Friday, September 19, 2014
I'm a words guy; I come from the lands of words-on-paper, and I tend to look at comics in terms of story rather than art. So I've got a definite bias in favor of the writer, and I tend to be happy with projects that focus on comics writers. But sometimes even that can go too far.
Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" is part of Drawn & Quarterly's "John Stanley Library," a multi-year project to collect the comics written by Stanley (and sometimes drawn by him) across various humor genres and licensed characters from the 1940s through the 1960s. This book collects the first nine issues of the title series, towards the end of Stanley's comics career, as Dell was trying to get in on some of the Archie business with their own teen comic. And only buried deeply in the appreciative introduction by the cartoonist Seth (also the book's designer) will you discover that the first two issues here were actually drawn by Tony Tallarico -- the focus is entirely on Stanley as a writer, and the fact that he drew the next seven issues is similarly not given much attention.
Now, Stanley's own art is vastly better for this series than Tallarico was: anyone looking at these pages can see that. Stanley's work is loose, energetic, just a hair to the cartoony side to sell the physical comedy and full of closely examined and slightly exaggerated body language. Tallarico was, instead, a little too precise and a little too specific: his characters looked thirteen in a way Stanley's didn't. So Stanley's work is definitely the best in the book, and the bulk of the book -- but that doesn't excuse almost completely ignoring Tallarico's work.
I have to admit that I haven't been on the Stanley bandwagon up to this point: I read two volumes of his Melvin Monster (another '60s series, this time as Dell tried to jump on the Addams Family/Munsters bandwagon) and found them thin, and looked at the first collection of his Nancy comic books and found it couldn't compare, in my mind, to Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller's strip work. So I came into this book pretty skeptical.
Seth's introduction claims a lot for Stanley and this series -- he calls it "surely Stanley's last comic book masterpiece,"and goes on to analyze a lot of the elements of the stories here. He notes that it starts a bit shakily -- not just the mismatch of Tallarico's art, but a sense that Stanley was writing his way into these characters -- and he's absolutely right. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say "masterpiece," but once Thirteen establishes its characters and gets going, it's a manic, hilarious collection of wonderfully told stories about a bunch of teen oddballs, with great dialogue and quirkily interesting situations.
It's both conventional and oddball: focusing on the friendship of two teen girls, but making them individual and spiky. Val is the conventionally pretty one, an overly dramatic blonde who's crazy about boys and has a complicated relationship -- half brotherly, half fallback boyfriend --with the kid next door, Billy. Judy, her best friend, is grumpy, mean, gossipy, and vindictive -- and she also starts off the series seriously overweight, and even after she unexplainedly slims down she remains less attractive as a person than Val, stuck with the equally oddball Wilbur as her default boyfriend.
Smart comedy knows that flawed characters are funnier, and Stanley is a very smart comedian with this series: every character is a collection of bad behaviors, unrealistic expectations, and strange quirks, and he bounces them off each other again and again, almost like an experimenter carefully varying his initial conditions in a study. Thirteen gets wickedly funny once Stanley starts drawing his own scripts: it's full of the humor of upset assumptions, foiled plans, and manic energy.
If you haven't clicked with Stanley before, this would be a good book to try: it worked for me in ways other Stanley works haven't. (I also hear good things about his Little Lulu stories, which are the bulk of his career: I had a few collections of those before the flood, but they got destroyed before they got read.) This is a series about two teenage girls, and tightly focused on a few people and a few stock situations, yes -- but tight focus can be great for comedy, and that proves true here. Thirteen is only of interest in people who have ever been in love, have ever had friends and siblings, ever had to deal with other people with different ideas -- it's only about all of us, and only wickedly, amazingly, wonderfully funny.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index
Thursday, September 18, 2014
His full-length graphic novels -- I've so far read Mother, Come Home and Life With Mr. Dangerous -- tend to push that tension down below the surface of relatively mundane stories about regular people and their travails. But his short stories revel in strangeness and quirk, which brings us to his collection Let Us Be Perfectly Clear.
Let Us Be Perfectly Clear is a flip book -- Let Us Be on one side, Perfectly Clear on the other, meeting in the middle with "About the Author" pages upside down to each other. And I learn from a certain online book store's description, well after I read the book itself, that Perfectly Clear contains comedic stories and Let Us Be morose ones. That's plausible afterwards, though during the reading, it seemed more like Perfectly had the short, strange stories and Perfectly Clear had the long, ominous ones. Perhaps I'm just describing what "comedic" and "morose" meant to the young Hornschmeier -- these stories were originally published a decade or more ago, and collected in 2006.
