Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist

Self-publishing is tough. Single-panel gag cartoons are tough. Self-publishing a book of single-panel gag cartoons while you have two kids under the age of five plus a newborn is so tough I can barely conceive of it. But that's how Kyle Baker, Cartoonist happened, a little over a decade ago.

Baker doesn't fit neatly into any of the boxes of the comics world -- well, I bet a lot of creators feel that way, but Baker's been aggressively charging into all directions of the landscape since he nearly-simultaneously drew the movie tie-in miniseries of Howard the Duck for Marvel and created his first solo graphic novel, the still totally awesome Cowboy Wally Show. So he's exactly the kind of creator that you'd expect would eventually self-publish -- probably the big project he'd been working on in the background for years. You know: that kind of interesting writer/artist, who drops in and out of work-for-hire stuff while looping back to the projects he creates from scratch.

And he did: his Nat Turner series came out from his homebrew publishing company in 2005...but only after he did some books of gag cartoons about his family. That's what I mean about not fitting into boxes: even when he zags instead of zigging, he zags somewhere else first.

This book, I think, was the inaugural publication of Kyle Baker Publishing -- again, right after the birth of his third child, for maximum difficulty -- and it offers about a hundred and twenty pages of funny. Lots of it are single-panel cartoons, though there's no indication that Baker did or tried to get them published anywhere else first. But there are also lots of longer sequences: four panels, three pages, with dialogue or without. The first half is full of random cartoons, about people and animals and a few of the usual cliches (I saw at least one desert-island gag).

The second half looks towards the next couple of Kyle Baker Publishing projects: it's all about his family. Little kids are funny when looked at the right way: they do silly things nearly every day that just need to be fine-tuned into jokes. (Note: this is not as easy as I'm making it sound. Also, people with little kids tend to be sleep-deprived and not up to heavy joke-construction in most cases.)

Baker's generally working in my favorite of his art styles here: crisp, cartoony hand-drawn lines with grey washes for depth. He does have a lot of set-in-type balloons -- Baker uses non-standard comics fonts a lot, for reasons I don't know, and they tend to look odd to my eye -- but there's many more wordless comics or captioned panels, and those are great, not doing anything to set off my nitpicky complaint engine.

Anyway: this book is ten years old, and I bet these kids would like you to forget when they were young and adorable. (I know mine do.) But Baker is pretty darn good at this funny-cartooning thing, as seen in Cowboy Wally and his run on Plastic Man and a lot of other stuff. If you come across a Baker-being-funny book, give it a close look: you'll probably really like it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Bucko by Jeff Parker and Erika Moen

I could have sworn that I read this book before. But most of the events in it were completely new. So either there's some other book inexplicably really close to the premise of Bucko (which would be really unlikely), or I read just the first few pages some time long ago, or I'm hallucinating again.

In any case: Bucko. Originally a webcomic, then turned into print. Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Erika Moen. Longer and denser than it looks, with commentary by the creators on the bottom of most pages and about twenty pages of extra stuff at the end.

It's the story of a threesome.

Well, a failed threesome. It opens with our title character -- his name is Rich, but he gets saddled with "Bucko" here, and it sticks -- waking up on a couch in the apartment of Gyp, the girl he met the night before. Her quickly learns they all got too drunk -- him, Gyp, and Gyp's mostly-lesbian roommate Dell -- for the three-way Gyp had hinted at the night before. But Bucko has no time for romance: he's already late for a job interview, so he rushes out...and walks into a dead body at the office where he interviews.

That's all in the first five pages of a 120-page story; I'm not going to get into that much detail for the rest of it, or we'd be here all day. Suffice it to say that Bucko is a very plotty book, full of colorful characters and weird situations and bizarre moments and quirky dialogue. Did I forget to mention that this is all set in Portland (Oregon), where the hipsters and goofballs roam free? Well, take that as read now.

