteed. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited by law.)

This week, I have two books from the fine folks at Tachyon, and let me dive right into them....

Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade is a follow-up to last year's Hap and Leonard, which collected all of the stories about Joe R. Lansdale's crime-fighting odd couple that had been published to that point. Well, Mamma Lansdale's youngest son has been very busy this past year, because Blood and Lemonade contains thirteen more stories about Hap and Leonard (though I think one of them was the new story in last year's book), all copyright 2016 or 2017.

You'd think there was a new season of a Hap and Leonard  TV show hitting, or something!

(Note: there is.)

Anyway, this has a whole bunch of new Lansdale stories, about probably his most popular characters, right at the moment when they're getting on TV for all the world to see. I suspect this will be reasonably popular, and it's available in trade paperback on March 14 (which would be tomorrow, for those of you trying to count on your toes).

And the other book is In Calabria from Peter S. Beagle, whose last novel, Summerlong, came out last September. Which means this is the first time Beagle has had two novels within a six-month period since...um.........well, ever, as far as I can tell. This is probably a novella, though -- like "Lila the Werewolf," among other things -- so you may insert an asterisk if you wish.

In Calabria is out now; it hit stores in February as a hardcover. And it's a new unicorn story -- this one set in the modern world (in Calabria, as the title indicates) and featuring a farmer whose solitary happy life is upended when that unicorn wanders into his life.

Two new Peter Beagle books within a year! Maybe the world isn't doing so bad, after all.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Duel With the Devil by Paul Collins

Paul Collins is a working writer, a guy who writes interesting, usually historical and research-inspired non-fiction books and who has never (as far as I've noticed) hit that bestseller level. He's also almost exactly the same age as me, and has a couple of sons around the ages of my sons: we always like best the people who remind us of ourselves. So I've been a Collins reader for some time, previously reading and babbling about his books Banvard's Folly, Not Even Wrong, The Trouble With Tom, Sixpence House, The Book of William, and The Murder of the Century here.

Duel With the Devil was his new book for 2013; I'm starting to run behind with Collins as I am with so many other writers. (I think he already has another book out; it's sad when writers you like can write faster than you can read.) And it's in the same vein as his previous book, The Murder of the Century: it pulls a shocking murder story out of historical newspapers and other documents to present it new to a modern audience.

(Not at all unlike what Rick Geary has been doing in comic form in his Treasury of {insert era} Murder series, actually -- so this is a thing I've liked and burbled about for a long time from someone else as well.)

Duel picks up on a shocking event a good hundred years before the murder in Century -- the death of Elma Sands in New York City at the very end of 1799. She was a young Quaker woman living in a boardinghouse on Greenwich Street, and suspicion immediately fell on a young man in that same house, one Levi Weeks. Duel is divided into four parts -- the first two fill in the picture from before Elma's death, telling her story and Levi's, and the back half of the book covers Levi's trial for her murder and the verdict and its aftermath.

As the subtitle implies, the big draw here is that this case brought together two major political enemies: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Only four years later, they would duel and Burr would kill Hamilton, but, in the winter of 1800, they were on the same side of a courtroom in lower Manhattan, defending the brother of a top contractor in that growing young city (and, not less important, a huge creditor of the then-insolvent Burr).

Collins follows the pattern of Century here; he has a lot of historical documents to draw from to tell this story, and makes it all clear and compelling. Again, this isn't as idiosyncratic and quirky as his earlier books, but I know that quirky doesn't pay the bills. I wish Collins could have a brilliant, bestseller-filled career writing books like The Trouble With Tom, but I'm old enough to know that the world doesn't come close to my wishes in a million ways. The career Collins has is a solid one, and I hope some of the millions of people who are interested in Hamilton find this book and make their way to the rest of his work.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Drawn & Quarterly edited by Tom Devlin with a cast of thousands

You might think I'm joking with that headline, but the title page lists four other people who helped Devlin edit this book, two people (including Devlin) who designed it, five who worked on the production, and Helge Dascher, who translated whatever was originally in other languages. And then the book itself is nearly eight hundred pages long, on relatively heavy stock to show off the art. There's a lot of stuff here, and it required a lot of people to bring it into the world.

The resulting monolith has the run-on title Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. Some small pieces of it may not be exactly contemporary -- there are reprints of work by John Stanley and Tove Jansson, for example, and several others I'm overlooking in the very long Table of Contents right now -- but it all can be thrown into the buckets of "cartooning, comics, and graphic novels." I will stand aside if anyone wants to start defining exactly which pieces go into which of those buckets, or how those buckets are different from each other -- that's a fight I want no part of.

But I should note that a huge piece of this book is not words-and-pictures-juxtaposed, which somewhat surprised me. It's something of a coffee-table book history of D&Q, with lots of text pieces covering the company and all of their major cartoonists, with many of those cartoonists writing about each other and plenty of writers-about-comics telling us why this person or that is so totally awesome. (And I agree with nearly all of them, nearly all of the time.) So you should know that this book is even longer than it looks -- it's not eight hundred pages of comics, it's about five hundred pages of comics wedded to a three-hundred-page book of essays.

We all know that any review of a book like this is going to degenerate into a list of names at some point, right? Well, let me get into it, then. D&Q showcases the work of a large number of cartoonists closely associated with that publisher, including the original famous triumvirate (Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt), Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, James Sturm, Jason Lutes, Dylan Horrocks, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Frank King, John Stanley, Doug Wright, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Michel Rabagliati, Rutu Modan, Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Duy Delisle, John Porcellino, Brian Ralph, Ron Rege, Jr., Marc Bell, Mimi Pond, Vanessa Davis, Tove Jansson, Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Pascal Girard, Tom Gauld, Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie, Seiichi Hayashi, Denys Wortman, Art Spiegelman, Brecht Vandenbroucke, Michael DeForge, and Shigeru Mizuki.

(And that's not even a full list.)

But the point of the book is not that it has a lot of cartoonists shoveled in; it's that it tells the story of a great publisher, run by a smart team (originally Chris Oliveros, pretty much all alone for ten to fifteen years, and joined by a number of others -- most prominently Peggy Burns and Devlin -- over the past decade) that took a chance on smart, artistic, literary work both from close to them (Quebec and Canada in general) and around the world, because they believed in the strength of those stories and that artwork. D&Q has never chased trends, it's never put out a book about people in capes punching the world better, and it's never pandered to anyone.

And Drawn & Quarterly (the book) is a great monument to the work that Drawn & Quarterly (the publishing company) has done over those twenty-five years. It has a massive number of pages of great comics, and it's going to be a very rare reader that's already familiar with more than 75% of it. If you like comics as an artform and a medium for serious expression, this is a book you need to read.