These stories are Hornschmeier at his most philosophical, his most enigmatic, his most odd, his most ironic, his most arch, and his most weird -- and it's difficult to describe them any more than that without talking about specific stories, like the one that wanders through several plots almost aimlessly (possibly as an analog to changing TV channels) or the one where two men meet to watch "videos"whose subject is very carefully not quite explained. And then the funny side of the book is primarily single-pagers -- and explaining those would be very close to spoiling the jokes, assuming any of us consider them jokes.
These are weird, artsy comics, drawn in a bright, cheery style but with daggers lurking at every turn in the narrative. If you like weird, artsy short comics, this is a wonderful collection of them, and you should have a great time. If your idea of comics is more conventionally American, you'll want to stay far away from the section of the store with Hornschmeier books.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Bill Sienkiewicz was the unique artist of the late '80s, his style slowly mutating from a typical Neal Adams-esque superhero look of the day on Moon Knight through his eye-catching run on New Mutants. His scratchy, expressionistic drawings -- shifting effortlessly from realistic faces to spiky things, embedded primitivist sound effects, and raw explosions of image -- were like no one else, not just at the time but in comics at all. And right after possibly his most high-profile book, the sublime and demented Elektra: Assassin (scripted by Frank Miller), Bill Sienkiewicz drew the first six issues of the relaunched Shadow comic for DC -- yes, the pulp hero with the big hat and the power to cloud men's minds.
It was possibly an odd choice, but Sienkiewicz thrived on odd choices -- though his oddest work, Stray Toasters, was still ahead of him at that point. The Shadow had never been particularly popular in comics, though companies and creators kept trying to make him big -- and, in the late '80s of the Punisher, Watchmen, and Dark Knight, maybe he was the grim, gritty hero whose time in comics had finally come.
That first six-issue story arc -- scripted by the hugely underrated Andrew Helfer, who did that whole run of Shadow comics, sparking ever greater demented heights from Sienkiewicz and then Kyle Baker -- has been collected, for what I think is the first time, as Shadow Master Series, Vol. 1. Helfer and Sienkiewicz's work is perfectly matched by Richmond Lewis, who laid down great slabs of color, making the most of the limited '80s palette and adding even more energy to Sienkiewicz's vibrant pages.
The story followed out of Howard Chaykin's just-prior miniseries (Blood & Judgment; also recently reprinted), which brought the Shadow into the late '80s as a still young and vital man and surrounded him with a new gang of assistants and operatives, including his two twentysomething sons. Helfer brewed up a complicated stew of story for this first arc, weaving plotlines of three villains together in a Claremontian way but also definitively ending the story in these six issues. It wasn't yet "writing for the trade," but Helfer was telling a multi-issue story, with definite beginnings and ends, and doing it with great style and wit.
So this volume sees the return of one of the Shadow's deadliest foes, Shiwan Khan, in a surprising new role. And a mysterious television evangelist known only as The Light. And plenty of action and blazing guns and that menacing, creepy laugh. If you're going to read any Shadow story in comics at all, you'd better check out this one.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
His most recent book is Is That a Fact?, which collects a hundred or so of what seem to be individual articles or columns. (The book itself doesn't explain their origin, though, and it's possible that he wrote this book straight out in this info-nugget form.) It's organized by plausibility, or quackery, starting with a "black" section about out-and-out frauds and misrepresentations of science, moving on to a "gray" section where there could be some doubt, and then ends up in "white" writing about gee-whiz stories of science and technology.
This is an unfortunate structure, for this reader at least, since it places all of the most interesting and fun material up front. I'm sure the story of Sir Humphry Davies is very historically significant, but the last third of this book is primarily made up of Schwarcz being really enthusiastic -- he's a popularizer; it's part of the job -- about things that aren't actually all that interesting or out of the ordinary.
Schwarcz's training is in chemistry, which is particularly good when he writes about food-based quackery, which is a large portion of the beginning of the book. (A lot of your first-generation debunkers had physics or astronomy training, so they focused on perpetual motion machines, UFOs, and free energy cranks; Schwarcz has a relatively open field of stupidity in front of him.) But recent breakthroughs in chemistry are few, which also tends to make the end of this book somewhat more dull -- he doesn't have string theory or new exoplanets to fall back on like the physics guys do.