Bucko is arrested for the murder, but doesn't stay in jail long. But finding the real murderer -- and, much more importantly, getting a job and achieving that three-way -- will take much longer (four long acts worth), and involve:
  • a Pixies cover band that performs on bicycles
  • the Queen of the Suicide Girls
  • a Maker's Fair
  • another dead body in a bathroom, found by you-know-who
  • Gyp's roommate Dell doing strip karaoke
  • a fight with Juggalettes, who in best comic-book fashion then team up with our heroes
  • a sinister bike-theft ring
  • weaponized farts
  • a wiki devoted to the search for the missing Bucko
  • a hobo jungle constructed entirely of books
Bucko is a goofy book -- Parker admits that he wrote it one page at a time, to see how Moen would adapt each idea, and then wrote the next page based on what she did. So this is a loose, shaggy story, that wanders around Portland over the course of a few weeks and brings in every cliche or actual element of Portland that either of them could think of over the course of the year that they made this comic. You do need to have a relatively high tolerance for goofiness and hipsters to enjoy it. But who doesn't like seeing jokes about hipsters?

Bucko provides a rollicking good time, and promises that failed threesome -- expanded into a foursome, since everything in Bucko is bigger and odder than you expect -- will take place just a few minutes after the last page. What more could you want?

Monday, December 05, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/3

This is one of those weeks when the wonderful folks at Yen Press (Hi, Ellen!) have sent me boxes and boxes of manga goodies, and so I have a long list of books to get through. So I'll try to do it quickly, since I need to run off with the family to get a Christmas tree in just over an hour. (It's 8:09 AM on Sunday as I type this.)

As always:
  • these books came in my mail, somewhat unexpectedly
  • I haven't read them
  • I hope you will find something to love
  • And so here's what seems interesting
I'll start off, as usual, with the non-Yen books -- first up is a new novella from Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia. Chairman Bruce hasn't been as active in fiction this last decade -- with The Caryatids in 2009, something I never heard of before named Love Is Strange in 2012, and now this book -- but I hope this signals that he's back; we could use the old Sterling from the '80s and '90s to make sense of our new world. Pirate Utopia comes to us from Tachyon, and is some kind of oddball historical SF, possibly steampunk -- it's set right after WW I, in the new futurist-dominated nation of Carnaro (which I keep reading as "Camaro"), and seems to be about their power struggles as they try to build a new nation with the aid of American visitors H.P. Lovecraft and Houdini.

And from Pyr in trade paperback: Judgment at Verdant Court, the third in the "World of Prime" epic fantasy series by M.C. Planck. (Insert joke about length of this book being the "Planck distance" here.) This series is about a mechanical engineer turned into priest of a war god -- I think he's a local engineer, rather than the more typical contemporary-guy-who-walked-around-the-horses. And I gather by this point in the series, he has a truly impressive prophet-of-God beard, looking at the cover.

Everything else if from Yen Press, as previously mentioned, and is rolling out to stores and electron-vending establishments this month. I'll present them in basically alphabetical order by format.

I cannot say definitively that Akame ga KILL! Zero, Vol. 4 is full of fan-service, does come sealed in plastic and features a limber young woman doing the standing splits on the cover. So I can take a guess. This come to us from Takahiro and Kei Toru, and continues the prequel series to the main Akame ga KILL! storyline.

Aoharu Machinegun, Vol. 2 is by an entity credited as NAOE [1]. It's about a team in some kind of firearms-based competition -- it seems to be real-world rather than virtual, and regular semi-auto guns rather than the highly-engineered single-shot competition rifles I'd expect, which may mean they're shooting at each other. But the back cover is vague, and there's no list of characters, so all I can say is: competition with guns. And we're still in the training-montage portion of the story.

Starting a new series from Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa: Bungo Stray Dogs, Vol. 1. Our hero is a boy kicked out of an orphanage for no obvious reason -- something about budget cutbacks, or maybe they just don't like him -- and is about to starve to death on the streets when he runs into one of the agents of a fabled "armed detective agency" that takes on supernatural cases that no one else can handle. So of course he's dragged into their next case.

Another new series, from Pandora Hearts creator Jun Mochizuki: The Case Study of Vanitas, Vol. 1. The title character is a semi-crazy vampire doctor in Paris -- both a doctor and a vampire, unlike Doctor Worm -- who is trying to save the peace between humans and vampires from some upheaval or other. There's also a young man caught up in his schemes, since every manga needs the average guy to act as a viewpoint.

Diving into the oddball long titles category, there's a new volume in Wataru Watri (original story), Naomichi Io (art) and Ponkan➇'s (character design) series, My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected, Vol. 3. This is another one of those normal-buy-forced-to-be-in-a-weird-club-at-school stories, which the Japanese have turned into a solid subgenre for their own reasons.

And then there's the manga adaptation Overlord, Vol. 3, which comes from Kugane Maruyama's original light novel and has been turned into comics by Hugin Miyama. This is a I'm-trapped-in-this-videogame story, but our hero is trapped as a super-powerful Dark Lord type for added spice. It looks like this is mostly a story about fighting, in which the characters loudly announce each move as they do it.

From here on it's still Yen, but mostly light novels -- be warned! You may have to read more words!

Accel World, Vol. 8: The Binary Stars of Destiny is by the prolific Reki Kawahara, with illustrations by Hima. This is about people who aren't trapped in a big online game, but spend most of their time there anyway, just like many of us in the real world. Apparently, though, you can be permanently polluted by evil online -- I think Jimmy Swaggart warned us of that -- and our hero is fighting to save his friend from that in this volume.

Yuu Miyazaki brings us The Asterisk War, Vol. 2: Awakening of Silver Beauty, with illustrations by okiura. This one is about a school that trains people to duel, because of all of the jobs in the duel sector available to graduates.

Then there's Ryohgo Narita's Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express, Vol. 3, which has an extra colon in its subtitle for no obvious reason. (Unless there will be a Baccano!: The 1931 Grand Punk Railroad: Local coming along later, to be followed by Baccano!: The 1931 Grand Disco Railroad: Express and Baccano!: The 1932 Grand Punk Railroad: Express for maximum variety.) This is a story of '30s gangsters on a strain in America, with possibly less emphasis on historical realism and plausibility then you would think could be possible.

More secret societies protecting the world from mysterious hidden threats! Shiden Kanzaki (and illustrator Saki Ukai) are back with Black Bullet, Vol. 5: Rentaro Satomi, Fugitive. No points for guessing the main character's name, or the major plot event that happens to him in this book.

And we're back to manga briefly with the 4-koma series from Satoko Kiyuduki, Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Vol. 7, usually just referred to as "GA" unless you're trying to google the darn thing. The group of girls at an art college are coming up to graduation, but there's room for another hundred or so pages of jokes first.

Satoshi Wagahara's light novel series continues with The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, Vol. 6, with illustrations by the creature designated 029 (oniku). The devil is still working in a not-McDonald's in Tokyo, but it has now opened a coffee shop upstairs, which he sees as his stepping-stone to management and then TOTAL POWER!!!!!!! (I may be slightly exaggerating. Or maybe not.)

Natsuki Takaya's popular manga series in being reprinted in handsome double-sized volumes, and the latest is Fruits Basket Collector's Edition, Vol. 8. As I recall, this is one of those series with a family of supernatural folks who transform when various things happen in their vicinity -- the see butter, or trip over a rug, or sneeze, or maybe experience existential ennui.

Another light novel about kids at magic school, because we all know how popular that idea is: Tsutomu Sato's The Irregular at Magic High School. Vol. 3: Nine School Competition Arc 1 (with illustrations by Kama Ishida). I believe there is a competition here among nine schools, and that it's not done in this book. (You're welcome!)

Fatter than most light novels: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, Vol. 7, by Fujino Omori with illustrations by Suzuhito Yasuda. In this volume, our hero Bell comes out of the Dungeon and to the city of Oratorio's pleasure quarter, presumably to spend some of his hard-earned loot enjoying himself. (Why he has to go there when the entire rest of the cast seems to be attractive women who love him is a question I cannot answer here.) Sadly, it seems the pleasure quarter just gives him intrigue rather than reasonably-priced love.

And here's a new 4-koma manga series, Yui Hara's Kiniro Mosaic, Vol. 1. It seems to be about a girl who loves Japan so much, she moves there from England to go to high school. Which is...a thing that actually happens in the world? Maybe, I guess. Certainly a decent set-up for jokes.

Yet more light novels about gaming! Yuu Kamiya's No Game No Life, Vol. 5 is, I think, not about people trapped in a specific online game, but is about regular Earth-people transported to another world where everyone is obsessed by games. So entirely different. (And, yes, this is what the publisher's website has up right now for a book that I have in my hand. Oopsie.)

Back to people trapped in games with Reki Kawahara's Sword Art Online, Vol. 9: Alicization Beginning. In this one, the series hero wakes up amnesiac -- presumably in yet another game -- and starts to pursue the just-recovered memory of his childhood friend Alice. (I would not bet against this being yet another Japanese retelling of Alice in Wonderland.)