Still, it's a well-written book by a smart guy that carefully explains why a lot of things many people believe -- our old friend homeopathy, colon cleansing, food "toxins," quacky cancer cures -- are complete bunkum, and discusses in a friendly and lively manner actual science. It will have an entirely positive affect on the world, no matter where it lands or who reads it, and you can't say that of many books.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index
Monday, September 15, 2014
Teenager Jimmy is that kind of famous. A video of him dancing -- as the aphorism says, like nobody was watching -- was uploaded to YouTube by his best friend Simon. It was a small joke, but now everyone in their small Canadian town has seen the video -- and everyone knows "Disco Jimmy," and isn't shy about calling out to him whenever he's out in public.
That would be bad enough, but Jimmy's Uncle Pierre films his own video soon afterward: he thinks he's seen Bigfoot. Jimmy tries to convince him not to post it, but the lure of fame is too strong. And soon Pierre is being mocked as well, even more so because he's related to Disco Jimmy.
But that's all really background in Pascal Girard's naturalistic and affecting graphic novel Bigfoot; this is really the story of a couple of love triangles that intersect with Jimmy. In big fake entertainment, the hero has always been in love with someone, pining from afar, and gets together with her after the big corny showboat maneuver in the third act. Bigfoot is more like real life: Jimmy likes, or loves, or has a crush on Jolene, a girl he's known all his life. But he can't tell her, maybe because he's not sure what to say, or what he really feels -- but he wants to be near her. So he signs up for a drawing class at the local cultural center, because he's overheard that Jolene is in the class.
But teenagers are restless and unsure, so Jimmy also gets roped into a double date with Simon, with two girls from the local religious school. And so he spends time with Jessica, walks her home, kisses her on her doorstep. In a Hollywood movie, this would be a huge betrayal; in life, it's just what happens when you're not sure what to do. And it all comes together, or apart, when Simon and Jimmy and Jolene all spend a weekend in Pierre's remote cabin -- Simon wants a shot at his own Bigfoot video, Jolene is along to see what happens, and Jimmy is hoping to spark something with Jolene.
None of it works out that way, especially for Jimmy. Girard never breaks the flow of his story with narration, but Jimmy's negativity and grumpiness -- even if we readers know exactly why, and what he's feeling -- drive events exactly the way he doesn't want. It's honest, and sad, and utterly true -- I was reminded a lot of the great movie Gregory's Girl; Girard has a similar sense of the aimless lack of focus of young men and the places that can lead.
Bigfoot is told in a tight three-by-four grid, packing twelve panels to the page and allowing for a lot more story and nuance than you'd expect from a 48-page album. (It's an interesting contract to the two other Girard books that have been translated into English: the earlier Nicolas has mostly borderless images on its small pages, and the slightly later Reunion has a looser grid, again without panel borders.) Bigfoot is an exquisite, perfectly poised story of young love and longing and jealousy, equally universal and specific.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index
Last Plane to Heaven is the final short-story collection from Jay Lake, and probably his last book; he was fighting colon cancer -- hilariously, heartbreakingly fighting it, out in public, at conventions and in his online writings -- for several years before he died this June, and cancer and the drugs that fought it stole Lake's ability to write fiction along the way. (Yet another twisted irony that the stronger Lake would have made much of: his cancer killed him by inches, stealing all of the things that mattered one by one before that final blow.) I haven't read as much Lake as I should -- I used to have a shelf of his novels waiting for me, before the flood -- but I hope to make time for this, to remember a fine writer and a great member of the SF community, an excellent man who stood up and said "fuck cancer" as loudly as he spun intricate stories and told the truth of this world as he saw it. Last Plane to Heaven is a Tor hardcover, officially going on sale tomorrow.
Yesterday's Kin, available now as a slim trade paperback from Tachyon -- who also published her Nebula-winner After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, two years back, in the same format. It's an alien-contact story, with a landing in near-future New York and the evolutionary biologist who's dragged into their schemes.
Jack Campbell's major military SF series is back in The Lost Stars: Imperfect Sword, the third in that series (which I think is a continuation of his previous ten-book series "The Lost Fleet"). It's an Ace hardcover coming October 7th, and it involves the liberation of something called the Midway Star System -- I suspect there may be a certain historical parallel in mind here.
Mercedes Lackey has a new Valdemar novel in Closer to Home, the first in a new subseries called "The Herald Spy." It's a DAW hardcover coming October 7th, and it centers around Mags, a popular character from Lackey's previous Valdemar subseries, "The Collegium Chronicles." I haven't read Lackey's books in a few years, but I found her '90s and '00s books always dependably entertaining and usually a lot of fun -- she was my guilty pleasure at the SFBC for a lot of years.