And last is a big fat manga volume with a particularly unpleasant-looking character on the cover: Wataru Watanake's Yowamuchi Pedal, Vol. 4. Our hero dreams of being a great cycling legend, but can he stand the training montages and backstabbing from supposed allies? (Well, he's the hero, so obviously he can.)

[1] Nanotech Assembly Organized for Extermination, perhaps?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

5,000 km per second by Manuele Fior

I wish I could just hand this book to you so you could go into it as ignorant as I was. I knew I'd read a good review or two of Manuele Fior's 5,000 km per second somewhere, and I knew it was translated. (I thought it was French, but it's actually from the Italian.) But that was about it. I'd picked it up a couple of times and poked through it before eventually buying it: what that mostly meant was I was impressed by the moody, color-coded art and thought it was some kind of domestic story.

If you want, you can stop there. This is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year -- maybe for much longer than that; I have to think about it -- and you don't need to know any more than that. It's a story about people in the real world, and their interactions through time. A love story, maybe. A people story, definitely. And the world needs more emotionally smart people stories like this: there are never enough.

If you want more, here's what I can tell you: we begin in Italy. A teenage girl, Lucia, is moving into an apartment with her mother, after the father went away. Two local boys, maybe a year or two older, are lurking around, and catch sight of her --they're Nicola and Piero. That scene is mostly yellows and greens. A few pages later, there's another scene, in blues, set in Norway, and one of those three is now studying there, a few years later.

5,000 km per second continues on like that, jumping into different scenes in different times, circling around the lives of Piero and Lucia and Nicola, with a palette suitable for each time and place and mood. Each moment is true, every character is real.

This isn't a story about easy answers or romantic gestures or big emotional moments: if your idea of a love story is a Hollywood movie, you will be hugely disappointed by Fior's much truer, much more mixed story. But he tells this story beautifully and lovingly, through body language and dialogue -- even more of the former than the latter; just look at the cover to get a sense of that -- and it's a stunning, deep experience. This is another book to put on the short shelf of comics to hand to people who think comics are junk: it's deep, and meaningful, and lovely, and bittersweet in the best way.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Garden of the Flesh by Gilbert Hernandez

OK. Even for a creator who does weird comics practically every year, Garden of the Flesh is particularly weird. Here Gilbert Hernandez retells a big chunk of the first book of the Christian Bible as a series of fuck-fest vignettes starting with Adam and Eve naked and humping in that 'ol garden called Eden. And he does it in a relentless two wide panels for each of his small-format pages, with (deliberately?) stiffly posed figures and lots of unrealistically spurting fluids.

Yes, Biblical sex comics in a deliberately crude style. Was Hernandez inspired by Crumb's The Book of Genesis, Illustrated from a few years ago, or did this Adam-and-Eve stroke book come from some other wellspring? Is this some kind of reverse Jack Chick tract? Hernandez has always come across in his interviews as more instinctual than calculating, so there may not be any single reason why, no matter how much we search for one.

More importantly: is the fact the the sex here is all very bland and hetero some kind of clue? Is Hernandez mellowing in his middle age from the pan-sexual Birdland of his youth, or is Garden of the Flesh's relentless focus on sex as one-man, one-woman, two or three acceptable positions and some gratuitous oral a commentary on Biblical literalists? (Or on fundamentalists?)

It has to be said that Garden of the Flesh is a not particularly sexy sex comic, and I have to assume that Hernandez knows this. He's done sex comics before; he can move the bodies around to make them more appealing. So, if he doesn't do so here, it must be on purpose.

I find it hard to recommend Garden of the Flesh. Compared to most of Hernandez's work, it's stiff and mannered and dull and flat, and I can't give you an coherent reason why it is. I think this one is just for completists: either of Hernandez or sex comics.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 2: The Death Card by Mike Mignola

Hellboy was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. But in Mike Mignola's fictional universe, being dead just means that you're not here anymore. You can still go somewhere else, if there's somewhere that will take you. Hellboy could always go home. [1] And so he did: Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 2: The Death Card collects the back half of what creator Mike Mignola originally thought was going to be a substantially longer story.