Terry Pratchett has mostly concentrated on novels over his long and wonderful career -- it's how he's written over fifty of them -- but I guess he has written enough nonfiction to fill a book. Because that book now exists: A Slip of the Keyboard, a Doubleday hardcover coming September 23rd. (Doubleday is in the middle of a big Pratchett burst, focusing on the odder Discworld pseudo-non-fiction books, for which I love them: if they can manage to bring the hilarious and nearly untranslatable  Nanny Ogg's Cookbook to American shores, they'll officially become my favorite publisher ever.) I've been a Pratchett reader for a couple of decades now, and I'm a huge lover of novelists' occasional nonfiction -- don't ask me why, but it's a form I always love -- so this was a book that raised an audible sound from me when I opened the package. (As a respectable middle-aged man, I won't characterize that sound.)
Doubleday is also bringing out an American edition of The Compleat Ankh-Morpork, a massively expanded and updated version of the map that Pratchett's UK publisher first released a decade or so ago. This version is credited to "Terry Pratchett, aided and abetted by The Discworld Emporium," which I suspect means that Pratchett organized and edited and approved all of it, but that others ferreted out all of the references from his novels and did most of the heavy lifting to put it all together. (In particular, I can't find a notice of who actually drew the map, which is a gigantic double-sided thing -- even after the substantial work of organization, just putting it onto paper was a massive undertaking.) This will be available October 28th, and is a perfect example of the kind of thing book publishing can do and electronic publishing simply can't. If you had any questions about the muckily fabulous twinned central cities of Discworld, this is the place to go for your answers.
 British English is not that far from American English, admittedly. But British cookery, and the details thereof, is very, very far.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Farel Dalrymple tells that story -- the story of the kid-gang called The Wrenchies, the toughest and strongest and most fearless fighters against Shadowmen and the other terrors of their very broken and very nasty world, and how they eventually were led by an ancient Scientist and a group of adult Wrenchies to save that world -- sideways and inside out, telling first the story of the boys Sherwood and Orson, who went into a cave they shouldn't have, met a creature that shouldn't even exist, and killed it when it attacked them. And then he circles to the Wrenchies, but only for a while -- only to keep setting the scene, to let us see just how ragged and cruel and liberating the future apocalypse will leave the world, without parents or babies, just kids who know that when they grow up far enough they'll turn into monsters themselves.
We don't know how these things connect. We also don't know why the focus switches to Hollis, another kid in the time before the apocalypse, who lives in New York and befriends an adult man named Sherwood, busily creating a comic book in the window right across from Hollis's. (And we've already seen that comic book, The Wrenchies, which is not the story we're reading and is not the story of that kid gang -- though the kids in the gang found the comic and read it.) We're not even sure why Hollis always dresses in a superhero costume -- well, OK, we've got a pretty good idea about that, from a dozen other stories.
Hollis's story connects to the Wrenchies and their world, and loops back to Sherwood, as well -- poor Orson wanders off between panels and doesn't play a major role. There's a lot of exposition in The Wrenchies at about the halfway mark, as if Dalrymple decides he's probably hooked us by now, so he might as well give us (and the characters) the backstory and set most of the cast off on their quest to save the world. And so he does.
The Wrenchies is loose-limbed and gangly, sprawling all over, even more than its three hundred pages would seem to allow. Even after the ending, there's another twenty pages of short stories about Sherwood and Orson -- I suspect these might be leftover pieces of the story, or pieces of an earlier version, or something like that; parts of the story that was in Dalrymple's head but didn't make it into the main narrative.
It's energetic and full of ideas -- full of wordy speech balloons and complicated page layouts that show schematics of the complicated underground lairs of the Wrenchies and their fellow kid-gangs, full of noise and light and magic and monsters and transformations and noble sacrifices and all those kinds of things that youngish boys not unlike most of the Wrenchies themselves like so much. It's a bit much some of the time, in the way of an overstuffed bag, but it's heart is always in the right place and Dalrymple's art, somewhere in the unmapped regions between indy and superhero, serves this story very well.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index
Saturday, September 13, 2014
The reading project is something I think I've mentioned before here, but just became more urgent: I've been thinking about reading a bunch of the Vintage Contemporaries series for the past year or two, and accumulated a few of them. But I was doing a bit of research online, and realized that right now is the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of that series: the first seven books came out in September 1984. So my plan is now to read in that series in publication month (plus thirty) as much as possible, focusing on the originals and probably starting with Bright Lights, Big City later this month. (But I'm also looking forward to reading more obscure things by writers I'm not familiar with as well -- especially women writers, like Emily Prager, Gladys Swan, and Janet Hobhouse, since I think I semi-ignored women writers as a teenager in the '80s.)