But it turned out that Hellboy's story was already over: his story took place on Earth. Sure, things happen in this book. Hellboy even spends some quality time punching various monstrous entities with that big right hand of his, which is the sine qua non of any Hellboy story. There are murky scenes in creepy landscapes, and hellish creatures and doomed souls talking eruditely or crudely about their fates and threatening violence to each other. There are flashes of brilliance and wonder, as in all Hellboy stories. But none of it means anything. Mignola has an afterword in this book where he writes about how this story moved more quickly, and ended more abruptly than he expected -- if you read closely, you can see how it went from "open-ended" to twice the current length to barely this. He claims killing Satan was the big change-point, but my theory is that he was already done with Hellboy and just didn't know it. Hellboy's story, again, was on Earth.

Many creators write past the ending. Novelists, these days, have the luxury of noticing that before publication and trimming the story down. Comics, though...comics has a long tradition of ignoring or disregarding endings, for that eternal moment of Now and a new issue every Wednesday. And I think that mindset led to Hellboy in Hell. Twenty years from now -- assuming Mignola doesn't find some more things for Hellboy to do, later in fictional time than his sojourn in Hell -- this story will be seen as a vestigial appendage to the main Hellboy story, or at best a coda summing up some themes and presenting them in a different way.

Now, it's still about a hundred and fifty (unnumbered) pages of Mignola Hellboy comics, so it's a very nice thing. But it's a very nice faintly unnecessary thing, for those who are picky about such matters.

[1] I'll also note, in passing, that Our Hero notes during this book that it's kinda silly to be called "Hellboy" when he's actually in Hell, showing that Mignola can lampshade with the best of them.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

You got a kid named Jack. You got some beans. But it don't go the way you expect, see?

(Will he write the whole review in a bad '30s gangster patois? Let's hope not!)

Ben Hatke's new graphic novel Mighty Jack is indeed a partial retelling of a certain well-known folktale -- though this book ends with Jack and his companions heading off to parts unknown in a bean-related way, so it is not the entire story. And, other than the kid being named Jack and the bean-centricity, so far this is pretty divergent from the folktale.

OK, Jack does trade the family car for a box of magic beans at a flea market -- but that's only because his autistic sister Maddy tells him to...even though she never talks. And he plants the various packets of beans outside their house -- but, again, only because Maddy is awake before him the next morning, turning over the soil and wordlessly insisting on doing so. Jack is the sensible one, trying to be as grown up as a kid (of ten or so, I think) can be. The two of them are mostly on their own this summer; their single mother is working two jobs to barely make ends meet, so it's just Jack and Maddy.

Well...and, before long, Lilly. Lilly, the home-schooled maker-kid who Jack keeps seeing out in her front yard doing sword-practice with a dummy. Lilly, who is strong and tough and brave and has a lot of gear that will be really helpful. (For the younger readers Mighty Jack is aimed at, Lilly will just be cool. For people my age, she will be a reminder of all of those otherwise-bland protagonists with suspiciously-useful skills in classic SF -- the kind of guys who get accidentally thrown into 40 AD but luckily are master fencers and experts on the chemical composition of gunpowder.) Lilly quickly realizes something weird and cool is going on at Jack's house, and latches on to it -- not that Jack can't use her help, since he very much can.

Some of the beans grow mischievous plants, and some grow helpful ones -- but all are weird, grow overnight, and seem to have intelligence. And, before long, the three kids learn that "mischievous" is only the half of it.

Eventually there's a large manifestation, and a rampage of destruction, and the use of the one seed packet that should have stayed unused. A path is opened to somewhere else -- and paths are there to be taken.

There will be at least one more book; Jack and Lilly and Maddy have only just gone down that path as the book ends, and we have no idea what lies ahead for them. (Giants, maybe?) So Mighty Jack does not end so much as pause: this may be a problem for some readers. Perhaps particularly smaller ones, who are often not as good at waiting.

But the reason they won't want to wait is that Mighty Jack is n engrossing, colorful, energetic romp from the creator of the Zita the Spacegirl books. Hatke is good at hooking this audience...and, maybe, good at hooking people substantially older than that audience, too. Mighty Jack is the kind of book you buy if you have a kid aged somewhere from five to thirteen (depending on the kid) and then read it yourself first, because it's that good. And if you don't have a kid in that range -- I know I don't, anymore -- you can always just read it yourself first even if there's no one to read it "next."