- Harold Brodkey, First Love & Other Sorrows
- Pete Davies, The Last Election
- Michael Downing, A Narrow Time
- Richard Ford, A Piece of My Heart
- Janet Hobhouse, Dancing in the Dark
- Kathryn Kramer, A Handbook For Visitors From Outer Space
- Paule Marshall, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People
- Thomas McGuane, The Bushwhacked Piano
- Emily Prager, Clea and Zeus Divorce
- Gladys Swan, Carnival for the Gods
Pretty much everything else is comics -- some of these are replacements for flood-lost books, some of them are new stuff, and they came from various places. But here's what's new in La Casa Hornswoggler:
Scott McCloud's Zot, Book 1 -- the late-90s Kitchen Sink edition, containing the first ten issues (in color) of the series that didn't make it into the larger, later, and still available HarperCollins edition. I'm still hoping someone will reprint Destroy!!! one of these days.
The Potpourrific Great Big Grab Bag of Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley -- the fourth treasury of the newspaper strip with strips from the 2007-2008 time period. I missed this one the first time around, but I like reading treasuries of strips I like, so I grabbed this when I saw it and recognized I was missing it.
Strip Joint a collection of Carol Lay's "Story Minute" strips from the mid-90s. Interestingly, this is also a Kitchen Sink book -- that's a press I don't think I appreciated enough while it was around.
Two books from Rick Geary's "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series -- The Mystery of Mary Rogers and The Saga of the Bloody Benders (my review) -- because you can never have too much historical murder on your shelves, particularly when it comes from Geary.
An Age Of License, the new graphic novel by Lucy Knisley -- author of Relish and French Milk -- the story of her 2011 European book tour and related stuff, from a creator almost too young and talented and enthusiastic to believe.
Mind MGMT Vol. 2: The Futurist by Matt Kindt, because I just read the first volume, and because Kindt is a massive talent who hasn't given us a less than gripping story yet.
Isaac the Pirate, Vol. 2: The Capital by Christophe Blain, also because I recently read the first volume and really enjoyed it. This series, though -- unlike Kindt's -- is not still running; there's only one short French book left untranslated, and I get the sense that even that isn't the real ending. But the world is large and time is long; you never know what will happen next.
Two "Abe Sapien" books from Mike Mignola's Hellboy universe -- the first volume, The Drowning (my review), and the fourth, The Shape of Things to Come. The first of those is written solo by Mignola with art by Jason Shawn Alexander; the latter is written with Scott Allie (Mignola's editor) and drawn by Sebastian and Max Fiumara.
Trillium. (I'd vaguely thought that this was an ongoing -- which shows how much attention I'm paying to periodical comics these days -- probably because I'd conflated it with Mind MGMT.) Lemire has done a lot of good stuff, like The Nobody and The Underwater Welder, so I have high hopes for this.
Richard Sala's Cat Burglar Black which I reviewed for ComicMix when it first came out. Sala is one of the people I'm concentrating on replacing in this first round of post-flood buying -- along with Kim Deitch, Evan Dorkin, and the Hellboy-verse; I may perhaps be a bit quirky -- and this helps to fill that shelf back up.
Seconds the big new graphic novel by Brian Lee O'Malley. You've probably heard of it; O'Malley is coming off the Scott Pilgrim juggernaut, and it's gotten a lot of press.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi's tough and unflinching short story collection Abandon the Old in Tokyo (see my review from the 2010 run of Book-A-Day), which I think stands as not just some of the best comics stories ever created, but as one of the great short-story collections period. Tatsumi is just that good.
And some more Hellboy-universe books to continue rebuilding those shelves. Since I bought those stories the first time around -- actually, the first two times, since I bought most of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. stories both in individual issues and then as trade paperbacks -- they've been reprinted in nice uniform hardcovers, which is what I think I'll focus on this time around. So I now have Hellboy Library Edition, Volume 2: The Chained Coffin, The Right Hand of Doom, and Others and B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs Collection, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. (I've had so many reviews of Hellboy stuff that I can't begin to give you links.)
And I've got a box of books from yet another seller on its way to me; one thing that Book-A-Day dependably does is whet my appetite for books, so I end up buying them even faster than I read them. But there's no serious reader who would call that a bad thing.